After years of wringing our hands and wondering what was to become of our beloved Mac Pro, Apple finally gave us an answer last month. While we won't see it until later this year, the Mac Pro has already made an impact, because this year's model is a radical departure from anything that's come before.
Gone is the cyclopean aluminum-framed tower whose industrial design dates back to the bad old days of the PowerPC. In its place is a cleverly-designed machine that takes up only one-eighth the volume and more closely resembles a kitchen appliance or a trash bin than a computer.
The Mac Pro: Small But Powerful
Despite its diminutive dimensions, the Mac Pro is by Apple's account quite powerful, equipped with up to twelve microprocessor cores, dual workstation-class GPUs and all-flash PCIe-based storage. It's the same fundamental design philosophy that's drive Apple's development of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display, taken to a logical extreme.
The new Mac Pro is tiny and the industrial design looks phenomenal. And Apple claims that the new Mac Pro is the most expandable Mac ever, thanks to its inclusion of six Thunderbolt 2 ports and four USB 3.0 ports.
But the new Mac Pro is also less internally expandable. This point was driven home to me when I looked at a recent editorial and photo on German language tech site Giga.de.
The image compares the aluminum Mac Pro of yore with its descendant, this year's forthcoming model. Except the new Mac Pro is surrounded by an avalanche of cables and peripherals, including a set of external hard drives, optical drives, video capture interface, fibre channel interface and more. All in an attempt to provide similar functionality to what you can do built in to the old Mac Pro, using its internal drive bays and PCIe expansion slots.
The Mac Pro's external expansion: An Ugly Mess?
The old Mac Pro was a big block, the editorial explains, while the new Mac Pro equipped with external peripherals looks like something you might find underneath a stack of newspapers and old food containers at a hoarder's place.
That might be overstating it just a skoshe.
I have little doubt that peripheral makers are feverishly working on new Thunderbolt 2-equipped products designed to work optimally with the Mac Pro and look good in the process. But I suspect it's going to take a while. The Mac Pro will be one of the very few computers equipped with Thunderbolt 2 when it debuts - in fact, it'll be one of the first. Intel isn't expecting more widespread availability of Thunderbolt 2 controllers until 2014. Without an installed base of users, peripheral makers don't have a huge incentive to build products. And let's face it, Thunderbolt hasn't exactly set the world on fire - it remains much easier to get USB 3.0 or FireWire 800-compatible devices than it is to find Thunderbolt, despite the interface's ubiquity across the Mac platform.
I also know that external boxes aren't going to satisfy some prospective Mac Pro buyers.
One of the first things that I heard when the new Mac Pro was introduced was, "What are we going to do with all the stuff that's we're going to have to connect to it?"
And this was from WWDC attendees, who, by and large, are developers and IT folks. Not even the creative pros who really push what the Mac Pro can do, especially when it comes to exotic, high-bandwidth media conversion and storage area networking.
And there still isn't a really good answer for that.
Apple has historically let third parties settle this question, sometimes offering some guidance early in the product's life cycle to give a sense of what direction it wants them to go in. Take Apple's iPod Hi-Fi, for example, which was axed about a year after it was introduced, once it was clear that third-party vendors were on board with Apple's Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad (MFI) program and were producing products whose quality Apple was happy with. It didn't help that Apple's product cost more and didn't sound as good as the competition's, but it still gave vendors some sense of what target they were expected to hit.
So maybe we'll see some guidance from Apple when or shortly after the new Mac Pro makes its way out into the world - maybe Apple will step up to the plate with what it thinks is an appropriate answer for new Mac Pro buyers who are looking to expand their machine's potential beyond what can just fit inside.
Ultimately, I'm afraid that an office with a new Mac Pro is going to look like a glossier, less mucky version of the egg scene from the movie Alien: a central pod connected to other devices using a nest of Thunderbolt cables. Less H.R. Giger-style biomechanical, more mechanical. But you get the picture. Aesthetically, it's a displeasing image any way you think about it.
What I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the Mac Pro won't come furnished from the factory adequately for a fairly significant cross-section of potential customers. Users who have specific networking needs - connecting to a Storage Area Network or Fibre Channel, for example, or some users working with digital video and audio, will need additional boxes to connect the Mac Pro to the rest of their workflow. That means more wires and more cables and more mess.
Will the new Mac Pro suit you just fine out of the box, or are you as worried as I am that it's going to make a big mess of your desk? Please let me know in the comments.