Mac Pro Buyers Guide: Apple's newest Mac model is also its most powerful, but is it right for everyone?
Going into 2013, the prospects of Apple's aluminum Mac Pro looked increasingly dim. Based on an industrial design that was introduced prior even to Apple's switch to the Intel processor, the Mac Pro wasn't just long in the tooth. It was ancient. But Apple wasn't done with the Pro, not by a longshot.
First previewed in June at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), the new Mac Pro is a game changer. It's a complete reimagination of what a high-end workstation Mac looks like - no longer a giant monolithic tower system with gobs of internal expandability, the new Mac Pro takes up one-eighth the desktop space of its predecessor. It does so by working with a unified thermal core: looking at the Mac Pro without its cover on, you'll see three circuit boards assembled into a triangular wedge, ribbed internally with a shared heat sink; a fan draws in air to cool the components, and heat rises out through the top.
As impressive a piece of industrial design as the Mac Pro is, it's what's running inside that's truly amazing, though, so let's take a look and figure out how you can best configure your new Mac Pro.
The Mac Pro looks completely different than did before. It now stands a scant 9.9 inches high and measures 6.6 inches in diameter. Weighing in at 11 pounds, this is the lightest Mac Pro ever.
All Mac Pros come similarly equipped - four USB 3 ports (similar to the iMac), 6 Thunderbolt 2 ports, dual Gigabit Ethernet port, an HDMI 1.4 port capable of connecting to a 4K "UltraHD" display, optical digital audio output, headphone minijack, 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking and Bluetooth 4.0.
Thunderbolt 2 is the newest implementation of the high speed peripheral interface standard that's been shipping on Macs for a couple of years now. The first version of Thunderbolt - still used on current systems like the MacBook Air, Mac mini and iMac, supports 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) bandwidth - more than enough to support a 27-inch Thunderbolt Display, fast RAID storage system and more.
The Mac Pro is the second Mac to feature Thunderbolt 2 ports - the first was the refreshed Retina MacBook Pro which shipped in October. Thunderbolt 2 has twice the bandwidth of the original Thunderbolt - 20 Gbps. And the Mac pro has six of those ports. That, combined with the graphics system used by the Mac Pro, makes it able to connect up to three 4K displays, or up to six "regular" Thunderbolt displays.
The Mac Pro comes in two basic configurations. The first is priced at $2,999. That system includes a 3.7 GHz quad-core Intel Xeon E5 processor with 10 MB of L3 cache. It comes with 12 GB RAM, dual AMD FirePro D300 graphics processors and 256 GB of flash storage.
Spending another $1,000 gets you a Mac Pro equipped with a six-core Intel Xeon E5 processor with 12MB L3 cache, 16 GB RAM, dual AMD FirePro D500 graphics processors and 256 GB of flash storage.
There are, predictably, quite a few customization options you can choose from when you place your order. We'll get to those a little later.
The Mac Pro does not come with its own display - you'll need to provide one yourself. You'll also need to get your own keyboard and mouse. That's right, just like the $599 Mac mini, Apple provides the Mac Pro without a keyboard and mouse of its own.
As with all Mac models, the Mac Pro ships with Apple's standard suite of software. OS X Mavericks comes pre-installed along with all of its supporting apps (Mail, Safari, Maps, iBooks and so on), iLife '13 (iPhoto, iMovie, Garageband), and iWork '13 (Keynote, Pages, Numbers).
2013 was an important year for Mac CPU improvements. Beginning in June with the MacBook Air, Apple incorporated Intel's fourth-generation Core processor technology, often referred to by its code-name, "Haswell." An iterative improvement from the Ivy Bridge processor that preceded it, Haswell has differentiated itself by providing improved efficiency and performance, offering a solid boost in battery life for laptops and dramatically improved integrated graphics.
The Mac Pro has a different set of criteria, however. Rather than go with another Haswell processor, Apple is continuing its long history of equipping the Mac Pro with an Intel Xeon processor instead. Xeon processors are built for heavy-duty use in servers and workstations - environments demanding more extreme performance and operational criteria. The Xeon processors in the new Mac Pro are based on Intel's Ivy Bridge-EP architecture.
Compared with previous generations of Mac Pro, the new system's CPU perform better while consuming less power, operates at lower latency (less time waiting for instructions) and provide significantly improved memory throughput. It also has beefier Level 3 cache for frequently accessed instructions - saving the CPU from having to page to slower system memory.
CPU options for the Mac Pro include a basic quad-core processor on the $2,999 system. The $3,999 Mac Pro comes with a 6-core Xeon processor. Options include 8-core and 12-core processors, each with progressively more Level 3 cache. It's counterintuitive, but as the number of cores increases, the overall clock speed decreases - the fastest clock speed is actually on the four-core processor - 3.7 GHz - while the slowest clock speed is on the 12-core processor - 2.7 GHz.
What's important to understand here is that the Mac Pro is designed for parallel processing. Each core in a CPU can operate a separate instruction; four cores can operate four instructions simultaneously. Applications that are tuned to support multiple cores will benefit the most from this - video editing software like Final Cut Pro, data compression and transformation software, 3D rendering, scientific software, and other apps. Almost anything that crunches lots of big numbers.
One way or the other, you'll pay Apple big money to upgrade the processors. Starting with the 3.5 GHz 6-core model as a base, you can customize it with a 3.0 GHz 8-core processor for another $1,500, or a 12-core processor clocked at 2.7 GHz for a staggering $3,000.
The heavy duty CPU is one important element of the Mac Pro's performance capabilities. Another is the graphics processor - actually, the two graphics processors - included in every model.
Now, there's a lot more to computer graphics than fast frame rates in games. Just as the Mac Pro doesn't use an off-the-shelf consumer version of an Intel CPU, it decided not to go with a run-of-the-mill video card, either. Instead, Apple opted for AMD's FirePro graphics processors.
These aren't the sort of processors you'll find in a gaming system. They're the sort of processor you'll find in a high-end graphics workstation, instead. They're thoroughly optimized not only to render graphics well with impressive pixel and texture fill rates, but they're also full-on compute engines that can help the Mac Pro's CPUs process raw data.
Apps that utilize OpenCL, a standard that Apple's supported since Snow Leopard - can take advantage of the programmability of the FirePro GPUs. 3D rendering apps, physics simulations, numerical analysis, data analysis - all of these can benefit from the beefy FirePro graphics.
The $2,999 Mac Pro comes with dual AMD FirePro D300 graphics, each with 2 GB of dedicated video RAM. The $3,999 system comes with dual FirePro D500 graphics, each with 3 GB of dedicated VRAM. A dual FirePro D700 system is also available as a $600 option; each D700 gets 6 GB of VRAM.
Besides VRAM, the higher-end cards have larger memory buses to process more data and deliver faster processing power. The D500 and D700 also handle considerably faster double-precision computation, an important factor for scientists and researchers using the new Mac Pro.
Your new Mac Pro can accommodate up to 64 GB of RAM using four DIMMs (memory modules) in separate slots. The RAM itself is DDR3 Error Correcting Code (ECC) RAM clocked at 1866 MHz - very fast memory aimed at the server-workstation market. Apple uses ECC memory in the Mac Pro to avoid transient memory errors that can systems to crash or produce erroneous data. The Mac Pro is aimed at very high-productivity environments that can't afford such mistakes.
The basic system comes with three 4 GB DIMMs for 12 GB total; the higher-end system comes with four 4 GB DIMMs for 16 GB total. And you can configure your Mac Pro to order with up to four 16 GB DIMMs installed for a total of 64 GB.
Upgrading the $2,999 Mac Pro from 12 GB to 16 GB will cost $100, for an additional 4 GB memory module. Bumping up to 32 GB or 64 GB requires four higher-density 8 GB or 16 GB DIMMs, so the price is more - $500 and $1,300 respectively.
Because the $3,999 Mac Pro model already comes with 16 GB pre-installed, the memory prices are adjusted $100 lower, so 32 GB and 64 GB on that model will cost $400 and $1,200 respectively.
Memory designed to work in the new Mac Pro is already available from third-party vendors, so my recommendation is to order what you'll need today, but you may very well be able to save yourself significant money - hundreds of dollars - by waiting to upgrade the system yourself with more RAM later.
It was easy to fill up the old Mac Pro with gobs of storage - four SATA bays could accommodate 3.5-inch hard disk drives, which made it possible to load up a Mac Pro with 16 terabytes of storage before you had to hook something up externally. That's changed with the new Mac Pro, which uses internal Flash-based storage only. That leads to one of the biggest head-scratchers of the new Mac Pro: it has only a fraction of the internal storage capacity of its predecessor.
The new Mac Pro is incredibly compact and designed for maximum throughput, so it employs PCI Express (PCIe)-based flash storage, the same kind of technology that's used in other 2013 Mac models equipped with flash storage. It's considerably faster than the Serial ATA (SATA)-based flash storage it replaces.
The Mac Pro comes with 256 GB on a single drive, but it's upgradable from the factory to 512 GB or 1 terabyte (TB) for $300 or $800 respectively. At this point, it may be a while before third parties offer compatible upgrades, so it'd be a wise idea to buy what you need for now, at least for your internal boot volume.
Remember, the Mac Pro has six Thunderbolt 2 ports and four USB 3.0 ports - chances are you can find at least a few open ports to connect fast storage systems like a multi-bay RAID, if you need more capacity.
The Mac Pro doesn't come with its own display, so sky's the limit depending on what you're doing. One way or the other you'll be using one (or more) of the six Thunderbolt 2 ports to connect it. Unless you're using Apple's own $999 Thunderbolt Display or an Apple Cinema Display, which features a Thunderbolt-compatible connector, you're probably going to to need an adapter to connect your display. Apple and other companies make connectors to fit between Thunderbolt and VGA, DVI or HDMI, so whatever you connect is fine.
The Thunderbolt 2 ports on the Mac Pro, paired with the powerful AMD FirePro graphics inside the box, make it possible for you connect three 4K displays simultaneously, making the Mac Pro a formidable editing workstation for digital film.
There's also a separate HDMI connector that complies with the HDMI 1.4 spec, making it possible to connect a 4K UltraHD flat panel television to the Mac Pro, as well - again, if you're using your Mac Pro for professional video or film editing, it'll give you a clear idea of how your edited work will look in the "real world."
But if your needs are more mundane, you can use any (or all) of the six ports for their own display - up to the resolution of the Apple Thunderbolt Display, 2560 x 1440 pixels.
At the launch of the Mac Pro, Apple hadn't added its own branded 4K display. Instead, the company is offering Sharp's 32-inch PN-K321, an Ultra HD (3,840 x 2,160 pixel) LED monitor with built-in DisplayPort and two HDMI connections (the HDMI connections are apparently unique to the model sold outside of the Europe, according to Apple). It'll set you back $3,595.
Other 4K displays are already available from third parties. Asus' PQ321Q has been on the market for a while and is available for $200 less, for example, and others are coming to market soon. So if you can wait a while or you're willing to shop around, you may be able to get a better deal.
Bluetooth 4.0 enables you to wirelessly connect a keyboard, mouse and other peripherals, which leaves the four USB 3.0 ports available for other devices like portable hard drives, a CD/DVD burner like Apple's own SuperDrive and so on.
The six Thunderbolt 2 ports each support 20 Gbps, making them useful not only for up three 4K displays but also for other high-speed peripherals - any original Thunderbolt device will work, for example. Storage Area Network (SAN) systems that use Fibre Channel can connect through Thunderbolt. You can also use a new networking technology introduced with Mavericks called Thunderbolt Bridge to connect to other Thunderbolt-equipped Macs. Thunderbolt 2-based RAIDs, digital video capture and playback systems and other products are starting to populate the marketplace, too.
With a total of six Thunderbolt 2 ports, the Mac Pro is the most expandable Mac available - the only other Mac with Thunderbolt 2 ports is the Retina MacBook Pro, and it has only two.
Up until recently Apple only offered the Thunderbolt cable in while, but to match the aesthetic of the new Mac Pro, you can now get Thunderbolt cables in black (same price as before - $29 for a 0.5 meter cable and $39 for a 2.0 meter cable).
The Mac Pro also comes equipped with two Gigabit Ethernet ports. Both ports can be used to connect to separate networks, but if your Mac Pro is connected to a Gigabit Ethernet switch that supports the 802.3ad standard, both ports can be combined (using a method called link aggregation) to improve overall network transfer speed.
The minijack for audio output on the Mac Pro is quite flexible, too - you can use it as an analog line-level output, but it supports optical digital audio output as well, for connecting to a pro audio system or even a home entertainment system (many other Macs have digital audio output as well).
If you take a look at Apple's Mac Pro product site, you'll get a pretty good idea of who the company is aiming the new system at: digital video and film editors and producers; artists who are doing 3D modeling and animation (Disney's Pixar studio is an early adopter of the new Mac Pro); professional photographers; graphic designers and publishers; professional musicians and audio engineers; scientists and others who need massive compute power.
If that describes what you're doing, or if a system with no-holds-barred performance is what you need, then you'd do well to look at a Mac Pro.
But if you're planning to use your Mac for general purpose stuff - surfing the web, running productivity software, gaming - you're better off with one of the many other Mac models. They cost a fraction of the what the Mac Pro does.
Still can't make up your mind as to whether the Mac Pro is worth it, or having trouble deciding what options are right for you? There's nothing wrong with asking more questions. Stop by our Mac Pro forum and let our fantastic community help you. Or post your question here.
So what do you think? Is the Mac Pro the ultimate Mac? Or is it too specialized for what you need? Is the $2,999 price tag sticking in your craw? What do you think about the design. I want to hear from you, so please sound off in the comments.