Mac Pro: The Next Generation - what's Apple's next heavy iron likely to have inside?

Mac Pro: The Next Generation - what's Apple's next heavy iron likely to have inside?

At some point relatively soon, Apple is going to have to put the current Mac Pro out to pasture. What's going to replace it is anyone's guess at this point, but it'd be nice to think that Apple would start with a completely fresh sheet of paper.

After all, the Mac Pro chassis itself dates back a full decade, to the pre-Intel era - it's largely unchanged in appearance from the Power Mac G5, which was first introduced in 2003. No other Mac in the product line has that sort of legacy - all of them have undergone changes over the years, sometimes radical ones.

It's gotten so bad that the current Mac Pro can't be sold in Europe anymore because it falls afoul of recently enacted standards involving the system's power and fan placement. Apple decided simply to pull the existing product from circulation in Europe than bother with a redesign.

One can argue that the Mac Pro's external design is an example of form following function, a core aesthetic value present in so many of Jony Ive's designs. Its tall design helps to accommodate different expansion cards, and provides easy access to internal SATA bays and memory. But the function of a pro-level machine has radically changed in the past few years, so shouldn't a radically different form follow too?

So to understand what Apple might do to the Mac Pro, let's distill what the Pro itself does well and what sort of customer it appeals to. Then let's think about what sort of creation might best serve that market.

It's all about raw horsepower

The one thing the Pro has going for it, even today, is that it is Apple's fastest machine. Look over Geekbench's Mac Benchmarks, for example. In 64-bit mode, seven Mac Pro models dating back to 2010 outclass every other Mac listed, even the fast-as-hell 27-inch iMac that came out late in 2012.

There's no reason to think that Apple's going to offer anything but a super-fast computer as a true Mac Pro. It's built for speed. It uses a workstation-class processor, and even the RAM inside the Mac Pro is built for extra reliability: the Pro uses Error Correcting Code (ECC) memory, typically reserved for situations when data corruption just can't ever be allowed to happen.

Obviously, there's a lot of room for improvement. The current Mac Pro is using an older Intel chipset and motherboard design that doesn't permit for faster SATA, USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt. So while the raw computational power of the Mac Pro remains stunning, it's horrifically bottlenecked in a variety of other ways that is boxing the current system into a corner. And that has to change.

What it's going to change into is still anyone's guess. If Tim Cook's email to an incensed Pro user following last year's WWDC keynote is any indication, Apple does have something up its sleeves for professional Mac users later this year - whether that means a third quarter or fourth quarter release is up in the air, and that may affect which Intel processor Apple puts in. Intel has a roadmap planned for later this year with new Xeon processors with more modern accouterments like Thunderbolt, USB 3.0 and more, so my suspicion is that we'll see one of those used inside.

Expandability

One of the key reasons why the Mac Pro is so large today is because it has several PCIe expansion slots. It's conceivable that a future iteration of the Mac Pro may not need as much internal expansion. Thunderbolt is ubiquitous across the Mac platform (except for the Mac Pro), and that effectively pairs a PCIe interface and a mini DisplayPort connector, ameliorating the need for gobs of internal PCIe expansion.

Many of the same vendors who make PCIe expansion cards for Mac Pros offer devices that mirror that functionality in a Thunderbolt-equipped breakout box. It's now possible to achieve broadcast-quality video input and output and use high-speed peripheral interfaces like Fibre Channel and eSATA with Thunderbolt adapters instead of a PCIe card. So the reasons for having a lot of expansion are decreasing.

Thunderbolt even negates the need to install multiple video cards in a Mac Pro - Thunderbolt can accommodate additional displays. As long at our future Mac Pro's GPU is beefy enough and equipped with enough VRAM, it's possible that it wouldn't even need slots for video cards.

If there's a downside, it's that reducing internal expansion and favoring Thunderbolt can make more desktop clutter - a decidedly un-Apple-like approach.

Storage

Apple is excising optical drives from their computer designs: the Mac mini and iMac no longer have SuperDrives, and the MacBook Pros with Retina Displays likewise eschew optical storage. The only Macs left with optical drives are the standard 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models and the Mac Pro. Let's accept on faith for a moment that a future Mac Pro will likewise get rid of this capability - that would enable the box to be significantly smaller, as the upper part of the Mac Pro is occupied by space for two optical drives.

One place that the Mac Pro doesn't (and shouldn't) skimp is on internal storage. The current box can accommodate up to four internal 3.5-inch hard disk drives. With current 3.5-inch drives topping out at 4 terabytes, that means you can cram a whopping 16 TB of storage internally on the Mac Pro.

Apple could save a tremendous amount of space and pick up some significant performance by forcing SSD instead of regular hard drives (SSD is, of course, a configurable option on the Mac Pro). But going pure SSD, especially in an easily expandable internal configuration, will cost users a lot of money to configure. I suspect Apple will continue to offer expandable internal storage in the form of 3.5-inch SATA bays; shrinking down to 2.5-inch drives used in laptops would trade off performance and storage capacity.

Take it with a grain of salt or two...

As a long-time Mac Pro owner, I'm hopeful that Apple will continue to support the professional market with a high-end, expandable performance-oriented machine. Whether that's a Mac Pro as we might know it or a radically redesigned machine that offers extreme performance is still anyone's guess.

Based on the current evolution of Apple's product line, it's clear that Apple is moving away from some of the features and functionality that make the Mac Pro what it is today, which suggests that something different will come.

Then again, I may be totally wrong. Apple may stick with the brutalist architecture of the Mac Pro and just replace the CPU and motherboard with a more modern design, slap a few Thunderbolt ports on the back and keep going.

Where do you think the Mac Pro is headed? Will it get a complete makeover, or just a mild update? Or is it bound for the scrap heap all together?

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Mac Pro: The Next Generation - what's Apple's next heavy iron likely to have inside?

29 Comments

I definitely think they're starting with a fresh sheet of paper, as you say... the specs we need and want are pretty clear but how we will be presented with them is what i'm guessing will be the big surprise.

I'm done with the "tower" of yesteryear!

My fear is that Apple is so preoccupied with stupid fetishes that don't matter -- making the iMac too thin to allow for RAM upgrades, or making the Apple TV remote so small that you can't help but lose it -- that they'll do something colossally stupid with the Mac Pro, like skimping on the expandability in favor of pushing Thunderbolt accessories that are either impractical (who wants a chain of peripherals strewn all about the place) or non-existent.

That's assuming there's a genuine Mac Pro replacement at all. When Tim Cook promised "something great" for pro users, what if he meant some daft cloud-based computing platform, or something else that isn't even a piece of hardware?

I have to stay on Mac because I'm an iOS developer, but if I were doing more video work, I would probably start moving to Windows. I have no faith at this point that Apple will be building suitable equipment for creative professionals over the next few years. When this early 2008 Mac Pro of mine finally dies, maybe I'll be replacing it with a hackintosh instead of a genuine Apple product.

The 21.5-inch iMac isn't upgradable. The 27-inch iMac, more aimed at professionals, is expandable. And the Apple TV remote has gotten larger over the years, so Apple fixed that too.

It really feels like the Mac Pro is ready for a ground-up refresh. But Apple will probably stick to the same old legacy concept: large aluminum box full of components with many connectors. It might be slightly smaller, but it will probably use the latest Intel silicon. And who knows? Maybe it will be built in the US.

But further down the line, I think it may be possible to go modular. Optical Thunderbolt may be fast enough (at 20Gbit/s) to connect CPUs as well as peripherals. You could start small with a base unit, with just one internal motherboard, power supply, mass storage, and memory. Then as your processing needs increase, you could connect other modules with just CPU+memory. You'd just stack the CPU modules on top of the base unit, they'd snap together with magnets, and there could be flush-mounted Thunderbolt connectors.

Just a thought.

We're not going to see faster Thunderbolt until Falcon Ridge starts shipping in 2014, so I don't think that's in the cards for the next Mac Pro, but maybe the one after that...

I think they will either quit the Mac Pro completely or they will just bump the specs on the current design. It's not selling well at all to consumers and I could easily see them moving it into a business only venture.

The Mac Pro isn't for consumers. It's for professionals. The Mac Mini and iMac are more consumer oriented. I hope Apple doesn't discontinue the Mac Pro. We (professionals) definitely need a high horsepower workstation class Mac computer.

I agree that it is necessary for professionals. People who do a lot of video editing and graphic arts require this type of power. I'm just not sure Apple will continue to offer this as a consumer product. The iMac and MacBooks offer more than enough power for 99% of people's needs. I could see them taking the Mac Pro and making it a feature in their shop for business users. They are wasting retail space having a product in their stores that very few consumers will walk in and buy.

I just don't see them continuing to innovate on this product line when consumers simply aren't buying it. My guess is that they will keep it the same and just bump the specs, that is if they plan to keep it in the consumer space. We shall see what they are thinking with this. I just don't know if they can justify keeping it going in the consumer space when no one is buying it.

All I know is that as soon as it comes out, assuming it does, I'm pretty sure a bunch of them will be sold between all of us on the Mobile Nations team that have been waiting for them. I hope they put in a black casing similar to iPhone. Would look hot.

Wondering what case design changes will be forth coming. I personally have always loved the design of the Mac Pro.

Why should we assume on faith the optical drive is going away? That presumes either a) box size is more important to customers than optical read/write in a workstation-class desktop (not portable) machine, b) the engineering complexity and/or $79 in parts is a deal-breaker, or c) Apple does not care if a) and b) are not true.

I'm anxiously awaiting the idiots who insist Apple is dead if the next Mac Pro doesn't run iOS and OS X simultaneously and ship at the same time as a touchscreen Cinema Display.

I truly do hope a redesign of the Mac Pro has the following:
A) allows user expandability. Virtually certain, but we are losing it in the consumer grade devices, so I hope we don't lose it at pro-end. At the least, memory and storage.
B) they do NOT get rid of the optical drive, or at least let the chassis allow for it to be easily added (perhaps even build to order).

I specifically am not ordering a new iMac because of being so "locked in". The Mac Mini or the Pro will be my next machine.

The iMac (at least the high end ones) don't actually "lock you in" to anything that the Mac mini for example, also "locks you in" to.

The Pro doesn't either and has more options besides but as others have already noted, the Mac Pro is for pros. You shouldn't even be comparing it with an iMac or a mini. The customers that buy one do not generally buy the other. they are completely different markets and produced for different reasons as well.

I never got sucked into those oversized silvery cases from Apple. It is too reminiscent of the beige cases I used to deal with in the PC days before switching to Mac (circa: Apple adoption of Intel processors). As current equipment becomes slimmer, compact, an more powerful, there is no need any longer for humongous sized cases. I can still see wanting to have a powerful, high end Mac Pro-type of machine. But, I would want to see Apple slim a MacPro way down in form, something like the size of a 4-bay NAS box or the PC Shuttle case designs found in the PC world. Of course, it will need to incorporate appropriate performance ports and storage space.

Where do the 12" PCIe cards go in this box of yours? You know, the video and audio cards that require more bandwidth than a single Thunderbolt cable can offer.

Though I can't say I don't like your idea, but it needs fast IO to large cards for professional video and audio people.

For one, the PC world shuttle boxes do have two internal slots for exactly the expansion you desire. Having said that though, stating that Thunderbolt I/O at 10Gbps is handicapped versus the older PCIe, SATA, solutions is not true and unfathomable. Not sure what needs you have that require all sorts of expansion cards. I find myself with more then enough power with my 15" retina MBP for that matter. Running Windows as a VM, Final Cut Pro, etc. I am not into heavy duty 3D gaming. And, even if I were, thunderbolt can easily deal with it. Good luck.

One word, Hackintosh. Much more stable and mature than ever. My main production and media machine. I have it the way I want it with USB 3, an optical drive, space for internal hard drives. They can even be had with Thunderbolt (non-video). I have a MacBook Pro for the road and an older Mac Mini for my general family-use and iTunes machine.

Professionals tend to go with something that is supported, and legal. You can argue about the legality if you want, but support is required for a professional organization. If a card doesn't work in your hackintosh, Apple certainly won't help you, and it's likely the vendor won't help you either.

Sometimes you will get hardware incompatibilities. I used to support a USB device with accompanying software. A customer's machine simply wouldn't load and recognize the device. We discovered it was a hackintosh. When the customer tried it on a real Mac, it worked fine.

I would hope they don't forgo expandability for thunderbolt, or anything else they may want to push on us. Thunderbolt definitely has it's potential and applications, but Apple needs to remember they are catering to and industry, not the other way around. Especially if they expect it to last as long (or stick around) as long as the current Macs, Expandability is a must.

Your comment makes no sense at all so I'm going to go ahead and assume you aren't in the target market for a Mac Pro anyway.

I mean, do you realise that you just said (slightly paraphrased) "Thunderbolt is okay, but what they really need is expandability"?

You don't see what's wrong with that sentence?

I would love to see a redesigned mac products,.. Fresh look, hot hardware but keep the expandability. However, if I were to guess I would think that we'll see something like what happened with the mac mini server... They'll likely introduce a kick ass imac that possibly has a larger monitor and great hardware. They'll make the ram user upgradable and the rest will go with thunderbolt. I would love a product stronger than the current macs but cheaper than the pros. Oh and make it only available in black and that's something I might actually line up for.

How many Mac Pro users actually uses those PCI-Express expansion slot? I wonder if Apple are waiting for Thunderbolt 2 based on PCI-Express 3 so they could do without those as well and save some more space. Having a 5 or 6 of those to allow Multiple Monitor Setup as well as external RAID Storage.

And Integrated RAID of SSD. It would still be quite expansive now, but given the life span of Mac Pro it would be wise to make the decision now. And Ivy Bridge based E5 with ECC DDR3 is pretty much given.

I think the last part is properly the AddOn Card. Will Apple choose Intel's new Xeon Phi, or Nvidia Geforce Titan.

I think your first sentence is an interesting line of inquiry to follow. What are the stats for owners of existing Mac Pros on usage of PCIe slots or that second optical drive bay? How many pro users make use of the Mac Pro's expandability over its typical useful life? How many would no longer need to do so if Thunderbolt opened up more cardless capability?

I'd like to imagine Apple has enough of this data in a sufficiently significant quantity to have guided its next pro release. I believe at the very least we'll see one less optical bay and one less PCIe slot.

The current Thunderbolt standard can't support external graphics cards on OS X, and on Windows only offers an anaemic 4 lane connection.

Most people who get the current Mac Pro only need expansion slots for upgradable graphics (which is the real bottleneck for Pro apps as more computing is shifted to the graphics card) Everything else that would be in a PCI slot should run just as well via a Thunderbolt-connected peripheral.

Therefore I'd put my money on a new Pro Mac as having a single PCI slot that can be for either a graphics card, or an expansion card that allows an external PCI Chassis to have sufficient lanes / bandwidth to run multiple external (graphics) cards. I'd expect it to have the standard Pro xeon processors and ram, but just a single SSD or Fusion drive, no optical, and only USB3, Thunderbolt (which covers Firewire) and Ethernet connectors.

That's the absolute minimum computing device for a high performance system. It separates the functionality that EVERY pro user needs (cpu, ram, some level of graphics, a boot drive, network and peripheral interconnects), from the parts that only SOME pro users need - some need multiple drives, some need multiple cards etc.

"... it's largely unchanged in appearance from the Power Mac G5, which was first introduced in 2003."

This should probably read "unchanged in *outward* appearance …" The insides of a PowerMac G5 are very different than the current Mac Pro.

As a scientist who does computer modeling for a living, the Mac Pro is a great workstation. The number if cores, memory, drive bays, pci slots are all necessary for my work. Most importantly the system remains cool during the long (up to 1 week) runtimes of models. While the iMac is a great machine, it cannot dissipate the heat properly for this type of work.

Can it be improved? Yes. Faster drive access, better graphics, beefier Xeons. But many of my colleagues love the Mac Pro and would be saddened to see it go as it would mean moving to a lesser quality build Workstation running windows or Linux.

And running a hackintosh? Never! You could never get that by IT or your managers.

Mac Pro's are accepted as a high quality workstation that are proven to be versatile. Windows OS can run near flawlessly on them which, unfortunately, is necessary for some modeling software.

I look forward to a new professional quality workstation.

I'm hoping for a new Mac Pro in the same box like it is now but with the new Intel USB 3, quad Thunderbolt, SATA 3 chips with lots of cores and lots of 8GB RAM slots. Still clinging to my 2008 Harpertown 8 core with three 4TB HDs and the 10.8.3 system on a 512GB SSD. Don't expect it 'til near the end of the year.