by James Delhauer
Though the evolution of technology is already a staple of the 21st century, there are some breakthroughs that are widely acknowledged as being revolutionary. Within the world of film and television, one such moment occurred in 2006 when Apple unveiled the first Mac Pro. Featuring high-end Intel processors and sporting a versatile modular design that allowed for routine upgrades, the first-generation Mac Pro changed the landscape of the production world and gave creatives the kind of computing power they needed to enter the digital era. Though this particular line of computers has evolved in the years since its introduction, it remains a cornerstone of digital workflows across the globe. That is why it was so exciting when Apple announced a newly redesigned Mac Pro with some truly impressive specifications.
To understand the significance of the announcement, one must recognize the somewhat turbulent history of the Mac Pro. While the first-generation units, which were produced from 2006 to 2012, were revolutionary machines, they had begun to show their age by the end of their life cycle. Even with substantial improvements to the CPU, GPU, RAM, and hard disk drives every few years, the Mac Pro was fundamentally designed around the now obsolete Firewire, USB 2.0, PCIe 2.0, and SATA II connection interfaces. While these were industry standard and even ahead of the curb in 2006, they had been superseded by next-generation technology by 2012, making even the newest Mac Pro a problematic investment. Even the most enthusiastic of DIY users were having trouble upgrading their machines to compete with computers that took advantage of newer USB 3.0, SATA III, and PCI 3.0 technology. The widespread availability of these superior technologies in non-Apple computers started to make Windows-based workflows very appealing to loyal OS X customers. If Apple wanted to remain relevant in the high-end desktop market, they needed to overhaul the core hardware of their design.
In 2013, they did exactly that when they unveiled the second-generation Mac Pro. This unit utilized a significantly smaller and more compact design. The short, black, cylindrical shape gave this unit the unofficial nickname of “trashcan,” while the older, first-generation models were retroactively branded “cheese graters” due to their silver color and grate of ventilation holes on the front and back. These trashcan computers, like their predecessors, were a monumental leap forward for their day. While many expected the newly designed Mac Pro to rely on SATA III and USB 3.0 interfaces for hard drive and peripheral connection, the company chose to leap beyond these standards. SATA III was bypassed altogether in favor of PCIe solid-state technology, which had a theoretical maximum speed five times greater than that of SATA III. USB 3.0 integration was included but this was done alongside Apple’s semi-proprietary Thunderbolt 2 interface—a more versatile connection with up to four times the speed of USB 3.0 and the ability to connect a much larger range of peripherals. Combined with impressive processor speeds, processor core counts, and AMD GPU options, the second-generation Mac Pros were arguably the first widely available computers ready to tackle the then upcoming rigors of 4K production.
Unfortunately, this generation of computers was not without some rather monumental flaws. This was also the first professional-grade machine produced by Apple not to feature any sort of optical disk drive. Many users had hoped to see the Super DVD drives from the previous generation replaced by Blu-ray capable equivalents and found themselves disappointed. In order to accommodate its small form factor, it required that all of the components be soldered directly into the Logic Board, making both maintenance and upgrades difficult for some components and impossible for others. This meant that users could no longer install third-party components into their machines in order to extend the product life cycle or customize them to suit their specific needs. After several years, this caused the trashcans to run into the same problem as the cheese graters. Technology that was revolutionary in 2013 was becoming out-of-date just a few years later.
This versatility restores the ability for users to incorporate devices manufactured after the Mac Pro’s launch into their system—a feature that has been lacking since the 2013 revamp.
By 2017, users were desperately searching for ways to coax more computing power out of their systems in order to accommodate the newly emerging 6K, 8K, RAW, and HDR workflows that Hollywood productions were beginning to demand. Ironically, some turned back to the first-generation cheese graters. By developing and using a variety of adapters and peripherals, they were able to install more modern components into their aged machines. The process was not always (or even usually) perfect but it did allow some to surpass the capabilities of their 2013 computers by using their 2006-2012 ones. Others turned to more drastic solutions. By carefully selecting a variety of PC components that were technically supported by the OS X/MacOS code, many DIY users found success in illegally bypassing Apple’s software security and installing the Mac operating system on computers built using Windows-oriented components. These “Hackintosh” computers were (and still are) often unstable but they provided customers with a means of running their preferred operating system on workstations that were not out-of-date. Nonetheless, none of these solutions were ideal.
Apple provided a stopgap in 2017 when they introduced the iMac Pro—an all-in-one workstation unit that boasted bleeding-edge performance and 5K retina display that was up to the challenges of high resolution and processor intensive tasks that production environments demand. While these units could replace the trashcan Mac Pros, many were quick to point out that the iMac Pro suffered from many of the same problems. The components were still soldered directly into the Logic Board, making maintenance and upgrades problematic. Within a few years, these computers would also begin to show their age and customers would have no means of upgrading them to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
Enter the third-generation Mac Pro.
At the World Wide Developer’s Conference in April, Apple unveiled a completely redesigned machine that was a large departure from either of its predecessors. The large aluminum chassis resembles the older bodies of the original cheese graters (leading many to dub the new machines Cheese Grater 2.0) but what’s under the hood bears little similarity. The new Mac Pro features an exclusive line of Intel Xeon W processors that can be configured in a range from 8-core 3.5ghz chipsets to 28-core 2.5ghz chipsets, making it well suited for an impressively wide variety of users. Moreover, while most motherboards for Windows computers only support up to 64gb or 128gb of RAM, the new Mac Pro can make use of an astonishing 1.5tb of 2933ghz memory. For applications that frequently use memory caching (such as Adobe’s video production suite, Avid’s Media Composer & Pro Tools, and Apple’s Final Cut Pro), substantially more video and audio previews can be temporarily cached before a full render is required for real-time playback. Apple also offers a variety of graphics card options, including AMD’s Radeon Pro Vega II Duo card—a GPU capable of performing up to 56.8 teraflops of calculations. For comparison, the 2013 Mac Pro running two AMD FirePro D700 GPUs (the best configuration Apple offered) could only manage seven teraflops.
In addition to the impressive components inside the box, it is worth noting that the new Mac Pro features a versatile range of connectivity options. With two USB 3.0 ports for traditional peripherals, two Thunderbolt 3 ports for high-speed devices or expansion (Thunderbolt 3 is capable of being adapted to most other connection types such as USB, HDMI, and DisplayPort), and two 10gb Ethernet ports for high bandwidth online work, this new computer should be more than capable of integrating with just about any workflow currently on the market.
What’s most exciting to enthusiasts of the first-generation cheese graters is the potential for these devices to develop over time. Regardless of configuration, the device comes with two full MPX modules and three full-length PCIe 3.0 slots, allowing for hardware such as additional GPUs, PCIe-based hard drives, Apple’s Afterburner ProRes and ProRes RAW accelerator cards, Avid’s Pro Tools HDX cards, Red’s Red Rocket Pro cards, and many others to be seamlessly installed and integrated without the need for sprawling cables and expansion chassis around the primary computer. This versatility restores the ability for users to incorporate devices manufactured after the Mac Pro’s launch into their system—a feature that has been lacking since the 2013 revamp.
Despite all of the positives this new line of computers has to offer, it is not without its criticisms. Apple’s lack of support for Nvidia products means that users will likely be restricted to AMD’s line of GPUs for the foreseeable future. It is also worth noting that certain components are still locked into the Logic Board, meaning that performing maintenance on those components will likely be no easier than it was with the trashcan units. There is also no support for SATA connectivity, meaning that storage expansion may be limited. Most hard disk drives and solid-state drives still utilize SATA III interfaces, meaning that the only way to install these devices into the new Mac Pro would be via a PCIe adapter. In cases where internal storage is a priority, this can be a definite drawback. It is also much heavier than the trashcan generation. Having reverted back to the old cheese grater design, the new units weigh in at just under forty lbs. This will be a bit of an adjustment for those who have grown accustomed to taking their eleven-lb trashcan Mac Pro on the go.
The biggest problem for many prospective users, however, is the price point. While Apple has not yet released the exact cost of each component option in a comprehensive breakdown, the base configuration machine—which comes with a 256gb SSD, 32gb of RAM, an 8-core 3.5ghz processor, and an AMD Radeon Pro 580X GPU—will set you back $5,999 plus applicable tax. This is unfortunate because a similarly configured Windows machine costs substantially less. In their review of the new Mac Pro, the Linus Media Group assembled an itemized list of components needed to build a Windows-based equivalent to Apple’s introductory machine. Their shopping cart ran up a much more manageable total of $3,160. Assuming comparable components are indeed fairly matched up in their assessment, that is almost a one hundred percent markup per unit. This has left many excited customers concerned that the highest end configuration Cheese Grater 2.0 may cost anywhere between $35,000 and $45,000. For individual users, that is a substantial investment and will need to be considered carefully before making any purchasing decisions.
All of that being said, the new Mac Pro will not release until fall of this year. Until then, it is impossible to know for certain what the exact price point will be and whether or not this computing powerhouse will perform as expected. When the new Mac Pro is released, Production Sound & Video will provide a comprehensive review featuring benchmarks, technical comparisons with older Mac Pros and contemporary Windows machines, and more. In the mean time, prospective buyers ought to start saving their pennies or apply for an extended line of credit if they are hoping to bring home one of these monster machines.