Friday, May 31, 2019

Dreading the new Mac Pro

The unveiling of a new Mac Pro may finally be upon us. In a bout of uncharacteristic frankness and humility, Apple admitted to journalists in April 2017 that it had made a mistake, designing the “trash can” Mac Pro into a “thermal corner.” They said a redesign would be coming in the form of a “modular system” that would take more than a year to ship. It's now been over two years and next week’s WWDC will mark the 6 year anniversary of the loathed cylindrical Mac Pro’s announcement, so it seems likely an unveiling will come Monday morning. I assume Apple wants me to be excited that the long wait is finally over, but instead I am terrified—terrified that Apple will get the Mac Pro wrong again, and that my long relationship and investment in the Mac for professional graphics work has no future.

The studio I work for has a long Mac tradition that can be traced back to the 1990s or earlier. In a sensible world we would continue to upgrade our fleet of 30+ Macs on a yearly basis to take advantage of the latest hardware advancements, most of which come from component suppliers such as Intel, Nvidia, etc. But look in our studio and you will see that every Mac desktop is from 2010 or earlier, a whole fleet of cheese graters. These are the last truly pro Mac desktops, if you adhere to the idea that a pro computer is one that gives you power and expandability.

Two years ago we finally broke down and bought a few Windows PCs. We did it for one reason: to install multiple Nvidia graphics cards in each computer to power GPU renderers like Redshift and Octane, tools our artists are loving. Miraculously we can run Redshift on a 2010 Mac Pro if we install an unsupported Nvidia 1080 Ti card, grab some extra power from the SATA bus, and download a non-Apple driver. But modern PCs let you install 4 or more later-generation cards and our artists are hungry for that speed. The Mac Pro Apple sells today won’t let you install even one.

Apple could fix this Monday by re-introducing the 2010 Mac Pro with the latest CPUs, GPUs, and a beefy power supply. Unfortunately, I have reason to think we will be sorely disappointed.

Apple’s Definition of “Pro”

Starting with the Mac II in 1987, Apple’s high end machines included faster processors and expansion slots that were generally lacking in the consumer models. Jobs’ translucent iMac revitalized Apple, but pros could still get a boring beige tower for more demanding work, later replaced by a colorful plastic tower with a side door providing easy access to expansion slots, memory, and hard drive bays.

Today’s Apple sees their Pro computers as simply a slight spec bump from the standard version. For example, the iMac Pro can be configured with a Radeon Pro Vega 64X, verses the iMac which can only take a Pro Vega 48. But the Pro Vega 64X isn’t even the fastest card in the current Vega lineup; that would be the Radeon RX Vega 64. Not to mention the significantly faster Radeon VII, which itself isn’t as fast as Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 Ti from two years ago. If “pro” means the computer has the fastest gear available, then this ain’t pro.

And of course the iMac Pro’s graphics aren’t upgradeable, so you won’t be able to install a Radeon VII yourself or take advantage of faster cards to come, or even the wildly expensive high-end cards that are available now. Presently no Mac computers sold by Apple allow you to upgrade the built-in graphics cards or SSD storage. That includes trash can Mac Pro, of course.

Apple and Nvidia

What keeps our 2010 Mac Pros functional is that we can run Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti graphics cards in them. Nvidia cards are required to use CUDA, the graphics API used by GPU renderers.

Apple and Nvidia have had bad blood for a few years now, but a cheese grater Mac Pro running High Sierra can host a 1080 Ti. That option, however, is gone if you want to run macOS Mojave, which Apple has prevented from having Nvidia driver support. Since any new Mac Pro will require Mojave or later, it certainly appears it won’t be able to use an Nvidia card, which makes it dead to us.

Pro users are civilian casualties in this Apple-Nvidia cold war. I don’t think anyone expects us to use 2010 computers with 2017 graphics cards forever, so our days on Mac desktops are numbered.

Apple Being Apple

Can’t you just imagine the meetings that must have taken place in Cupertino that led to the trash can Mac Pro?

“We’re Apple, we can’t just make another boring tower computer!”

“We’re going to entirely rethink the desktop! All expansion will be done with Thunderbolt!”

“The new Mac Pro is so simple. So elegant. So. Essential.”

The predecessor to the current Mac Pro is the failed G4 Cube, but at least Steve Jobs had the sense to keep the towers around. Apple has undeniably made computing sexy these past two decades, but there are still people who need the equivalent of a pickup truck to do heavy lifting.

The 2010 Mac Pro is a lovely tower, but it is still a tower. Today’s Apple can’t bring themselves to make anything that utilitarian, but utility is what pros demand. I don’t think I’m getting my cheese grater sequel.

Apple tells us they’ve assembled the “Pro Workflow Team,” some sort of think tank to figure out what pros need, but isn’t that overthinking it a bit? We know what a pro desktop machine looks like, give us that! Take an HP/Dell/Razer tower and jam the macOS onto it if you have to. Feel free to experiment with more concept computers of the future if you want, but we need the workhorse.


Nobody would be happier than I should Apple defy my pessimism and give us an upgradeable tower with slots. Please, Apple, prove me wrong!

The Mac OS is still the best computer operating system out there. Apple has not been a good steward lately, focusing most of their efforts on integration with money-printing iOS devices, but I believe the Mac is still the most reliable, well-designed, and therefore best platform for serious work. Fighting our 10 Windows PCs running only 3 or 4 programs takes much more time out of my week than running a network of over 30 Macs with all the creative and productivity software a studio needs. If only the new Mac Pro would deliver, I’d gladly kick those PCs to the curb (after pulling out their GPUs, natch!).

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