Apple's new Mac Pro is a stunningly fresh take on the desktop computer. But it's probably not for you.
The tabletop-size cylinder design has been described as resembling everything from a small beer keg to a jet engine to a kitchen composter, each clad in gleaming Darth Vader black. More importantly, it breaks the decades-long tradition of putting desktop computer components in a rectangular box, whether a massive full tower of the kind that dominated offices and dens for many years, or a small cube such as Apple's own Mac Mini.
When compared with the most recent professional-grade desktop Mac Pro, the difference is especially striking. Despite offering the same or better components, the new version has an interior volume that's about one tenth that of the big, boxy old Mac Pro desktop. Seen side by side, the significance of this is easy to see.
But both that familiar silver tower and this new, sleek black cylinder are not intended for the same audience as the popular MacBook Air laptops or even the 27-inch iMac all-in-one. Besides a much steeper starting price, the main difference is in the internal components.
The initial AU$3,999 investment required for a base model Mac Pro gets you a quad-core 3.7GHz Intel Xeon processor, 12GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and AMD D300 FirePro graphics. Two points of commonality with current-gen consumer Mac systems are the faster PCIe style SSD storage, and a Wi-Fi antenna using the latest 802.11ac standard.
A second base model, starting at AU$5,299 moves up to a six-core Xeon CPU with 16GB of RAM, AMD D500 FirePro graphics and the same 256GB SSD. Additional upgrades, to D700 GPUs, and up to a 12-core processor, can drive the price up even further. Note that the box contains only the small tower and a power plug; even the keyboard and mouse are sold separately.
Apple calls this the future of the pro-level desktop, and the company is emphasising its use in high-end movie and music production, although I'm sure graphic designers, Web site builders and other creative types are already trying to work one of these into their budgets.
Ports and connections are accessible from a front panel (or rear panel, depending on how you position the chassis). In one of those clever extras Apple is known for, a glowing border around the ports lights up when the system is moved, such as when you might swivel it to plug something in. In the panel, you'll find six Thunderbolt 2 ports that can power up to three simultaneous 4K displays, including one from a built-in HDMI output.
The smaller design is built around cooling and efficiency, and Apple says the new Mac Pro is much more power efficient than the previous tower-based Mac Pro desktop. It's also very quiet, with minimal fan noise, which Apple compares to the sound level of a Mac Mini desktop. A fan sends warm air upward, and if you hover a hand over the top of the system, you can feel a faint flow of warm air.
Can you buy a Mac Pro for home use as your personal PC? Yes, but it may not be the most economical use of your money. Still, many will doubtless do just that, mesmerized by the design and high-end configuration options. Our review bridges this gap, interpreting the Mac Pro as a consumer extravagance, while also looking into its ability to handle professional tasks, especially as it relates to the growing field of 4K video.
Design and features
This is not the first time Apple has done something radically different with a desktop computer. The G4 Cube was a famously minimal gleaming box meant to represent the future of PCs. While the Cube was a cult favorite more than a commercial success, the new Mac Pro feels like the logical next evolution in maximising power while minimizing space.
And the Mac Pro line was certainly ready for an update. The existing tower design is one of the oldest in the Apple catalog, changing little from when it was called the Power Mac G5. Up until now, the Mac Pro has been missing USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, and other features many MacBook users take for granted.
Why the major overhaul now? One of the reasons Apple previously felt little need to update the Mac Pro was because it appealed largely to a small but steady professional audience and didn't require a flashy iMac-style revamp to bring in new audiences. But, in the several years since the last major Mac Pro overhaul, the computer industry has shifted dramatically away from the traditional tower-based desktop toward laptops, all-in-one desktops, tablets, and now even touch screen "tabletop PCs".
How did Apple rebuild the Mac Pro into such a small package? Components are built around something Apple calls a unified thermal core. A small lock switch is moved to the unlocked position, and the entire outer sleeve of the system lifts off, exposing the interior. It's easy to remove and replace, but you must disconnect the power and video connections to do so. That's obviously a good idea, but as a long-time desktop PC tinkerer, I do miss the ability to putter around inside a case with the machine running.
Inside the Mac Pro is a triangular hunk of metal that acts a both a heat sink and the central structure the motherboard and components are attached to. The SSD is on one side, the GPU's on another, and RAM slots are on either side of the port panel.
Those RAM slots are the most user-accessible component inside, although Apple says the SSD and graphics cards could be swapped out as well, but it certainly wouldn't be as easy as it is on a traditional desktop tower.
No, the idea being promulgated here is that your expandability should flow outward, not inward. If the lack of traditional internal expansion slots inside didn't clue you in to that, the six Thunderbolt 2 ports plus four USB 3.0 ports on the connections panel should. And, as Thunderbolt devices can chain themselves together, that's a total of 36 Thunderbolt/mini-DisplayPort devices one can hook up simultaneously.
Three of those video outputs can be used to drive multiple 4K displays simultaneously, including the single HDMI 1.4 output.
Is the Mac Pro a killer performance machine? For the money Apple is asking, it had better be. In our benchmark testing, the system turned in excellent scores, ripping through video encoding and other tasks.
The Mac Pro, as configured, was in most cases well faster than even the most high-end Windows desktop we've tested this year, but the non-consumer components created some problems for our standard tests. Our Photoshop test uses an older version of Photoshop, and it underperformed compared with our expectations. The dual AMD FirePro D700 video cards in our system are not designed for the same 3D gaming as consumer-level AMD or Nvidia cards, but can be used for that in addition to their stated task of allowing multiple 4K video streams and real-time application of video effects in programs such as Final Cut.
A quick run through our very old Mac gaming benchmark, Call of Duty 4, at 2,560x1,440 resolution, yielded a frame rate of 86.3 frames per second. Diablo III ran at the same resolution, on high detail settings, at around 58 frames per second. Some more recent high-profile games, such as Bioshock Infinite and Metro: Last Light, are resolution capped in OS X and not good for benchmarking.
The new Mac Pro is a professional workhorse dressed up in a very appealing high-design package. It's a stretch to say this is a computer for casual consumers, but the starting price isn't more than you'd pay for a similarly configured Windows PC and the radically different look and feel is cool enough to appeal to any design enthusiast who wants nothing but the best-looking, best-performing products.
The depth of its abilities as a video editing and professional-grade creation tool are both too vast to fully explore in an initial day or two, and also somewhat outside our normal consumer-focused scope, therefore, this review will be updated with new impressions and performance results as we continue to test the system.