A world without the Mac Pro
It’s looking increasingly likely that there will never be another Mac Pro. Here’s why that would be a shame.
Pro buyers depend on Apple to make the hardware that satisfies our needs. And we’re flexible. We’ve adapted over the years to new CPU architectures, port changes, capability changes, price increases, and a slower update pace.
The 5K iMac is a truly great computer. It’s the best general-purpose desktop Apple has ever made. It almost replaces the need for the Mac Pro. Many of us can get by with the 5K iMac.
But there are some things that only a Mac Pro can deliver.
More than 4 cores. Per-core performance has been eking out diminishing returns for years, so today’s newest processors aren’t much faster than those from a few years ago. If you need more performance for parallel workloads — very common for video, photography, 3D, science, medicine, and software development — the only way to jump meaningfully ahead of mainstream CPUs is to add more cores.
Today’s Mac Pro-class Xeon CPUs easily pack 8 cores at pro-accessible prices, 10 or 16 for a bit more, and scale all the way up to 22 cores.1 It may take a decade for an iMac to match the speed of today’s 16-core Xeons.2
High-end GPU power. Only the Mac Pro has the space, budget, heat capacity, and PCIe bandwidth to offer high-performance desktop- and professional-grade GPUs. If gamers, game makers, visual effects workers, and OpenCL aren’t enough, the rapidly-emerging VR and AR markets should be — they’re the next wave of high-end pro buyers who need the fastest hardware money can buy, and Apple has nothing to offer them.
The most RAM. The brand-new MacBook Pro maxes out at 16 GB and the iMac maxes out at 32 GB from Apple or 64 GB with aftermarket RAM. The three-year-old Mac Pro can go to 64 GB from Apple, 128 GB aftermarket. Some pro workloads simply need more RAM than the consumer and mobile chips support.
The freedom of thickness and AC power. High-core-count CPUs and powerful GPUs need far more wattage and thermal management than the other Macs will ever have the thickness or battery capacity to accommodate. The Mac Pro doesn’t need to be small, thin, lightweight, or power-constrained — the rest of the lineup fills those roles well, freeing the Mac Pro to be as big as it needs to be.
Silence. Unlike every other Mac except the low-performance 12-inch MacBook, the Mac Pro remains inaudible in most rooms even under sustained heavy workloads — you don’t hear the fan spin up — because its size and clever thermal design allows for a massive heatsink, cooled by a huge, slow fan.
This isn’t only important for pro environments such as recording studios and video sets, but it’s nice for all of its users (and their officemates). The Mac Pro is the only Mac that handles heavy workloads gracefully.
Reliability and longevity. The Mac Pro’s workstation chipsets, Xeon CPUs, and ECC RAM are all designed with more strict tolerances, resilience, and error correction than the mainstream components in every other Mac. And the heavy-duty thermal design keeps components cooler, which prolongs their life and improves stability. Most Macs have long lives before they break or become outdated, but Mac Pros outclass every other model by starting with a huge performance lead, then working hard for years without breaking a sweat.
And by separating the computer from the display, either can be upgraded more freely, promoting customer investment in high-end displays and high-end computers as needs and technologies change.
Taking the burden off of the other Macs. Pros wouldn’t be as angry about the limitations of the new MacBook Pro line if there was an alternative that solved their needs. The Mac Pro sweeps up countless edge cases with one product at the top of the line — the only downside is cost, but many pros would rather spend money than compromise on their needs.
Just as the Mac’s power lets iOS be simpler, a healthy Mac Pro frees up the rest of the Mac lineup to make more aggressive progress.
Current sales aren’t an indicator of future sales. Apple shouldn’t use the (presumably) low sales of the current Mac Pro to justify discontinuing the line entirely. The 2013 Mac Pro was introduced with a substantial price increase, far less internal expansion, fewer and more expensive processor options, and a forced dual-workstation-GPU configuration even for buyers who would’ve been fine with a single GPU. Then it was abandoned for three years, during which 5K displays finally came to market, but without a good option for Mac Pro buyers.
The 2013 Mac Pro was a victim of limited configuration options in a market that values versatility and edge-case handling, poor timing behind the 5K transition, and years-long neglect. A 2017 Mac Pro need not suffer from the same issues, and could sell far better.
Any Mac Pro is better than no Mac Pro. The 2013 Mac Pro is a great design, but its size and power constraints are self-imposed. Mac Pro buyers care little about form. If future Mac Xeon workstations must change their form to be practical or palatable to Apple — for instance, by becoming more of an “iMac Pro” with a built-in 5K screen but a large, thick thermal enclosure on the back — that would be less ideal, but we’d take that over the lack of any high-end workstation Macs. (The existing iMac is great, but it isn’t enough.)
Nobody else can make macOS hardware. If Apple doesn’t address someone’s hardware needs, there’s no alternative.3 We can’t just buy hideous Xeon workstations from Dell and install macOS on them. If we can’t do what we need on Mac hardware, our only choice is to leave the entire Mac platform.
But the competition isn’t even close.
Linux can solve some pro needs, but not most. It’s a fantastic server OS but a miserable desktop one, and that will probably never change.
Microsoft is boldly experimenting with PC hardware, but Windows and everything around Windows is woefully inferior to macOS and the Mac software ecosystem. Even if Microsoft did everything right, it would take Windows at least a decade to catch up — and they won’t do everything right.
Google’s trying something, I’m sure, but Google is both terrible at consumer software and deeply, profoundly creepy. General-purpose computing must not require us to compromise our privacy and data for advertising.
And just as nobody’s starting new general web search engines or mass-market online auction sites today, nobody else is going to make a viable general-purpose PC OS anymore. The minimum bar is too high. We’re stuck with the few we have for the long haul.
But if the one you’re stuck with is macOS, that’s a great thing.
We don’t want to leave the Mac. We came here, built here, and stayed here all of this time because Macs are truly awesome computers, and macOS is the best operating system in the world.
It’s the only pro-grade, workstation-class operating system that has ever been easy to use and nice enough that we wanted to spend more time at our workstations.
And hidden behind our pro apps and terminal windows are the shared photo streams we made last night, showing pictures of our children to their grandparents, who are running the exact same operating system.
Technology changes, markets change, and people change, but some moments in history are uniquely high points that are never quite matched.
The world has never seen anything like macOS, and nothing will truly replace it. If we’re forced to move to something else, it’ll be painfully, inescapably, perpetually worse.
Keep the Mac Pro alive, Apple, so none of us have to make that choice.
The rest of the lineup is great for almost everyone. Almost. But please don’t abandon those of us who truly want or need the best computers in the world, because if they’re not Macs, they’re not good enough.
That’s just with a single socket. If the Mac Pro offered dual-socket options like it did before the 2013 redesign, even higher-performance options open up, limited only by power consumption, heat, and money. ↩︎
And this is today, before Skylake’s improvements have come to the Xeon line. Next year’s Skylake-E Xeons and Purley platform are a major upgrade that will put them even further ahead of the consumer line. ↩︎
“Hackintoshes” aren’t good enough. ↩︎