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  • How About A Tinier Mac Pro?

    December 31st, 2009

    We all should understand the reasons why the Mac Pro remains in Apple’s product lineup, and will be there for several more years at least. Content creators and scientists demand state-of-the-art computing power and the maximum level of expandability. It may well be that only a few take advantage of the latter, but the former comes into play whenever heavy duty 3D rendering or mathematical calculations are called for.

    Yes, the iMac with the quad-core processors can handle many of those CPU-heavy chores, but when you check the specs of a mainstream quad-core against an Intel Xeon, you’ll see vast differences in ultimate processing power. Maybe you don’t require that much horsepower, and I’ve come to realize that I don’t either, but tens of thousands of Mac Pro owners each quarter will continue to buy that box unless a better way can be found.

    But the Mac Pro one humongous package, weighing just shy of 40 pounds in the usual configurations, plus the shipping box. It’s also huge, ungainly and some feel rather ugly, so I expect most users stick them under their desks. Certainly you don’t want to have to lug them around very often.

    However, the cheese grater style case design dates back to the Power Mac G5, where extraordinary measures were required to keep the things running without frying eyes. In addition to multiple and powerful fan assemblies, some G5 configurations even required liquid cooling, and don’t get me started about those occasional leaking incidents. I can assure you that when I had a G5 with two processors, I frequently examined the carpet space around the box to see if there were any wet spots. Rest assured, when it happens, consider your Mac Pro toast as far as repairability is concerned, but it never happened to me.

    In any case, as you have observed with the recent iMacs, Apple is fast finding ways to get stuff more power into smaller spaces. Compared to a conventional display of the same size, you can’t say that the 27-inch iMac is necessarily any larger in any dimension. Yet it contains powerful components that can, under some conditions, actually match the power of the Mac Pro, although the latter wins out in the end when all processor cores are stressed.

    Now today’s Mac Pro requires space for four internal drives, eight RAM slots in the standard, rather than note-book, form factor, plus sufficient space to install several peripheral cards. At the same time, I am willing to suggest that Apple can cut 30% to 50% of its bulk and still provide all the expandability its customers demand.

    Certainly Apple will have to be more clever about cooling, but Intel’s forthcoming generations of Xeon processors will consume less power and will run far cooler than the present chips. This will greatly simplify the need for heavy-duty cooling assemblies.

    Now I don’t pretend to know just what’s on Apple’s drawing board and whether they care to invest in an all-new enclosure for a model that sells in relatively small numbers. Certainly they’ve managed to leverage the existing case for several years, although there were a number of internal changes to accommodate Intel chips and reduced cooling needs, so you could add more hard drive bays.

    No doubt the folks at Greenpeace, who have for years lambasted Apple over its alleged anti-environmental policies until all those recent design changes were implemented, would be happy with a leaner, meaner Mac Pro. This is not to say that today’s Mac Pro is not energy efficient. Without going into extensive detail, Apple claims, in its product description for the 2009 model, that “the new Mac Pro is designed with the environment in mind.”

    Certainly a version with a sharply reduced form factor, which incorporates all the appropriate environmentally safe recyclable parts and power reduction schemes, would even earn greater praise from the appropriate organizations, not to mention customers will appreciate having something smaller to carry around.

    Of course most of you would simply prefer to see a Mac Pro at a much lower cost, but I doubt that’s in the cards. You see, a lot of that is Intel’s fault, because the Xeon processor costs a whole lot more than their lesser chips, even if performance doesn’t necessarily scale up to the same proportion of the price. This explains why what seem to be incrementally faster CPUs inflate the purchase price of the Mac Pro so much.

    Now I don’t know why this is so, what makes the Xeon so costly to produce, or whether Intel is somehow inflating the cost of the higher-end variants in order to more quickly recoup development expenses.

    Then again, if you can get most of that performance for far less money, I would expect the market for the speediest Xeons will remain quite small. In any case, regardless of how Intel handles development and pricing for its server-grade chips, I am quite convinced they will eventually end up in a far smaller Mac Pro, or whatever Apple chooses to call its successor.



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