About the Next Mac Pro

June 5th, 2013

After a drought of several years, Apple is reportedly posed to launch a major upgrade for the Mac Pro workstation. While the increasingly powerful iMac has become a worthy substitute for many content creators, some still crave the higher math and 3D rendering power and expandability of the traditional tower configuration.

Unfortunately, Apple placed the Mac Pro on the back-burner for several years. Since moving to Intel processors in 2006, the updates have been relatively minor, involving processors, graphic cards and hard drives. Most of the changes, therefore, have been simple component upgrades based on current technology. But Apple hasn’t even kept up with Intel’s most powerful Xeon processors of late. Last year’s refresh was so minor as to go almost unnoticed, and it made very little difference in terms of the actual performance of the workstation. Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 were not in evidence.

However, both Tim Cook and Apple PR have confirmed the arrival of a significant Mac Pro upgrade this year, but the substance behind that claim is still murky. It wouldn’t involve a huge amount of development costs to simply take the present overweight box and stuff it with new guts and peripheral ports, and the latest and greatest processing and graphics hardware. There could even be an enhanced set of SSD customization options along with the Fusion drive that debuted in the iMac and Mac mini.

One published report suggests a more minimalist approach by Apple, and the end result would be something along the lines of what Macworld Senior Editor Dan Frakes and I have separately written about, which is a more affordable and smaller form factor with reduced expansion options. But the configuration I’ve read about won’t win Apple any brownie points with computing professionals.

The report, clearly not confirmed by Apple, speaks of a smaller Mac Pro with no internal expansion options whatever. There would be two graphics processors, to handle multiple displays. This alleged 2013 Mac Pro, or whatever Apple chooses to call it, would still contain the latest Intel Xeon chips, and enough slots for plenty of RAM. If you want to add extra drives or other peripherals, you’d use the Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 ports. Optical drives? In keeping with most of the rest of the Mac lineup, they’d be history, unless you want to buy one of Apple’s external USB-based DVD drives or someone else’s.

Now I expect that loyal Mac Pro users would be howling if Apple came up with a solution of that sort. Why no expansion options beyond RAM? I suppose Apple could argue that Thunderbolt is a worthy alternative, although it’s hardly suitable if you care to transport your Mac Pro from location to location. Why have to bring a bunch of extra gear with you? Besides, there are, so far, a paltry number of Thunderbird accessories. The reason isn’t important, but it makes it doubly inconvenient for a professional Mac user who needs to expand the computer beyond the basic configuration.

Sure, most Mac users do not upgrade their computers beyond a RAM upgrade — and that’s become less possible as more and more Macs have memory soldered to the logic board — but content creators have traditionally required flexible upgrade options. How does Apple serve their needs?

One admittedly non-existent possibility is that the new Mac Pro won’t replace the current model, but will coexist as a less-expensive alternative. Call it a Mac Pro mini. The existing model would receive refreshed components, and Apple would, over time, evaluate sales and see whether external expandability matters anymore.

But it’s not that Apple ever listens to me. It’s a sure thing that Apple wants to move PC technology forward, in this twilight of the era. So it may well be that there will be a more minimalist Mac Pro in our future. But the computer that Dan Frakes and I envisioned was probably more in the form of a headless iMac, taking the guts of the iMac, and dispensing with the display. Perhaps a progenitor to this type of Mac is the IIci from the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the world has changed.

Of course, a commentary of this sort will have an extremely short shelf life, coming less than a week before Apple is expected to unleash new versions of iOS and OS X, and some brand new Mac hardware. Some of that hardware will amount to mere refreshes of current models to take advantage of Intel’s new Haswell chips. There may be more significant changes, such as the rumors of a slimmed down 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

But content creators have been hoping and dreaming for a new Mac Pro, one that will provide the power and expandability on which they’ve come to depend. Time will tell how well Apple will meet those hopes and dreams, and they probably shouldn’t get their hopes too high.

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7 Responses to “About the Next Mac Pro”

  1. John says:

    I use a Mac Pro (2010 12 cores), but I don’t own a single PCI card, never have, probably never will.

    However, what I need is gobs of RAM and as many processors and cores as I can get my hands on. With Thunderbolt, internal hard drive space is not as necessary anymore, but none of the current Macs with TB offer the level of RAM and horsepower that I need.

    If Apple were to release a box with a couple of thunderbolt ports along with support for 128GB+ of RAM and a minimum of 2 processors with 8 cores and up, I would snap more than one immediately.

  2. GaryO says:

    “Besides, there are, so far, a paltry number of Thunderbird accessories.”
    You mistakenly said “Thunderbird” instead of “Thunderbolt”. though you got it right, earlier in the paragraph.

    As for the idea of the Mac Pro Mini, I think it would be a huge mistake. Pro users would flee from Apple, if such a new Pro model was presented. There are too many power users who want to ability to install their own graphics cards, PCI cards, hard drives, etc., depending on their needs.

  3. Karl says:

    I think Apple should go all out with a new Mac Pro. Make everything upgradeable; CPU, RAM, Video Card, Extra expansion bays, etc. Really target the professional, professional.

  4. Peter says:

    Sure, most Mac users do not upgrade their computers beyond a RAM upgrade […]

    Most Mac Pro users do. Heck, my last PowerMac had a second graphics card, upgraded RAM, and a few extra disk drives.

    Keep in mind that Pros expect a machine to last longer–and still stay current–than consumers. Most companies aren’t running out and buying new computers every few years. They will add new hardware to do that–the reason for my second graphics card was to get some new life out of an old machine. Pros expect to be able to use industry standard parts from anywhere where they might be. Try to get an Apple-compatible hard drive while on safari in Tanzania for your photo shoot. Not happening.

    This is one of my complaints about Apple. Retina displays are nice, but when I need to buy a whole new MacBook Pro in 2 years rather than just upgrade the memory and/or buy a new SDRAM Drive from NewEgg, that super-thin design and high resolution display are considerably less pretty.

  5. Karl says:

    @ Peter,
    I actually believe that most Mac Pros used in business don’t get upgraded other than RAM. Not that I have actual data to prove it.

    But my observation of a few companies that I do major Mac support for including upgrades. They really don’t upgrade, most of them usually buy mid-range to high-end Mac Pros. RAM is usually upgraded at time of purchase.

    Plus most of those companies have moved away from Mac Pros and have gone to either MacBook Pros or 27-inch iMacs and believe that move would of happened regardless of what Apple could/would have done with the Mac Pro line.

    I do know self-employed Mac Pro users (I, myself included) who want and have upgraded Mac Pros in the past. But again this is mostly due to the fact that most of them don’t have the capital and/or desire to go buy a new Mac every 2-4 years.

    So while I agree with you that Apple should make an upgradeable Mac Pro. I don’t think it will happen, but we can dream can’t we 🙂

  6. javaholic says:

    Speed and Expansion. 2 things – that’s all I ask. (okay a new form factor too) 😉

    Last year Tim Cook made the comment how important Apples professional customers still are to them. If that’s true, I’d like to think Apple have actually listened and learned a little from the past, so we’ll see. In the Pro space requirements vary, which is why we can’t all be shoehorned into an iMac. It’s not rocket science. But I’ll remain positive and take the latest rumor spec with a grain of salt.

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