The new Apple Mac Pro is turning many heads. Apple has gone beyond what the video market demands, in terms of workstation design, energy consumption, and GPU computation – to produce a revolutionary new product.
Apple has always led the way when it came to computer design, at least as far back as I can remember. Where Apple always lagged behind (a matter of opinion and not always fact) is in raw computing power. Other manufacturers must surely be scratching their heads over this one question:
How come Apple can create so much excitement and passion over its products, by continuously reinventing and redesigning them, so that their customers (and non-customers) are willing to pay a premium for the privilege of using them?
This article is a summary of my thoughts on the new Mac Pro. I am going to try to answer the following questions:
- Why is the Mac Pro designed as it is, and how does it help video editors and post production professionals?
- Why should you get excited (or not)?
- Does the new Mac Pro deliver on its video editing promises?
- Is the new Mac Pro expensive, or can you build a PC for cheaper?
- Which model should you buy for best bang for your buck?
What is the new Apple Mac Pro?
In many ways, the new Apple Mac Pro is simply an iteration of the old Mac Pro. It is a workstation-class computer designed for heavy lifting. In our industry, it means faster:
- Video Editing
- Photography Processing
- Motion Graphics
- Compositing and other VFX
- 3D Animations
Before we go on, it must be understood that a workstation has many other use scenarios, like in the fields of medicine, architecture, business, data centers, and so on. The Mac Pro is not only for video.
If I had to sum up Apple’s brief in creating this Mac Pro, I’d say it was somewhat along the lines of:
It has to be half as big, but twice as good in every respect.
Does it deliver? Here’s my answer, if you don’t want to read the rest of his article:
Yes, it does. I believe it is a must-buy – if – you’re in the market for a new workstation-class computer, your favorite applications run on OS X, and you can afford the price of entry.
There is no better deal out there, period.
A look at its technical specifications
Here are the specifications:
|Intel E5 Xeons, Turbo Boost up to 3.9 GHz||3.7 GHz, 4-core, 10 MB L3 cache||3.5 GHz, 6-core, 12 MB L3 cache||3.0 GHz, 8-core, 25MB L3 cache||2.7GHz 12-core, 30MB L3 cache|
|DDR3 ECC 1866MHz Memory||12 GB to 64 GB|
|GPU, Dual AMD FirePro||D300 2GB||D500 3GB||D700 6GB|
|Display||Three 4K displays, or Six Thunderbolt displays|
|Storage||256 GB, 512 GB or 1 TB PCIe-based flash storage|
|Maximum Power||450 W|
|Typical noise level||12 dBA when idle|
|Warranty||1-yr, extendable to 3 years|
|Price range||From $2,999 to $9,599|
It has the following expansion or connection options:
- 6x Thunderbolt 2 ports, with each port able to chain 6 devices (A grand total of 36 devices can be connected!). Thunderbolt 2 is theoretically capable of 20 Gbps.
- 4x USB 3.0 ports
- 2x Gigabit Ethernet (1 GbE) ports
- 1x HDMI 1.4 port
- 1x Microphone port
- 1x Headphone jack
It has the following wireless options:
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi (capable of 1,300 Mbps or 162 MB/s)
- Bluetooth v4.0
What is the cool factor for the connection ports? When you turn your Mac Pro, an in-built sensor senses the movement and lights up your connectors:
It has a 3-pin power cord, which means they have a power supply in there somewhere. It also has a knob with a ‘lock’ icon on it which allows you to open the casing for upgrades.
The system is customizable, but not all options are available in all countries. To see all the customizable elements, check out the Apple Mac Pro Online Store.
What’s new about the Mac Pro?
The revolution in the new Mac Pro is its totally radical design:
To some, it might look like a trash can. But, Apple wants these on your table, and not underneath it.
One important change is the color. It’s no longer only white or grey, but black (actually a dark grey). It would surprise me if Apple didn’t introduce a ‘white’ version to match all things Apple (they did a red one). I can only guess they tried white, and it didn’t look that good.
I’ll discuss the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of this design later. Other than the Thunderbolt 2 ports and the faster Wi-Fi, there’s nothing really new about the innards of the Mac Pro.
The message I’m getting is: We’re future-proofing this Mac Pro, so don’t ask us for a new one for at least five years. It’s not an unfair assumption, they have the pedigree.
To supplement the addition of 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Apple has introduced a new Airport Extreme (and Time Capsule variant) series:
To complete the Mac Pro experience you might aspire to a true 4K 27″ display, which I’m sure Apple is working on. Since HDMI 1.4 can only go up to 4K 30p, I presume the connection will be Thunderbolt 2 (Displayport 1.2 or higher, which can go up to 60p). So far, the only 4K monitor you can buy directly from the store is the Sharp 32″ PN-K321 Ultra HD LED Monitor, for $3,595.
How does it compare to something cheaper, like the Seiki 39-Inch 4K Ultra HD 120Hz LED TV for $500? The Sharp is a professional-grade monitor with professional specs:
- 10-bit monitor (Seiki is 8-bit) – However, read note on 10-bit in the next section.
- Up to 60p in 4K (Seiki can only go up to 30p because it only has an HDMI connector).
- Displayport connector – Read my article on why I think Displayport is best.
- 3-year on site warranty.
An alternative to the Sharp is the Dell UltraSharp UP3214Q 32″ Monitor for $3,400 (also 10-bit).
It’s one thing to see pictures and read specs, and yet another to see the thing on video. Here’s an excellent unboxing video that explains the basics quite well:
Does OS X Mavericks and Final Cut Pro X 10.1 help or hinder?
Apple has already updated OS X to Mavericks, and it has some cool features. Two important features (one good and other other bad) are:
- Support for up to three 4K displays
- No 10-bit support
This is where professionals do a double-take. What’s the point in purchasing a 10-bit monitor if you can’t get 10-bit from the Apple Mac Pro? Since this is a long standing grey area I looked into a few resources:
OS X Mavericks Compatibility: We did think for a while that Mavericks had finally enabled Apple to catch up with Microsoft and allow full 10 bit output to a monitor, from a compatible graphics card. However even though Mavericks does allow the creation of 10 bit look up tables in the graphics card the actual output is still 8 bit, even with Thunderbolt. So for now it looks as though they are one step closer but not there yet.
Imagescience.com.au: … 10 bit output is currently impossible with the Mac up to and including Lion (10.7).
So, the sad part is, even though the GPU is professional-grade and capable of 10-bit, and the monitor is 10-bit, OS X still does not support 10-bit, even via Thunderbolt. This means, if you are planning on using a Blackmagic Design or AJA 10-bit card in the hopes of getting 10-bit, you will be unpleasantly surprised. Therefore, at this time, I cannot recommend the Apple Mac Pro if you want to color grade in 10-bit. However, I also believe 8-bit is good enough and it’s no big deal.
Of course, if any of you have information contrary to this, please let me know and I’ll update it. Reliable sources only (with proof if possible), please.
The other new feature of Mavericks is support for OpenCL. Here’s what Apple says in their Technology Overview Whitepaper:
Deeply integrated into OS X, OpenCL accelerates applications by tapping into the parallel computing power of modern GPUs and multicore CPUs. Using a C99-based language coupled with a flexible API for managing data-parallel workloads, OpenCL opens up a new range of computationally intensive algorithms for use in your application.
You use OpenCL to transform your apps’ most performance-intensive routines into computational “kernels.” Each kernel is runtime compiled by OpenCL and efficiently scheduled for execution, automatically taking best advantage of the parallel processing capabilities of the targeted GPU or CPU.
Mavericks also supports RAID, which is nothing new:
OS X supports drive striping (RAID 0) for improved performance, drive mirroring (RAID 1) for higher reliability, and mirrored striping (RAID 10) for improving both performance and reliability of storage. In addition, you can reformat storage in the background: You can promote a single volume to a mirrored volume, split a mirrored array into two volumes, or rebuild RAID volumes.
The other important software update is Final Cut Pro X 10.1. Here’s a detailed writeup by Mark Spencer and Steve Martin on what’s new with FCP-X 10.1. You can also check out Apple’s document here. Some highlights:
- Optimization to take advantage of multiple GPUs in the new Mac Pro.
- HDMI and Thunderbolt output at frame sizes up to 4K (UltraHD and DCI 4K).
- Better playback and rendering performance, plus faster opening of the application and projects.
- You can share 4K finished videos directly to YouTube.
As you can see, Apple has ensured its software is ready to be used on the Mac Pro. I’m sure in the months to come this integration will only get better.
But what about other software?
Adobe CC has just clarified their position on CUDA/OpenCL (They say the two aren’t different things, really), and have updated the list of supported graphics cards. I strongly believe Adobe CC will be GPU agnostic very soon.
As far as other software is concerned, 3D animation programs already run well on AMD cards (though some officially certify Nvidia cards). The Foundry Mari is coming to OS X, but Nuke v7 supports Nvidia (never needed a GPU when I worked with Nuke v6) which means:
AMD Firepro GPUs are ready for the big time (they already were, just that some people didn’t want to hear about it), and the new Mac Pro is ready for every video editing software that you can throw at it. If not today, at least in a year’s time.
If you’re taking the long term view (2 to 3 years), the Mac Pro doesn’t seem like a slouch at all. If I’m very slightly skeptical, and I have to be, it’s because three years from now the PC workstations will have surged forward in hardware capability, because they are quick to copy popular technology and are able to get cheaper prices (though not yet, see below).
Where will Apple’s long term advantage come from? I don’t know, but if I had to guess, I’d say it is software. If software can’t make use of all the cores and GPUs, then they are just dead weight.
Why is the new Mac Pro revolutionary?
There are three things that make the new Apple Mac Pro revolutionary:
The Thermal Core
The way the workstation is designed, if one GPU heats up, its heat is distributed to the other GPU to keep things even:
The thermal core also keeps all the heat into one pipe-like triangle, which is then sucked up by one specially designed quiet fan, which only produces about 12 dBA when idle. This is the sound pressure level produced when whispering. Even if it doubles in volume (25 dBA), it’s still quiet enough for production audio.
Put the Mac Pro under an air-conditioning suction vent or some other cooling system and you only have to draw heat from one point. Current workstations have at least two points of heat dissipation, and this is a huge problem when it comes to cooling.
Brilliant thinking, Apple.
Why does the Mac Pro have two GPUs? Why didn’t they just put one big GPU into it? I can think of two answers (just my opinion):
- The second GPU balances the round tower, to ensure equal weight-distribution. Otherwise, it will be ‘side-heavy’ and might easily tip over.
- The second GPU completes the thermal core. Without it, there is no core.
The new Mac Pro is only 9.9 inches tall, and 6.6 inches in diameter:
How many dual E5 dual GPU workstations can claim to be smaller? You could put 6 of these Mac Pros on a table and they might be mistaken for a case of ‘your favorite brew’. It’s the size of Pegasus R4, but looks 10 times better.
If they make it any smaller they might as well slap on a display and call it an iPhone.
Low Power Consumption
In all the new innovations from Apple these past months, the overriding concern to reduce power consumption jumps out at you:
- OS X Mavericks tries to reduce CPU power consumption
- Just one Fan
- Low power Xeon CPU
- Low power AMD Firepro GPUs
- No spinning disc drives
- Maximum power of only 450 W!!
Add to this Apple’s dedication to the environment:
Apple takes a complete product life cycle approach to determining our environmental impact.
- ENERGY STAR 6
- EPEAT Gold5
- Highly recyclable
You might we wondering: How do these three features help a video editor or professional? Well, the Mac Pro consumes less power so you’ll get lower power bills. If you own a studio with multiple workstations that’s a large cost saving. The small size ensures you don’t need custom PC tables. You can also use the Mac Pro on its side, as confirmed by Apple. Just make sure it doesn’t roll over!
The low power and efficient cooling system ensures you can use the workstation at full blast in a small room and not give the editor (or your client) a sauna. Finally, the low noise allows you to monitor audio efficiently.
Can we use the new Mac Pro for professional video editing?
Yes, you can use the new Mac Pro for professional video editing. How good is it? Here’s a video that shows you how many tracks of Redcode R3D RAW footage you can play on it:
Here’s what they have to say about it:
I can quite honestly say that, despite working with these huge file sizes and frame sizes, the editing experience has been silky smooth. Skimming, playback, shuttling, jogging and trimming are all responsive. In fact, editing 4K on the Mac Pro feels like editing HD on my current MacBook Pro…
With these settings in place, skimming and playback was very responsive, with the exception of the 4K RED RAW footage which dropped frames on playback (though skimming was absolutely fine). Not at all surprising really; a RED Rocket card attached via a Thunderbolt chassis would certainly help in this regard. However, simply switching the Viewer back to “Best Performance” resulted in smooth playback without any dropped frames…
Multiple colour corrections, effects, transitions. This thing keeps playing back! In fact at one point I took a RED RAW 4K clip into a 4K project and just started working through the list of video effects (many of which are 4K ready)…
What are the negatives?
The major gripe in the marketplace is the lack of expandability, or slots for cards like the Red Rocket, Blackmagic, AJA, etc. Apple decided it was no longer worth bothering about supporting third-party cards – these might become redundant soon anyway. Let someone else worry about supporting it via external enclosures connected by Thunderbolt. I think, all things considered, it was a rational and perfectly valid decision. In my opinion, it makes the Mac Pro more future proof, not less. Funny, but logical.
The second negative is one we’ve covered before, which is, no 10-bit monitoring on the Apple Mac Pro as of OS X Mavericks. If you’ve spent that extra money on a 10-bit display, then you won’t like this news one bit.
The third ‘negative’ is the Apple iMac!
New Mac Pro vs iMac
The iMac in its maximum configuration is quite a beast:
- 3.5 GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz
- 32 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM
- 1 TB Flash Storage
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M 4 GB GDDR5
This computer comes it at about $4,118 at the time of this writing. If you want an equivalent Mac Pro, you’ll have to pay about $4,417, for the following:
- 3.7 GHz quad-core with 10MB of L3 cache
- 32 GB 1866 MHz DDR3 ECC RAM
- 1 TB Flash Storage
- Dual AMD FirePro D300 GPUs with 2 GB of GDDR5 VRAM each
Don’t forget, the iMac includes a gorgeous 27″ display. If all you want to do is edit 1080p or 2K video, then I don’t see why you can’t be happy with an iMac. The only time you’ll notice a difference is while rendering. If you’re rendering a lot (every other day, more than an hour of material, for example), that means you’re stressing the CPU and RAM often. In this instance, having a workstation class Xeon CPU and ECC RAM is preferable over the long term.
If you want to know how the iMac stacks up against PCs in terms of price and specs, check this comparison out.
The new Mac Pro vs everybody else
Is the new Mac Pro expensive? Yes, workstations are expensive. You already know that. Can you build a cheaper PC equivalent? Let’s find out.
The Mac Pro starts at $2,999 (quad-core, 12 GB RAM, D300, 256 GB storage) or $3,999 (6-core, 16 GB RAM, D500, 256 GB storage). If you had to put together your own system, how much would it cost you?
I’m going to compare the Mac Pro with a custom build, and an HP Z820 and Dell T7600. We’ll do two comparisons, one for the lowest model ($2,999), and the other for the highest ($8,399 without expensive Apple RAM).
Note: Prices might be inaccurate and not representational of what you might ultimately have to pay. Please contact the manufacturers directly for accurate pricing in your area.
Can you build a cheaper PC workstation for $2,999?
Here’s a comparison chart (click to enlarge):
What do I see? You could build a PC for roughly the same specs as the Mac Pro, for about the same price. The Mac Pro has the obvious edge for the following reasons:
- Faster RAM.
- Flash storage that is almost twice as fast as a SATA III SSD.
- No need to waste time researching, hunting and purchasing parts.
- No need to waste time assembling the PC and installing all the software.
- No need to troubleshoot anything.
- Three-year warranty.
The PC has the edge in one important detail: it can deliver true 10-bit video.
As far as the integrators are concerned, HP is way overpriced. Dell offers good deals on their workstations. It has an inferior CPU and slower RAM, but the GPUs are killer. Also, the Dell has a 1300 W power supply. If you wanted to buy a UPS, you’ll spend lesser for a Mac Pro than a T7600.
Ultimately, every professional must decide for himself or herself. As for me, I see no better deal than the Apple Mac Pro. The only time this might be untrue is if you live in a country where Apple charges twice the price (where I live) and somehow PC parts are much cheaper. But, it’s unlikely and rare. Still, you must do your bit of due diligence.
Can you build a cheaper PC workstation for $8,399?
Here’s a comparison chart (click to enlarge):
Here, the writing is on the wall. Only the Dell T7600 comes close, but at the expense of being large and consuming a lot of power. I think the answer is quite clear: At this time, it’s unlikely you can build a PC cheaper than the new Mac Pro, with equivalent specs.
Take a bow, Apple.
How upgradeable is it?
According to IFixit , quite a bit:
- The CPU is upgradeable.
- You can add an additional SSD if you wanted to, but it would be hard to find one that fits into that tiny space.
- You can upgrade RAM (cheaper options are available).
Add this to the fact that you can add 36 Thunderbolt devices (where are they??) and four USB 3.0 devices the Mac Pro isn’t that different from any other workstation. E.g., if you wanted to add a Red Rocket you could, if an external adapter can be found. The major ‘advantage’ of a traditional chassis over the trash-can design is that you can actually fit everything into a full ATX tower. How important is this?
In my opinion, it’s a false advantage. If you really wanted, you could buy a tower separately and put everything in it! The traditional workstation tower does not offer any benefit that a Mac Pro can’t emulate. On the flip side, you can’t shrink a full ATX tower.
I think we have a winner.
Storage for video via Thunderbolt 2
There’s one important thing left to think about, and that is storage for video. You have 6 Thunderbolt 2 slots, 4 USB 3.0 slots, and even 2 1 GbE Ethernet slots. Apple has clearly indicated that it is tough for it to estimate the storage requirements of each individual user. If you’re shooting AVCHD you only need one-tenth the storage as Prores HQ, which is one-fifth the size of R3D RAW, and so on. Why would any company want to build a large tower that might lie empty half the time? All things considered, I believe this is the right path for workstations to take.
What about expansion? Here’s what Apple has to say:
Manufacturers like Promise, AJA, and Blackmagic are creating a host of advanced high-performance storage, video I/O, and expansion solutions for Thunderbolt 2. Another benefit of Thunderbolt: You can easily move your high-performance peripherals from one Mac to another based on the task at hand. And both generations of Thunderbolt technology are compatible with the new Mac Pro.
At the time of this writing, the Promise Pegasus2 is already out, and it’s not cheap. USB 3.0 enclosures are already widely available. Apple has left it for you to decide how organized or sloppy you want to be with your drive strategy. Contrast that with the restrictions placed on you when you try to put together a workstation PC under a systems integrator.
So, what do I think of the Apple Mac Pro? I think it is the perfect editing system for a professional who:
- Is earning enough to justify the expense.
- Works with uncompressed RAW and 4K video.
- Does not want 10-bit monitoring.
- Works with software that is compatible with OS X.
If the second point above is replaced with ‘1080p and 2K’ instead of ‘4K’, then a maxed-out 27″ iMac is all you need.
Bottom line, you can’t go wrong with the Apple Mac Pro in any scenario. It’s not only good, it’s inspiring. It’s a frigging work of art.