Why it matters: Desktop computers are the cornerstone of the entire tech industry, not just because professionals require one, but because every piece of tech was designed on one. That tradition isn’t going away. Apple’s early successes were a piggyback ride on the wave that introduced literally millions of desktops into homes, which is why it was so sad to see the most desktop-y of all Apple products, the Mac Pro, fall into neglect. Sure, the iMac is cute, but it’s shockingly locked down, and the Mac Mini is too underpowered for most pros. The Mac Pro was once Apple’s most customizable, upgradeable and powerful system - and this week, it earned that title back.
Let’s talk about everything the new Mac Pro is not: affordable, for one. The base model, which is underpowered for what the Mac Pro conceptually is, costs a terrifying $5,999. Apple hasn’t revealed further prices, and frankly, I don’t want to know them. Second: stylish. Apple’s designer Jony Ive might be a miracle worker when it comes to the gorgeous MacBooks, but damn, this thing looks like a cheese grater and you can’t convince me otherwise. It’s endearing in a way, and I can see Ive is trying to do the same thing he did with the AirPods; make a practical and original design that people perceive as beautiful after consistent exposure. But the Mac Pro is ugly. And thirdly, custom-built-PC upgradeable. You can’t swap out the motherboard and you’re probably not going to be able to buy the shell of the next model and slot the RAM, GPU or CPU into that to save cash.
Most importantly, though, the Mac Pro is not the current ‘software’ and ‘fluffy-feelings’ Apple. It’s Steve Jobs’ Apple, where there shall not be thermal throttling, stupid limitations, bottlenecks, useless configurations or a locked down ecosystem. Okay, there might be useless configurations – at six grand it still only has 256 GB of storage. But you don’t have to buy features you don’t need or desire, which feels like a first.
If I’m boring you with too much Apple discourse, let’s start with the tech talk. The flagship feature of the Mac Pro, in my opinion, is the option to run four GPUs together. Apple engineers, perhaps threatened by users’ newfound ability to swap in any old GPU, created the most powerful consumer GPU configuration money can buy. Each GPU in the system can be a new 7nm ‘Radeon Pro Vega II,’ which is an evolved version of the Radeon VII. It has 4096 cores, a 1700 MHz clock, and 32 GB of HBM2 with 1 TB/s bandwidth. A regular Radeon VII has 10% fewer cores and half the RAM. Just one of these graphics cards is likely going to be one of the most powerful cards ever for professional work.
Now quadruple that. One system can have up to 16,384 cores and 128 GB of HBM2, for 56.8 teraflops of single precision and 112.8 teraflops of half precision. To have four GPUs requires a pair of Apple’s Radeon Pro Vega II Duo cards, each carrying two GPUs. The benefit is that those two GPUs are connected by AMD’s Infinity Fabric running at 84 GB/s, which helps reduce the issues associated with splitting a task amongst multiple GPUs. Apple says that in Maxon Cinema 4D (an ideal workload) they complete a 22.2 MB scene 4.8 times faster than an iMac equipped with a Vega 64X.
Now, you’re probably thinking, how the hell is Apple cooling and powering four GPUs? That’s another good feature of the Mac Pro, system-wide air cooling. Three large fans at the front push air through a large chamber that makes up most of the Mac Pro by volume, and each of the GPUs gets a heatsink and fins that run the entire length of the case. Cool air in, hot air out, one straight line. All PCIe add-ins can tap into this cooling system with just cooling fins, no fans required. The CPU also gets the same treatment, which is essential because the Mac Pro can be configured up to a 300W 28-core Intel Xeon-W processor.
For perhaps the first time, Intel’s flagship CPU is essential to prevent bottlenecking. Go figure. But there’s more to this CPU than meets the eye. It isn’t the W-3175X as many people have assumed, as Apple says it runs 600 MHz faster with a boost clock of 4.4 GHz. To go that fast you must look at Intel’s proper server line-up, but even then, not a single currently available Intel processor can match this thing’s specs. The Mac Pro’s CPU is an unannounced chip that has 75% more cache than anything currently available at 66.5 MB. Apple's footnotes confirm the chip is in preproduction. As if that isn’t cool enough, the CPU also gives users the option to install crazy amounts of RAM to the tune of up to 1,536 GB of ECC at 2933 MHz, for a total bandwidth of 140 GB/s.
While it’s great they offer that much RAM, without third-party add-ins it can be bottlenecked by the storage. Apple will only configure the Mac Pro to up to 4 TB across two SSDs, which isn’t enough if you’re shifting terabyte-sized files from RAM to storage. Fortunately, Apple has opened the floor to third-party accessories to fill up the eight PCIe slots. With four GPUs and an I/O card, there are still three slots free, enough for 24 TB of existing off the shelf SSDs.
The Mac Pro doesn’t skimp out on bonus features either. The best are the inclusion of a custom-made FPGA hardware accelerator called Afterburner -- Apple makes its own mobile SoCs but in surprising fashion they developed this supposedly very powerful video production accelerator in-house while nobody was watching -- and the T2 security processor, which creates a secure boot environment and encrypts the storage. That level of security normally comes with a lot of inconveniences, but with the T2 users won’t even notice. It also comes in handy in protecting data if the Mac Pro is accessed while out and about, because it has sturdy carry handles, an option to put wheels on the base, and well-secured components. Then there’s the upgradeability, made easy by a hidden handle that pulls the top and sides off in one fell swoop. The RAM, GPUs, storage and the CPU beneath the CPU cooler can all be removed with a couple screws or less. Provided the user doesn’t want to modify anything too extreme, it’s the most user-friendly system I’ve seen from a manufacturer yet.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the new Mac Pro is innovative. There hasn’t been much innovation in the desktop form factor in a long time. Even if you were to build your own system like this, using prosumer parts you couldn’t have four GPUs working together, that much RAM, that volume of PCIe slots and expandability opportunities. Then as a bonus, the system is small, quiet, secure and remarkably well cooled (thanks cheese grater front).
If you’re a consumer, never spend that much money on a computer. It’s daft. Fortunately, most Mac Pros will be bought by companies to give to their employees, and if that’s you then fantastic. But if you work for a PC manufacturer, please buy one and make a Windows machine with the same features. It’d sell like hotcakes.
It would be remiss of me not to include some criticisms on Apple’s choice of hardware. Namely not moving to AMD processors, preferably EPYC. Not only would it significantly lower costs and improve performance in most relevant workloads, but it would unlock enough PCIe lanes to support more slots and introduce PCIe 4.0, which a device like this could really use. Many professionals were also calling for Nvidia graphics cards support and finally, the storage only has 2.6 GB/s read speeds, which is paltry in a $5,999+ system.