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On rumors that the next Mac Pro will be “really different”

Drew Baird, via Mac Rumors:

For what it’s worth - a couple of months ago I received a call from Douglas Brooks, Apples project manager for the new Mac Pro to address my concerns about the new machine. Obviously he didn’t tell me anything about the new MP, but asked me what I wanted to see. I told him expandability for extra graphics cards support, and memory expansion were at the top of my list amongst other things. His reply was simple:

“You are going to be really glad that you waited [to buy a new tower]. We are doing something really different here and I think you’re going to be very excited when you see what we’ve been up to. I can’t wait to show this off”.

First, some reasonable doubt here is warranted: it’s somebody on a forum recalling a phone conversation, months after it happened, in which an Apple employee allegedly gave vague hints about a future product. Even if Baird is credible, it’s probably safe to say that we can’t rely on these specific words. But the gist matches a common rumor that whatever replaces the current Mac Pro will be significantly different.

Lots of rumors have suggested significantly reduced internal storage and slots, relying on Thunderbolt for expansion, but the message from Apple has also been pretty clear that current Mac Pro fans won’t be disappointed by the update. I believe these are mutually exclusive.

Scaling down the Mac Pro without ruining the biggest reasons to buy it is no easy feat, and people who buy it aren’t really asking for it to be scaled down. We already have two Mac desktops that rely heavily on Thunderbolt for expansion, and most Mac Pro buyers don’t want them. Even Thunderbolt 2.0 still won’t be fast enough for extra RAM or high-performance GPUs, and the mass availability of Thunderbolt media peripherals still hasn’t happened — partly because Mac Pro owners still can’t use them. And while we can lose the optical bays without angering many people, it’s going to be tough convincing Mac Pro fans to give up internal hard-drive bays.

If the Mac Pro’s replacement doesn’t have at least 4 internal RAM slots, 2 PCI-Express slots, and 2–4 drive bays, Apple’s going to get a lot of angry professionals, and a lot of them are going to rush to buy refurbished 2010 Mac Pros.

One big question is whether they’ll still offer dual-socket configurations — their omission would anger many buyers, but not as many as those other changes, and the benefits could be substantial: they could stop relying on Intel’s less-frequently-updated 2P Xeons and make a much smaller, cheaper, cooler, more frequently updated lineup using the Xeon E3 series. But the E3, being only slightly different from Intel’s desktop chips, is limited to 32 GB of RAM, which wouldn’t be well-received in a system that has supported 128 GB since 2009.

Then there’s the Retina question. It feels like desktop Retina displays are still very far off, but by my calculations, Asus just announced a 31.5” one, as long as you usually sit at least 25 inches from it. (I sit almost exactly 25 inches from my 30” monitor, so this works.) The big limitation is GPU power, but…

Intel’s new Haswell processors promise to rectify this ailment, having made 4K support a headline feature of their integrated GPU…

Fortunately, Apple’s probably about to update their laptops to Haswell.

The other limiting factor for an external monitor is transmitting all of that video data over a cable: it would require Thunderbolt 2.0, which is coming this fall, at about the same time as the rumored Mac Pro replacement. Retina/4K-display capability in the Mac Pro’s GPU and interconnect, and a new display released with it, is a feature that many pros will pay quite a bit for.

The Mac Pro is usually only updated about every 18 months (cough), so if it can’t go Retina this fall, it might be a while. The technical needs and timing are tight for desktop Retina displays to make it in time for the Mac Pro replacement, but it does look possible, and that would indeed impress people and make us happy to have waited.

It would be unfortunate if the Haswell-generation laptops lack Thunderbolt 2.0 and can’t support an external Retina display, but the monitor is likely to cost over $2,000 at first, limiting its market to mostly Mac Pro buyers anyway. By the time the monitor is more affordable to the mass market, the laptops will be able to drive it.

Of course, it’s also possible, and probably more likely, that Apple will simply wait until the entire lineup has fast enough interconnects and GPUs to drive external $999 Retina displays before releasing them at all, but that’s probably at least 2 years away.

If Retina displays aren’t a feature of this year’s Mac Pro replacement, what will we get so excited about? What was worth skipping a major CPU generation and going 3 years without an update? And if we’re actually going to have less expansion than before in a system bought primarily for its expansion, what’s worth that?

I’m curious.