iMac Pro and the future of Mac post

In 2013 almost everything about the “trash can” Mac Pro made sense to me. The world was abuzz with the idea of GPGPU and parallel GPU computing, Bitcoin was exploding, and the humble CPU seemed to have an ever-increasing core count that rendered the need for multi-socketed systems virtually obsolete. Thunderbolt was a vastly more flexible interface than PCIe – offering plug and play ease of use, the ability to use components quickly and easily between multiple systems, and what appeared to be much cheaper and easier backward compatability (who else basically chucked out their PCI cards to get PCI-X, and then did the same going up to PCIe?)

Fast forward three years and we see that Apple’s gamble didn’t pay off. They skated to where the puck was going to be, and missed that it was deftly intercepted and sent elsewhere. Parallel GPU kind of died off (or at least quietened down) and Apple’s guess that GPGPU was going to be commonplace turned out to not come to pass. You can forgive them for thinking it at the time – it was all anyone was talking about in those days. The three year wasteland that followed was less forgiveable however.

The Mac Pro (and before it, the PowerMac) seemed to always try and represent to state of the art; the high point at which a personal workstation could exist. Sure, there were always more powerful workstations, but the Mac Pro offered such a compelling range – offering affordable machines at the low end and very powerful and expandable machines at the high end. The Mac Pro (2013) again continued the trend of showing the “state of the art”, a machine that was incredibly compact and incredibly powerful. It was a Mac Pro seemingly designed for DIT trolleys, touring shows, editors who would be working out of a hotel room for weeks at a time. It was small enough to fit in a carry-on bag, and powerful enough to cut a 4K feature film. The “state of the art” left Apple behind in the mean-time, and Apple were left with a highly engineered concept with virtually no future.

My opinion on workstations has always been that they have a functional working life of 3-4 years. At that point, all of yours arguments about “expandability” and “upgradeability” kind of go out the window. The CPU socket is usually either a generation out of date or about to be, the bus speed and number of buses is usually holding the system back, RAM speeds are falling behind, etc. The fixed GPUs of the Trash Can never concerned me, because I figured at the 3-year mark this machine would be put on backup duty. I figured eGPU was coming – another thing that was becoming increasingly visible. Thunderbolt 2 benchmarks showed you could potentially get adequate performance gains from eGPUs, and Thunderbolt 3 would be virtually full speed.

Apple’s announcement of the iMac Pro came at a time when the “pro” market was leaving in droves. For many, they don’t want the form factor – they want a tower (though for a majority of the complainers, they want a cheap mini-tower which Apple is never going to make). Many pro editors are already working on 5K iMacs, so a “Pro” level iMac seems to me to be perfectly logical. What I find most interesting is that at this point in technology the iMac Pro is looking incredibly appealing. I have used Mac Pros and PowerMacs since the G4 days (I owned an 867MHz “Quicksilver” and dual 1.25Ghz Mirror Drive Doors back in the day). My Mac Pro 2013 has performed admirably, and mostly I find myself wanting more GPU power and faster expansion more than anything.

For the first time ever, I’m wondering if the tower (coming next year) won’t be overkill for my needs. I consider where they may head with it – if PCIe returns then it’ll be a redundant bus for me: I have no desire to ever use a PCIe card again if I can avoid it (and if I can’t, I’ll attach it via Thunderbolt). I had my Mac Pro fail on me as a deadline loomed, and PCIe access to my Fibre RAID meant my MacBook Pro couldn’t simply pick up the duties. Luckily I was able to buy a PCIe Thunderbolt enclosure and continue working, but without that option my laptop would have sat around as a constant reminder of the backup it simply couldn’t be. Now days, my entire edit system can be plugged into a MacBook Pro, an iMac, a Mac mini – and I can keep working at a pinch.

The iMac Pro offers on board 10 Gigabit Ethernet, four Thunderbolt 3 buses, Pro-level AMD GPUs and Xeon CPUs up to 18 cores. The iMac Pro off the starting line will be significantly more powerful and more modern than my ageing Mac Pro. eGPU means it has expandability potential in the coming years. The built-in 5K display is just a bonus. It more or less has as much expandability as I will ever need in the next few years.

It used to be that the iMac was seen as an awful “closed system”, a PC that was essentially frozen in time. Thunderbolt I believe finally frees it of that stigma. Computers as a rule have very short “high end” lifespans – their ability to keep up with the latest software drops significantly after the third or fourth year after release. Much like my Mum’s PC back in the day, no amount of “putting in a faster hard drive and reinstalling Windows” was going to make that Celeron a better CPU. There is a dedicated subset of people keeping the Mac Pro 4,1 and 5,1 alive and kicking and this I feel is an interesting and important part of the Mac Pro legacy. These older machines are becoming increasingly limited, but they are still extremely capable machines, especially for people on a budget/as backup machines for more modern machines. The iMac Pro seems to tick a lot of these boxes – Apple seems to be opting less for soldering CPUs in place giving it the potential for upgrades down the track, the RAM appears to be socketed (and whilst not “user expandable” it’s just a matter of getting the iMac apart). eGPU should cover GPU upgrades to a point (the Mac Pro’s ageing PCIe buses are becoming as much a liability as the TB3 bus will be).

In a world where computers are fast becoming “throw away” commodity items you have to wonder if it is not simply that we’re finally realising that’s what they were all along. Tech moves too fast. Once a computer leaves the factory floor, it is frozen in time regardless of how many RAM slots or PCIe buses it has. Next year’s model will be better. And the next year after that, much better. And then by years four or five that machine will be looking increasingly archaic and slow. The Mac Pro 5,1 is limited to PCIe for SSDs if you want modern SSD performance out of them, which limits the already limited PCIe bus access. Dual GPUs covers three slots unless you get low profile ones. Editor who needs a breakout capture/monitoring card? Another slot. Audio breakout to a rack? You get the picture. Whatever Mac Pro comes next year seems to me it’ll be likely to be expensive. Dual sockets are likely to return. PCI-e for 1-2 GPUs at least. Thunderbolt 3 as well. They’ll probably be dual socket as a rule just to get enough PCIe lanes to cover all that.

At the end of it all, is the tower going to be an increasingly niche computer product in a world where a laptop with eGPUs and high speed TB storage gives workstation-like performance to the masses?


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