From Cube to Tube: What About the Mac Pro?

June 12th, 2013

Apple has a thing for relatively small, sexy form factors with complicated internal designs. Sometimes they are difficult to assemble, and sometimes the promise of elegance isn’t fulfilled. Perhaps the Power Mac G4 Cube was a prime example of the obsessive focus on a cool design to the exclusion of practicality. It was also overpriced and failed to fill any significant gaps in the Mac lineup. It was mostly about form above function.

At the time of its release, I wrote of it as a potential museum piece, and it was discontinued after a big price cut failed to move product. So you’d think that Apple learned a hard lesson, and maybe they have, but there are concerns about a certain forthcoming product.

Coming some time later this year is a totally redesigned Mac Pro. Apple certainly promised big things with their professional Mac workstation, and all sorts of speculation arose as to what they’d do. The end result essentially confirms some early speculation, while setting a new standard for how a personal computer should look. Apple has not lost the penchant to surprise and sometimes amaze and even anger people.

So to Apple, the tower design, dating back to the earliest days of the PC era, is history. Tubes are in, well at least that’s how Apple has approached the Mac Pro, which seems designed to occupy as little space as possible, yet retain and improve on the performance of its predecessor.

But the early chatter of the forthcoming product is mixed. Predictably, some adore the smaller form factor, which occupies one-eighth the volume of the original, which was a pain to transport from place to place. Certainly Apple made smart choices in picking state-of-the-art graphic chips, and high performance busses all around. Having six Thunderbolt 2 ports will certainly make it relatively easy to add stuff. As a new update to the standard, however, don’t expect much in the way of peripherals for now. It’s hard enough to find stuff that supports the original version of Thunderbolt.

However, the other shoe drops with the curious decision to eliminate most of the expandability capabilities of the Mac Pro. Some content creators are already howling about the changes. What about their collections of peripheral cards and storage devices? What about the lack of an internal optical drive? What do to?

Apple’s response would be to buy an expansion chassis, and use them as before. With Thunderbolt, all of these peripherals can work on any reasonably current Mac, although the Mac Pro let’s everything run to its maximum potential speed.

But it’s also true that many existing Mac Pro users never upgrade anything beyond RAM and perhaps the hard drives. But since the latter can be outfitted externally, maybe it’s not such a huge loss. The larger concern is the graphics. Sure, Apple is getting state of the art FirePro chips from AMD, but some would prefer NVIDIA’s CUDA parallel processing architecture, which promises better rendering performance with apps that support the technology. So will Apple offer NVIDIA graphics for those who need them, or make it possible to replace the onboard chips with such alternatives?

That the Mac Pro may still be weeks or months from release also means that Apple still has the time to make some changes, although one doesn’t expect them to be substantial. The prototypes were shown to developers to, Apple hopes, reassure them that Apple takes professional content creators seriously and will deliver a product that will, in the end, be enthusiastically embraced by them.

But Apple isn’t afraid to upset the cart from time to time, sometimes in a very inconvenient way. Clearly the company is stung by claims that the passing of Steve Jobs destroyed their creative center. Marketing VP Phil Schiller presumably felt that as an affront, so in response to the audience’s loud applause upon the introduction of the new Mac Pro form factor, he quietly dropped the phrase, “can’t innovate anymore my ass!”

It sounded spontaneous, but Apple is never spontaneous. The phrase was no doubt carefully rehearsed, and meant to be uttered at that very moment. Indeed, just about every second of the WWDC keynote was carefully rehearsed in the fashion of a play. Each member of the executive team knew their parts, and there was nary a stumble, except for one game developer, Anki,  who had a bit of trouble getting their toy cars running in proper fashion to display nifty artificial intelligence capabilities. That’s what happens with prelease products, and once things got going, the audience was suitably impressed.

At the end of the day, Apple is taking a calculated risk with the Mac Pro. Content creators who felt betrayed with the huge changes wrought in Final Cut Pro X are being asked yet again to trust Apple to deliver the computing solution they need to get their work done. The key to the Mac Pro’s success is a rich selection of Thunderbolt peripherals to replace the internal expansion choices. Apple clearly doesn’t want the Mac Pro to become the next Cube.

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13 Responses to “From Cube to Tube: What About the Mac Pro?”

  1. Ted Schroeder says:

    My guess is that an Apple 4K Ultra HD display is in the works, but to announce one now would lead to reasonable speculation (all you have to do is take the guts of the current Apple TV and put ’em in the Apple 4K monitor) that the iTV is on the way and they don’t want to do that. Yet.

    My fear is they that are getting onboard with the whole 4K Ultra HD thing and I think it might be an epic fail because the market for 4K Ultra HD is just not there and it’s not gonna be there anytime soon.

    Even people with some dough to blow don’t want Hollywood coming up with yet another format. Call it format fatigue.

  2. For video editing, particularly for the movie industry, 4K is there. So it makes sense to have the tools available for content creators.


  3. Ted Schroeder says:

    I’m sure for Hollywood that 4K is already there, but my skepticism is 4K Ultra HD for the average consumer. I don’t think your average Joe wants to pony up the dough for a new format.

    • @Ted Schroeder, Not as drastic as going from standard definition to HDTV, but it apparently looks nice with the largest TVs.

      It will probably take a few years for content providers, video compression technology, and the cost of the flat panels to come down to the point where they are affordable. But don’t bet against it.


  4. Articles you should read (June 12) …. says:

    […] “From Cube to Tube: What About the Mac Pro?: Apple has a thing for relatively small, sexy form factors with complicated internal designs. Sometimes they are difficult to assemble, and sometimes the promise of elegance isn’t fulfilled. Perhaps the Power Mac G4 Cube was a prime example of the obsessive focus on a cool design to the exclusion of practicality.” — “The Tech Night Owl” ( […]

  5. Polimon says:

    Disagree with the commenter who felt it necessary to post twice that nobody will want 4K. Everybody will want 4K. It will be like moving from a tinny transistor radio to a big stereo. Like having a movie theater in your home. Everybody will want it, so the only constraint will be who can afford it. Tech has a history of being expensive when first introduced, then dropping in price. 4K will be no different.

  6. ML says:

    My first impression: a stove pipe!

    Wood and coal stoves in the old days had shiny black flu pipes – looks just like the new Mac Pro.

  7. ML says:

    My first impression: a stove pipe!

    Wood and coal stoves in the old days had shiny black flu pipes – looks just like the new Mac Pro.

  8. Kaleberg says:

    The new MacPro makes a lot of sense. It leaves room for other designers to come up with an appropriate box for the processor and expansion chassis. Some will want flexibility and easy fall over, Some will want portability. Some will want compatibility with existing peripherals. There seems to be a pretty big design space.

  9. dfs says:

    Yeah, it’s a great machine, and it looks terrific too. But I’ve a couple of questions:

    1. The old MacPro was huge, and a lot of what was contained by its case was nothing but air. That was on purpose. At least after Apple shifted to Intel CPU’s, overheating was no problem. Given the smaller cylinder, I can’t help wondering if it’s going to be an issue, at least for those users who cram it full of extra goodies. The Cube was great-looking too, but ventilation wasn’t exactly its strong point.

    2. The new cylindrical shape looks cool, but it’s difficult to see how the new MacPro can be used in applications where rack-mounting is an important consideration, for inst. when it’s used as a server.

  10. scotts13 says:

    Tube even rhymes with Cube; the concept, and the market potential, are the same. This is a ploy to get everyone to spend $4000 when the REAL MacPro debuts.

  11. javaholic says:

    Maybe I’m in the minority, but I like the industrial design and the engineering that’s gone into it is incredible, but like anything Apple does, you just can’t please all of the people all of the time 🙂 (I remember people likening the Cube to a Kleenex box)

    Certainly the performance throughput looks impressive, but based on what we know so far, I’m just mixed about its expansion and ultimately, what the overall investment will be should we upgrade our gear (I think this is the bit Apple forgot about). Moving away from internal storage (aside from the SSD) is an interesting move, considering for years Apple have fought to keep things clean, but having to reinvest in those periphials at this point isn’t exactly an attractive proposition. Our current MacPros are mostly 2008 Octos – still very good hardware but obviously over the years we’ve invested in major expansion on them. Plus – we can’t upgrade them to run a newer OS other than Snow Leopard (still a great OS).

    So what does the new MacPro mean for us? It means we don’t jump to conclusions just yet, wait and see what transpires and $ave up.

  12. John says:

    I guess everybody didn’t see through the ‘sneak peek’ bit.

    Because of the drastic change, Apple is giving everybody a few months to mull over upgrades and purchase the current Mac Pro in case they need the old format tower. I’m sure that if they find good enough demand, they may keep it around for those who need it for a while longer.

    They’re avoiding the Final Cut X situation.

    My only disappointment with the new design is that it only has 4 memory slots, which limits the memory to 32GB with currently available parts. And even with doubling the capacity of memory sticks to 16GB per stick (in the next year or two) that would still limit what is supposed to be a workhorse to 64 GB of RAM max. Not enough for us in the next 4 years.

    I already have some Promise Pegasus arrays around, (they’re blazing fast), so storage expansion is not an issue for us. We never had any need for PCI cards.

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