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Speculation on the next Mac Pro

The Mac Pro seems like a ridiculous computer in the age of quad-core laptops. Even I thought so when I switched to a MacBook Pro last fall. But I had some major issues that have only been partially resolved. And in many other ways that I didn’t expect, this setup is far more complex, less elegant, and less reliable than a Mac Pro.

I really hope Apple isn’t done with the Mac Pro yet, because a Xeon E3/E5 update would be awesome.

Back in March, I speculated that the dual-2.9 GHz E5s would reach around 36,000 on Geekbench (64-bit). This now looks like it’ll be correct: Rob-ART Morgan just tested a PC workstation with a pair of the new, Mac Pro-ready Xeon E5 CPUs, with 16 total cores at 3.1 GHz. It scored a whopping 41,242 on Geekbench in Windows.

The fastest Mac Pro you can buy today, the two-year-old, $6200, dual-X5670 2.93 GHz model, scores “only” about 24,262.1

I’m still not sure that the Mac Pro delay is a sign of Apple not caring about it. Remember, they haven’t been waiting for two years because they didn’t feel like updating the line: it has taken Intel two years to deliver the next generation of Xeons.

Assuming Apple still cares a bit about the Mac Pro, what might an update be like?

I don’t think we’ll see a switch to consumer-level CPUs or the price drop that could bring, since consumer chips would require Mac Pro buyers to give up a lot of what they need. If the Mac Pro is going to continue to exist, it should still be a Xeon workstation.

The current Mac Pro is so old that it’s the only Mac still shipping without Thunderbolt, since it predates the introduction of Thunderbolt by six months. Obviously, Thunderbolt would be nice to have on the new Mac Pro. But so would USB 3.0, which inconveniently isn’t built into Intel’s Xeon-compatible chipsets yet. (It’s supposedly coming to the Ivy Bridge updates to the laptops because Intel’s Ivy Bridge chipsets natively support USB 3 for “free”.) Incorporating either of them will require dedicated controller chips on the motherboard. This doesn’t preclude them, but makes them slightly less likely if Apple isn’t particularly dedicated to getting them in there.

I’d love to see the optical-bay area and SATA controller modified to natively support a cluster of four 2.5” drives to accommodate SSDs. (Current Mac Pros can be modified with aftermarket bay adapters and SATA controller cards, but that’s a complex and messy solution.) To make room without other case modifications, one or both optical bays could be removed, or the optical drive could be changed to a slot-loading, slim laptop drive.

I suspect that Blu-ray will still be ignored, mostly for software reasons: while you can buy any BD-RW drive on the market and read or burn data discs from a Mac, you still can’t legally watch Blu-ray movies on OS X. Advertising Blu-ray support without being able to play Blu-ray movies is questionable, and it serves Apple’s strategic interests better to continue pretending that Blu-ray doesn’t exist. Anyone who wants to add a BD-RW drive to their Mac Pro, internally or externally, can do it themselves very inexpensively.

One big question is Retina-display support. If Retina displays are coming to the MacBook Pro soon, would they spread to the rest of the Mac line within a year or two? If so, wouldn’t the next Mac Pro generation need to support them, presumably with the release of a Retina Thunderbolt Display? That’s a big requirement alone, and it would also require special video cards that could drive two or three of them. (The sheer amount of manufactured pixels and GPU throughput required to pull that off makes me think that Retina Thunderbolt Displays might not exist for a while.)

The lack of a Mac Pro update until this point is slightly suspicious, but not cause for much concern. I’m guessing that Apple’s holding back the Mac Pro until USB 3 debuts in the MacBook Pro, a Retina Thunderbolt Display is available, or Mountain Lion is released. If we don’t have a new Mac Pro by the end of the summer, I’ll start to be worried for its future.

  1. To put Mac Pro performance into perspective, the fastest Mac outside of the Mac Pro line is currently the 3.4 GHz 27” iMac at about 12,532, with the recent 2.5 GHz i7 MacBook Pro close by at 11,851. That’s approximately the same performance as a midrange early 2008 Mac Pro. ↩︎