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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.

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.