Apple’s new Mac Pro: A lesson in form over function

In 2010, Apple released a new Mac Pro built on Intel’s then-new quad-core Gulftown CPU. In 2012, it bumped that system up one grade, offering hexa-core processors. Both systems were based on Intel’s 32nm Westmere architecture, which means they lacked all the features introduced since Sandy Bridge, including AES-NI, AVX, and PCIe 3.0. Mac users were rather unhappy with this non-update a year ago, prompting Tim Cook to reassure everyone that a new system was coming in 2013.

Now we’ve seen that system and it’s dramatically different to anything Apple – or anyone – has done before in this space.

Hardware specifications

Apple is playing coy with exact specifications, but we can infer quite a bit from the figures the company has announced to date. The current top-end chip in the Mac Pro is the X5675. According to Apple, the new Mac Pro offers “up to 2x” the FLOPs performance of its predecessor. The Westmere chips currently used in the Mac Pro are capable of eight single-precision and four double-precision FLOPs per cycle. Sandy and Ivy Bridge, in contrast, can perform 16 SP and eight DP. Haswell doubled that again, up to 32 SP and 16 DP per cycle.

If the new Mac Pro is using Haswell, in other words, Apple could claim a fourfold increase rather than just a doubling.

The other clue is in the chipset identification. Apple’s website states that the system uses “the new-generation Xeon E5 chipset.” There’s no such thing as the “E5 chipset,” but there is a C600 chipset that supports the E5 family. It’s not a perfect match, given that Apple is advertising PCI-Express 3.0, while the C600 only officially offers 2.0, but Intel’s messaging is unclear on this point. Diagrams for the C222 – C226 chipsets point to PCIe 3.0 capability, even though the official Intel database shows those products as limited to PCIe 2.0.

Based on what we know right now, however, it looks as though the new Mac Pro is Ivy Bridge, not Haswell.

Other features are more current. The move to PCIe-based Flash storage will boost storage performance well above what even SATA 6G offers, and memory bandwidth is up to 60GB/s across four channels. Twin graphics cards from AMD anchor the GPU side of the equation. Based on the quoted specs (7TFLOP total GPU power, 6GB of VRAM), it’s not clear which cards these are. If that 6GB of VRAM is per-GPU, AMD’s top-end W9000 is the best candidate, though it would normally offer 8TFLOP of performance, rather than 6TFLOP.

If the VRAM is being quoted in total, it implies AMD has done a custom design for Apple. None of AMD’s current FirePro’s offer 3.5TFLOP of single-precision floating point and just 3GB of RAM per card. Regardless, that’s more than enough GPU power to handle heavy rendering tasks.

Mac Pro system design

The case’s exterior is, in a word, interesting. It’s by far the smallest workstation we’ve ever seen. It’s 250mm tall and 165mm wide, and as Apple notes, is more than small enough to sit on your desk. The entire system is cooled by a single impeller and each of the major components makes direct contact with a large, triangular heatsink Apple calls the “thermal core” (see the image below). It’s an interesting design and I don’t doubt the company’s claims that it’s quiet and easy to cool.

It also looks like a trashcan.

I don’t mean that as a nasty dig at Apple. From the diagrams and discussion of the product, it’s clear that they’ve poured a great deal of time and effort into building a sophisticated cooling system and taken a new approach to system integration. It’s absolutely possible that the new Mac Pro will be a mind-blowing experience with great thermals and a ton of horsepower.

But it still looks like a trashcan.

The least-expandable Mac Pro ever

The new reliance on Thunderbolt may be troubling for anyone who wasn’t planning on upgrading all of their peripherals. Ironically, Apple claims that this is: “Expansion, vastly expanded.” That’s incorrect; this is the least expandable Mac Pro in decades. It may offer more Thunderbolt connectivity than any system ever has, but as far as compatibility with current-generation hardware goes, it’d be hard to find a workstation less expandable than this one.

If you own an expansion card, period, this isn’t the system for you. That’s going to be a show-stopper for anyone who depended on a specific card for video capture, output, or esoteric compatibility with a different system. Apple is touting Thunderbolt 2.0 capability, but Thunderbolt 2.0 just adjusts bandwidth ratios from Thunderbolt 1.0 – it doesn’t add any additional speed. That’s not a bad thing given that the interface is plenty fast already, but Thunderbolt is still limited to an x4 PCIe 2.0 electrical connection. Fast? Yes – but not as fast as a dedicated PCIe 2.0/3.0 dedicated slot.

Users with multiple displays that don’t run on Thunderbolt will need to buy adapters. If you currently have an internal set of hard drives, that’s too bad – you’ll be moving them to external cages or buying new solutions if you want to use them in the Mac Pro. USB 3.0 support is baked in – but there are only four ports. Need more than four ports? Too bad.

While we’re glad to see AMD getting some graphics love, there’s no Nvidia option whatsoever, despite the fact that Nvidia has been the go-to partner for a lot of GPU acceleration in professional software over the past five years.

If you’re gearing up to buy a whole new set of hardware, the Mac Pro might be great. If you wanted to upgrade to a Mac Pro but keep existing hardware, the new Mac Pro makes that extremely difficult. Current Mac Pro users who depend on dedicated expansion cards, internal drive bays, USB ports, or have multiple monitors hooked up via DVI, DP, or HDMI may find themselves locked out of upgrading until they can afford to buy all new peripheral devices (or a bevy of converters). Apple suggests that users who need PCI/PCIe slots should consider a Thunderbolt-to-PCIe external chassis, for example.

A lesson in form over function

If you can get over the wastepaper basket motif, the new form is innovative. The impeller, if it works as advertised, should lead to a great, quiet cooling system. The degree of motherboard integration is impressive.

And yet, none of that matters if you don’t own the hardware Apple has apparently decided you must have to make this system sing. Consumers don’t really care if the 2013 MacBook uses an AMD graphics card, the 2014 model uses Nvidia, and the 2015 incarnation uses Intel, so long as performance is good and general compatibility is maintained. Professional users that invest thousands of pounds in specific software packages or have particular requirements to meet for customers, however, do care. Historically, Nvidia has had an edge on AMD when it comes to professional graphics work and 3D rendering performance. Maybe Apple intends to help Team Red change that, but that’s not helpful to would-be customers who no longer have an Nvidia option.

Apple genuinely doesn’t seem to have considered how cluttered the system will look if you have to run a Thunderbolt-to-PCIe chassis, a USB port multiplier, and multiple external drives. Past a certain point, the svelte iCan doesn’t reduce clutter, but adds to it.

High-end Apple users have complained for years that the company’s focus on iOS and consumer hardware has hurt the businesses where Cupertino cut its teeth over the past two decades. This system seems unlikely to change that.