It’s been almost three weeks since WWDC and the interwebs are still buzzing about Apple’s most radical reimagining since the Cube. The only thing the new Mac Pro shares with the previous line of Xeon workstations is the name. Its form factor, means of storage, and expansion options are radically different from their predecessor and perhaps every other workstation on the planet. Change can be difficult and some, like our own John P, aren’t ready for this much of a change. The most important question is whether the next generation Mac Pro is the right kind of change or whether it, like the Cube, is too much too soon.
What the Old Mac Pro Was
The old Mac Pro is a traditional workstation with an enclosure inherited from the Power Mac G5. 20 inches high by 8.1 inches wide by 19.7 inches deep. In all that space you get twin 5.25” optical drive bays, four 3.5” bays, and one dual height PCI-E x16 slot for the graphics card plus four single height PCI-E slots for expansion. There are six slots for ECC DIMMs and it has twin sockets for 4 or 6-core Xeon CPUs. I/O ports include 5 USB 2.0 and Four FireWire 800 as well as twin gigabit ethernet ports.
The graphics cards are currently consumer-level Radeon 5000 series, but pro-grade Nvidia Quadro cards have been offered in the past first party and are currently offered as third party add-ons. The problem with this machine is it uses a 2010-era infrastructure. While the case may do its job, the components do not. It lacks a modern chipset and CPUs, as well as USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt I/O. In other words, it’s expensive and way behind the competition. Last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said there would a replacement in 2013. They got one, but it wasn’t what a lot of people expected.
What the New Mac Pro Is
The new Mac Pro takes every convention in workstation design and chucks it right out the window. It has zero 5.25” drives, zero 3.5” drives, and zilch for traditional PCI-Express slots. Without any of the traditional internal expansion, the case of the new machine shrinks down to just under 10 inches high and just over six and a half inches in diameter. Yes, I said diameter. It’s round and all too reminiscent of either a soda/pop can or a designer trash can, depending on your point of view. That round design allows Apple to implement another space saving feature: a single thermal core at the center of the Mac Pro. It takes the heat from the motherboard and the two graphics cards and releases it from the top of the machine. There are no traditional fans in this machine.
The machine is built around the Xeon E5 2600 series processor and presumably the C600 series chipset. If a recent MacRumors piece proves accurate, the E5-2697 will be one of the available CPUs. This is a 12-core CPU running on the Ivy Bridge-EP architecture. Considering that the Mac Pro is only advertised as having 12 cores, this strongly suggests only a single CPU socket. For the internal bus, the Mac Pro has 40 PCI-Express 3.0 lanes and 40 PCI-Express 2.0 lanes from the CPU and another 8 from the chipset. Two of those lanes go directly to the SSD storage. This arrangement bipasses the SATA controller and allows for even better performance than the provision SATA III SSDs used in the Retina Mac Pros and the 2012 MacBook Airs. Either 16 or 32 of the remaining lanes are of the twin AMD FireGL graphics professional graphics cards. Make no mistake, these are not gamer cards. However, given the way the system is linked, one has to wonder if they are linked by AMD’s Crossfire technology. Whether these cards are replaceable is not known at this time. System memory is provided by a single quad-channel bus with four DD3 ECC DIMM slots.
In place of both traditional expansion and I/O are four 5Mbps USB 3.0 and six Thunderbolt 2 ports. Thunderbolt 2 is still based on x4 PCI-Express 2.0, but reconfigures from four channels, two up and two down, 10Gbps to 120 GBps bus in each direction. While this decreases the redundancy, it gives you the bandwidth to push a 4K display. This Mac can use up to three of them. The one downside to Thunderbolt 2 is that while the chips support PCI-E 3.0, Thunderbolt still does not. That’s leaving something on the shelf compared to using the traditional slots. I’d also like to add, that in all likelihood, the Thunderbolt ports takes up all available PCI-E lanes. Thunderbolt or PCI-Express expansion slots was probably a one or the other proposition.
Presumed Advantages of The New Mac Pro
This machine is going to be super fast, especially compared to the ancient current-generation machine. The new Mac Pro takes advantage of the new I/O ports and has a hearty helping of them. It should be pretty future-proofed, especially considering the adoption of Thunderbolt in traditional PCI-E areas like audio and video interfaces. Moving up from iMacs, Mac Minis, or a Mac laptop with Thunderbolt devices should be easy. The system is also extremely portable given its small size. The power supply is also tailored to the machine and won’t waste power you’re not using.
I’ll start with the obvious. If you are an established Mac Pro user that already has PCI-Express or Firewire devices, this is going to be expensive and probably pretty convoluted. You have two choices: replacement with Thunderbolt/ USB3.0 devices or using adaptors. For the PCI-E cards, you’ll need a Thunderbolt to PCI-E expansion chassis. They’ll cost you from about $400 for a single card to $1000 for a 3-slot unit. FireWire will need either a docking station or Apple’s Thunderbolt to FW800 adaptor paired with a FireWire repeater hub. Fortunately, unlike the expansion chassis, both are relatively inexpensive. However, if you want the greatest reliability, you probably to want upgrade to Thunderbolt. But be aware, the cables are not cheap (up to $60) and aren’t currently sold in lengths longer than 3m and that is from third-party maker Kanex.
While the case itself is beautiful, the new Mac Pro’s infrastructure might be very ungainly. With the exception of anything that is bus powered, any external expansion is going to need its own power. It’s also going to need its own space. The lack of any internal storage means you’re going to want a storage array. This can come in direct attached form, like the Drobo 5D or Promise Pegasus, or an NAS or iSCSI SAN array, like the B800i and 1200i Drobos that Geek Beat uses. All this suggests you’ll probably want a rack. However, this Mac Pro is in no way, shape, or form designed with any consideration to rack mounting. Its shape is completely wrong for it and so is its cooling. Traditional tower computers take cooler air from the front and blow the now-heated air out the back. This is how the racks are designed. The new Mac Pro takes the cool air in the bottom and blows the hot air out the top. While this more natural, it requires a certain amount of open space above the free space. Make no mistake, this will be sitting on top of a desk, that’s how Apple designed it. That may or may not have profound impacts on your workspace. If you’re design conscious, this thing is black while all the add-ons are going to be silver.
So the big question is, how much will this thing cost you? While Apple has surprised us before with lower than expected pricing, I would anticipate sticker shock. Traditional workstations with the Xeon E5 2600, like Dell’s T5600 or T7600, have either 8 or 16 DIMM slots with two processor slots. The memory controller is on die with the CPU and can support 8 DIMM slots per CPU. The Mac Pro has only one CPU and four DIMM slots. This will require higher-end CPUs and higher density DIMMs for the same performance and memory as a traditional dual-socket workstation. In other words, while it might be the most beautiful and compact workstation ever made, it could also be, pound for pound, the most expensive workstation ever made.
Is Apple’s Mac Pro the Right Machine?
Unless Apple sells this at an unbelievably low price, which given the engineering and Apple’s margins I don’t believe is probable, Apple is taking a giant gamble. It’s either going to be the largest leap forward in Workstation design in decades, or it’s going to be the biggest disaster since the G4 Cube. With both the Cube and last year’s Retina MacBook Pro, there was a fallback plan. The Cube failed, but the tower PowerMac carried on. That was what the professional Mac users preferred. With the Retina MacBook, which I’m using, it might take a year or two, but it’s very clear this is where MacBooks are heading. However, if you still want the old MacBook Pro, it’s available and up to date. The 2013 edition of the Mac Pro has no safety net as there is no traditional Mac Pro tower with E5 CPUs and Thunderbolt. Either the professionals accept it, or they move off-platform. Given the way Final Cut Pro X was handled and how Logic Pro has seemingly been abandoned, audio and video production, which have been squarely in Apple’s camp for a decade, could fall into the grasps of Dell and HP.
The 2013 Mac Pro is the most impressive computer I’ve ever seen from an engineering standpoint. It’s a machine of the future, but that future has not arrived. The traditional Mac Pro should have been updated for the last couple of generations and sold side by side with this new Mac Pro. Apple applied the same cattle prod technique with this machine that they have with consumers. This will backfire. Consumers usually upgrade to the latest and greatest while professionals have been known to upgrade very conservatively and only when something is known to work without fail. I don’t think Apple understands this distinction. They saw a need and designed a machine the only way they knew how, by making a beautifully engineered splash. This could be one of the landmark Macs all time, and unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.