Intel's new Xeon chips and the future of the Mac Pro

Intel on Tuesday announced the availability of its new Xeon E5 processors for servers and workstations. That announcement was accompanied by unveilings by Dell, HP, and IBM of E5-equipped servers.

While the news of new Xeons powering other companies' servers may not spark your interest, keep in mind that Apple's Mac Pro also run on that Intel processor. So does that mean an update to the Mac Pro—which has remained unchanged since August 2010—is in the works?

Historically, Apple doesn’t announce new hardware that incorporates new processor architecture on the same day that the architecture first becomes available. But it can happen soon afterwards. For example, last year, Intel announced availability of its dual-core Sandy Bridge chips on February 20; four days later, Apple revealed new MacBook Pros that used the new chips. With Apple set to make a major announcement on Wednesday—most likely on the iOS front—Apple’s public-relations energies are already spent, so if there’s going to be a Mac Pro announcement, it probably won’t happen this week.

That is, if Apple believes that the Mac Pro is a viable part of its product line. The rumor mill says that the Mac Pro is dead. And since the Mac Pro hasn’t been updated in 18 months, it’s easy to believe that Apple has abandoned its workstation.

I hope the Mac Pro isn’t dead quite yet—I'd like to see Apple make one last effort for the machine, which would also simplify its product line. Currently, the Mac Pro line has three standard configuration models. Since Mac Pro buyers tend to customize their machines, Apple could simplify the line to offer just a single standard configuration model, one that offers a boost of processing power over the top-of-the-line iMac. That single Mac Pro model could have a ton of customization options, including CPU upgrades that allow for a 16-core Mac Pro.

Of course, there’s another way for Apple to simplify its product line, and that’s by discontinuing the Mac Pro. Apple sells more laptops than desktop Macs (in its Q1 2012 results, Apple reported that 72 percent of Macs sold were laptops), and when it comes to desktop Macs, most customers are satisfied with the processing power offered in the iMac—in fact, according to Macworld’s benchmarks, a $1999 27-inch iMac with a quad-core 3.1GHz Core i5 is faster overall than a $3499 Mac Pro with an eight-core 2.4GHz Xeon processor (granted, this Mac Pro is much older than the iMac).

The advantage the Mac Pro had with its expansion slots is gone, thanks to Thunderbolt. While the Thunderbolt peripheral market still has a lot of growing to do, many of the Thunderbolt devices available, such as high-end video capture devices, are the types of devices used by Mac Pro users. For the most part, the slots in a new Mac Pro would be to address the needs of legacy users who don't want to (or can't) give up expansion cards.

Still, it’s fun to think of the potential of a new Mac Pro. The Xeon E5 is based on the Sandy Bridge architecture, which is used in Apple’s other Macs. There are versions of the new Xeon E5 processors with eight cores, so it’s possible a Mac Pro could have 16 cores. The Xeon E5 also has an integrated PCI-Express 3.0 bus that has data rates of 8 gigatransfers per second; the current Mac Pro has PCI-Express 2.0 (5 gigatransfers per second). Those are just a few of the new features of the Xeon E5, and a new Mac Pro could be an impressive performer.

But is it worth it to Apple? Having a “muscle” Mac in its lineup used to be important to Apple when it had to battle for attention against Windows PCs, but it’s not necessary anymore. If Apple doesn’t make an announcement in the upcoming weeks, we may have our answer.

[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]

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