More About the Mac Pro

April 6th, 2017

So when Tim Cook first attempted to reassure professional Mac users that they had the love, there was plenty of skepticism. A lot of that was centered on the unfortunate fact that the Mac Pro hadn’t been upgraded in three years. If Apple really cared about pros, wouldn’t they have released at least a minor refresh?

So Apple summoned several tech journalists to corporate headquarters this week, and let them in on plans for the Mac, and it’s clear that the 2013 Mac Pro was a big fail. Apple evidently totally misjudged the market.

This seems strange, considering the original cheese grater model, which offered plentiful space for extra drives, expansion cards, RAM and a pair of CPU slots. In slimming it down, and making all expansion external, did Apple really believe the same user base would be happy with the end result?

If there was ever a case of form smothering function, this was it.

I don’t know how many people bought them. Apple says the Mac Pro sales occupy a single digit of total Mac market share, and I bet it’s the low single digits. During a quarter where Apple moves roughly one million desktop Macs, I’d be surprised if Mac Pro sales went much above 50,000.

It would seem strange that Apple didn’t realize the product hadn’t taken off. I expect some people simply held back, and others went to the iMac, particularly with the introduction of 27-inch models with the 5K Retina display. Indeed, they are powerful computers, particularly when maxed out with memory, and the best CPU and graphics components that Apple provides. They are certainly far cheaper than a Mac Pro, and, for apps that don’t exploit processors with six or more cores, offer better performance.

But there are power users who want it headless, using their own displays. They also need up to 12 cores for such tasks as 3D rendering and mathematics, but wouldn’t two processors work even better?

Now I don’t know how many Mac users deserted the platform and went to Windows for more plentiful workstation options. According to The Mac Observer’s John Martellaro, the arrival of Microsoft’s Surface Studio was the wake-up call, that there was a need for a powerful computer with the sort of flexibility that would appeal to pros.

Whatever the reason, Apple Marketing VP Philip Schiller says that Apple has a team working on the next Mac Pro, but it won’t arrive this year. That assumes it’s slated for release next year, but certainly he was buying time to help mollify customers who are feeling abandoned by the company.

While Apple hasn’t specifically said a lot about the new model, it will be “modular,” and there will likely be room for internal expansion. In other words, it would be an up-to-date version of the original Mac Pro, perhaps made slimmer and lighter with appropriate design flourishes. It would also be designed to allow for easy refreshes, and, no doubt,  have the guts to support the most powerful CPUs and GPUs.

Now perhaps Apple will drop more hints later this year. In the meantime, if you must have a powerful headless Mac, Apple has cut thousands of dollars off the purchase price of the current Mac Pro, but these are all 2013 parts. There is no support for USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. Apple made it a dead-end machine that will promptly vanish when its replacement arrives.

But there was another hint dropped by Apple that might presage a lower-cost alternative. The Mac mini, staring at $499, hasn’t been changed since 2014. While saying nothing as to when the next version may arrive, they referred to it as “a mix of consumer with some pro use.”

Now to me, some might indicate that it’s popular as a low-cost server. But what if Apple considered that usage pattern and provided more upgrade options for this cute little box? Consider the HP Z2 Mini, a tiny computer that’s not dissimilar to the Mac mini but can be outfitted as a mini workstation. You can equip the Z2 with a 4-core Intel Xeon processor, a discrete graphics card from NVIDIA, 32GB RAM and a 1TB SSD. It lists for over $3,000, but HP is discounting heavily.

HP touts it as an ideal box for CAD users, but what could Apple do with the Mac mini form factor? It would seem there’s room for similar internal parts, although the Z2 Mini is a little larger and nearly twice as heavy.

But I just wonder whether such a product would have traction as a cheaper Mac Pro alternative for those who want a headless Mac but aren’t prepared to invest high figures to get one. Would it reduce demand for the Mac Pro? Not for those who’d choose it above an iMac.

I recall that wish for a mythical midrange Mac minitower that former Macworld editor Dan Frakes and I used to talk about, and how it might morph into something small, slim and light. A souped-up Mac mini perhaps?

I suppose there’s not a whole lot of pressure for a more powerful Mac mini at this point. The current model can be optioned with a faster dual-core CPU, 16GB RAM, and a 1TB SSD for $1,999. Faster processors and extra RAM would scale appropriately. Apple could build a workstation version if it saw the need, though the end result may be somewhat larger. But I am not going to speculate so much about what a Mac mini refresh might include. At least not yet.

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One Response to “More About the Mac Pro”

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