Apple's new Mac Pro: You win some, you lose some. But mostly, you win

Did Apple go terribly wrong with the new Mac Pro? We look at our previous concerns and explore how they stand up to Apple's announcement of new high-end hardware at WWDC.

WWDC 2019: Everything Apple announced and what really matters to business TechRepublic's Karen Roby and Bill Detwiler break down the important news from Apple's 2019 WWDC, but more importantly, they discuss why certain applications are important to business users. Read more: https://zd.net/2Wb8mpN

We've known it's been coming for about two years now. In April of 2017, Apple held a briefing with a small number of analysts, and explained that they'd made a mistake with the 2013 "trash can" Mac Pro. They were going back to the drawing board with a whole new redesign. They promised it would be modular, powerful, and not show up until at least 2019.

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Don't deny it. You can see yourself grating some fine Tillamook cheddar on this, can't you?

Apple

Apple kept its promise -- mostly. Here it is June of 2019, more than two years later, and we now know a lot about the new Mac Pro. We know it's going to be expandable. We know it's going to be expensive. We know it's going to be available in the fall.

For the record, fall 2019 ends on December 21, 2019. So expect it by December 20th.

Last month, in anticipation of Apple's big WWDC 2019 Mac Pro announcement, I wrote an article entitled, "Six ways the new Mac Pro could go terribly, terribly wrong." In it, I identified the following six areas of concern:

  1. Proprietary modules and module interfaces
  2. Limited module selection
  3. Lack of user maintainability and some kind of unexpected lock-in
  4. Lack of, or minimal upgradeability
  5. Form over functional heat management, and
  6. Pricing that limits purchases to high-end enterprises only

Let's TL;DR this right away. Apple's new Mac Pro did not go terribly, terribly wrong. Hallelujah to that. There are some questions. There are some problems. But, overall, for its probable extreme pro customer, the new Mac Pro is a big step in the right direction.

It's a tower

Let's start with the overall architecture of the machine. Fundamentally, the machine is a classic PC tower, even though it has that new Apple smell. Not only does it come in a tower design, it also comes in a rack mount variety. If you listen carefully, you'll hear a deep sigh of relief from the legion of extreme pros who need that form factor.

The outer skin lifts up and off a reinforced frame. This allows what Apple calls "360 degree access" to the machine's components. In terms of design cues, the old classic cheese grater Mac is all over this thing, up to and including the handles. The new Mac Pro can also be configured with optional wheels.

Inside, there are 12 (count 'em: 12!) DIMM slots, allowing you to configure up to 1.5TB of 2933MHz DDR4 ECC memory, running at up to 140GB/s memory bandwidth. The slots are there, right inside the skin, easy to find, reach, and upgrade.

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1.5TB of RAM. That'll wake ya up!

Apple

There are also eight PCI Express slots: four that are double-wide, three that are single-wide, and one short slot that ships filled with an I/O card that provides Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.0. Speaking of ports, there are also two more Thunderbolt 3 ports on top of the unit, two 10GB Ethernet ports, and -- yes -- a headphone jack.

While the machine looks quite similar to the old cheese grater Mac Pro, one thing is definitely different: storage. The old Mac Pro was designed around hard drive bays. This Mac Pro is, instead, designed around SSD module slots. There are two such slots, which can be configured with up to 4TB. That's not a lot of internal storage, but the fact is, with Thunderbolt 3, very fast external storage can be easily added.

You can add PCI Express devices, RAM, and storage. The only thing that's not clear is whether you can replace the CPU. Apple made no mention of CPU swapping. We'll have to wait to find out about that.

  • Concern: Lack of, or minimal upgradeability.
  • Result: No worries. It's quite upgradeable.
  • Concern: Lack of user maintainability and some kind of unexpected lock-in
  • Result: It's quite maintainable, although wait for our discussion of modules to explore the lock-in concern

The machine has a lot of power, shipping with a 1.4 kilowatt power supply. Cooling is provided by three fans that suck air from front to back. Apple also says the skin was designed to modulate air flow, acting as both a flow enhancer and a heat sink.

  • Concern: Form over functional heat management
  • Result: It's looking good, although we won't have final confirmation until the machine is in real-world use

With modules, sort of

Back in 2017, in what Adrian Kingsley-Hughes declared was "desperate damage control," Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller described the planned Mac Pro as "by definition, a modular system."

Clearly, you could say any modern tower PC is modular. Each PCIe card is a module, as are the memory modules and the storage boards. Apple is creating a new form of high-performance graphics system that could be also be called a module.

First, it's important to acknowledge that some widely available graphics cards should work with the Mac Pro. That said, Apple announced that the base Mac Pro model will ship with a Radeon Pro 580X, which is an AMD chipset designed specifically for use in the MacBook Pro and iMac.

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That'll turbo-charge your renders.

Apple

It gets more interesting, though. Apple announced MPX, the Mac Pro Expansion Module. There's not a lot of information available on this yet, but Apple described it as containing a standard PCI Express x16 connector, and said that "additional PCIe lanes were created to integrate Thunderbolt and provide increased capability."

There is no doubt this is a beast of an architecture. It can support two Radeon Pro Vega II graphics processors, connected with AMD's Infinity Fabric interconnect, for up to 14 teraflops compute performance. All of this goes into one MPX module. Apple supports two of these modules. According to Apple, "The four GPUs combine to add up to 56 teraflops and 128GB of high-bandwidth memory."

  • Concern: Proprietary modules and module interfaces
  • Result: Pretty much. It's not clear whether Apple will open the MPX spec to outside vendors, but it's unlikely.

Apple announced one other module (or card). This is the Apple Afterburner, a video processing accelerator module that Apple says will eliminate the need for proxy workflows, and will natively render 8K video. Beyond the MPX graphics modules and Afterburner, Apple hasn't announced any more specialty modules.

As for whether standard specialty PCI Express cards will work, Apple did list off a wide variety of PCI card capabilities, but any specialty card will be dependent on driver availability. This is one way that Apple may wind up engineering lock-in. Whether any vendor will be allowed to engineer drivers or have access to Apple support is a question that won't be answered for quite some time.

  • Concern: Limited module selection
  • Result: So far, this is a valid concern.

Holy brain-melt, Batman. The price.

The base model -- with an 8-core Xeon processor, 32GB RAM, a Radeon Pro 580X and 256GB of storage -- is a whopping $5,999.

Apple also announced a new XDR display. Hold onto your hats. Just the mount for the display is $1,000. The 32-inch monitor is $4,999. Yes, it's a very high-end graphics professional monitor, but just thinking about those prices is enough to cause vertigo.

All that is before you fully configure the Mac Pro. I haven't done my own cost estimate yet, but the Verge estimates that a fully equipped Mac Pro (before you add video processors or the display) will break $35,000.

  • Concern: Pricing that limits purchases to high-end enterprises only
  • Result: Ouch!

Bottom line: How did Apple do?

The price is extreme, but we do need to look at this from two perspectives. First, I'm probably not getting one. I'm quite happy with my highly-equipped 2018 Mac mini configuration that cost me $2,000 plus about $300 for extra RAM.

But here's the thing. If you want a platform that doesn't have a top end, you need to be able to scale machine performance. There are definitely Windows machines running Premiere Pro costing well into the same $30-50K range. They're used for high-end video production and other extreme pro activities.

Extreme pros who rely on the Mac platform for solutions need to know that, as their needs grow, the platform can grow with them. Until this Mac Pro, producing a Hollywood blockbuster movie was performance constrained on Apple hardware. That's no longer the case. As AR and VR grow, the need for processing power, graphics power, and rendering power will increase.

So, yes, the new Mac Pro is vomitously expensive. But for those extreme pros in certain industries who need all that power, it's a real relief to know it will be there.

From a machine architecture point of view, the new Mac Pro seems to have fired on all cylinders. It didn't go, as I worried, terribly, terribly wrong. Unfortunately, the price is terribly, terribly high. It's priced so high that only very well-heeled extreme pros, and those working in enterprise environments, will be able to afford the machines.


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