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The Argument for a Mac Pro

Any day now, Apple’s long-awaited Mac Pro refresh will go on sale. Before you consider the spectacular looks that convey the impression of a fashion statement as much as a powerful technological tool, you want to consider the fact that it was long believed that Apple didn’t care about power users. It was all about consumers first and foremost, since that’s where the lion’s share profits are to be made.

When it comes to Macs, the need to buy the most expensive Mac, a workstation that could, when fully configured, cost over $10,000, was seriously hurt by the arrival of the late 2009 iMac. Up till then, the iMac was just a consumer computer. It was fast enough, but content creators required the Mac Pro, and that, as they say, was that.

So, for example, I had a 2008 Mac Pro with a 30-inch Dell display, and I was quite comfortable with the setup. But the prospects for the iMac were intriguing. You could option it with an Intel quad-core i7 processor, capable of Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost. The former, a multithreading feature, allowed the four cores to act as eight. The latter would boost clock speeds under some circumstances, generally when fewer cores were being used.

The iMac sounded awfully powerful for a price that, some built-to-order options, was less than $2,500. I added a FireWire 800 backup drive and ended up with something still below three grand. In turn, I was able to sell that Mac Pro and display and recover the cost of the iMac, and maybe pay the electric bill. It was a great deal.

Indeed, except for chores that required more than four cores, an iMac often benchmarked as fast or faster than a Mac Pro. And I wasn’t the only so-called power user to see the advantage. More and more customers who’d formerly buy a Mac Pro decided the iMac was all the computer they actually needed. Indeed, today’s iMac, with one of those Fusion drives — which combines a 128GB flash drive with a traditional hard drive — is a pretty powerful beast.

Yes, as I said, a Mac Pro is still capable of more performance for certain tasks, such as 3D rendering and mathematics, and content creators might have looked to the Windows market as Apple’s plans become muddied. With the announcement of a totally redesigned 2013 configuration, there was renewed hope that maybe Apple hadn’t abandoned the professional market.

Sure, you had to wonder about Apple’s intentions when Final Cut Pro X came out in 2011. The price and the interface seemed tailor made to capture students and prosumers, but video editors protested because Apple cut out some key features they required for their workflow. Apple PR rushed to handle the negative publicity, promising that all or most of the missing features would ultimately be restored often in a new and improved form. This is reminiscent of Apple’s approach to the new iWork, which was redesigned from the ground up to be fully compatible for OS X, iOS and the cloud. Apple has to fix the messaging problem.

Certainly, the Mac Pro is equipped for action, with a multiple core Intel Xeon E5 processor, and a pair of AMD FirePro graphics processors. Indeed, Apple was often criticized for offering subpar graphic cards. The new tubular container weighs just 11 pounds, compared to about 40 pounds for the older oversized cheese grater configuration.

But all this joy comes at a price, and not just the upfront cost. You see, aside from being able to upgrade RAM and replace the internal solid state drive, the rest of the expansion is all external. You have four USB 3.0 ports and six Thunderbolt 2 ports. When the external hardware is available, and some products have already been announced, the latter will let you attach multiple solid state RAID drives and external expansion cards.

From the standpoint of convenience, I suppose it’s better to have everything inside. That allows for some level of portability, and I gather you might see breakout boxes that will serve as containers for a Mac Pro, which will allow for easy transport. But it also means you can separate the Mac Pro from the likely peripherals it’ll need, and all those external ports mean a larger variety than would you could configure inside the original minitower.

The main question, of course, is convenience and expandability. Some would prefer that most everything be installed inside a Mac Pro, whereas others might appreciate the larger range of potential external expansion options. This is the sort of argument that may not be resolved until sales of the new model are tallied. But even then, there’s little chance Apple would go back. More than likely, they’ll simply stay the course. The won’t be a Mac Pro Maxi with a larger case and a few internal slots.

To Apple, having a high-end prestige workstation with a unique design would certainly nail the company’s commitment to professional users. But for those who prefer the traditional minitower approach, which has served the industry well for decades, it may be a huge mistake.

It’s a sure thing that, regardless of the reception of the new Mac Pro, it’ll be expensive. The starting price of $2999 will cover a 27-inch iMac with lots of options. With the Mac Pro, you’ll still need a display, and, at the very least, one or more larger drives and a lot more RAM (you only get 12GB with the entry-level model). The sky’s the limit, and that sky may be too high for some potential customers.