So Are We Ready to Bid Adieu to the Mac Pro?

November 3rd, 2011

Some time back, I wrote a commentary suggesting that, one of these days, Apple might give up on the Mac Pro, for essentially the same reason that the Xserve is no more. If customers aren’t buying them in sufficient quantities to justify production, Apple isn’t going to produce. Period.

Unfortunately, a few online pundits misrepresented my statements, claiming I was talking about something that would happen in the very near future, and thus I was off my rocker. Well, I concede the latter, while at the same time I should point out that I didn’t suggest this was going to be something that would happen very soon. Having owned a couple of Mac Pros in my time, perhaps I was being too optimistic about its prospects.

Now since the last Mac Pro revision came out in the summer of 2010, you have to wonder what’s happened and why Apple seems to have abandoned their most powerful and costly computer, which is basically a workstation. The fault lies with Intel, since they haven’t delivered on any credible updates to the expensive server-grade Xeon chips that Apple uses. The next update is not expected until early in 2012, which is when you’ll see a new Mac Pro, or maybe not.

A few things have occurred since I wrote my first articles about the Mac Pro’s future. First is that portables are gaining a higher and higher share of Mac sales. It’s roughly at the three quarters level as of the last quarter. While Mac sales are still growing faster than the rest of the industry, with the exception of a few PC companies, most of that growth is obviously coming from the note-book segment, although the iMac and Mac mini continue to do well. Apple, of course, doesn’t break down models beyond desktop and portable, but it’s not hard to guess what’s going on. The Mac Pro is largely the province of heavy-duty content creators and gamers who find the iMac to be subpar in delivering maximum rendering speeds and superior frame rates with all the fancy rendering features enabled. Certainly the ability to install expansion cards inside the Mac Pro is a huge plus for such customers.

But Apple has begun to level the playing field between their professional and consumer Macs. Consider the arrival of Thunderbolt, a technology developed by Apple and Intel that, in effect, establishes an external PCI connection. Thunderbolt supports external displays, powerful hard drives, and all sorts of products that may still be on the drawing boards. You could even connect a PCI breakout box, such as a Magma ExpressBox 3T, and use it to install all or most of the same expansion cards you’ve been using in a Mac Pro. Maybe it’ll require special drivers and all, but it means that even a lowly Mac mini, the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro, and even the iMac can now support those cards.

Yes, as I said, a great equalizer.

The other value of a Mac Pro is sheer CPU horsepower. Although most benchmarks show the high-end Mac to be little faster than a loaded iMac, the equation changes when you run software that can exploit all those extra processor cores. The most powerful Mac Pro, starting at $4,999, utilizes a pair of 6-core Intel Xeon “Westmere” processors. The most powerful iMac, a $2,199 build-to-order option, contains a quad-core Intel i7. Other than the few truly multicore savvy apps, the iMac keeps up quite nicely with the Mac Pro, but the exceptions are the rule for professional customers.

Now Intel happens to have 6-core versions of the i7, the 990X, but Apple hasn’t configured any iMacs with this particular processor. Since it also carries a retail price of $999.99, even if you allow for a substantial discount because Apple would be buying them by the tens or hundreds of thousands if they decided to offer a higher-end model, your $2,199 iMac would become substantially more expensive, though still a whole lot cheaper than a Mac Pro. And that’s still a single processor, since you’d need a Xeon to support pairs.

Another problem is that, every time you buy an iMac, you are also buying a brand new 27-inch display, and Apple’s only “headless” option, other than the Mac Pro, is the mini. And don’t get me started about those failed hopes and dreams for an iMac sans display.

Would a souped up iMac serve as a worthy substitute for the Mac Pro? For most customers, probably. But there are still some for whom a Mac Pro is the tool of choice, and if Apple fails to provide that tool, they might consider jumping to Windows, assuming they’re not tethered to Apple’s Final Cut Pro or Logic Studio of course.

I wouldn’t presume to second guess Apple’s motives and future plans. If no new Mac Pro arrives once the refreshed Xeons are here, there will probably be room for concern. On the other hand, if Apple’s development costs are limited to simply updating the core components every year or two, and no other changes are made to the aging Mac Pro casings, maybe it’ll make sense for Apple to continue to build them. But there’s a point of no return, a point where sales are just too small to justify even carrying it in the catalog. It’s not as if Apple wants to build products in tiny quantities anymore.

It may even be that the latest round of speculation is little more than a trial balloon, designed to judge whether or not there will be much negative reaction to the possibility the Mac Pro is on life support. Or maybe some of those Mac rumor sites have too much time on their hands, and not enough new material.

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14 Responses to “So Are We Ready to Bid Adieu to the Mac Pro?”

  1. dfs says:

    If the MacPro’s sales are falling off, I can see the logic in discontinuing it. But there are problems. The first is that Apple itself puts out some high-end programs that are designed to take advantage of all the Pro’s potential crunching power. If they stop the Pro these programs will soon be pointless and that would mean Apple would be signing off on the entire market. And, while there might be relatively few people who need the Pro, these are mostly people who REALLY NEED it. People who need lotsa crunching power. People who need exotic high-end graphic cards. People who need to drive multiple monitors. People who need to add exotic cards of one kind or another. Not just content developers and gamers, but people in the in university, industrial and government labs, in medicine, etc. Architects and engineers who need high-powered CAD ability. And the idea that such people can simply go to the PC platform (at the cost of having to make a large investment in equivalent new hardware and software, and whatever the headaches of migrating their data to a new platform might be) might not fly: I have no idea if equally powerful and flexible rigs are available in the PC world, other than some models that seem designed pretty exclusively for the gaming market. And yes, for the average consumer the idea of having, in effect, to buy a new monitor wrapped into the purchase of every new Mac will have a chilling effect. In my case, it will make me want to hang on to my present iMac for years more than I otherwise might, and a lot of iMac owners will probably draw the same conclusion. That can’t be good for Apple’s bottom line.

  2. bft says:

    I hope they don’t do this.

    One very strong reason not too is that it’s penny wise and pound foolish and very short sighted.

    What I mean: last night PBS ran its Steve Jobs piece. In it, said something like this: that all the cool people had Macs. It was the computer for artists and musicians.

    Get rid of the Mac Pro and you will lose this segment to Windows. And five years from now all the cool people will have Windows and the halo effect will run in the other direction.

    Pissing off the trend setters is not a good idea.

    (Plus, no more videos of scientists and architects and doctors talking about how the Mac helps them.)

  3. arw says:

    I’ll be going Hackintosh once the Mac Pro is gone. I don’t want a laptop on a stand (AKA iMac). I want a desktop Mac that I can tinker with. I don’t understand why Apple does not offer a desktop Mac that stands between the iMac and Mac Pro, commonly called the xMac. They are missing a huge market opportunity there.

  4. Dan says:

    I can’t believe apple what throw away their most powerful computer, Also their most expandable computer. I’ve used powermacs my whole life I can’t see using an imac as powerful as an imac can be it does not have the expandability as a powermac. I hope these rumor sites are wrong and just bored. Apple seems to be catering to the consumer more than the prosumer.

    • Yacko says:

      The difference in performance between a Mac Pro and the top iMac was about 300% when the first models were issued in the Intel switch. Now the difference is 50%. It all depends on the uptake of Thunderbolt by third parties. I give the MacPro two more iterations and it is gone. Once you can do everything with a iMac as you can with a recent to year old Mac Pro, Apple will drop it and not look back. Think of what the processing landscape will look like early 2015 and then determine in your mind whether the Mac Pro exists and whether ARM starts making inroads at the Mac low end.

      • @Yacko, That 50% difference may apply to gaming frame rates and using multicore-savvy apps.

        But according to Macworld’s recent Speedmark 7 scores:

        Mac Pro Xeon 2.4GHz 8-core 6GB RAM (Mid 2010) 235
        Mac Pro Xeon 2.8GHz quad-core 3GB RAM (Mid 2010) 219

        A 27-inch iMac with BTO 3.4GHz Core i7 (Mid 2011) scored 252.

        Granted Macworld’s test suite may not favor the software with which the Mac Pro excels, but it’s a fascinating result nonetheless.


        • Die Fledermaus says:

          @Gene Steinberg,

          Software that takes advantage of multiple cores exhibits impressive performance. I used to process video with hardware encoders. Right out-of-the-box Compressor on a 2007 Mac Pro encoded video three times faster than the typical hardware encoder. When I learned a few efficiency tricks, the performance margin became greater, and continued to improve as encoding software was updated. Software has to be designed specifically to take advantage of distributed processing. According to the descriptions available on line, the bulk of MacWorld’s Speedmark 7 tests did not fall into that category. In the three tests that did employ distributed processing, Mac Pros took first place by substantial margins. There’s nothing unexpected, let alone “fascinating,” in those results.

          When sheer crunching capacity is what’s required, there are no substitutes. Multicore-aware software will run significantly faster on a multiprocessor machine, and its speed will be a function of processor speed, integral RAM, and number of cores. If you require high multicore capability, multiple displays, and great RAM capacity, there are also no substitutes – a Mac Pro is the only fighting dog in the current Mac line-up.

          Given its ham-handed introduction of Final Cut Pro X, Apple’s pro customers reasonably wonder whether Apple is interested in continuing to serve their markets. Of course Apple says it’s committed, but its actions have not been consistent with its rhetoric. The litmus test will be the release of the next Mac Pro, or its functional replacement in an “overhauled” Mac line-up. Intel is on-track to release its Ivy Bridge processors in early 2012. Apple’s history has been that its pro-machines incorporate Intel’s highest-end processors before they’re released publicly. Therefore, if Apple does not quickly offer pro-machines after Intel finalizes their Ivy Bridge line, the pro community will know definitively that Apple has abandoned their markets.

          David, another poster in this thread, was dead-on-target. The developmental costs of updating existing machine designs to satisfy customers that require sheer processing power are minuscule compared to the cost of alienating that group en masse. They need what they need, and all-in-one machines simply cannot meet those needs, even with Thunderbolt peripherals, and a restricted version of the latest-and-greatest multicore processor. If Apple flips-off the pro-community, it will learn the elemental truth in the old aphorism, “what goes around comes around.” That is, ultimately, how markets function.

  5. David says:

    Telling professional power users that you no longer want their business seems foolish to me. Taking an existing case and slapping in a slightly modified version of an Intel reference motherboard doesn’t seem very costly. An average Mac Pro sale is probably over $5000 including software. To make up for the loss of just one of those sales Apple would have to move close to two dozen Mac minis.

    I’ve been a desktop person all my computing life. From 1992 – 2009 I always had a Mac with at least one expansion slot. Unlike most home users I made use of all my drive bays, added ultra-SCSI to beige boxes, upgraded video cards and put USB 2.0 into my G4s. Then I had kids.

    When my second used G5 went up in smoke a refurb Mac mini was all I could afford. It was a nice little machine, but was more of a side-grade than an upgrade and the single 2.5″ HD bay meant that my chain of external hard drives had to grow again.

    Last year, with the imminent demise of Rosetta, I bit the bullet and bought an iMac while they were still shipping with Snow Leopard. I wanted a Mac Pro so I could finally get rid of most of my external hard drives, but I couldn’t find a suitable machine at a price I could afford.

    Getting a ‘free’ 27″ display did have one other advantage: I could re-purpose my old display. It’s now the second display for the Mac Book Pro I bring home from work. When I’m working I have so many apps open that anything less than two displays cripples my efficiency.

    But I still don’t like all-in-one computers. The display has an expected useful lifespan of 10-15 years whereas the computer will be obsolete long before that. All-in-ones also have crippled performance and a much higher rate of hardware failure than other machines. They don’t make good economic or environmental sense from a consumer standpoint.

    I’m planning to pass my iMac down to my daughter in 2014 or 2015, but that’s probably the only time my kids will accept a hand-me-down. Teenagers will want, and probably need, the latest and greatest. My 12 year old Nephew currently has the most powerful computer in the entire extended family and he’s using that power to create 3D animation.

  6. Ken Berger says:

    What I think and hope Apple does is to upgrade the Mac Pro next year when the new Intel Xenon chips came out and make a public statement that this is the last rev of the Mac Pro and they will offer it for at least a year more. And that they had no plans for a new PCIe based machine.
    This would give the pro industry notice and time to move to Thunderbolt (which can be simply serialized PCIe), with that kind o f notice people in the audio and video world that today relay on PCIe cards for low latency high bandwidth I/O will be able develop the hardware and drivers to make this move easy.
    Apple could offer higher end iMacs and or Mac Mini’s that provide the ncessary computing power and memory expansion. Disks are going to be replaced by SSD’s for primary storage (especially in high end applications) and Thurderbolt is capable of everything else.
    If Apple does not give the pro industries time and notice to make the move they would be walking away form their creative professional user base. If they do give notice then it will be relatively easy transition. Hopefully Final Cut X taught Apple that without a clear message to the user base there will be a backlash, and they can manage that not to be the case here.

  7. David says:

    @Ken et al

    I agree that Thunderbolt will eliminate the need for vast numbers of internal drive bays and reduce the need for PCI slots, but pros need other things the rest of us do not.

    1. Motherboards designed for 2 or more Xeon processors
    2. 8 – 12 slots for full size ECC DIMMs
    3. Space and electrical power for two full size video cards

    The iMac can never meet the CPU, GPU and RAM requirements of the content creation industry.

    The cheapest way to hold onto pro users is to use a standard Intel reference motherboard and pop it into a case that doesn’t cost you anything to design.

    There is another reason why Apple would be foolish to tell media creators to find a new hardware/software vendor: their desire to win the living room. Apple cannot hope to succeed in the living room without content that’s currently owned by TV networks and Hollywood/Bollywood. Pissing off the people who make that content is a sure fire way to guarantee that AppleTV remains a permanent hobby.

  8. javaholic says:

    I’m not such a fan of all in ones either, and I’ve always been more a desktop user with regard to content creation, with the lightweight stuff getting done on a Macbook Pro. You spend a little more money on the tower knowing you have the flexibility and the horsepower – particularly when your apps support multiple processing – at your disposal if you need it. Consequently by squeezing more life out of the Pro models, the upgrade cycle is slower than the more consumer based Macs. We’ve had our Mac Pros in the studio for the last 4+ years happily humming away, adding and replacing bits and pieces, or using different displays as needed. However most other iMacs and portables have been changed over within that period.

    It’s clearly more of a numbers game now for Apple and unfortunately we’re hearing more about product uncertainty and support in the Pro market. As a business owner in that market, you start to become a little wary of the Apple investment because they’ve proven they’ll just pull the plug at any time. Who knows, we may be hanging on to our current Mac Pros for a few years yet.

  9. Very interesting take on the Mac Pro rumors. As a multimedia developer an all in one computer would have limited value for us. All our stations use dual monitors. It would also be strange for Apple to discontinue a product line just as more high end software publishers are porting to Apple, which requires cooperation from Apple.

    The Mac Pro is the only one in the Apple line that has the electrical power and expansion slots, plus allows for a large amount of memory needed for not only content creators but researchers and ohers as well. Also believe Mac Pros have high profit margins.

    The backlash would be enormous if there weren’t a viable option for pros. The FCP X debacle would pale in comparison as this would adversely affect broader markets. The Xserve or the cube is not a fair comparison as they had much smaller markets then the pro. I think Apple is waiting for the Ivy Bridge chips out now to do a refresh of the line in the Spring. After that it would require redesign of the cards to fit within new form factors.

    I wouldn’t under estimate the power of cache as a marketing tool and as a continuation of the legacy of Jobs. It would be like revisiting the Amelio years where the company was run by bean conters and “managers”.

  10. I have to agree with Die Fledermaus. There is a lot more to a market then just pure profit especially with a product like a Mac whose selling points are aside from ease of use, power and great ergonomics and design, the cool factor. There is a cache to having the fastest most powerful production machine in your product line. They are not selling a commodity product but a high end expensive one more in line with luxury items and less so like Kmart. It is almost in the realm of naming opportunities like engine oil companies that sponsor NASCAR. Cache is a powerful marketing tool.

    It is like when the London Times did a survey to see if it could reduce the cost of printing their Sunday edition which has a lot of sections by offering only the ones people read, the overwhelming majority of respondents wanted to whole paper as they perceived it as value even though they read only a few sections. The point is that there is tremendous cache and a lot to lose by alienating a major market segment even though it is not the current focus of Apple. Also, given the change of regimes and a need to prove that the legacy of Jobs lives on, I would be surprised if they did something so radical as cancel a product like this.

    Not sure if Apple learned anything from the Final Cut Pro 10 debacle, but if they decided to cancel the Mac Pro, there would be a lot of unhappy people in the exhibition and graphic design, architectural, publishing, animation and Hollywood. Our investment in Mac Pros and Apple professional software is in the tens of thousands of dollars not to mention the cost if we had to port all or work.

    Would be interesting to see what they do. As I’ve said before, I bet they are waiting for Ivy Bridge and putting it into a new form factor. I do not see them upgrading the Mac Pros but putting in refreshed Xeon chip. Makes no sense to go backwards. Latest and greatest is their motto and will be interesting to see what comes out in their next presentations.

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