Desktop computers had been on a trajectory of faster performance based on Moore’s Law until they hit the wall just under the 4GHz mark. Then came a variety of ingenious technological workarounds, including hyper-threading, multiple processors (CPUs), multiple cores within a single processor and finally, offloading processing to one or more graphics display cards (GPUs). All of these solutions have benefitted content creation professionals running edit and graphics software. With all of that effort, no one seems to have taken the effort to re-imagine how the hardware should work, nor whether the hardware is really built for what software developers are doing. For example, few applications really make effective use of multiple CPUs in a computer.
Add to this the financial aspect, which points to the growth in laptops and tablets to the detriment of traditional desktop computer sales. Is there even a need for a desktop machine that caters to professional users? Into this uncertainty comes Apple with the new Mac Pro, which I’ve euphemistically called “the Tube” in my title. Apple is the king of re-imagining. After months and years of wondering whether Apple still cares about professional computer users, they blew away the audience at their annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) with an innovative new design for the next generation of Mac Pro desktop workstation. Like anything Apple does, a lot of legacy technology was dropped, which has drawn both praise and criticism. Those of us in the camp that predicted few or no slots and more use of Thunderbolt had largely guessed right. But the rest of this machine’s design is literally thinking “outside of the box”.
Right or wrong, the Mac Pro that Apple plans to ship represents design and engineering innovation that IBM, Lenovo, Sony, Dell, HP and others are clearly incapable of delivering. All of their products tend to follow the standard PC “box” formula, with the notable exception of HP’s Z1 – itself a copy of Apple’s iMac. Naturally the round design raises concerns about rack installation and so on, but very few desktop systems used by video pros have that need anymore. If you think round is odd, then take a look at the design of supercomputers like those from Cray.
The new Mac Pro is clearly intended to put the maximum horsepower literally on (or under) the desk of the working video editor, graphic designer, animator, scientist and others. As noted above, many applications don’t make efficient use of multiple CPU sockets, so the Mac Pro seems to be limited to a single CPU, but based on new Intel chips that have a maximum of 12 internal cores. Apple is banking on increased reliance on the GPU to deliver visual performance. Out of the gate, there are two built-in GPUs. Clearly this will benefit core Apple creative software, like Final Cut Pro X, but also others, including DaVinci Resolve and many of the Adobe products.
Look more closely at the video subsystem of this machine. Apple is designing a machine geared for 4K production and post. With multiple GPUs and built-in HDMI output using the 4K-ready spec, the new Mac Pro should be able to cut 4K content “like butter” and handle all monitoring tasks (computer monitoring plus video) without the need for external devices from AJA, Blackmagic Design and others, unless the user has a definite need for these. My guess is that’s why you’ll have the extra GPU horsepower, more so than accelerating FCP X effects.
Connectivity is now based on USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2.0. The latter is a 20Gb/s bi-directional data pipe and this Mac Pro has three such busses split over six ports. While there’s been a lot of discussion on the web about whether this is adequate compared with the current PCIe standard, I think it’s too early to say one way or the other. Firewire – once Apple’s darling – has been relegated to history’s dust bin, right next to SCSI, floppy diskettes and other older technologies. In any case, if you need more connections, then Thunderbolt adapters and/or an expansion chassis will be the way to go. Just like Apple’s philosophy with FCP X, this new Mac Pro is more of a “platform” than an all-inclusive solution for people who have every possible type of need. It’s the “hub” that will handle the majority of pro requirements and if you need more, you’ll have to augment the “hub” with third-party products and devices.
That brings us to cost. The internal pieces of this machine aren’t cheap. It’s anyone’s guess what the price will be. There is at least the potential for it to be relatively expensive. On the other hand, Apple has a lot of leverage with its supply chain and may have incentive to offer the machine at an artificially low price. They will be flying the “Made in the USA” banner with this Mac Pro and they also have added more in-house R&D centers across the US. So, in coming years, more of the internal guts could become Apple-manufactured, which could reduce production cost. My guess is that the retail price will be somewhere in line with current Mac Pro machines. After all, a fully-decked-out, current 12-core Mac Pro aluminum tower isn’t cheap either.
In any case, this will be a very low-volume machine. It’s the sports car that defines the brand. Apple may or may not decide to make it profitable. Another variable we don’t know is whether the technology used, such as dual internal GPUs, will be integrated into new iMac models. In that case, a small number of users will actually buy the Mac Pro. Many will drool over it and then end up buying a decked out iMac – no slouch, by any means. Thus, the “halo” effect. You’re attracted by the shiny, black Mac Pro, but purchase the iMac, which generates more bread-and-butter income for Apple. Unlike any other technology company, Apple assesses its bottom line using a holistic approach. If a product contributes to the total revenue of the company, then it’s deemed important to have and to develop, even if that product by itself is not profitable (though, that’s usually not the case with an Apple product). No one outside of Apple’s executive level really knows for sure.
As a video editor, I love what Apple is doing with this machine. Does it work for my needs and will I buy one? I don’t know yet. Depends on price and actual performance, but it’s certainly on the wish list at this point.
©2013 Oliver Peters