It sounds simple enough, but in switching to its own processor architecture, Apple is forced to make some very interesting choices about which traditional Mac tower features are going to make it into the new Mac Pro, and which ones will disappear entirely.
Nearly five years ago, Apple invited a small group of journalists to Cupertino to make promises about the future of professional Macs. There’s no way to know for sure, but it seems like it was a watershed moment for the Mac–a recommitment to the platform in general and pro users in particular that has led to major changes in Apple’s Mac hardware and software strategies.
But the biggest news to come out of that event was a promise by then-Apple SVP Phil Schiller that Apple would be making a new Mac Pro, which is “by definition a modular system,” for the small but influential portion of Mac users who use the Mac Pro.
Apple made that promise and, in 2019, introduced an all-new Mac Pro that was indeed modular, with expansion slots and everything, alongside the new Pro Display XDR.
Which takes us to 2022. In bringing Apple silicon to the Mac Pro, how much of that promise is Apple willing to break?
For the record, that means that a top-of-the-line Mac Pro with a quad-M1 Max configuration would have 40 processor cores (32 performance, 8 efficiency), 128 graphics cores, 64 Neural Engine cores, and access to as much as 256GB of memory.
Of course, that configuration will cost a small fortune, but it will also be stunningly fast. And lower-end configurations will presumably be somewhat more affordable while still impressive. I have a hard time believing that it won’t be the fastest Mac ever made.
But while the Mac Pro should set the standard for speed on the Mac, speed is not the only feature that matters. Phil Schiller himself said that the Mac Pro is “by definition a modular system.” And that’s where Apple needs to make a choice.
A smaller box
Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman suggested that the new Apple Silicon Mac Pro will be smaller than the current model. To me, that says one thing: Apple is going to reduce the amount of stuff that you’ll be able to put into a Mac Pro. The question is, what goes in and what is left out?
The most logical guess is that third-party graphics cards are on the way out. A trait of Apple silicon (at least the M1 variety) is that graphics cores are integrated in the chip and share memory with the rest of the system. While Apple might eventually create an architecture that supports the concept of a high-powered external graphics card, it’s hard to imagine that it made the list for the very first generation of chips for the Mac.
The 2019 Mac Pro also introduced the concept of the Afterburner card, which was an Apple-designed FPGA module designed to accelerate ProRes video workflows. It’s a great idea–but Apple has essentially baked ProRes acceleration into the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips themselves, making Afterburner (at least in its current form) unnecessary for an Apple silicon Mac Pro.
So if graphics and video encoding aren’t part of the equation, what’s the point of all that interior space, even if it’s reduced from the current Mac Pro model? I can think of a few things.
If we’re talking about dual- or quad-M1 Pro or M1 Max chips, the Mac Pro should have an enormous number of Thunderbolt 4 channels it will be able to saturate with data. One of the great things about using a big (or even reduce-sized) tower is stuffing it full of fast hard drives. I’d have to imagine you’ll be able to do that on the Mac Pro. And there will probably be options to add more ports, more display connections, and additional networking connectivity, too.
The inevitable backlash
It’s not hard to predict that a new Apple silicon-based Mac Pro will face some backlash. As capable as Apple’s GPUs might be, a Mac Pro that can’t use high-end graphics cards such as the AMD Radeon models in the current Mac Pro will be seen as inferior by some.
And let’s not forget, the Mac Pro swims in some pretty rarefied air. The businesses and institutions that rely on the current Intel-based Mac Pro may be unable to adopt new Apple silicon models for all sorts of compatibility reasons.
That’s why the rumors of a new Intel-based Mac Pro model are interesting to me. I think it’s entirely possible that 2022 will see two Mac Pro releases. Apple might decide to settle all family business and release a final Intel Mac for those who just can’t make the move yet. Why not revise the 2019 Mac Pro once, to get it up to date with the latest Xeon processors and give sites that rely on that model the longest runway possible before being forced to migrate to Apple silicon.
It makes a lot of sense. If the new Apple silicon Mac Pro isn’t able to live up to all of Apple’s promises of modularity–at least at first–why not revise the older model and keep it around? That way, users can choose to take the plunge or stay with the old ways for a little while longer. And users who don’t feel cornered by Apple’s tech decisions are happier users.