Designing the New Mac Pro: Technologies & Wishes

Tim Cook has promised us a new Mac Pro in 2013. What would a new Mac Pro would mean to us, what is the essence of the Mac Pro design and what technologies might it use? I've been pondering all this and also have my own personal wish list.


Last summer, Tim Cook responded to an email from customer who was disappointed about the lack of a new Mac Pro. Apple's CEO said, "Our pro customers are really important to us ... don’t worry as we’re working on something really great for later next year."

Let's take a closer look at that statement. First of all, a key phrase is "later next year." That fits in with Intel's CPU roadmap which I'll discuss below. Perhaps more importantly is the phrase "really great." That sounds a lot like Apple's normal marketing hype, but in the context of a personal email and a promise, I take that more as an affirmation that Apple will introduce an exciting new product that has been rethought, re-engineered and will please us greatly.

Current Mac Pro design started with Power Mac G5 in 2003

What Should a Mac Pro be?

Before we can talk about a wish list or potential technologies, I think it's valuable to set up some expectations. After all, if we expect to be pleased with Apple's new product, we should have some idea of what the product ought to be for its customers. Here's my list.

  1. The essence of a Mac Pro is that it is the fastest Mac a reasonable amount of money can buy -- faster by far than any other Mac. We expect to pay for this luxury.
  2. A Mac Pro uses the latest available hardware technology. No holding back.
  3. A Mac Pro favors functionality over technical trends or fashion.
  4. A Mac Pro must acknowledge the considerable hardware investment professionals already have in displays, storage and other peripherals.
  5. User expandability is job one. The user must be able to easily expand RAM and HDD/SSD storage with standard parts.
  6. There are no proprietary connectors.
  7. BTO options must represent the technical needs of customers, not Apple's own agenda. See #3 above,
  8. As a plus, it should look like like something recently removed from the engineering deck of the starship Enterprise.

Expected Technology

There are some reasonable expectation for this new Mac Pro based on known technology.

CPU - Intel's CPU roadmap points to a terrific new multi-core chip, the Ivy Bridge-E. This is a 22 nanometer (nm) process CPU, the i7-4900 series, that will use a 3rd gen High-K+ Metal Gate. It's supported by the Intel X79 chipset.

Image Credit: Intel

The memory access is at 1866 MHz and PCI 3.0 will be implemented The number of cores is uncertain from what I've read, but it appears that the "E" series will have 8 cores, but only 6 enabled for starters to control heat. There is also a big brother, the "EP" that sounds to me like a heavily cooled server class chip with 12 cores.

Even the 6 core Ivy Bridge-E will be hot with a Thermal Design Power (TDP) of 130 watts. That's serious heat, and if this is the CPU Apple intends to use, that rules out right away a significantly smaller enclosure. We're still looking at some serious aluminum and some fans.

The timeframe for this CPU is Q3 of 2013, which fits right in with Mr. Cook's comment about "later next year."

Image Credit: Intel

SATA - Starting with the 2011 iMac, Apple finally made the jump from 3.0 gigabit per second (Gbps) SATA to 6 Gbps. I would expect to see that in the new Mac Pro as well. A major reason for that is that as SSDs have evolved, the very best SSDs can now saturate 3.0 Gbps SATA. It's about time.

GPU - It doesn't make sense to me to offer, by default, a very high end GPU into this Mac and price it into dismay. There are plenty of decent GPUs that can support an entry level mode and allow advanced customers to go their own way with, say, the US$1700 NVIDIA Quadro K5000. So I wouldn't look for anything breathtaking there.

Two PCI slots would keep the size down but still allow professionals to add their own legacy video cards that have DVI ports. And some advanced GPUs require two slots, so that would be supported in the basic enclosure.

Enclosure - Given the anticipated CPU and heat that must be dissipated, my guess is that the TDP will dicate the size of the enclosure. In turn, that will dictate how many drive bays and PCI slots will be supported and still reduce the overall size.

One approach which Jeff Gamet and I expect will be to reduce the main enclosure size as much as possible, consistent with the thermal load, and then offer a similarly stylish matching external Thunderbolt enclosure. Mr. Gamet calls it the "Thunderbox," all the while, with a smile, recognizing the other meaning for the Aussies down under.

The advantage here is that the basic unit is usable out of the box, but is as small as practical with, say, two drive bays and two PCI slots. Then, matching, stackable Thunderbolt expansion chassis fits on top with additional PCI slots and ports. This has some considerable advantages. First, the base footprint remains the same. Second, advanced users will drool for the matching expansion chassis for the life of the product.

In the course of researching this article, I ran across exactly that concept by Peter Zigich. I think it's brilliant, and I hope Apple goes down this road.

Credit: Peter Zigich

SuperDrive - I am somewhat up in the air about this. On one hand, I am prepared to argue that we have not yet ripped all the CDs and DVDs that we have on hand. Yes, physical rotating plastic is dead, but a Mac Pro is a blend of technologies -- advanced hardware balanced by the needs of advanced users and professionals. Until all that plastic is gone from our libraries and studios, a new Mac Pro may have to concede the point.

On the other hand, in order to reduce the weight and size, Apple will very likely go with the external SuperDrive here as well. Yes it clutters the desk. So put it in a drawer when not in use. It's too big a compromise on internal space. I'll declare it gone.

My Wish List

Now that we've more or less sized up a possible Mac Pro and have a feel for the hardware, there are some personal things I'd like to see.

  1. A beautiful Mac, still made of aluminum, but lighter and smaller than the current Mac Pro. No more razor sharp edges.
  2. A Mac, designed by Mr. Ive, that looks as if it's been brought back from the future. Simple and clean is nice, but carrying that too far hides essence of the Mac Pro. The design should also suggest speed, power and Apple class.
  3. A maximum usable, physical memory of at least 128 GB.
  4. Multiple Thunderbolt and USB 3 ports.
  5. A modular design so that legacy Mac Pro customers can get in on the base model and won't feel priced out of the market.
  6. Pleasant storage options. A base model with a 2 TB HDD keeps the initial cost down and lets us add our own, second bay, SSD. Later, even that 2 TB HDD can be replaced.
  7. No lock-in. Apple isn't going to sell as many of these Macs as, say, MacBooks. So don't try to lock us into Apple technologies for the sake of a minor, last minute panicked money grab.
  8. Remain true to the flagship concept. Create this Mac with a mind more towards honoring the tradition of the high-end, awesome, desirable speed-demon that researchers, scientists and developers will love. Make it a work of art that we can adjust to our own style and be proud to display it on our desks as Apple's statement that extreme power in the hands of the creator can lead to wonderful things. As you did in the past, Apple, make us drool, not grumble.

It should look right at home here. (Credit: Paramount)

That's my own list of the Mac Pro concept, candidate technologies and a wish list. Tell me what you have in mind.