Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Cory's Blog


Quick Launch

Stenoweb Home Page > Cory's Blog > Posts > The Seventh Mac Pro
May 15
The Seventh Mac Pro

My apologies for the delay on this. I've had a surprising number of personal things come up, and I used some time I normal dedicate to blogging for novel writing during April.

A few weeks ago, John Gruber of Daring Fireball posted huge news. "The Mac Pro Lives" he called the article. The executive summary is that Apple noticed that they were still building and selling the 2013 Mac Pro, model designation 6,1. It should be straightforward to put a newer Xeon and some newer graphics chips on the platform, but Apple also noticed that the industry in general didn't move where they thought it would, which was going to be toward computers that had several midrange graphics processors in them, for parallelization of tasks.

The other, perhaps unsaid component to all of this is the vocal opposition the Mac Pro 6,1 has received since it was announced. I have always liked the Mac Pro 6,1, and for a long time I'd been highly skeptical of the things people were saying about it, in terms of the need for a certain type of expandability. That opposition never died down, however.

And, so, the biggest thing people are talking about with Apple's announcement isn't necessarily that they are going to move from an Ivy Bridge processor to a Skylake one, or from AMD GPUs that were ultimately announced in 2010 or 2010 to something more modern, but essentially the reaction has been: Finally, we will have slots, disk bays, and an nVidia GPU.

I'm not so sure about all those things, but ultimately what Apple said is that they intend to make it a flexible system that should meet the needs of different types of people. There's literally no details yet other than that they realize they "backed themselves into a thermal corner" with the existing design and that they won't have anything available this year. With that, there's a lot of discussion about what a 7,1 might be like, and what people are to do as they wait.

Predictably, I'm mixed on the whole thing. I believe Apple should not have left the 6,1 to rot without any changes for so long. On the other hand, most of what people are describing in their wish list is technically in the current Mac Pro, and switching to a new platform alleviates other issues, such as the ability to at least double memory density by switching to DDR4, get more cores with newer Broadwell-EP or Skylake-EP processors, and faster storage. The thing I would likely do in an updated version of the 6,1 is build an Apple-branded expansion box and then add a second slot for an SSD.

That said, I understand the flexibility everybody wants. In the '90s, that flexibility was the ability to choose between the Power Macintosh 5200, 6200, 7200, 7500, 8500, or 9500 as your needs and budget dictated, and then for many of those machines, you can install a variety of upgrades. Since that point, Apple has had at least computer with a few disk bays, a few PCI slots, and an at least nominally upgradeable CPU in it until the end of 2012. In 1995, it was the 7200 and up. In 1998 it was all three Beige Power Macintosh G3s, and in 2012 it was the Mac Pro 5,1, still running on the Westmere-EP CPUs from its introduction in 2010.

After the Power Macintosh G4 was discontinued in 2004, there was almost instant consternation about the lack of a midrange Mac. Basically, something you could buy for somewhere between $1299 and $1699, non-inclusive of a display and application software, and then upgrade for a few years. In 2006, MacWorld posted about the need for what it called the Mythical Midrange Mac Minitower. Today, that system would basically look like a Dell OptiPlex 9020 or 7050, or an XPS 8910.

After letting the 5,1 sit through the introduction of Sandy Bridge, Apple introduced what many saw as a signal of the "iOSification" of the platform. This isn't accurate, because everything in the Mac Pro is modular, even if it's proprietary. The Mac Pro 6,1 is a good computer, but the future of OpenCL based applications that take efficient advantage of multiple midrange GPUs, obviating the need for several beefy Xeon processors, never materialized. At the low end, being stuck on Ivy Bridge meant that the Mac Pro was left behind at single-threaded performance, and at the high end, professionals that used software that didn't use OpenCL (instead preferring more CPU threads or nVidia's CUDA APIs) (which is most of it) had a system that they saw as unfit or unworthy.

The criticism is fair: Outside of Final Cut Pro, the software didn't materialize, and so for most buyers of the Mac Pro, the 6,1 is unsuitable because it's only barely faster than a decked 5,1. It can't have an nVidia GPU added to accelerate Adobe and other CUDA-loving software, and even for pros using Final Cut Pro, a commonly cited issue was the fact that the Mac Pro 6,1 didn't have room for internal disks to store footage. Add to all of that, in Mac OS X, you can't even configure the GPUs to split the displays between them: One GPU always runs display and the other always runs OpenCL.

Ultimately, I disagree with the idea that the 6,1 or the new/tube Mac Pro is a "bad computer." The 6,1 is a good computer, it has found success in a few markets, but as the SGI O2 isn't the best UNIX chores box, in light of the fact that you end up paying a lot for a specialized architecture to make manipulating analog and digital video easier. I do agree that the 6,1 or something like it can't stand completely alone at the top of the Mac product line. Apple needs something akin to Indigo2 or Octane to go with its O2 or replace it.

I don't want to spend a whole lot of time in this posting speculating on exactly what the 7,1 should be. The thing I'll say here is that like the Octane, it'll likely end up with more RAM slots than the 6,1, it may end up with the ability to run dual CPUs and dual GPUs. What those GPUs are should be flexible. It should also have room for more than one storage device. I'm not so sure that it'll end up with a whole lot of bays for 3.5-inch mechanical disks: It's clear Apple considers that type of storage to be dead weight, and the options for external ThunderBolt storage have gotten much better in the time between the 2012 introduction of the 6,1 and today.

I'm excited to see what the 7th generation Mac Pro looks like. Between that and promised or implied updates to the iMac (perhaps even a more professionally oriented version of the iMac to spiritually succeed the 6th generation Mac Pro) and Mac mini. My own Mac mini is still gathering years, so a Mac desktop could be something I'll be interested in using eventually, especially with the desktop virtual machine I've been using with the Surface RT.


There are no comments for this post.