Is the new Mac Pro the Cube all over again?

Is the new Mac Pro the Cube all over again?

Summary: Both are tiny and pretty. The Mac Cube was also expensive and dead in a year. Why should the new Mac Pro succeed where the Cube failed?

TOPICS: Mobility, Cloud, Storage

I owned a Mac cube for several years, so I have some experience with that product. I also owned a quad core Mac Pro for several years and have been using Thunderbolt for about a year.

It isn't clear what is driving Apple's design interest in creating a tiny Mac Pro. It is way bigger than Intel's NUC which has hardly been a game changer.

Nor is it clear that placing a system unit on a desktop is all that desirable. With more than 10 cables it would look like a hedgehog.

That said there are some significant differences in the designs between the old Mac Cube and the new Mac Pro.

These include:

  • Fan. The old Mac Cube relied on not very successful convection cooling. Adding a fan was a popular mod to avoid overheating during heavy use. Presumably the new Mac Pro won't have that problem.
  • Expansion. The old Mac Cube had a couple of FireWire 400 ports and a modestly upgradable video card as well as a disk drive and some memory that could be changed. The new Mac Pro can add a dozen external PCIe slots to drive all kinds of accessories as well storage arrays.
  • Sound. Once a fan was added to the Cube, the main benefit of convection cooling - silence - was gone. With a single large plenum and a slow moving fan the new Mac Pro should be very quiet. Fan better not break though.

Versus the current Mac Pro:

  • Size. The current Mac Pro is a heavy beast that weighs over 20 kilos and a big footprint. No weight for the new MP, but given the aluminum frame and case I'd guess 2-3 kilos. And at 25cm high and 17cm wide it is tiny.
  • Expansion. With 3 open PCIe slots the current Pro can accommodate eSATA controllers, media interface cards and add a 2nd graphics card, with the standard USB 2.0, FireWire 800 and Ethernet ports rounding out the list. With 6 Thunderbolt ports and 4 USB 3.0 ports the nominal bandwidth on tap is over 16GB/sec and the range of PCIe options a dozen times greater.
  • Sound. Not mentioned by Apple, but if the cooling is as efficient as they claim, it should be quieter under load than the current box.

Use case?
Why would anyone care if a workstation is tiny? Since we haven't had one before, it isn't easy to imagine.

But here goes:

  • Mobility. Have a screen at home and one at work along with a small portable storage array and you could - along with cloud storage - easily schlep your powerful workstation and its 3D simulations between home, work and even clients.
  • Space. A single 4k display. A 6 drive array under the desk. Wireless keyboard and trackpad. 2 cables + power into the workstation and you have a very compact and powerful system that will appeal to people who make money from their computers but don't want their workspace defined by them.

The Storage Bits take
The new Mac Pro, with ECC memory, XEON processors and excellent cooling will no doubt be the most reliable Mac made. And if the Mac is your tool of choice it will be a very appealing upgrade from the current Pro or the flakier iMacs.

The prosaic issue of cable management won't be easily solved. Apple's glitzy "light up on rotation" feature won't be so useful once you've 3 or 4 cables plugged in. And the cylinder won't be nearly so pure when 8 mis-matched cables - USB, Thunderbolt and Ethernet - are bristling out the back.

Nor will the new Mac Pro solve the problem of OS X's aging file system and limited scalability. Windows 8 is way ahead here.

But for those who need a solid hardware platform, the new Mac Pro will be very attractive. It may even last longer than the current 10 year old case design. And it will be even easier to migrate peripherals with Thunderbolt than it is today.

The arguments for a new Mac Pro are still stronger than those against it. But this radical design may not be the right answer.

Comments welcome of course. I no longer have an excuse to buy a workstation. If you do, what do you think?

Topics: Mobility, Cloud, Storage

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  • Only in design

    I never paid much attention to the Cube but I don't think it was a powerhouse and at the time you needed internal drives for speed so not much interest from the graphics community.
    • Ultra Versatile Design!

      Some ideas about that: :)
      Alessandro Rivoira
  • Hmmm

    You don't much about file systems then if you believe Windows has a better files system then Unix which OSX is based.
    • The file system is HFS+

      Robin's been looking at problems caused by the increasing graying of both HFS+ (Which mac uses), and NTFS (Windows) for years now. Both have been increasingly showing their age, and while Mac at one point looked ready to leapfrog to ZFS, but wound up doubling down on HFS+ instead, allowing MS to move forward on putting ReFS into play, making them the one who's swapped a decades old file system for one built with modern hardware in mind.

      Or in short, this is about Disks, not OS.
    • Except you're wrong

      Mac OSX's HFS+ file system isn't based on Unix and it is vastly inferior than other modern file systems. (yes, that included NTFS)
    • Well, obviously one of you two doesn't understand file systems

      and I don't think that someone is Robin
      William Farrel
    • The blog author makes his living selling high end

      data storage solutions, and one of his shticks is to go around telling you how at risk your data is. Of course, he's been challenged many times to put up or shut up. Testing his assertions is trivial: All he has to do is run a program that does nothing but disk read/writes 24x7 and run it for a month, documenting all the data corruption. He never has because he knows it would prove him a liar.
      • Actually, I don't make my living selling high-end storage systems, Baggins

        but I used to market them. I DO talk to file system engineers - such as the guys behind ReFS and ZFS - and review academic papers - such as the Iron File System paper that documented how poorly consumer file systems handle errors - and I draw my conclusions from those kinds of sources. (Check out for an overview.)

        This is about engineering, not opinion. If you are capable of evaluating evidence you should change yours.

        R Harris
  • I'm tired of hearing about how small it is.

    And it hasn't even been 24 hours yet. It's small because they removed a lot of capability (internal expansion via PCI-e slots and internal hard disks) and place the "burden" on external devices. Add external disks along with a myraid of external Thunderbolt things and it will quickly consume a lot more space than the old system while looking like a rats nest.
    • I like external devices.

      In the past, even with FW800 there was a speed loss but now that shouldn't be the case. I hated having to open up my Tower to add or replace a HD because it usually wasn't that accessible. I like the modular approach.
      • You didn't have to open them up.

        You were always free to use external devices if you so chose.
        • True enough.

          Although I like the size reduction and hopefully it will be quieter.
          • The Mac Pro was already quiet.

            Not sure what it is like under load but under normal use it's very quiet. My brother has two of them and they don't make a sound.
        • Yes, but if you didn't open them up

          What interface could you use. Finally OWC came out with eSATA, but before that there was Fibre Channel and ???

          R Harris
    • So, what you're basically saying is

      that it's better to have a bunch of empty space enclosed by a case on the odds that you will fill it all up some day as opposed to having a case that's just right for the stock configuration that can then be expanded as needed by the user.
      • Different strokes

        Sometimes people want a little legroom. If you're getting a car for a family of four, you would want it to be big enough to accommodate any unanticipated guests; I would think the same idea is applicable here.
        Third of Five
    • Not just connection cables...

      The other problem with moving everything outside the box is not just a rats nest of Thunderbolt and USB cables, but also a rats nest of additional power cables, and very probably power bricks under the desk.
  • the shape

    It's obviously a Dalek.
    • Dalek

      Who's going to be first with the plunger add-on?
  • Thunderbolt 2.0 should be 1.1

    "With 6 Thunderbolt ports and 4 USB 3.0 ports the nominal bandwidth on tap is over 16GB/sec and the range of PCIe options a dozen times greater."

    Not AT ALL!! Thunderbolt 2 contriollers are bound to PC!e 2.0 Very limited! Max of 8GBs/ vesrus a single PCIe 3.0 slot potential of 32 GBs
    Larry Towers