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New Mac Pro, form or function?

Apple's developer conference, the WWDC, saw the unveiling of the replacement for the aging Mac Pro workstation with a radical new design. The redesign of the current Mac Pro, launched in 2006, has been much anticipated since CEO Tim Cook indicated about a year ago that "something really great" was on the way.

The new design is totally different, externally and internally. But, is the ground up redesign fit for purpose, or is it a triumph of design over functionality? The black cylinder looks very different from the existing product, and it is much smaller, with no internal expansion capability. The launch announcement gave brief specifications, but much of the devil will be in the detail.

The old Mac Pro, the cheese grater as it was dubbed, has been a workhorse platform for editing video and audio, as well as for graphics creation for half a decade, and inherited the enclosure from the G5.

Is it practical?

But, how practical is it? No doubt there will be an after market 19 in rack kits one day, but this is definitely a product to show off in the design studio, not the working edit bay or grading suite. As I sit at my desk, my feet are in a cat's cradle of CAT5 and USB cables. I have a GbE switch and a USB hub in there, as well as remote supply for the monitor, and assorted plug top power supplies. I have a Mac Pro, and that houses four hard drives and an optical drive. If I upgrade, that spaghetti under the desk will be joined by more Thunderbolt spaghetti connecting to external storage.

Connecting peripherals

The cylinder has all the connections on the rear, so to upload a camera card, that is going to need a remote desktop card reader. If I need to plug in an external drive to bring in video content, I can attempt to plug in at the back, but the chassis isn't going to turn easily with all the cables plugged in. Some front connectors would have been dead handy!

There are alternatives, notably the HP Z820. But, many creatives can't deal with Windows; they prefer the familiar world of the Mac OS X, plus it plays well with their iPads and iPhones. So, Mac hardware it has to be.


Apple has always offered adequate, rather than stunning, performance in the GPU department. This time, it offers dual GPUs with up to 6GB of video RAM each. All sounds good, but quick inspection reveals the GPUs are factory fitted; swapping out for an upgrade looks to be out of the question. It has a single CPU from the Intel Xeon E5 family, but the Apple news release indicates configurations with up to 12 cores. "With all that power, the new Mac Pro lets you seamlessly edit full-resolution 4K video while simultaneously rendering effects in the background."

Supposing the plumbed-in GPUs are adequate with Open CL, what if I want to run an application that needs CUDA? The fixed choice of AMD over NVIDIA will not be to everyone's taste. Will Thunderbolt to an external PCIe expansion frame provide an alternative? Or, are there not enough lanes for full GPU acceleration. Many apps have better performance running CUDA versus Open CL. Such issues will become clearer once the product is released.

Is it time for change?

Should we expect tomorrow's workstation to be just an update of the previous generation — a tower of PCIe slots, and plenty of power? Apple has always followed the 80:20 rule with workstations. The geeks can build more powerful Linux beasts, but the Mac Pro used to do most of what the average user wanted, albeit a bit lacking in GPU power.

The last round of Apple laptops has shown professionals that you can do an awful lot of regular work on a laptop when it has SSD storage and Thunderbolt to the peripherals. I expect that the black cylinder will continue in this vein.

We no longer have to ingest video via SDI from a tape deck; the camera card has put an end to that. We work more in the cloud.

10-bit monitoring

One feature Apple has not supported so far is 30-bit drive to the DisplayPort. There are 10- bit panels out there, and with the rapid advance in 4K production, ten bits will become the norm if not the minimum for displays. For applications like grading and Photoshop work, a 10-bit monitor is a real boon. In the brief announcement on the Mac Pro, I could see no mention of this.

And what of Fiber Channel storage? This has been a favorite connection to the editing storage for a decade or more. Thunderbolt 2 will need interfacing with a Fiber Channel fabric and SANs. It will need a Thunderbolt connection to a PCIe chassis with an FC card. The peripherals market for products with Thunderbolt connectivity has had a slow start, but the Mac Pro should drive its further adoption. Audio interfaces and DSPs will also need PCIe expansion chassis.

Back to the spaghetti — one thing that sets professional connectors like BNC and XLR apart from consumers connectors is a latch. HDMI and Thunderbolt pull out all too easily, as DSLR shooters are well aware. If I were designing a really unreliable connector scheme, it would be a daisy chain without latches ... ah, the Thunderbolt!

So, many questions remain unanswered, like the price. With the form of construction, it should be a lower cost than a card frame. A compelling price/performance ratio could overcome some of the drawbacks of such a fixed configuration. The iMac has proved very popular, even with the lack of upgradability; will the new Mac Pro follow this success?

FCP X upgrade in the wings?

The publicity talks about 4K displays. Is this aimed at the 4K production market? It claims to have the horsepower for 4K but a cryptic remark from Phil Schiller, Apple SVP of Marketing, at the WWDC hinted at an upgrade to FCP X.

"The Final Cut Pro team is hard at work on a version of Final Cut Pro X that will support all the performance and graphic capabilities of this machine," he said.

From dominating the video editing market with FCP 7, professionals have been returning to Avid or taking up the hugely improved Premiere Pro, rather than moving to FCP X. A new Mac Pro and an upgrade to FCP could stop some migrators. Time will tell, could it make the SuperMeet at IBC? Who knows, Apple don't sync releases to shows.

At the WWDC, high-end VFX plug-in developer, The Foundry, showed off the new Mac version of their Mari 3D paint application. Foundry developers have been able to test MARI on a heavily disguised black cylinder for the new Pixar movie, Monster's University.

Is the new Mac Pro the future of workstations?

Will this prove the game changer like the iPad, when users find the new way is better than the old way? This new Mac Pro is not for the geeks that build Hackintoshs — it's a new way to compute that has replaced slow HDDs with fast SSDs, and relies upon blazingly fast Thunderbolt 2 for peripherals. You could be looking at the future.