The new Apple Mac Pro is turning many heads. Apple has gone beyond what the market demands, in terms of workstation design, to produce a revolutionary new product.
Whether or not its ‘ability’ is revolutionary remains to be seen, but as far as design and looks go, it is already a winner. 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 beast. Note: Many features of the new Mac Pro haven’t been announced yet, and most of what I’m going to write about is pure assumption, or at best an educated guess. It should not be taken to mean what it does not purport to mean.
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
- 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? Let’s see.
What are its technical specifications?
Here are the specifications that we know for now (all subject to change):
- CPU – dual Intel Xeon E5, up to 12 cores
- RAM – 4 slots, DDR3, 1866 MHz ECC
- GPU – dual AMD Firepro workstation-class graphics cards, with up to 6 GB Video RAM
- Storage – very ‘sketchy’ PCIe Flash storage with a blistering throughput of 1,250 MB/s (1.25 GB/s)
- No optical drive
It has the following expansion or connection options:
- 6x Thunderbolt 2 ports, with each port able to chain 6 devices (Total: 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. Wonder what that does.
One thing you might want to look at is the word ‘up to’ in some of the technical specifications listed above. It shows, at least I hope it does, that some customization is possible in this system.
How does a Mac Pro compare to an HP Z820 or a Dell T7600?
Short answer: It doesn’t. An HP or Dell workstation is customizable, which means you can put what you want in it (up to a certain point, and sometimes with restrictions).
Visual effects work or highly-specific workflows will benefit from customizable workstations, as I’ve written here. But that does not mean the new Mac Pro configuration cannot work in some of those scenarios. It’s no longer an either-or scenario. Apple has simply redefined its definition of what constitutes a workstation.
Let’s say, for the fun of it, that the Mac Pro hadn’t released any images or cool marketing messages. Instead, all you got were the specs. What would your reaction be? Mine was ‘Meh’. Apple has done nothing that isn’t already in the market, for possibly cheaper, as far as computing power goes.
So, what’s different, then?
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 dust bin or an ash tray, and I’m pretty certain we’ll hear stories of people confusing them as such. This is probably why Apple wants them to be on your table, and not underneath your desk.
One important change is the color. It’s no longer only white or grey, but black. It would surprise me if Apple didn’t introduce a ‘white’ version to match all things Apple. I can only guess that 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 (when there are hardly any Thunderbolt 1 port devices in the market) and the faster Wi-Fi (when the world is still grappling with 802.11n), 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:
There’s only one more thing that needs to complete the Mac Pro experience, and that is a true 4K 27″ display, which I’m sure Apple is working on. Question is: Will it be in black or white? I can already guess the connection will be Thunderbolt 2, with some form of smartphone display technology (what Apple calls Retina).
What about new software?
Apple has provided a glimpse into the new OS X, called Mavericks (no, Mavericks is not the name of a Sea Lion):
Some of the new features in Mavericks that I found interesting are:
- Compressed Memory – Apple tries to compress data in your RAM when it is about to go full.
- CPU Power Saving – between working, so fast that you’re not supposed to know it.
- Support for multiple 4K displays, because the new Mac Pro claims to support up to three 4K displays.
I find the tagging feature to be the most important, because if all operating systems can enable some form of tagging and metadata support in their file systems, digital asset management will be a whole lot easier.
The other important software news, which I read on the Apple site but can’t find anymore, is the announcement of the imminent arrival of the new Final Cut Pro X version with full support for 4K workflows. If Apple had taken their time bringing out the new Mac Pro, it is probably so that the OS and FCP-X can come up to speed as well.
Looks like they have.
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. Seriously, does anyone think Apple didn’t test all of the important software or meet the vendors prior to finalizing their hardware?
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 already are able to trounce the Mac Pro on computing power spec-for-spec. You see, the same AMD Firepro GPUs, if they surge ahead, can also be used on these workstations.
Where will Apple’s long term advantage come from? I don’t know.
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 CPU heats up (because an app only needs one CPU or whatever), its heat is distributed to the other CPU 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 Apple assures is is ‘astonishingly’ quiet. I won’t dispute that. They only had one fan to build, right? It’d better be quiet.
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 power consumer when it comes to cooling.
Brilliant thinking, Apple.
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’. I’m pretty sure some mischief makers will make Mac Pro ‘inspired’ dustbins, ash-trays or whatever.
But the bottom line is, these things are super small, have a small footprint (it’s the size of Pegasus R4, but looks 10 times better) and have –
Low Power Consumption
In all the new innovations you’ve read on this page, the overriding concern to reduce power consumption must have jumped out on you.
- OS X Mavericks trying to reduce CPU power consumption
- One Fan
- Low power Xeon CPUs
- Low power AMD Firepro GPUs
- No spinning disc drives
I wish Apple had revealed the power specifications for the Mac Pro, otherwise what’s the point of all the talk on saving power? Can we guess?
What is the power rating of the Mac Pro? Hard to say, but the iMac is about 350W (guessing here) with a display, so I’m pretty sure this beast will come under 500W. This by itself is nothing special, but if this workstation can come under 350W, then it will be.
Can we expect to use the new Mac Pro for professional video editing?
The answer must be pretty obvious by now. Yes, you can use the new Mac Pro for professional video editing, even if many of the specs and features have not yet been officially announced or tested. It’s all been done by others (PC workstations) already, so there’s no reason to doubt this one will, too.
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 most important question is the one of price: How much will this beast cost? With flash storage and dual GPUs, I don’t expect the Mac Pro to cost cheaper than a current Mac Pro, at least. It is up to the professional (you) to decide whether they want Apple’s version of the computing experience, or the PC/Linux version; and if they have the dough to meet their desires.
What do you think? Are you saving up to buy the new Mac Pro?
Update: The prices have been announced and you can read the follow up article here: Is the new Mac Pro expensive?