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Today Apple unveiled the new Mac Pro, which is an attempt to woo understandably wary and skeptical creative pros. Here are my initial thoughts.
From the outside it looks a lot like the old “cheesegrater” Mac Pros. It’s interesting to me that Apple chose to go back to an old design rather than attempting to push the envelope like they tried with the “trashcan” Mac Pro. But as many people preferred the older design this is certainly no bad thing.
While I wouldn’t describe the design as sexy, I doubt many creative professionals care too much about the look of a box that goes under their desk or in a server room. The trashcan Mac Pro was very much form over function and I would certainly trade form for increased function.
Apple products have a reputation for getting thinner and lighter with each iteration but it’s worth noting that the new case is slightly taller and wider than the cheesegrater case, while the depth is about an inch less. The weight is similar to the cheesegrater version.
The similarities to the old model continue on the inside. The internals should look very familiar to anyone who opened up an old cheesegrater Mac Pro. Many of us suspected Apple might offer minimal or no expansion, instead requiring users to add devices externally via Thunderbolt. Luckily this was not the case. Bringing back PCI slots got a round of applause during the keynote for some reason (no-one should applaud the fact they were ever removed), and there are eight of them this time compared to the cheesegrater’s four.
The Mac Pro supports the latest AMD graphics cards. NVIDIA cards were conspicuous by their absence, so that will be an issue for anyone relying on CUDA. Apple and NVIDIA had a falling out a while ago and it’s unclear at this point whether NVIDIA will be able to make their cards Mac Pro-compatible independently of Apple.
One of the most interesting aspects of the announcement to me were the available accessories. Not only is Apple offering rackmount options, they are even offering wheels to make it easy to transport (those cheesegraters were heavy). Apple’s phone/tablet hardware business has peaked, so in addition to services, Apple may be putting emphasis on squeezing as much money out of professionals / businesses as they can, and pro accessories would be a way to do that.
On the topic of rackmounting, it’s worth noting that Apple implied it’s a specific rackmount case you buy at the point of purchase, not simply a rackmount kit fitted to the existing case. Based on the width of the desktop case, it would be 5U in height when placed in a rack. So this isn’t really a replacement for the discontinued Xserve which was a 1U server. However, some racks have 26” in depth available which means Apple could potentially offer a deeper case that takes up less vertical space.
Another accessory is the Afterburner ProRes accelerator. While it can accelerate regular ProRes, it seems like it is designed more for Apple’s new ProRes RAW format. Apple claims it can accelerate up to three streams of 8K RAW or 12 streams of 4K RAW. Whenever we’re talking about acceleration, it’s always worth mentioning that the card isn’t all you need to achieve this - you also need storage that can handle that bandwidth too.
Basic I/O rear ports are handled via a card, implying you could add additional ports or change these to better fit your needs if necessary. But the card seems decent - it even includes USB-A ports, as well as two 10Gb-E ports (this elicited no reaction from the crowd but it definitely should have).
Apple is including a monster 1.4 kilowatt power supply in the system, capable of delivering 1280 watts of power continuously, however in reality you would only get this kind of power draw if you max out the specs, fill it up with graphics cards and set it churning away on a complex render.
In the US, most household circuits are 15 amps at 120 volts, meaning the maximum power draw for a single circuit is 1800W, with a continuous draw of around 1440W. This means that at 1280W there is a narrow overhead before the breaker trips, so you would need to be mindful of what else is plugged into the same circuit at the same time (note that a circuit may consist of multiple outlets). Most people probably won’t have to worry about this but it’s an important thing to think about if you’re planning to max out the specs.
So what about the price? The entry-level trashcan Mac Pro started at $2999 and the new model starts at $5999. In other words, without directly comparing specs, the base cost doubled from one generation to the other.
Ever since the Intel switch, people have debated whether Mac Pros actually needed server-class CPUs and ECC RAM. Apple could have included i9s and non-ECC memory in entry-level models to lower the price, or they could have simply adopted a Xeon configuration that could be achieved at a $2999 price-point.
Remember, $5999 is the base configuration so you may be looking at $8000 or more once you add accessories and tax. To max out the specs will likely cost well into five figures. So if you find yourself balking at that price, it’s likely you’re not the target market. These prices, along with options like rackmounting, suggest to me that Apple’s intending to sell these primarily to companies rather than individuals.
So while some may be disappointed in the pricing, I’m just glad Apple is making pro-grade hardware again. Let’s hope they keep it fast with regular spec bumps and not allow it to stagnate like the trashcan model.
The specs of this display are impressive and as Apple pointed out, no display currently exists with 6K resolution, 1000 nits of brightness, P3 10-bit color and 1000000:1 contrast ratio, all in a single display. They even have a whole nano-texture glass option to reduce glare.
Just like the Mac Pro, it’s not sexy, which is perhaps more of a problem for a monitor that sits on a desk than a computer that’s hidden away. I’m also concerned about the level of heat that even necessitates a large grille on the back, which is not something you commonly see on a monitor.
There’s certainly no doubting the specs of this display, which are truly impressive. Apple is intending this to be a replacement for $42,000 reference monitors. While it offers reference modes like Rec. 709 and P3-DCI, the colorists I follow on Twitter who might be expected to purchase such a device seemed skeptical that it would truly replace professional reference monitors.
The price starts at $4999 for standard glass and $5999 for anti-glare nano-glass. If you listened carefully during the keynote, you could hear the audience groaning and muttering when the prices were announced.
But if it truly can replace a $42,000 reference monitor then this pricing is a bargain. What is definitely not a bargain is the $999 stand. There is no way the stand costs anywhere near that to produce, so it’s massively overpriced. The VESA mount is a more-reasonable $199 so it seems as if Apple is either blatantly profiteering or trying to actively encourage people to mount their displays.
Just like the Mac Pro, it seems like it’s again geared at companies rather than individuals - there’s no way Apple would sell individuals monitors without a stand. They'd just include it in the box and increase the price.
The specs are great and I’m glad Apple’s making pro-grade hardware again. Companies will probably pay the Mac Pro surcharge without complaint, while individuals who don’t want an iMac will still be left wanting. Apple will make a lot of money from bulk purchases and accessories.
I’m really not sure how successful the Pro Display XDR will be. Reference monitors are niche, $42k ones especially so. It’s too expensive for people to buy as just a regular desktop display, while people who can afford $42k reference monitors may not be swayed by it and probably aren't price-sensitive anyway. For people who just want the basics as cheaply as possible, there are reference monitors available at much lower prices. So it’s for the people in the middle: those who want a reference monitor and need features like HDR for whom $3k is too low and $8k is too high - a niche within a niche. It seems a strangely small target market for a company as large as Apple. The Apple brand may well shift some units but it's hard to see it being a big success.
Today Apple announced they are rethinking the entire design of the Mac Pro after three years without an update.
The current Mac Pro is an extremely impressive piece of design and engineering. Unfortunately the design was too clever and over-engineered and it neither met customers' needs nor allowed Apple to easily upgrade it.
Apple issued an apology, which is extremely rare, and it's great to see they have recognized and taken ownership of the issue. It's almost unprecedented for Apple to announce unfinished products without a ship date and they're timing this right before NAB, so I'm assuming this move is to do with damage control.
The only problem is that I'm spotting a pattern here. Apple abandoned the old (pre-2013) Mac Pro and barely updated it, then after a customer outcry they released a completely redesigned model, which they then abandoned again. Now they are completely redesigning it again but it won't ship for at least a year and we don't know much about it except that it will be modular to some degree.
It sounds like Apple may be about to fall into the same trap again: over-thinking the problem in panic mode with an over-engineered solution. Apple behaves like this is a really difficult problem to solve but it's actually extremely simple. We want to use Macs, so all Apple has to do is not get in the way.
What Apple fails to grasp is that the design factors that made the iPhone successful have little relevance to the pro desktop market. Sure, design is important to creative people, but it's not #1 on the priority list - it's maybe #7 or #8. Our #1 priority is being able to do our jobs quickly with as few restrictions or workarounds as possible. I'm sure a sizable number of pro users would be happy enough with 2017 specs in the 2012 case.
If Apple wants to impress their professional customers they need to do two things: design their pro products backwards by thinking about what their capabilities should be first and then thinking about their physical design, and do a better job of maintaining a dialogue with pro customers (hint: dialogues are in both directions). There are a lot more options now and Apple should be competing for our business instead of assuming we'll just stick around like we have so far.
Today Apple aimed to reaffirm their commitment to professional users with more details on the new Mac Pro. While some have correctly pointed out that the starting price for the new version is higher than the old model, this seems entirely reasonable to me given the significant leap in specifications. I was also relieved that it is reasonably upgradeable, minus the graphics card, although Mac users have never had a wide variety of cards to choose from anyway.
However, at the same time Apple took away some professional options. The Retina MacBook Pro was updated with more screen size options and improved specifications, however it has almost entirely replaced the older non-Retina model.
There are very specific reasons why some pros would choose a non-Retina model: matte display, greater availability of ports and upgradeable interior. The only option Apple is offering is a 13" version, which seems strange because I would have assumed that the type of user who chooses the non-Retina model would aim for the largest screen size possible. This would suggest that Apple is not aiming this laptop at spec-sensitive professionals at all, but instead users who are looking for a cheap option. However, it's only slightly cheaper than the 13" Retina so I'm really not sure what their target market is (if you can figure it out, let me know in the comments).
My 2011 MacBook Pro recently got destroyed so I was in the market for a new one. I considered a Retina laptop but in the end I opted for a 15" non-Retina MacBook Pro that was barely faster than my 2011 model. I could grudgingly cope with the glossy display and reduced ports but the lack of upgradeability was the deal-breaker for me. While it is good that Apple has reduced the prices of the Retina model, you'd be a fool not to max it out at the time of purchase. As I've said before on this blog, Apple is charging a premium price for a throwaway computer and they really need to factor that into the initial selling price.
Apple just gave us a sneak peek at the new redesigned Mac Pro.
* It's not dead!
* It finally has Thunderbolt and a significant spec bump
* Dual GPUs
* The Thunderbolt ports are not all running on the same bus
* It's significantly smaller and lighter
* No space for internal PCI cards - all expansion is through Thunderbolt
* The hard drive is not user-replaceable
* It will definitely not fit in a rack
* AMD cards will not run CUDA-optimized apps like Resolve well
* Is the RAM replaceable or soldered to the motherboard?
The cons are not cons for everyone and it seemed like my Twitter feed was split down the middle. It looks like Apple has focused on FCPX as the target application but not really paid much heed to other pro apps people might want to use. I think this is a sign that people at the very high end of the industry may want to look elsewhere for their pro computers, whether that is a Hackintosh or a Windows box.
A big problem with lack of internal upgradeability is downtime. If the hard drive dies in a regular Mac Pro, it is not difficult to replace it, and you can be up and running again in minutes if you were smart enough to clone the drive beforehand. The problem with the new Mac Pro is that every issue is potentially a visit to the Apple Store, which could take a day or more for them to fix (not to mention the added cost if you're out of warranty). So it is probably best for facilities to have multiple spare Mac Pros that they can swap out easily.
Which brings me onto my next point - how much is it? Apple didn't say. But assuming everything is soldered to the motherboard and the case can't be opened, the Mac Pro will essentially be a disposable computer that you should not expect to last for as long as your current Mac Pro. A disposable computer should be sold for a disposable price, so I expect the success of the new Mac Pro to entirely hinge on the pricing, especially as comparably-specced Windows computers can be purchased for less.
What that means is that right now we don't really know if the new Mac Pro is worthwhile until we get more details, but it's clear that Apple has put its cards on the table and very much hedged against making a computer that will meet everyone's needs in our diverse industry.
Update: Apple has posted more details on their site and it looks like both hard drive and memory are upgradeable. This is great and makes me feel much better about the machine but I still think it will depend on pricing.
NVIDIA is reporting that Mac OS X 10.6.7, released a few days ago, removes drivers for high-end NVIDIA Quadro 4000 cards, so machines with these cards will refuse to boot up after installing OS X 10.6.7.
There is an updated driver for OS X 10.6.7 here. The support post is a little vague and doesn't state if the new driver can be installed before updating to 10.6.7 to prevent the issue from occurring, or if it must be installed afterward. If the latter, the article states that you should install a different graphics card in order to boot up to install the new driver, but I'd only advise that if Safe Mode and Target Disk Mode fail.
Update: TUAW is reporting that the NVIDIA support article is inaccurate and that Quadro 4000 machines will boot up just fine but without 3D acceleration and other features. Just install the new driver and these features will be restored.
Thunderbolt is a 10 Gbps port that can daisy-chain up to six devices including a display. To give you an idea of how fast it is, USB 3.0 is 5 Gbps, Firewire 3200 is 3 Gbps, eSATA is 2.4 Gbps and Fibre Channel can be up to 4 Gbps.
To me, this is a game-changer because these ports can become any type of port as long as you have an adapter, so Apple essentially added support for USB 3.0, eSATA and anything else you like in one go. Thunderbolt is a huge leap forward for professional users. Its power is in its versatility.
It also means that laptops can finally rival desktops in I/O performance. As an example of the amount of throughput you'll be able to get on a laptop, Apple showed a demo of Final Cut Pro running four streams of uncompressed HD on the 15" MacBook Pro, peaking at 600MB/s.
And if you're in a shared environment you'll be able to easily add laptops, or indeed any type of Mac, to an Xsan network for fast access to shared storage, which is something that was difficult to do before.
Finally, Apple posted some new details about Mac OS X 10.7 Lion today and revealed that the desktop and server versions of the operating system will be merged together, meaning that every Mac is now a server out of the box. Couple that with Thunderbolt and the Mac Mini suddenly looks reasonable as an Xsan metadata controller (and indeed for many other server tasks) now that the Xserve has been discontinued.