The Mac Pro Expansion Dilemma

June 19th, 2013

So there’s an article in a certain tech publication that presumes to explain the possible downsides in Apple’s design decisions for the forthcoming Mac Pro refresh. Certainly the key issue, that of expandability, is front and center. There are also legitimate reasons to hold one point of view or the other, but some tech pundits just refuse to let facts get in the way of their suppositions.

But let’s look at the obvious: The current Mac Pro is a powerful beast, with a decent level of expandability. You can add PCI peripheral cards, extra hard drives, plenty of RAM, even an extra optical drive. What’s not to like?

The tower form factor, however, is ancient in the PC industry. Go back to the earliest days and you’ll see big boxes with plenty of expansion bays. The Mac Pro, descended from the Power Mac G5, added nothing to that form factor. Big, ugly, heavy, but you would have an entire production studio in a single rather heavy container. Just lug it to the car and take it with you for a location shoot (so long as there’s a nearby power strip), an all-night editing session at home, or a vacation where you hope to catch up on some uncompleted work assignments. And don’t forget a display.

But the world has changed. Nowadays, even a well-equipped note-book packs enough power to handle many content creation chores. The use of Thunderbolt, invented by Apple and Intel, allows for high-speed expansion for RAID drives, expansion chassis with peripheral cards, and other accessories that used to be installed within a big PC or workstation. When Apple migrated the iMac from a simple consumer computer to a professional PC that came exceedingly close in performance to the Mac Pro, the need for the latter lessened considerably. Indeed, in some benchmarks, the latest quad-core i7 chips from Intel that are installed in an iMac actually seem to run faster than the Xeon processors in a Mac Pro. Sure Apple has been behind the curve, and it’s also true that a Xeon doesn’t really strut its stuff until you’re doing resource heavy rendering chores.

Clearly sales of the Mac Pro have declined considerably now that there are less-expensive alternatives. That Apple has put the Mac Pro essentially on the back burner hasn’t helped sales. But as with a car maker building a limited production luxury or sporty vehicle, the Mac Pro should represent the pinnacle of Mac technology. The new Mac Pro, with its smooth and curvy lines, certainly comes across as a halo product. But internal expansion is limited to an apparently removable Flash drive and four memory slots. For the rest, you have to depend on external expansion.

With six Thunderbolt 2 ports, certainly there’s plenty of space to add stuff to the 2013 Mac Pro, assuming you can find the peripherals you want. Well, the magazine in question complains about the lack of Thunderbolt 2 products, not realizing that Apple will be the first PC maker to deliver a box with such ports, that it won’t be released until later this year, and it will clearly take a little time for third party companies to get with the program.

The other argument is cable clutter. Putting everything inside is simple, secure, and what if you have to take your Mac Pro with you? This is one of those considerations that might have a different answer depending on your needs. One survey claims that 80% of Mac Pro users never upgrade their computers beyond changing RAM or replacing the hard drive. So why spend money for a larger chassis that goes unused?

But for those who do need to upgrade or expand their Mac Pro’s capabilities, an expansion box ought to be a suitable replacement, and I’m assuming one with PCI slots and hard drive bays. For those who need that capability, you’d only need to connect two cables, one for Thunderbolt, the other to the power strip. It’s even possible, I suppose, for Apple to create an elegant solution when the Mac Pro is released.

One intriguing possibility would be a large, square expansion module with curved corners for sexy looks, into which the Mac Pro is inserted. A hole at the bottom of the module could provide for proper cooling of the Mac, with the expansion ports being situated at each end, or on four sides depending on the size of the thing. So there’d be space for extra drives, PCI cards (such as one of those NVIDIA cards with CUDA parallel processing), maybe even an optical drive or two.  There are lots of possibilities for designers to innovate, assuming there’s no home-brewed solution. With Apple you never know.

Besides, now that NVIDIA has revealed plans to license technology to third parties, it’s possible there will be more graphics options for the Mac Pro by the time it ships or shortly thereafter.

In any case, with an expansion module that serves as a base for the Mac Pro, the entire assembly could be carried as a single unit. That would eliminate the concerns of people who need peripherals but would prefer an internal expansion solution. For the vast majority who don’t,  the Mac Pro can work lean with just a few peripherals for routine chores, such as a backup drive, a printer, and perhaps an optical drive.

One thing seems certain to me: I cannot believe that Apple is insensitive to the needs of professional users who require lots of choices for expansion. And don’t forget about the people for whom even the Mac Pro’s internal expansion is insufficient. With all those Thunderbolt 2 ports, the four USB 3.0 ports, the HDMI port, and a pair of Ethernet ports (in addition to 802.11ac Wi-Fi), the possibilities are virtually endless.

But, regardless what Apple does, some people will never be satisfied.

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20 Responses to “The Mac Pro Expansion Dilemma”

  1. Ted Schroeder says:

    For me, the cable clutter issue is way over-stated.

    Some writers have complained that they and/or other users will have to get all new peripherals. A more legit complaint, but still. We all have to open up the wallet and upgrade now and then. Time and tech roll on.

    The expansion issue – I don’t know. I’m not clear if you can put a graphics card in a Thunderbolt 2 expansion box.

    I think trust in Apple in its relationship with professionals is still a big issue.

    With the new Mac Pro – I can see someone buying one and in three years or so, one of the graphics cards dies. Can it be replaced? Can a graphics card be put in an expansion box? Or does this person just have to buy a new Mac Pro?


    It’s three years out and what was once the latest and greatest, ain’t. Does that person have any choice besides sitting and waiting and hoping that Apple comes out with spec bumps? What happens when three years turns to four?

    These days, Apple can be a little weak on the follow through…

  2. melgross says:

    I’m more concerned about whether the will be an option for two CPUs It doesn’t look as though there will be room for two. In Apple’s literature for the new Mac Pro, it’s described as “the processor”. That would indicate that there will be just one. 12 cores could be describing virtual cores.

  3. James Katt says:

    Currently, one cannot use graphics cards in Thunderbolt expansion boxes. The reason is that the graphics card manufacturers – i.e. nVidia – have to make their cards compatible with expansion boxes – which they have not.

    But then, why worry about this? The new Mac Pro has TWO PHENOMENAL GPUS which cost $3500 EACH already built in. The ones that hem and haw are those to worry about CUDA software compatibility. New software – such as from Adobe – are already OpenCL compatible. CUDA is like Rosetta Stone – something Apple left years ago.

    Other cards can be placed in Thunderbolt expansion boxes – like Magma’s 3-slot model. Then you can break through the 4 slot limit of the old Mac Pro. Just keep adding more expansion boxes if you want.

    Video professionals also generally use external RAID-6 Boxes and external backups and external devices anyway. Thus the cable clutter issue is just a non-issue.

  4. Warren says:

    Well, there are some interesting clues to the design which are not encouraging. They are as follows:

    1) The absence of any convenience ports on the “front”
    2) The limitation of USB 3 ports to 4
    3) The very limited amount of costly internal flash storage
    4) The lack of choice in graphics cards
    5) The apparent difficulty in upgrading the graphics cards in the future
    6) The notion that one would “spin” the unit with up to a dozen cables attached to access the rear ports
    7) The absence of a drive–I still use mine frequently despite Apple’s decision that it is obsolete. I wound up buying a Superdrive for our new iMac, and I will have to do the same for the new Mac Pro.

    The above points seem to clearly indicate Apple has placed form above function. I am sure the new Mac Pro will be a screamer; performance will not be an issue. But even at first inspection, it seems clear that the design has been compromised. One can satisfy a number of the above limitations with breakout boxes, powered hubs, etc. but why should that be necessary?

    • @Warren, We are of course talking of an unreleased product.


      2. I don’t see this as a serious issue. Thunderbolt 2 is where the action is.

      3. Get the basic amount, and use external storage, hard drive based, for larger files.

      4. Don’t assume there won’t be, or that you won’t be able to add one to an expansion chassis.

      7. Part of not paying for something you won’t need, but keeping one available if you do.

      I agree, however, that internal expansion limits will be an issue unless there is a plentiful selection of expansion boxes and peripheral devices.


  5. Warren says:

    Hello Gene,

    Thanks for your prompt reply. I understand your points. The product is unreleased. But I am assuming for what we might have to pay for it that Apple could have done a better job of further reducing the compromises which do appear. My personal preference is to have fewer boxes and cables on the desktop not more. And I would rather not have to buy breakout boxes to supply ports which could have been on the machine in the first place. Finally, I would rather be able to continue to use my USB 3 drives for awhile longer and to be able to direct connect them to the unit. But these are just my quibbles.

  6. Chet Kincaid says:

    On a side note, I have not yet seen anyone point out the resemblance between the new Mac Pro’s toroidal top and the new Apple HQ.

  7. Articles you should read (June 19) …. says:

    […] “The Mac Pro Expansion Dilemma: So there’s an article in a certain tech publication that presumes to explain the possible downsides in Apple’s design decisions for the forthcoming Mac Pro refresh. Certainly the key issue, that of expandability, is front and center. There are also legitimate reasons to hold one point of view or the other, but some tech pundits just refuse to let facts get in the way of their suppositions.” — “The Tech Night Owl” ( […]

  8. David says:

    The fundamental problem with the new Mac Pro is that it’s too small. The size dictates that nothing can be done inside in the way of different configurations to suit different customers. Had it been just a little bit bigger all manner of possibilities would exist. Here are just a few:

    1. a larger logic board with two CPU sockets would satisfy Mel’s desire for more CPU power.
    2. a dual CPU logic board would have 8 RAM slots.
    3. a larger space for the GPU boards would have allowed them to be mounted in an obviously replaceable manner making it much more likely that 3rd party replacements would appear on the market.
    4. a slightly bigger device would have allowed Apple to offer a lower cost configuration with only one GPU board and a 3.5″ drive on the third side of the triangle. Such a machine would have been incredibly portable for those whose work doesn’t require an external RAID.

    It would still have been seen as very small and portable and would have wow’d even more people at WWDC. Given how small the market is for the Mac Pro a reasonable person would have expected Apple to try to appeal to as many as possible instead of putting up signs that tell many potential purchasers to look elsewhere for their hardware.

    Finally I find it rather strange that Apple is making such a big deal about PCI express SSD drives. For a Mac Pro user it means your computer boots much faster, but you only do that once a month, and your applications launch in the blink of an eye, but again you only do that occasionally. Nobody is going to put their work on the boot volume so the speed is “wasted” on things you almost never do while the media files you’re constantly opening and editing have to be written to a slower external drive. I do note that the second GPU board has what looks like the connections for a second SSD socket. It appears possible for Apple to ship a Mac Pro with two internal SSDs, allowing people to copy files from external storage to an ultra fast SSD, edit using the fast drive and then write everything back to external storage at the end of the day. That would be awesome.

  9. Geddy says:

    Watch this video on YouTube:
    “Chase Jarvis TECH: Complete Workflow for Photo and Video”
    This guy is Apple’s target audience with the new Mac Pro. And I am also.
    I do not know of any pro that uses internal drives for backup.

  10. Matt says:

    I am I guess best described as a prosumer/hobbist and was initially shocked with the new design, I mean I expected the optical drive to go but nothing like the radical changes announced.

    Having had time to think it seems more a case of it being a rev. 1 product and it probably won’t meet my needs until the market for external expansion has had time to grow and products that are scarce, expensive or non-existant today have time to appear on mass.

    I had a G4 and G5 prior to my current Mac Pro and on each upgraded the graphics, in the case of the G4 four times..

    The iMac has grown to be a fantastic machine but the mobility GPU has always been an issue for me as initially it wasn’t even up to running 3D at the native display resolution ( I really disliked the scaling down) and although the GTX680MX now available will handle this today it won’t be up to the job in a few years time.

    It has always been nice up until now to just get a new GPU and double the performance.

    My rough calculations suggest changing iMacs every couple of years will be more costly for me than my current 5 year cycle on the Pro machines – not to mention the hassles of resale.

    I currently have an SSD boot disk in my Mac Pro and 4 internal 3TB and 4TB drives (using the spare optical bay). The PCI Solid state solution in the new model is fantastic for the boot drive but we are a long way away from having TB’s of affordable flash storage so the mechanical disk is likely to be around for a while yet.

    I did try an external enclosure before going back to internal disks. The trouble with the enclosure was noise, speed (it was FW800) and backing up. A RAID isn’t a backup after all… Then there was the added expense compared to bare drives.

    The nice thing about single high capacity disks is that you can easily clone each one using a eSata dock and just swop them over, and the point about cable clutter maybe overstated but having lots of external power supplies does get annoying.

    I can see drives one day having native Thunderbolt interfaces and maybe 2.5″ disks or SSDs reaching larger capacities but the trouble is for most users capacity levels are already OK so there has been less progress of late.

    If the tower design does start to fade away it will be interesting to see if an external connection arrives fast enough to replicate the old internal GPU socket or if the idea of upgradable graphics disappears and the typical GPU life span is extended as you have to assume there won’t be a rush to spend more to keep up.

  11. Usergnome says:

    There are just too many ifs involved with the new design to make a comfortable buying decision. Mostly relating to external gear, but also to Thunderbolt performance. It’s fast for a port, but doesn’t compare to modern PCI speeds. The fear in buying gear for a suite is that you may get trapped not being able to use the video card or I/O card you will need in the future, and you will be stuck with no income and a very expensive paperweight. Macs already suffer from reduced choice in hardware – why exacerbate that issue by pursuing smallness, a quality few pros give a damn about? That’s what laptops are for. Upgradeability is what you care about when investing in a system that you want to amortize over a number of years.

    I would love to hear the design team honestly address this question. It is self-evident that they’ve chosen a path most of the target audience finds baffling, if not infuriating. Why not make an effort to explain instead of just pretending the elephant is not in the room?

    The Mac Pro has always been a truck, not a sports car. It just doesn’t make sense to haul gravel in a Ferrari. If you want to sell Ferraris too, why not add it as another offering instead of trying to convince your truck customers that they really need sports cars.

  12. Viswakarma says:

    “…large, square expansion module with curved corners…” — Perhaps that is the reason why Apple incorporated the cooling fan on the top to pump hotter air, rather than at the bottom where a smaller fan would be adequate to pump out cooler air, to provide the same amount of cooling.

  13. Troy says:

    It is a bold move, but I need Apple is responding the the market and technology changes.

    @ melgross: It will have 12 core option, not 12 virtual cores. This is a new part from Intel

    @ Usergnome: I think apple sees the market this way: very few people are using the PCI and internal bays in reality. Yet, the big form factor is keeping other high-end users out of the market. Also lots of these units will be purchased by companies such as PIXAR than use NAS storage in a data closet anyways. The ability to have a small computer on the desk will be welcome. And of the remaining, I’d bet very large percentage already have a RAID box sitting next to their machine anyways.

    If you are the rare person who needs expansion, you have more and faster expansion than you had before with PCI using thunderbolt. You could have 50 thunderbolt devices running at PCI speeds, without being limited to the 4 card bays.

    @ Warren – I think you are in the minority on the optical drive. Even the casual user has a hard time fitting anything meaningful on a optical disk, let alone the pro user. These because useless 3-4 years ago. They still put them on the consumer computers so people can pickup a DVD at redbox. But if the video rental market can convince the studios to allow download rentals at a similar price point, that market is instantly dead.

  14. Warren says:


    I use the optical drive primarily for listening and importing CD’s at full resolution and for the occassional software product not available otherwise. Believe it or not they still exist! With regard to CD’s, I probably listen and import several times a week. The alternatives are: MP3’s at compromised bit rates or HDTracks at twice the cost. I don’t use DVD’s anymore. I focus on Blu-rays-again because of the high quality.

  15. Warren says:


    Two other observations I have not heard of many (if any) users complain about the size of the existing Mac Pro. While it is a beast, they have complained about the lack of Thunderbolt, the lack of USB 3.0, and the lack of upgraded memory speed, graphics cards, and cpu capabilities. It is always nice to have a new smaller form factor, but I think that is near the bottom of the functional list. We have not been lobbying for a portable Mac Pro without front acccessible ports!

    With respect to PCI and internal bays, my existing Mac Pro is maxed out. I have used the PCI express slots for eSata cards and drive attachments. I have used the internal bays to set up 4tb of internal primary storage in a RAID array. I do not know how they have determined very few users are using the PCI and internal bays. That is not my experience based on contacts with users in my local area.

    I hope that Gene is correct and that we have not seen the entire Apple solution to the Mac Pro. Otherwise, the new Mac Pro seems compromised in at way and at a level only somewhat higher than the iMac but at a considerably higher price point.

  16. Troy says:

    Hmmmm… I’ve ripped all my CD a good 15 years ago. Using CDs one at a time sounds like using an 8 track, or cassette – and I’m over 40. Really, rip them in Apple Lossless format if High bit rate MP3s do not satisfy you – you’ll be happy you did.

    The front accessible ports, what you are needing those for? with all of the ports on the back, what do you need to swap out all the time? Also. Because this is so small, I can live on a desk, not under. Making this more of a non-issue.

    The PCI issue seems irrelevant, as the Thunderbolt is faster, and is backward compatible with PCIe. I think cards at their end because serial connectivity has become faster and firewire/usb/thunderbolt has become pervasive.

    The drivebay loss is the only thing I can see as a complaint for some users. And is understandable.

    But I think apple is going after the extreme performance end of the market, and hopes to suck in the luxury market at the same time. But at the same time it doesn’t keep anyone from adding an external raid, and still be smaller than the Old Mac pro.

  17. Mike says:

    My students and I run computationally intensive, engineering numerical simulations (no graphics), and are moving toward GPU/CUDA (one of our departments is an Nvidia academic center of excellence). I haven’t looked at the Mac Pro specs carefully yet. We are mostly a Mac shop, but the platform choice for GPU work is driven by the availability of compilers (F95 and C++)/drivers and graphics cards that can work well together. So for GPU/CUDA this means Linux plus a built-to-order desktop (big and ugly but works very well). Any code must work on the Mac in a single-CPU/single-core version, no matter how slowly, and that’s usually easy to do. We try to make them also work in parallel on multi-CPU/multi-core (no GPU) Macs, and that’s usually trickier, but not by much.

    If the graphics cards on the new Mac Pro are not replaceable, this means that we can use them only if we have F95/C++ compilers plus GPU/CUDA (or CUDA-style) drivers with APIs callable from F95/C++, so it’s no progress for us, it’s just like the current MacPro. They should have allowed the maximum possible flexibility in picking the *internal* graphics cards. Maybe external enclosures will do, but my concern is that data transfer between the enclosure and the MacPro will become the bottleneck.

  18. Eli says:

    I run one of the top interactive multimedia firms and I have read multiple websites.blogs and comments about the new MAC pro. Just like many people who were predicting the death of the Mac Pro not that long ago, many of the comments I’ve read are either ill informed and way off base. Any way, here is my two cents. First to the comment about the 12 cores being virtual, you’re kidding right? they will be actual cores as it makes absolutely no sense to be otherwise. 16 would be better, but oh well.

    I don’t know where this idea about the cable clutter came from like there is not cable clutter now with our workstations? Tablets, RAIDS, NAS, USB expansion, just to name a few. As for expansion, yes the lack of changing graphic cards is a concern but two high cards included in what promises to be screamers and can run real time 4K video to three monitors? For our needs where are developing media for things like 100′ media walls we would be quite happy to have this capability.

    Not sure why one would want to take an elegant device like this and put it into another enclosure? Gilding the lily? As it being too small, again are kidding? Agoraphobia? I for one would like to see more of my desk, have room for more project work and not see huge clunky silver boxes on all my employee’s desk. Better Fung Shui no?

    I am sure that there will many people who will switch to PCs because of the new Mac Pro. I am equally sure that there will be many more converts once this machine is released. We may not wait in the cold lines to be the first ones at the store, but definitely we are going to purchase them as our core workstations.

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