AMITIAE - Wednesday 1 January 2014

Cassandra: The New Apple Mac Pro - Comment and Desire

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Not so long ago, it seems the Mac Pro was almost dead. Although the sleek - and heavy - aluminium machines had been popular among many film makers and professional photographers (among others) for several years, there had not been much apparent evolution: consumer Macs were catching up in performance.

G5 An example of that lack of evolution was evident in the case itself. When I wrote a column for the Bangkok Post, I had a PowerMac G5 on test for a week:

It was (it still is) a beautiful machine, with the interior noticeably tidy compared to PCs of the time, but the case was the same for the Mac Pro, even up to 2013.

One frustrated Mac Pro user had had enough and started a FaceBook page: We Want a New Macpro. It soon had several thousand followers (currently 22,011) and Apple took notice. Eventually a promise was made by Tim Cook that we would see a new MacPro by the year's end.

When a preview version appeared at the Apple Worldwide Developers' Conference in June 2013, there was a teaser video, followed by Phil Schiller's comment, "Can't innovate, my ass." As with most Apple products, there was praise and ridicule, particularly over the shape, which some suggested a variety of uses for.

Mac Pro Core When the real thing appeared at the October Special Event and we had a look inside, it was clear that - as promised - the whole concept of a Pro computer had been rethought. While some did not like the idea of relying on external expandability (only SSD drives inside), I particularly liked the innovative three-cornered core of processors, user-accessible RAM (up to 64 GB), and storage. With the center of this triangular structure hollow, that provides superior airflow and better cooling. But critics don't look at these things.

With delivery promised for "before the end of the year" Apple just fulfilled this (and another, as the MacPro brings jobs back to the USA - at least in a small way). When the first units were made available for order in the online store for the USA, the delivery date was 31 December, although the gates were closed after a short while, and this date has now been extended to February: the same for the rest of us.

Fortunately, some units did escape; among them a few destined for the press. At least one also found its way to AnandTech (below).

We have been hearing a lot of good things about the new Mac Pro which may be available in this neck of the woods around February. I am ambivalent about this machine. Not that there is anything wrong with it at all: have a look at some of the comments that follow. My reasons are grounded in the practical: what would I do with such a machine? Dan Frakes on MacWorld made some serious observations about the value of such a machine for many users.

The way I work means that, at best, I need to consider two locations. Although I have a number of ways to synchronise data, including iCloud and Dropbox, most days I need to have the whole show with me, so rely on portable computing. I have tried the iPad as a computing device which works for many of the tasks I need, especially presentations (although at a pinch I can use the iPhone for that). I can even write files and upload them to my website using a neat little FTP app I have. That works on the iPhone too.

With the iPad, I sometimes find that many of the files I may need when discussing projects at work, or explaining ideas to my students, are on the Mac at home. These include student records and texts for classes going back a few years. You cannot sync it all.

The Mac Pro on the other hand strikes me as unsuitable in a number of ways. Although I take a lot of photographs, I am not a professional - nor do I make movies - so do not need all that potential computing power. Nor do I need a large display or, come to that, the ability to use several such displays together. That powerful computer belongs in a fixed space, where hundreds of operations are carried out daily, needing considerable processing power and larger amounts of memory.

iMac I did have a PowerMac G4 in my office a few years back. It belonged to the university and was part of a project that I was running involving several iMacs (the early ones with the plastic body). That was cancelled by outside forces and we were left with two of the G4 models along with their massive displays. I did use them for some teaching, but in the main one stayed in my office, while the other found its way to a video unit.

That video unit now has an iMac, while I too have an older one of these in my office, confirming the opinion expressed by Dan Frakes (above): a great machine for the consumer and the small production house who have lesser needs. The iMac will meet (and in some cases) exceed those.

Over the last week or two, since the Mac Pro was finally released I have been looking at some of the reviews which are almost unanimously positive. A sour note was struck by some when the prices for options were revealed. We knew it was not a cheap machine, but when a Mac Pro was priced with almost all possible options, a buyer would be looking at a bill of $9,599 which is 314127.275 baht.

But then a number of commentators, including Shane Cole on AppleInsider, made a comparison with the dark side. For a PC with an equivalent list of specifications, the cost would be $14,309.89 or 468291.15025 baht. You could buy a small car for that.

While we are on PCs, it may be that PC Magazine could be considered partisan when it comes to Macs. This is not the case and over the years they have produced some excellent reviews of Apple products. The Mac Pro is a case in point. Not only does Brian Westover write enthusiastically about this, with "stunning" in his opening sentence, but the magazine made the Mac Pro Editors' Choice for single processor workstation desktops, calling it "one of the best premium desktops period."

Mac Pro One of the sources I always check when looking at new devices is iFixit. They did not disappoint and, although some of their comments on recent Mac products have been a bit sour because of the poor repairability, the Mac Pro had a score of 8 out of 10 for this. The Teardown also found some interesting points:

  • The design is modular and easy to disassemble
  • The case is designed to make RAM upgrades easy
  • The fan is easy to access and replace
  • (Important) The CPU is user-replaceable

As we know the internal storage cannot be added to; and iFixit added that working on the device could be risky without a proper manual. That user-replaceable CPU makes for a number of interesting upgrade possibilities down the line.

I also found a teardown on Other World Computing also with a generous number of pictures.

One of the best sources for detailed technical information on any new computer, like the Mac Pro, has to be Anand Tech. While many sites spring into action when a new product from Apple arrives and make comments, speculating on the innards, it is worth waiting for the skilled appraisal that comes from Anand Lal Shimpi.

In this examination of the Mac Pro, he covers some personal history, including the ownership of a PowerMac G5. His thoughtful examination is punctuated with teardown images from iFixit. It is the benchmarking and other technical examinations that make these extensive reviews so valuable. This one extends over 15 full pages.

He begins his summary, "I honestly never thought I'd go back to a Mac Pro" which is interesting in the light of what I mention (above), and he adds that he too prefers the flexibility of a MacBook Pro. He does conclude that the latest Mac Pro deals with some of the issues that the older machines had, and ends "the Mac Pro is thankfully no longer just your only solution, it's a great solution."

Images of the Mac Pro and the iMac are provided by Apple.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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