There's no getting around it, the new Apple Mac Pro is simply stunning. Aside from the occasional joke about the resemblance to more mundane objects – trash cans, coffee makers, wine chillers – the Mac Pro has been grabbing attention because of its complete lack of resemblance to every other boxy desktop on the market.
However, that distinctive look isn't the only thing that's different here. The Mac Pro is a powerhouse in an astonishingly small and compact chassis, with a design that embraces innovations in manufacturing, cooling technology, and embodies concepts that may very well shape the future of the desktop PC. There are plenty of details to discuss, but we can assure you from the outset that Apple’s new Mac Pro is one of the best premium desktops we’ve ever tested.
After three years without a new Mac Pro desktop, and a decade without an updated look for the desktop, the design-conscious folks at Apple have taken the opportunity to show their stuff and flex their muscles.
The new ultra-minimalist design is a stark departure from the large silvery aluminium tower of the old Mac Pro. The new Pro still features an all-aluminium chassis, but that's likely the only similarity between the old and new.
The new Mac Pro is a small and compact 250mm tall cylinder which measures 165mm in diameter, and it gleams and glistens like an artifact from another time, a piece of the future that's come to reside on your desk. We’ve seen other small desktops which put high-performance components into compact chassis designs, but the Mac Pro is in a class of its own. The chassis is aluminium, inside and out, and it's dense, weighing 5kg. Between the sheer weight and the density of components inside, it's a lot heavier than it looks, but that weight only drives home the premium feel.
Though it appears to be burnished black in photos, it's more apt to call it a dark metallic grey – Apple calls it "Space Grey" – almost a cross between glossy black obsidian and polished chrome. The result resembles polished hematite, and the glossy surfaces pick up reflections from everything around it. It's a futuristic look indeed; and that's certainly the impression that Apple wanted the new design to deliver.
From the first unveiling to the subsequent ads and private briefings, Apple has pushed the idea that this is the design of the future. But central to this sleek new look is a design philosophy that rests on two main concepts: It’s built around Apple's Unified Thermal Core, and a paradigm that emphasises expansion rather than upgrades. Let's look at each.
Beating the heat
The first concept is Apple's new Unified Thermal Core, a move that leverages both materials and design for cooling the hot components that fit inside this gallon-sized desktop. Inside, all of the Mac Pro's components are mounted onto a triangular aluminium frame. Extruded as a single piece of metal and then milled to exacting specifications, the inner frame serves as the primary heat sink for the processor and graphics.
The three-sided design has one board covered in ports, with two more on the other sides of the triangle. Inside, the empty space has its cooling capabilities enhanced further with heat-dissipating vanes. Sitting on top of the whole thing is an exhaust fan, designed to pull air up from intakes on the bottom of the case, up through the components and cooling vanes, and then through the fan, which pumps the now hot air out through the top.
While the Mac Pro takes thermal design to a new level, this sort of vertical airflow design isn't unheard of – we've seen similar concepts before. The thermal design deeply influences the overall shape and look of the Mac Pro, but also allows the tiny chassis to house components that get much hotter than you would put into a comparably tiny small form factor desktop.
Expansion, not upgrades
The second concept is one of peripherals over upgrades. Apple's new paradigm does away with the easily accessible drive bays and swappable graphics cards of the previous models – like the Apple Mac Pro (Xeon E5620) from 2010 – in favour of an external, modular approach. While you can still open up the case without having to reach for a screwdriver, you'll find far less opportunity inside for maintenance and upgrades. But that's not to say that it's entirely closed to the user; slide off the exterior shell of the chassis and you'll find access to four DIMM slots for RAM, as well as access to the internal PCIe-based flash storage. As for the processor or either of the graphics cards, both are tucked further inside, out of the way (note, though, that it is possible to upgrade the CPU according to some sources – but it’s a process that requires some effort and is only for, we quote, “intrepid fixers”).
Otherwise, upgrades – in the sense that connecting external storage or peripherals is an upgrade – are all done through the rear port selection. The primary feature on the otherwise blank exterior of the Mac Pro is the rear panel, which lights up for easy visibility whenever the tower shifts from its stationary position. On this panel, you'll find four USB 3.0 ports and six Thunderbolt 2.0 ports, along with two Gigabit Ethernet ports, an HDMI port, and jacks for headphone and audio line out.
While this lack of internal access and traditional expansion is significantly different from the standard workstation desktop, it is in-keeping with Apple's overall approach in recent years. Looking at the Apple iMac 27in (Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M), for example, there's actually less opportunity for expansion, with the machine only providing access to RAM, and offering only two Thunderbolt ports for modular expansion.
Of the ports offered, it's the Thunderbolt ports that offer the most capability. Each Thunderbolt 2.0 port offers up to 20GBps of throughput, allowing you to connect not only individual monitors and small external drives, but giant RAID array storage, and PCI Express expansion. Makers of audio and video equipment have been working for months to come out with Thunderbolt-compliant equipment, along with support for better than HD video resolution. You can connect up to three 4K displays (or up to six regular Thunderbolt displays) through the Thunderbolt ports as well, and you can connect a 4K TV or monitor via HDMI. Thunderbolt also offers enough throughput to run multiple devices through a single port in a daisy-chain configuration.
The biggest concern about this new external modular approach to upgrading lies with the two major components you can't easily get to, and you quite possibly won’t be able to service in-house: The processor and graphics cards. However, that said, Apple's decision to go standard with dual-GPU systems will likely stave off the need to upgrade the graphics right away, and as we’ve already mentioned, some have shown that a CPU upgrade is apparently possible, if not for the particularly faint of heart.
Beyond merely looking good, the design team at Apple has also added several small touches that make the Mac Pro feel like premium product. The aluminium chassis is formed whole from a single billet of aluminium, and shaped through several advanced manufacturing processes to have just the right feel and finish. The milled edges of the top and the window for port access are not simply cut into the metal once; they are then cut and polished, for edges that are smooth to the touch, with none of the hard edges you might expect.
The rear panel – through which you'll connect any expansion devices and peripherals – lights up whenever the body of the Mac Pro is rotated or tipped slightly, as it will be when the user is trying to plug something in. The bright white lighting illuminates the lettering and logos for identifying each port, as well as an accent light ringing each group of ports (see the below image).
The chassis lock is a small sliding latch that you might miss the first time you look at the back of the tower. For the outside, this subtle feature is simply a textured spot on an otherwise glossy surface – mounted flush with the surface – with only small lock and unlock logos to indicate the latch position. However, if you slide off the outer chassis and look at the latch from inside, you'll see it's a stout sliding latch, separately machined and seamlessly attached to the interior. Despite it being the primary attachment for the entire outer chassis, the lock mechanism is extremely smooth to lock and unlock.
Although the entire chassis is designed around cooling the multi-core processor and dual FirePro graphics cards, it is very nearly silent. The ultra-quiet design is a godsend for sound engineers and producers, who need as silent a work environment as possible when recording and editing. It's also a boon to anyone who works in a Mac shop, where there may be seven or eight systems in use in one room, but now has effectively no fan noise adding to the usual office sounds.
The tiny size, compact design, and modular expansion setup make for a relatively portable workstation. While the office-bound Mac Pro owner might not make much use of it, photo and video editors will often haul along a workstation for use in the field, allowing them to edit together rough cuts while on location. For media professionals, this portability will let them take their work almost anywhere.
Finally, Apple equips the Mac Pro with the latest wireless connectivity options, with Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, the new faster connectivity standard set to eventually replace 802.11n. Between the numerous Thunderbolt ports and the ac Wi-Fi, the Mac Pro is relatively future proof, the one bugbear being the trickier issue of a CPU/GPU upgrade, if that’s ever necessary.
Every configuration of the new Mac Pro comes outfitted with a single Intel Xeon E5 processor – a workstation class processor, designed to offer plenty of raw processing power with minimal latency and maximum throughput – along with not one, but two AMD FirePro graphics cards. Unlike consumer graphics cards, which are optimised for gaming and multimedia, professional GPUs are designed to offer powerful and reliable processing for media editing and creation programs, engineering tools like CAD, and also to drive multiple displays for enhanced productivity.
Apple's move to include two such graphics cards as the standard configuration is a bold step, essentially prioritising graphics rendering capability over number crunching CPU muscle. This is certainly a considered decision on Apple's part, and given the predominance of Apple products in the video and graphics industries, probably the right move for the intended market. If a dual-CPU alternative is required, you'll need to look elsewhere in the workstation world.
Our review unit falls somewhere in between, but decidedly on the more expensive end of the scale. Selling for £5,939 through the Apple Store, our review model had been upgraded to an 8-core Intel Xeon E5 processor (Xeon E5-1680 v2 at 3.0GHz), paired with 32GB of RAM, 1TB of PCIe-based flash storage, and outfitted with two AMD FirePro D700 GPUs (with 6GB of dedicated memory each).
Apple covers the Mac Pro with a one year warranty, and offers 90-days of free telephone support. Though this is standard for Apple products, it falls far short of industry norms, with other workstations from HP and Dell being covered with three year warranties. This is based on the understanding that this workstation is under higher performance demands, while also critical to your employment and livelihood. It's also an acknowledgement that, for such an upfront investment, you need to get at least three years of usable life out of your purchase. That Apple is (not surprisingly) charging so much more without offering the same sort of standard coverage is a disappointment. AppleCare+, Apple's extended warranty service, will extend that warranty and technical support up to three years from the initial purchase date for £199.
The Mac Pro comes with OS X Mavericks (OS X 10.9) preinstalled. Our reviewer Edward Mendelson praised OS X Mavericks for its dozens of improvements over previous OS X iterations, unobtrusive security, and tight integration with both Apple software and iOS 7, awarding it 4.5 stars.
With OS X Mavericks comes all of the same iLife and iWork software that’s bundled with a new consumer-level Mac. The iLife suite includes iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand, while iWork includes Pages, Numbers, and Keynote; Apple's equivalents to Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. This is basic business software that you would need to purchase separately for a new Windows workstation, but Apple now includes it for free with every new Mac.
Last but not least, there's a new version of Final Cut Pro (£203) that is built to take that tight integration to the next level with features that make the most of the Mac Pro's 4K video capabilities. These include the likes of simultaneous editing of multiple video angles, and the option of viewing footage in full 4K on one display while editing said footage on another.
Apple Mac Pro Workstations are built for performance, and the Mac Pro is no exception. Peel back the slick marketing and fancy design, and you'll find that the Mac Pro is still a potent work machine, built to offer the sort of performance that professionals need, but can't get from consumer-level systems.
The Mac Pro scored 13.54 points in Cinebench, the best score we've seen among single-CPU workstations. This machine also made short work of multimedia benchmark tests, finishing Handbrake in 29 seconds, and cranking through Photoshop in 3 minutes 3 seconds. The Photoshop performance isn't shabby, but it is more towards the middle of the pack than we expected.
With its two FirePro GPUs, the Mac Pro also offered solid performance in Heaven 3D. In our baseline test, set to 1366 x 768 resolution, the Mac Pro pumped out 113 frames per second (fps), well ahead of other top-of-the-line workstations. The Nvidia-equipped iMac came closer, with 108 fps, although dual-GPU gaming-oriented systems powered by the likes of a GTX Titan or twin GTX 780s left the Mac Pro in the dust (those sort of high-end gaming rigs hit close to 300 fps). Even when I dialled up the resolution to 1,920 x 1,080, and turned up all the detail settings, the Mac Pro still held its own with 41 fps, putting it ahead of every workstation, but again falling behind the high-end gaming rigs as expected.
To push the Mac Pro a little harder than our regular testing does, I re-ran our Heaven benchmark test, but ramped up way past our regular settings, with full 4K resolution (3,840 x 2,160, the maximum resolution offered on the Asus PQ321), and detail settings ratcheted up – shaders were set to extreme, Anisotropy maxed out to 4x, and Anti-aliasing up to 8x. It dropped the frame rates to 10 fps, but also had the benefit of pushing the FirePro GPUs harder than our regular test.
Even during this test, the Mac Pro was virtually silent, requiring me to bring my ear within an inch of the chassis just to make out the sound of the whisper-quiet turbine fan. The portable hard drive I plugged in to the back made more discernible noise than the Mac Pro did, even when Apple’s machine was pushed. While it didn't get louder, it did get warmer, with the exterior of the Mac Pro reaching 96-degrees Fahrenheit, and air from the top exhaust hitting 106 (both measured with a Fluke IR thermometer).
Beneath the blank, inscrutable surface of the new Apple Mac Pro, there's a lot going on, from the potent processor and graphics hardware, to the completely new approach to hardware expansion. The Mac Pro isn't quite perfect, however, as it’s rather pricey – and for the money, Apple’s one year warranty (and 90-day tech support) is disappointing.
Overall, though, it's safe to say that the Mac Pro offers some of the most exciting updates to desktop design we've seen, and backs this up with powerful professional-grade performance. This machine is quite simply our number one choice when it comes to single-processor workstations, and one of the best high-end desktops we've seen in years.