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The Mac Pro: A Misfire?

Once upon a time, anyone who wanted a powerful Mac would choose the top of the line. So in the days before Apple went Intel in 2006, it was the Power Mac G5. It was a huge beast, weighing over 40 pounds, but it was extremely expandable. You could add multiple hard drives and PCI cards, and changing RAM was a snap. But keeping it running cool was a chore, as this computing workstation — you could hardly call it a personal computer — was outfitted with multiple fans and, in the more powerful models, liquid cooling. That was the shortcoming of the G5 chip that never realized its potential for Apple.

If the cooling ever leaked, you could kiss that expensive Mac goodbye.

When Apple moved to Intel processors in 2006, the successor to that Power Mac, the Mac Pro, debuted. Externally it looked about the same, but the innards were more efficient because Apple didn’t need so much cooling hardware. It was expensive, powerful, and content creators loved them.

Things began to change in the last quarter of 2009, when Apple introduced a 27-inch iMac, complete with 4-core processors and speedy graphics. It was also far cheaper than a Mac Pro in its standard configurations, and a number of power users, home and business, opted for the more practical alternative. I did, and managed to sell my 2008 Mac Pro, with a 30-inch display, for a high enough figure that allowed me to buy the new computer, customized with a faster processor and graphics hardware, for cash, and get a few hundred dollars in change to cover the cost of an external backup drive and the electric bill.

Clearly it had its impact. After the release of a 2010 Mac Pro refresh, it took another two years for a very minor update to appear. Changes were mostly confined to somewhat more powerful Intel Xeon processors, and some speculated that Apple was poised to give up on the product and concentrate on the iMac as its most powerful computer.

In early 2013, Tim Cook promised a major Mac Pro upgrade, and, sure enough, the spectacular “trash can” version was demonstrated during the WWDC keynote that June. It didn’t show up until December of 2013, and volume shipments didn’t start until early in 2014.

Aside from a totally different look, the late 2013 Mac Pro was smaller than it first seemed, less than 10 inches high, and weighed a mere 11 pounds. While you could open the case easily enough, there was no room for any internal storage beyond the single SSD drive. RAM upgrades were simple, but there were no PCI expansion slots.

It was a sea change, and not necessarily one that was welcome. In place of the previous model’s internal expansion possibilities, there were loads of external ports that included four USB 3.0, six Thunderbolt 2, two Gigabit Ethernet connections, and HDMI 1.4 with support for Ultra HD for 4K. It didn’t even come with a keyboard or mouse, unlike previous models, and Apple has yet to add a 4K or 5K display to its lineup. For a higher resolution display, you have to rely other manufactures, such as Dell and HP.

Now if your expansion needs extend beyond a few hard drives to elaborate RAID assemblies, having six Thunderbolt 2 ports may be a good thing. There are also external PCI expansion boxes to serve your needs, but the lack of internal expansion has to be frustrating. Rather than have a clean work environment, power users are saddled with nightmares of intertwining cables and extra, usually ugly, expansion gear.

Having a small, sexy computer surrounded by loads of ugly hardware isn’t a terribly welcome solution for some. Yet the Mac Pro has its joys. Users running heavy-duty scientific software, or doing content creation, have a powerful workstation to manage those chores. While you could load up a Mac Pro with more RAM, a drive with higher storage capacity, and a more powerful multicore Xeon processor and end up with a machine costing close to $10,000, comparisons with Windows hardware of similar capabilities brings surprising results. In most cases, the Mac Pro is noticeably cheaper, even when compared with a home-built system.

But it’s catering to a smaller user base. A customized 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display can provide more computing power for single-core and four-core operations than the Mac Pro. Only the smaller number of apps that take better advantage of multicore processors, and/or the more powerful graphics hardware, benefit if you choose the Mac Pro.

So is it worth the extra expense? Well, if you need more than two Thunderbolt 2 ports plus extra displays and some PCI expansion cards, sure. If you’ll save a considerable amount of time running rendering chores that benefit from up to 12 processing cores, sure.

The reaction to the Mac Pro has been polarizing. Other than the relatively small number of people who benefit from its performance and external expansion capabilities, today’s iMac is more than capable of performing the work you need with really great performance. It is also coming on two years since the refreshed Mac Pro first appeared, so you wonder how much love it’s getting from Apple.

I’m far from alone in expressing skepticism about the direction of the Mac Pro. The Mac Observer and Kirk McElhearn’s Kirksville blog have both expressed their reservations.

Ideally, if there must be a Mac Pro, maybe Apple could develop a different version, still relatively compact, which restores the internal expansion capability of the original Mac Pro. With Apple’s penchant for miniaturization, I bet they could deliver all that in a computer that weighs no more than 20 pounds or so.

But is there enough of a market for such a machine — or the present day Mac Pro? That’s a question only Apple can answer.