Mac Pro and the future

Again, the fervour is rising. Fearful and angry mobs massing with their pitchforks held in the air. The Mac Pro recently hit 1000 days without an update – and the angst that there never will be an update has hit fever pitch.

As the project balooned, we ended up with some last minute USB drives holding online footage

Apple’s new Mac Pro design promised to be a revolution, a reimagining of the “truck” of computers to the iMac’s minivan and the iPad’s electric two-seat sedan. Gone was the 25Kg BTX behemoth, instead we got a 4Kg tube with two powerful GPUs and up to 12-core Xeons. Many shuddered and stood aghast at what Apple had done to their beloved PCIe slots and internal hard drive bays. Apple had finally abandoned professionals.

Meanwhile, the rest of us moved on. I was in the market for a Mac Pro upgrade and I was eagerly awaiting the 2013 revision. Talk of Apple “abandoning the Pro market” was rife, and I was feeling fairly anxious. At the time, the iMac was utterly insufficient, and the MacBook Pro was simply not powerful enough. If Apple really did drop the Mac Pro from the lineup, I felt I was going to be really left out in the cold with no real alternatives and a massive investment (both time and money) into macOS based software.

The 2013 “new” Mac Pro was for me a massive relief. Through all the hand wringing and anger I could see a vision of the future, much like a RED cinema camera. This was a truly modular workstation. Inside was a powerful CPU and dual GPUs which were basically set up and ready to go for any situation. For a DIT or technical productions, it was a powerful machine that could handily fit into a satchel bag. With Thunderbolt 2 expansion, everything you used with PCIe was available in some form, whether in dedicated Thunderbolt accessories, dongles, or via PCIe enclosures.

One major complaint was that Thunderbolt 2 meant we’d have spaghetti mess everywhere coming out of the diminutive computer. Whilst to a degree its true (the less lazy of us route our cables, spend a few hours making it tidy! Gee!) the reality of it for anyone with a “high end” set up is the spaghetti mess existed before anyway. My Mac Pro 2009 had all manner of cables hanging off it; some legacy Firewire stuff, four channels of fibre, dual ethernet, monitors, analogue and SDI breakout video cables (to a patch bay) – it was a bloody mess, changing to Thunderbolt wasn’t going to affect it in the slightest. My Mac Pro lived in a rack anyway (it was the only way to keep things tidy), so one way or another little would change.

When I said that I could see a vision of the future, that future was Thunderbolt. With my Mac Pro 2009, if I ever had a catastrophic failure (which I did at a majorly bad time) I had no on-hand option for continuing work. Another Mac Pro sitting in the wings would be the only backup alternative. I had a MacBook Pro, but without PCIe slots accessing the Fibre RAIDs was going to be an impossibility. When my failure did happen, I had luckily had the foresight to order a PCIe Thunderbolt breakout box which handled my Fibre RAID very well. However, my Blackmagic Decklink and other cards were all left dormant, casualties of the single card slot I had access to.

“Old Faithful”, a 2008 Mac Pro which renders proxies and rips my Blu-Rays

The Mac Pro 2013 forced me to upgrade, and that sucked. It was a big money sink much like jumping up to PCIe from PCI. However, the net value of that investment was that if the Mac Pro died, most of the Thunderbolt accessories (if not all, thanks to daisychaining) would transfer straight to a MacBook Pro. I’d keep my 4K monitoring, my RAID, my fibre, etc. I could keep working, perhaps with slightly compromised performance, but otherwise with the whole system intact. The point of the tiny workstation seemed very logical in this respect. For every G5 and Mac Pro owner who never used the optical audio, who never used a single card slot beyond the GPU (and there were a LOT of them, trust me), the people who didn’t add internal drives, they had all paid for the technologies to be present *in case* they needed them. The 2013 Mac Pro said “how about they pay for the important bit – the computer –  and they add whatever they want external to it”. The accessories will all carry over to the next model, the computer is just the brain of the system. And if you don’t need any fancy stuff, you’re not necessarily paying to have it added to the system.

Lately, I’ve been much less stressed as the arguments have popped up yet again about the demise of the Mac Pro. Honestly, if Apple discontinued it tomorrow I’d be a bit disappointed, but to me the iMac and MacBook Pro are fast becoming worthy alternatives. eGPUs have been demonstrated on MacBook Pros with only Thunderbolt 2 and showing MASSIVE performance improvements which I feel will further displace the market, as internal GPUs will become less and less critical for those who need power and will happily pay the cost of a box and a GTX 1080 to put it in. New advancements have also demonstrated mobile GPUs with near desktop performance, which is mind blowing. If Apple put a 6-8 core CPU in the iMac, it’s likely to be sitting above the performance of the 2013 Mac Pro, and perhaps even its successor if one exists. With this said though, Xeons generally support more PCI lanes and RAM, both of which are needed for a modern workstation.

I think there’s a place in the world for a new New Mac Pro. But I also don’t think its the end of the world if Apple don’t ship one. As a working pro, I’d be disappointed, but more and more you read stories of those who got sick of waiting and moved to the iMac, and haven’t looked back. eGPU has the chance to further change that by giving the massive parallel processing offered by high end GPUs to any Mac, from the mini to the MacBook Pro and the iMac, and even the Mac Pro. I think this is a classic case of Apple skating to where the puck is going – a play for a world where the workstation is a brick with a powerful CPU and enough GPU to get by, and where a user can mix and match components externally rather than internally, which can be significantly more flexible than using PCIe cards. Whether Apple discontinues the Mac Pro remains to be seen, but lets all remember the same conversation was had about the Mac Pro 2010 (“which was really realeased in 2009!“) just before the 2013 Mac Pro was announced. At that time, in some big post houses, people were sharing photos of the Mac Pro 2006 models they were working on, coupled with discussion about how their employer had no interest in upgrading. Chances are, a lot of those 2006 Mac Pros are still chugging away in Avid and FCP7, cutting proxies and never skipping a beat.

It could be that Apple just thinks the truck has a few years of life in it and doesn’t need a yearly refresh. Maybe three years is the right amount of time. I just cut a 4K feature length doc on mine and it’s doing just fine, so maybe there really isn’t any rush.


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