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About the Next Mac Pro

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.