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  • Apple Continues to Marginalize the Mac Pro

    May 4th, 2011

    Some time back, a few people decided to post some Tweets and blogs erroneously claiming that I expected Apple to stop building the Mac Pro then and there, or in the not-too-distant future. As regular readers of these columns realize, I’ve said no such thing. While I have addressed a possible future end to Apple’s professional desktop workstation, I don’t expect that Apple will do that unless or until sales dip significantly.

    Sure, the vast majority of sales of new Macs these days are note-books. The refreshed MacBook Pros, along with the MacBook Air — which is expected to also receive an upgrade soon — have dominated the market. The new iMac may move that scale someone back towards desktops, but a lot more is going on here.

    Today’s Mac Pro contains Intel Xeon chips, which are widely used in Web servers because of their reliability. They can work 24/7 for months on end without need of repair. In addition, the Xeon uses expensive ECC memory, defined this way, according to the Wiki on the subject: “RAM with ECC or Error Correction Code can detect and correct errors.” While ECC RAM, in theory, means greater reliability at the expense of somewhat slower performance, I’m not sure that real world memory problems occur that often. If you have a computer with bad memory, that will manifest itself with increased crashes and other untoward behavior easily fixed by replacing the defective component.

    By making quad-core Intel Sandy Bridge processors standard on the 2011 iMac, and on many MacBook Pro configurations, Apple has seriously raised the performance bar. They claim from 30% to 70% faster than last year’s iMac. You’ll also find high-performance graphics hardware, and the growing availability of solid state drives.

    But the icing on the cake is Thunderbolt, the speedy peripheral port Apple and Intel designed, which, in essence, adds external PCI Express support. That means that some peripherals that would have been designed to be placed inside a Mac Pro can be reengineered in external cases to support a far greater number of products. At first, you’ll be seeing RAID drives, but, in theory, anything that can take advantage of 10 gigabits per second input and output speeds. The 27-inch iMacs have two of them, and multiple peripherals can be daisy chained. What’s more, two 30-inch displays are supported, in addition to the internal monitor. Imagine the possibilities.

    When it comes to the iMac’s AMD Radeon graphics processors, Apple marketing VP David Moody provides a telltale comment in a Macworld interview, saying the chips offer “Mac Pro-class graphics.”

    So do you see where Apple is taking you?

    What this means is that more and more Mac users can do heavy-duty 3D graphics and other content creation chores on regular desktop-class Macs. They do not need to invest thousands more in a fully outfitted Mac Pro. This doesn’t mean the iMac is a direct replacement. Certainly, there is the benefit of two six-core processors, which gives the Mac Pro a leg up. But that’s the sort of advantage only a small number of customers will care about.

    A fully decked out customized 27-inch iMac adds just a few hundred dollars to the standard $1,999 purchase price.  Once you pay for the dual Xeon “Westmere” processors on a Mac Pro, the price starts at $4,999 with 6GB of RAM. It’s very easy to check a few options, such as extra internal drives, a RAID card, and other extras, and boost the price to well beyond $10,000. Productivity has to improve by an awful lot to justify that sort of investment, though I expect Hollywood special effects artists will regard the expense as trivial compared to the tens of millions they waste in filming a summer blockbuster.

    Future Intel consumer chips will add extra cores, and I wouldn’t dismiss the prospects of putting two of them on a single logic board, something that’s the province of the Xeon these days. But that luxury will be less useful when eight or more cores are standard issue on a single affordable chip.

    Up until two years ago, I would never have given serious consideration to using an iMac as a direct replacement for a Mac Pro. But Apple’s David Moody is telling you that they expect more and more professional users to abandon their Mac towers during their next computer upgrade cycle.

    But before you take that as evidence that I expect a near-term demise for the Mac Pro, consider the published reports of a forthcoming 3U refresh, thinner and lighter, which will fit perfectly into a server rack. That, and continued sales from professional customers who require the fastest desktop workstations on the planet, will assure a continued existence for the Mac Pro.

    At least for now.

    But if you could get 98% of the capability of a Mac Pro for less than 25% the price, why would you spend the extra cash? Serious business customers have to think twice as to how paying so much more for a Mac Pro will provide a better return on their investment. I’ll be revisiting this subject from time to time, but, once again, I would be the last to declare the impending death of the Mac Pro.

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