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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11 Responses to “Apple Continues to Marginalize the Mac Pro”

  1. steve pugh says:

    i agree with you on the horse power stakes, but the drawback with all-in-ones has always been that when you’re working on a project at 4 in the morning and your hdd dies, you don’t want to be digging it out of a imac to swap in a back-up. plus the lack of a sata speed swap disk. and you have to either keep your clients non disclosure projects on an external, or send them to an applestore on the internal drive for repair. i guess thunderbolt may well change the game, especially if we can get some definite info on if these new imacs can boot off a thunderbolt hdd/ssd.

    • Synth says:

      @steve pugh,

      Thunderbolt will change the game and I’m sure you can boot the new Macs off a TB drive.

      Heck, you can boot the iMac off the SD card slot and the new SDXC cards are >64GB. (Theoretically up to 2 TB.)

  2. L K Goodwin says:

    Although I’m fully invested in PCIe and eSATA devices, I welcome our new single port I/O overlords. I can’t wait to be fully solid state. Blackmagic Designs, AJA, and others announcing product at The NAB Show is exciting. However, I’m hesitant at the initial cost of moving to Thunderbolt devices. I’ve had great luck with traditional HDDs, but chasing the dragon of RAID through-put for uncompressed HD has been expensive. Thankfully my current 16TB RAID only cost me $2,500 when all was said and done. I cringe at what this RAID would have cost just ten years ago.

    In my estimation, its going to be about five years before SSDs even begin to be as affordable as today’s HDDs. Particularly in the capacities we are accustomed to.

    I think there will be a iMac Pro in my future. I like that future. In the meantime a slimmer lighter Mac Pro will do.


  3. Andrew says:

    I see the new iMac as an incredible amount of power for the price, with Thunderbolt solving the storage speed and expansion issues of prior iMac models. In fact, its only the glossy-only display that takes this down from what I consider the perfect desktop.

    Glossy or not, I just ordered a 21.5″.

  4. Kaleberg says:

    The MacPro also serves a strategic purpose. Not only is it a test bed for the fastest, most reliable hardware that Apple can get, it also keeps them in touch with their serious power users and the software developers who sell to them. Apple realizes that today’s MacPro will be tomorrow’s iMac and MacBook Pro in terms of processing and data transfer and storage capabilities. If Apple abandons having a high end system, they will lose this window into the future, and when a new class of applications moves down-processor, they won’t have the software and support system in place for it.

    It’s sort of the way auto makers race cars on the NASCAR circuit. No one wants to drive those cars to work – you have to rebore the engine every few thousand miles – but they serve as a test bed for technologies that may appear in production cars. (It’s similar with the subsidies for those low power solar cars. They too are a window into the future.)

  5. Synth says:

    I think this is another reason why the MacPro will undergo a serious redesign within a year to correct some of these issues. With Thunderbolt, you really don’t need four drive bays, for example. A smaller form factor, which could be optionally rack mounted, would lower the cost and fill the X-Serve void. Perhaps they could offer a workstation version using standard memory and a rackmount version using the ECC RAM. I could definitely see Apple designing a custom rack sled just like they designed the iPad cover.

    BTW, apparently OS X Lion will include OS X server. There will be no separate OS X server software.

    • Richard says:


      While I think there is a place for a “small tower” as you describe, I do not see it as a replacement for a full size tower. Even with TB, distance does matter. If there are future high speed connections or even just iterations of TB, there will be a class of user who does not want to be constrained by a comparatively long external connection.

      This not to say that an even higher speed external storage system would not be welcome in the near future (fibre channel users are not going to abandon their systems tomorrow), but the SSD evolution can benefit from a short high speed connection. There are several PCIe SSD systems now trying to speed things up. As processing power continues to increase, the ability to feed the monster will need to be optimized.

      The problem with a small tower is that Steve simply does not like the idea and so the vote continues to be one to nothing.

  6. Peter says:

    Raging personal opinion: I think you will see the Mac Pro and Xserve merge into the next generation Mac Pro. 3U, rack-mountable (but also sold with a stand or with a BTO option for a stand) and available with E3 Xeon CPUs in 8 and 10 core configurations. It will be announced at WWDC and will be available around the same time that Lion is released.

  7. wanageeska says:

    I see it more a glass half full: people will be able to do more with an iMac, hence be more productive with a ~$1500 computer than before. people have always wanted a mac pro lite, i.e. a tower with a slower, cheaper proc but expandable ala computers in the 90’s. iMac aren’t quite that, but they are more productive than the original imacs. I think tis just a testament to the power/cost factor of computers: smart phones/tables replacing laptops, laptops replacing desktops and desktops replacing towers. However, people being what they are, there’s no such thing as a computer thats too fast/powerful. And I think the Tower, aka mac pro, is built specifically for high end needs, which is different than an iMac; where one component failure can make it useless. Thats what you pay extra for in a mac pro and there’s where your market is. also think of it as apple’s way of branding: ios = accessibility by masses, ibook = value, macbook pro = portable power, imac = scalable value/productivity, mac pro = professional. Why dilute that? If a professional is going to need a professional workstation, they will always choose a mac pro.. I doubt that will ever change, all without taking anything away from the value and productivity of an iMac.

  8. Bradley Dichter says:

    ThunderBolt could change this, but Mac Pro supporting hardware RAID for 600Mb/sec speeds and port aggregation or 10Gb/sec Ethernet, is a strong argument for now, for the PCIe slot equipped Mac Pro. And with Lion offering server software, which should include file locking lacking in Personal file Sharing, I’m looking forward to that for my performance minded clients.

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