Why Apple’s Mac Pro Won’t Last

| Hidden Dimensions
“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” — Bertolt Brecht

 

Apple has a long tradition building a powerful “desktop” tower Macintosh. It has been a given that some customers needed a Mac with PCI slots, fans, and a powerful CPU, bus and graphics card. Nowadays, technology has changed and so has Apple’s market.

On Monday, TMO reported that Apple may be questioning the Mac Pro line because of poor sales. We don’t know exactly when this will happen. Apple’s decision could be soon or next year. But the underlying thread is emerging more and more often, and I sense there may be more going on here than meets the eye.

Mac Pro:  R.I.P.

To first order, as mentioned in the TMO article above, Apple is all about watching sales and customer trends. When a product doesn’t sell well, customers are sending Apple a very distinct message, and so it’s pointless for Apple to carry a product forward for the sake of a few, even if those few complain rather loudly.

Technology Change

But that’s not the whole story. The reason for the customer shift has to be understood. A decade ago, the CPUs in our PowerBooks and iMacs were rather anemic. Apple differentiated between the consumer iMac and the PowerMac G5 for the power user because that’s the way the technology broke out. In these times, however, Intel has been able to develop some fairly powerful CPUs, the Sandy Bridge chips, that are very strong and not so battery hungry — with the help of Lion. The current iMac’s i7 compares well with the Xeon processor in the Mac Pro, and MacBooks aren’t too far behind.

Another technology that comes into play is Apple’s vision: Thunderbolt. This high speed bus makes is practical to miniaturize our desktops with more screen and less pure mass. If anything needs to be added, likely, it can be with Thunderbolt expansion boxes. This keeps the Mac thin, dense, more rugged, easier to ship and with fewer fans. Eventually, our desktops could look something like the concept below: all display and very little visible computational hardware.

terr anova computer

Terra Nova on Fox Broadcasting

Yet another technology that’s very relevant is OpenCL. Recently, one of Apple’s research scientists posted a note on Apple’s Scitech mailing list about how it’s possible to achieve a teraflop of computing power with a 12-core Mac Pro that includes a high end GPU that’s OpenCL capable. In this hypothetical scenario, the Mac’s CPUs are calculated to be able to contribute 200 gigaflops, but with OpenCL, the GPU contributes 800+ gigaflops. Apple hasn’t responded to my queries about real world software testing with, say, Linpack, but the technology is there.

What this means is that future Macs can exploit modern GPUs to achieve the kind of performance that formerly required a desktop Mac.

There’s also a bit of irony here. Modern developers are all about the consumer, as is Apple, and the consumer electronics marketplace doesn’t often require supercomputer-class Macs. However, when that kind of power is needed, the development of the sophisticated, high-end, calculation tools to exploit OpenCL requires the expertise of very experienced computer scientists at major research organizations and national laboratories: the very people Apple is leaving behind in its headlong rush in to the consumer world. Even so, eventually, with enough time and evangelism, the software techniques will trickle down to the ordinary developer. That’s what WWDC sessions are for.

Finally, new OS technologies are driving Apple in new directions. Gestures and voice input suggest a different physical relationship to our Macs. That’s harder to achieve with some kinds of hardware designs, sans display. I wrote about that back in June and noted that the Mac Pro seems to be the odd man out these days.

What’s Left?

So what’s left in the Power Mac we can’t live without? Modern GPUs can, as I’ve noted, out-perform 12-core CPUs. Expansion boxes allow specialization by the customer instead of generalization by Apple. The Mac Pro is all metal and mass and heat sinks and fans and has no built-in display, making it dicier for Apple integrate newer UI technologies. It’s a relic from the past whose technologies are being replicated in other, better ways.

The times and technology have changed, and Apple customers seem to agree. It may be just a matter of time before the Mac Pro gets the axe. And if you really need a supercomputer in your lab, the scientific community has also spoken: Linux on 1U rack mountable servers.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Join the TMO Express Daily Newsletter to get the latest Mac headlines in your e-mail every weekday.

37 Comments Leave Your Own

Lee Dronick

A decade ago, the CPUs in our PowerBooks and iMacs were rather anemic. Apple differentiated between the consumer iMac and the PowerMac G5 for the power user because that?s the way the technology broke out. In these times, however, Intel has been able to develop some fairly powerful CPUs, the Sandy Bridge chips, that are very strong and not so battery hungry ? with the help of Lion. The current iMac?s i7 compares well with the Xeon processor in the Mac Pro, and MacBooks aren?t too far behind.

Expandability aside, is there a need for an even more powerful Mac. Not in a research lab or large shop, but for the small business or home based business. If what we have now in iMacs compares to MacPros think of what could be done with a MegaMacPro that is much more powerful.

Dorje Sylas

Why not just add more “CPU Boxes” off Thunderbolt if you need more raw crunch power. When you have an external cable reaching onbord bus speeds then you can start sticking extra CPUs virtually anywhere. At that point you don’t have a desktop but a collection of “Pro Modules”

I’m still waiting for a Thunderbolt iPad that will link as the display to a normally headless MacMini.

If I hadn’t already committed to some very big expenses, I’d be looking for a Thunderbolt card for my MacPro.

CJ

In 2007 I had the choice between a Mac Pro and an iMac for video editing. Went with the Mac Pro for multiple on board hard drives and ability to add interface cards. An iMac would have worked but probably would not still be sufficient. But Thunderbolt has changed the landscape. My next video editing computer may be a MacBook Pro, giving horsepower and flexibility. As long as I have processing power, multiple displays and access to storage and I/O, shape of the box the CPU sits in is less important (as long as it runs OS X).

mlvezie

If part of your argument is that the Mac Pro isn’t an integrated CPU/monitor, like the iMac and laptops are, then I would point out that the Mac Mini is still there, so if CPU/monitor integration is an issue, they’ll have to solve it for the mini as well as the pro.

John Martellaro

mlvezie: I can envision a future in which a 7-inch, iPad-like (key word: “like”) device is running OS X Lion, operated with gestures, and would replace the mini.  You’d have to add some ports and use a CPU that supports virtualization—so you could run Parallels, Fusion, etc. (The ARM cannot.) Anyway, one step at a time.

Gareth Harris

This month I sold my mac pro and changed to a macbook air.

My macbook air is 50-100,000 times the speed of my old CDC 6600 supercomputer which occupied an entire building and required a staff of 40 of us.

AND I can use it while sitting under a shade tree with a cold beer.

CudaBoy

Heck, I’m surprised this Site is still called MacObserver what with nary a Mac mention in it compared to the iToys that dominate the place.
Seems that y’all think that all that swiping and rubbin’ of Apple’s toys is somehow relevant to computing. It is not.
The customers that MADE Apple, i.e graphics and music Pros from late 80’s and on will not be swiping or gesturing to Avid or Pro Tools apps anytime soon. The elegance of a big box stuffed with hard drives and purpose built cards with room for future expansion, where one can pick any state of the art monitor still rules in the Professional world.
Thunderbolt? Give me a break. Wires and power supplies are so yesterday.
Apple’s mkt share has hovered around 5% forever, so what’s the big deal now? The profit margin is still crazy high.

furbies

I hope Apple keeps the Mac Pro and it’s successors.

I’m a simple home user but I chose the Mac Pro (‘09) and before that, a G5 Tower, and before that, a MDD….

I like the Tower(s) because I can have multiple internal HDDs, extra USB ports, multiple Screens, extra FireWire etc

Yes I know ThunderPort can do most if not all of these things, but the cables & boxes (Yuck!) Not to mention the expense. ThunderPort ain’t cheap. Not yet, and I suspect not for a while.

CudaBoy

I?m a simple home user but I chose the Mac Pro (?09) and before that, a G5 Tower, and before that, a MDD?.

Yay. As a not so simple home/pro user I followed your purchases exactly, except I started with an SE in 80’s, IICI, PowerMac 6100AV, Bondi G3 tower and then your list.
“You can have my tower when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” Chuck “Jobs” Heston d:D

furbies

Yay. As a not so simple home/pro user I followed your purchases exactly, except I started with an SE in 80?s, IICI, PowerMac 6100AV, Bondi G3 tower and then your list.

OK then!

Before the MDD, I had a G4/400 and before that, Beige G3/266 later upped with a G4/400 CPU upgrade and before that, 6200CD and before that, the SE/30 and before that, a Mac Plus and before that, a 512ke

The SE/30 did allow for some upgrades via the PDS Slot ?

The Mac Plus & 512ke shouldn’t really be counted because nothing could be upgraded except for the RAM

CudaBoy

Before the MDD, I had a G4/400 and before that, Beige G3/266 later upped with a G4/400 CPU upgrade and before that, 6200CD and before that, the SE/30 and before that, a Mac Plus and before that, a 512ke

So basically if we both pooled the total of all our Mac purchases to buy Apple STOCK back in the SE days we’d be sittin’ pretty today but hey, the price of fame. Well MacQuarium still looks cool. (not). Cripes, I’m gettin’ weepy remembering DA’s… Hypercard….
How could this legacy die????????

iJack

I always felt that the MacPros at the top of the heap, and all the Pro users from a wide range of serious professions, gave all the other Macs some added (perceived) legitimacy.

Try to think where Apple might be today if there was no Pro line ? if their high-end product had always been the “mere” iMac.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my iMac.  I do complex 3D architectural modeling on it; a feat unthinkable on a G3 or G4 of just a few years ago.

None the less, I think the Mac hierarchy is just right, and that Apple should think about creating near-super-computing Mac Pros, instead of ditching them.  Aside from the fact that there is still a sizable market there, the halo effect (thank you, John) on the rest of the Apple wares is undeniable.

CudaBoy

None the less, I think the Mac hierarchy is just right, and that Apple should think about creating near-super-computing Mac Pros, instead of ditching them.

Great post iJ. The Mac is the Daddy; doesn’t have to muddle along… the next SuperMacs should be inspired by the iMacs’ audacious throw-down.

furbies

So basically if we both pooled the total of all our Mac purchases to buy Apple STOCK back in the SE days we?d be sittin? pretty today but hey, the price of fame. Well MacQuarium still looks cool. (not). Cripes, I?m gettin? weepy remembering DA?s? Hypercard?.
How could this legacy die????????

I actually fired up my SE/30 the other week just for fun.
The screen has burn in, and it’s slower than mud, but it still boots.

iJack

..the next SuperMacs should be inspired by the iMacs? audacious throw-down.

Exactly so, ‘Cuda.

Lee Dronick

t Apple should think about creating near-super-computing Mac Pros

That is what I was thinking. Something that will leave the PCs sitting at the starting gate.

iJack

Something that will leave the PCs sitting at the starting gate.

I was thinking something so beyond the PC, that the word “PC” would become a pejorative.

Sorry if I am hogging the thread.

CudaBoy

I actually fired up my SE/30 the other week just for fun.
The screen has burn in,

..after spraying liters of choke cleaner into the carburetor and burning off the carbon. What OS??? OS 4??  5??
I miss the crisp 8 bit graphics - pre Aqua-Blur.I’m thinking of resurrecting and old pre-OS 6 Mac for the goof of it.

CudaBoy

I was thinking something so beyond the PC, that the word ?PC? would become a pejorative.

You mean Pre Cool???

Lee Dronick

Sorry if I am hogging the thread.

Anyone can pipe in and we will see the comments.

I will soon need to be getting to bed.

iJack

You mean Pre Cool???

I mean something where “a teraflop of computing power” would quickly become pass?, and only Apple Super Mac Pros will have it on desktops. 

Just like the humongous SUV and the 200 mph Ferrari, there will always be those who buy much more power that they need.

Lee Dronick

I mean something where ?a teraflop of computing power? would quickly become pass?, and only Apple Super Mac Pros will have it on desktops.

Not too far into the future. Look how far we have come since the days of Apple II and that really wasn’t that long ago.

iJack

Look how far we have come since the days of Apple II and that really wasn?t that long ago.

I hear ya, brother.  I had a IIe (Euro) for my first computer (in Saudi Arabia, of all places), followed by the first Mac, which I still have.  Seems like only yesterday.  OK, it seems like 10 years instead of the quarter-century it’s actually been.

KitsuneStudios

I see one major flaw in the primary argument:

Modern GPUs can, as I?ve noted, out-perform 12-core CPUs. Expansion boxes allow specialization by the customer instead of generalization by Apple.

Then why eliminate the only computer in the entire lineup capable of running full-size power-hungry GPUs? Why replace it with an external expansion port incapable of running said high-power GPUs without bandwidth issues (Thunderbolt is equal to 4x PCIe: fine for the slight hit to a mid-range graphics card taking over from a laptop’s Intel GPU, not so good for the theoretical CUDA/OpenGL primary computing you’re describing.)

While I admit that the i7 iMac is my current choice for a power user computer, I worry that the elimination of the only Mac with user-upgradable industry-standard internals is leading us right back into the bad old days of being seriously overpriced, underpowered and lacking in variety.

CudaBoy

Look how far we have come since the days of Apple II and that really wasn?t that long ago.

Well, it WAS a long time ago and the problem is just as we are still driving cars utilizing 90 year old pushrod technology in the face of future alternative Hydrogen..
The Mac OS X is mired in “ancient” BSD Unix. Great as it is,a new paradigm (of code:ground up) using new ?ber fast chips must happen otherwise it will be evolutionary not revolutionary. Easy for me to say, I don’t know a bit from a hexi-decimal, and that bytes.

iJack

..we are still driving cars utilizing 90 year old pushrod technology in the face of future alternative Hydrogen..

Are we?  Are any cars still produced without at least a single overhead cam? 

I also don’t quite understand equating engine valve technology with the use of Hydrogen as a fuel.

give_me_a_break

Apple needs to do something to stay relevant in computing.  There is much they could do along the lines of a modular mac-mini type product stacking, snappable separate packages for cpu, memory, vid etc..tied together with thunderbolt.  As it is now I have not bought a new apple computer in almost 3 years because there is no compelling choice.

Apples bigger problem is Objective C,  the rapidly aging software foundation of the entire apple empire.  For whatever reason, apple has never been able to push forward real advances in software productivity and they are slowly being left behind.

CudaBoy

Are we?  Are any cars still produced without at least a single overhead cam?

I also don?t quite understand equating engine valve technology with the use of Hydrogen as a fuel.

It’s about thinking outside the box. If we get chips from Intel, then how can Apple ever get that separation from “PC” that has been mentioned above.

The analogy?  Honda Clarity, Tesla Roadster - 2 completely different cars - one a refined sedan, the other a pull-you-through-the-glass torque monster neither of which have a pushrod in sight and leave zero emissions yet silently can toast 9h0% fossil burning cars off the road. I’ve ridden in both. It pains me to say the Tesla roadster made my cooler E-body ‘Cuda irrelevant. That’s what Macintosh needs. Something new.

Lee Dronick

The first hydrogen fuel cell was in 1839, but coal and steam ruled transportation for a long time. However, I hear ya, we should be well beyond reciprocating engines burning gasoline. We need flux capacitors.

As to the Apple II being around a long or short time. It has been slightly less than half my life.

furbies

.after spraying liters of choke cleaner into the carburetor and burning off the carbon. What OS??? OS 4??? 5??
I miss the crisp 8 bit graphics - pre Aqua-Blur.I?m thinking of resurrecting and old pre-OS 6 Mac for the goof of it.

It’s running 7.5.5 & Mode32 so it can address all 20MB of RAM.
(Courtesy of eBay, years after it stopped being my primary Mac)

I’ve also got a 10baseT (Half duplex & BNC) Ethernet Card in the PDS Slot.
And it’s got an 80MB HDD installed.

Back in the day it was a sweet machine….
But I will admit I always hankered for the 3rd party large screen kit, but it was way too expensive at the time. And it meant the loss of ethernet via the PDS slot.

That reminds me that I’ve still got half a dozen AppleTalk dongles floating around here somewhere…......

CudaBoy

That reminds me that I?ve still got half a dozen AppleTalk dongles floating around here somewhere?......

And I have ADB joysticks, donglets, bricks that are art objects.

10BaseT, E-Net in a PDS slot???  You KNOW you must be in a data group of about ohhh THREE PEOPLE on the globe with that rig today. Stud.

Barzia Tehrani

How about a new product line: a more powerful Mac mini. Apple can cut Mac Pro production and continue to provide replacement for its core customers, the video editing industry with a new line of Mac mini and thunderbolt expansion. The product can also appeal who their usage prefer desktop rather than laptop and yet find Mac pro too expensive.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see third party packaging (perhaps small racks) to host the Mac mini, expansion chassis and perhaps additional storage options.

furbies

How about a new product line: a more powerful Mac mini.

Barzia, it’s a nice idea but IMHO a 2.5” HDD just isn’t up to the demands of the “High End” user, and 2.5” SSDs aren’t big enough in capacity and way too expensive to be useful. (Yet…)

Video editors tend to like 3.5” 7200 RPM or even 10,000 RPM drives for their sheer speed. And in my experience 2.5” HDDs aren’t as reliable as 3.5” HDDs.
And as I said earlier Thunderbolt is still way too expensive to be affordable at the moment.

My Mac Pro is capable of holding 4 x 3TB drives. (Which is the current max in HDD capacity?)  That’s 12TB of storage with no external boxes, or cables. And if I didn’t need the optical drives, I could add another 2 drives for a total of 6 x 3TB (18TB) of storage all in the same box as the CPU.

And if one considers the number of years a Mac Pro can still be useful for, the return on investment isn’t so bad.

CudaBoy

What (furbies) said. That HDMI w/Intel for $500 is a bitch though. The Macintosh just has to step up and restore order.

A.Lizard

You’ll be lucky if there are any OSX computers available in a couple of years. It isn’t just the MacPro that doesn’t fit the walled garden appliance company Apple has become, it’s the entire Unix computer line.

Apple no longer needs professional high-performance computer users to stay in business. Your repayment for a generation of Apple loyalty? A discount coupon on the 21” iOS tablet / stand / keyboard productivity machine of the future. Those of you who don’t code will move to Winblows. Those of you who run your own apps? Welcome to Linux, where your apps can be ported.

Making the happy assumption that non “Trusted Computing” platforms that can run Linux are still available.

cubefan

The analogy?  Honda Clarity, Tesla Roadster - 2 completely different cars - one a refined sedan, the other a pull-you-through-the-glass torque monster neither of which have a pushrod in sight and leave zero emissions

I’m sorry, but by what measure are these cars zero emissions?,  in use, manufacture, maintenance or disposal?
Generating electricity to charge the batteries is NOT zero emissions, in a conventional power station, thermodynamic laws prevent energy conversion efficiency better than 40% - so claiming any vehicle is zero emissions is a MYTH, or a misrepresentation of the facts.

CudaBoy

I?m sorry, but by what measure are these cars zero emissions?,  in use, manufacture, maintenance or disposal?

The cars are listed by our Govt as zero emissions. The Hydrogen fuel cell has H2O for “exhaust”.
But the point is OUTSIDE THE BOX; why are we still using primitive clunky pistons except to feed the greed of the Oil Co.s?? Every alternative TODAY can be picked apart, for instance it takes fossil fuel to make Hydrogen - but that’s TODAY, not tomorrow, and even so is still superior ecologically exponentially compared to internal combustion clunkiness. Oil-sand? NIMBY!

Log-in to comment