Is the new Mac Pro the Cube all over again?

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?
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

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?

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