The New Mac Pro: An Expected Surprise

Posted by Nick Gold on Jun 11, 2013

Monday’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference kickoff was the first Apple event I can remember in years that was reminiscent of the company’s keynote events of yore, complete with excitement and revelation.

10.9 Mavericks (so long, big cats), a MacBook Air refresh with the new Haswell Intel chips, iOS 7 (which is absolutely gorgeous), and… What was that last item? Oh yes, how can I forget! The long-awaited Mac Pro update.

Update is not a strong enough word for it, though. The reinvention of the Mac Pro is probably a more apt description.

Many of Apple’s professional users seem to be in shock due to just how different this computer is from the desktop machines we’ve been using for most or all of our lives. "It’s so small!" "It’s a cylinder!" "No internal expansion, what the heck?!" "It’s a Mac mini Pro, not a Mac Pro!"

Yet most of us here at Chesapeake Systems were not surprised by the new machine at all, as it is completely in line with what we’ve been expecting . . . and telling our clients to expect.

Read on to find out exactly what we know and don’t know about the new Apple pro desktop machine (and pro machine it is).

What We Know

The New Mac Pro

The new Mac Pro is very different in appearance from what we’re used to. It is a small, shiny cylinder, taking up only about 1/8th the volume of the desktop Mac form-factor that's been with us since the first PowerMac G5s shipped ten years ago.

The casing is aluminum, and the unit incorporates a novel centralized thermal cooling system, with the fan and air vent at the top of the unit hidden away under a handle that will allow for easy movement of the unit.

 

new Mac Pro

Judging from pictures of the system’s internals, which are separated across three primary circuit boards arranged in a vertical, triangular arrangement, it appears that there is going to be only a single-processor version available. However, we know that the unit will use the not-yet-released Intel Ivy Bridge-E Xeon processor. Now, since Apple is advertising that the new Mac Pro will be available with up to 12 processor cores, we can deduce that the next Xeon will be available with 12 cores on one CPU. So this will not be a step backward from the current Mac Pro configuration, which also allowed for 12 total cores, but across two CPUs. We also know that Ivy Bridge-E Xeons will be significantly faster than the current Mac Pro Xeon processors.

The new Mac Pro will be available with two AMD FirePro GPUs onboard, with up to 6GB of VRAM per chip. That’s right, two full high-power workstation-class GPUs inside the unit. If and when software developers fully embrace OpenCL, which allows GPUs to dramatically speed up all manner of processing-heavy tasks, this should be killer. Dave Helmly from Adobe confirmed for us today that Adobe has been actively working to support OpenCL processing on the dual AMD GPUs in the Mac Pro on a pre-release version of the hardware that they’ve had in house for some time. Dave reminds us that a good reason to get on the Creative Cloud bandwagon, is that as new versions of the Adobe creative apps ship that push the performance that the software can leverage from such new hardware architectures, users will be able to take advantage of them immediately.

All internal storage is via a very high-performance PCIe-connected flash storage device, which Apple is saying will have read and write speeds in the 1 Gigabyte per second range. That’s FAST.

There are only four RAM slots, but the registered ECC RAM that the unit uses is very fast, and allows for individual chips of up to at least 32GB per chip. So maximum RAM capacity ought to be 128GB, and perhaps greater.

There are no internal expansion slots in the form of PCI Express. All expansion is to be external, it seems, via the following selection of ports found on the rear of the unit:

• 4 x USB 3.0 ports

• 2 x Gigabit Ethernet ports (RJ45)

• 1 x HDMI 1.4 port for audio & video out

• 1/8” stereo minijack audio ports

• 6 x Thunderbolt 2 ports

That final point, the six Thunderbolt 2 ports, is really one of the main things to pay attention to. This is the first pro desktop machine Apple will be releasing that is entirely geared around Thunderbolt expansion. Thunderbolt 2 is 20 Gigabits per second in each direction, per controller. It seems that there are likely three Thunderbolt 2 controllers on this system, each pair of ports sharing a controller. So all in all, that’s an awful lot of bandwidth available to external expansion devices, certainly enough for pretty much any type of expansion device a pro would ever need to use, other than perhaps external GPU (but we will see about that).

What does Thunderbolt allow for, in terms of external expansion? A variety of video IO interfaces, audio interfaces, storage devices including RAIDs, fibre channel and 10 Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, etc. Also interesting are the currently available Thunderbolt chassis that are on the market, which allow you to mount a PCIe card inside a box, that then lives outside your system and connects to the host computer via Thunderbolt.

How much you like or dislike the new Mac Pro is largely going to be based on whether or not you buy into the idea of Thunderbolt as the primary means of adding hardware capability to your workstation class computer. I’m not going to get into that debate here, but for what it’s worth, we have a good number of clients connecting to SANs without issue via Thunderbolt fibre channel adapters, using Thunderbolt video IO interfaces, using Thunderbolt RAID storage devices, and even David Butler of Butler Film, who is using a PCIe Red Rocket card to accelerate his processing of Red camera footage, inside of a Sonnet Thunderbolt enclosure, connected to his Retina MacBook Pro. All of this seems to generally be working out quite well for folks, so I, for one, am convinced that Thunderbolt external expansion for professional applications is workable. It also makes it very easy to exchange these external devices between systems, for instance, allowing you to connect a RAID or interface device to your desktop one day, and bring them into the field for use with your laptop the next. While Thunderbolt peripherals may cost a little more than their pure PCIe brethren, I think that this additional utility makes the value proposition worthwhile.

What We Don’t Know

We do not currently know when the new Mac Pro will ship, other than “later this year.” Presumably at least part of the holdup is that the Intel processors that power this new computer are not yet available, and will be coming onto the market late summer or fall at the earliest.

Other elements may be holding up production as well, including the fact that this will be the first Apple computer assembled in the United States in quite a while. Obviously, Chesapeake Systems will be keeping our customers in the loop on availability as information becomes available.

We don’t know what pricing will look like, and what the full range of configuration options will be. CPUs at different clock speeds and core counts seems likely, as does the chance that the dual FirePro GPUs will be available at a few different levels, including how much VRAM is onboard. It stands to reason that these systems will be in line with the pricing that we’ve been used to for Mac Pros for years. We’ll only know for sure once Apple announces the pricing for various options.

Finally, we can’t be sure how popular the Mac Pro will prove to be for pro Apple users. We’re excited about it, but then again, the system as announced is directly in line with our thinking for the past year or so now, so we’ve had a good chance to warm up to the idea of such a radical departure from the Mac Pro of old, and the PowerMac before it. Some users will find that a MacBook Pro or iMac might meet their professional needs, and be the only system they need. Others will shift to PC workstations in more professional form-factors, and we are happy to help with that transition as well, as we are a fully multi-platform creative professional computer solutions integrator and reseller, be your requirements Max OS X, Windows, or Linux.

All in all, though, we think that many of the video and graphics professionals we deal with will find that with a little bit of creative thinking and openness to new ways of doing things, these new Mac Pros are one small, slick, powerful-as-heck, and very attractive choice for their future computing needs. We can’t wait to get them in our hands, and into the hands of our customers.

Here is another review of the new Mac Pro that we have found to be particularly insightful.

Catch Nick Gold's recent interview about SAN Fusion on the popular media/tech podcast, Digital Production BuZZ.

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