The new Mac Pro: What we wanted, what we're actually getting

It appears the new Mac Pro will support up to 128GB of RAM, which is twice as much as the current top-of-the-line Mac Pro, making many high-end users very happy. The downside here is that the new model has only four memory slots, compared to eight for today’s top-of-the-line model, so maxing out memory will require 32GB DIMMs, which will be very expensive.

One area where a good number of pro users will be disappointed—over the long term, at least—is video: It doesn’t appear, based on what Apple’s revealed so far, that the new Mac Pro’s GPUs will be upgradeable or replaceable.

The consolation here is that the stock GPUs will apparently be very fast, and, of course, you’ll get two of them. Still, there appears to be an assumption that pro users will be ready to upgrade the entire machine by the time those GPUs are obsolete. But comments from our readers indicate otherwise: For example, there are many Mac Pro users who’ve been able to keep even 2008-era Mac Pros current by just swapping out the video card—the CPU itself remains fast enough for them. We’ve also heard from video pros who use software optimized for Nvidia GPUs: The new Mac Pro’s use of AMD components means these folks will have to look elsewhere for their next computer—or at least wait to see if that software gets updated for the new Mac Pro.

Speaking of cards, we also didn’t get the spare PCI Express slot I wished (weakly) for. While that’s a very minor letdown for me, the new Mac Pro’s lack of any PCI Express slots is the most-common complaint we’ve heard from pro users. I think that for some people, this is mostly a gut reaction—in the end, they’ll be more than happy with the built-in video cards, and they’ll be able to accomplish everything else using Thunderbolt peripherals. But there are definitely folks who need a full-size tower’s expandability. As forum member Phredd wrote, Apple has “turned the Mac Pro inside out…with all expandability on the outside rather than room on the inside.” And that won’t work for everyone.

Will the price be right?

Of course, the biggest question that remains—both for judging my predictions and for satisfying the curiosity of many an anxious Mac user—has to do with the new Mac Pro’s price. Though I predicted the new, smaller model might be the only Mac Pro, I not-so-secretly hoped Apple would keep a high-end tower and offer a model (or at least a configuration) that was a better fit, at a sub-$2000 price, for people like me—power users who don’t need all the current Mac Pro’s bells and whistles. I wanted a powerful-but-affordable minitower for what you might call “sub-pros.”

As it turns out, the new, smaller model is still very much a Mac Pro. It’s a high-end machine with high-end componentry and specs (lack of PCI slots notwithstanding). It uses the latest CPUs, the latest GPUs, the latest solid-state storage, the latest expansion ports, and a completely new industrial design made of machined aluminum. This thing is, as Macworld contributor John Siracusa hoped it would be, a halo car—an example of what Apple is capable of doing in terms of both design and performance.

Which makes me pretty confident that my dream of a smaller Mac Pro at a smaller price isn’t going to come true. My initial thinking, while I was watching last Monday’s WWDC keynote, was that Apple might offer a low-end configuration priced somewhere around $2000 to $2500. But after considering everything that’s inside, as well as the target audience and the computer’s place in Apple’s product line, I think the new Mac Pro will continue to be a premium-priced product. I’m guessing that, as with the current Mac Pro, the low-end model will start at around $2500, and the price will quickly ramp into the five-digit range when you max it out.

Is it the right Mac Pro?

While price is the biggest question, the biggest debate is about whether this Mac Pro is the “right” Mac Pro. I’m excited about it, lack of internal expansion and all, because it looks to be very fast, easily expandable and upgradeable for the types of things I need to do, compact, and—I’m assuming—relatively energy efficient. But I understand why it’s going to be disappointing to some people.

Did it need to be? Back in March, I wrote:

This theoretical minitower wouldn’t satisfy all pro users—particularly the ones who need the absolute best performance and the most expandability (and, it should be said, who were once Apple’s bread and butter). Maybe Apple simply abandons these people, letting them go to specialized workstations from other vendors.

Now that we’ve seen the new Mac Pro, that second sentence appears to have come to pass—at least for the most-demanding users.

Mac Pro at WWDC 2013JASON SNELL
Is this the Mac for you? Maybe.

But those saying that this isn’t a “real” professional Mac have got it wrong. It’s just a different professional Mac. As former Apple ad exec Ken Segall put it, “pro users have not been forgotten at Apple—they’re just being redefined.”

Does that mean Apple is redefining what the company thinks is a professional user? Or is Apple trying to get professional users to take a good, hard look at what they really need in a workstation? I say both. And as with any new Mac model, some people will love it, while it won’t be the right fit for others.

And there’s something else to consider here: Apple wants to sell as many Mac Pros as possible, and by not including every feature needed by the highest-end users, the company has expanded the market for the computer.

What do I mean by that? It wouldn’t have been difficult for Apple to stick with a huge, super-expandable enclosure; add the latest processors, GPUs, and expansion ports; and trot that computer onstage, touting its best-in-class performance. Such a computer, despite being aesthetically similar to the Mac Pro we’ve had for years, would have sold like hotcakes to the high-end market…which means it probably wouldn’t have sold exceptionally well, because these days, fewer and fewer people want a massive tower with four drive bays, a bunch of PCI and RAM slots, lots of CPUs and GPUs, and the fans and heatsinks to keep it all cool.

Apple instead wanted its “halo car”—and its most expensive computer—to appeal to a wider audience. That includes some high-end pros, of course, many of whom might be better served by a more-traditional design but will make do with this one. But the new model is also for pros who’ve been using iMacs and MacBook Pros—sacrificing some amount of performance—because the current Mac Pro is overkill. And it’s for power users like myself who will (grudgingly) pay more for better performance and expandability than an iMac.

Which is why the new Mac Pro, despite its limitations, is on my wish list. And, I suspect, on many more wish lists than it would have been had it simply been a new version of the traditional megatower.

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