While the design of Apple's new Mac Pro has raised many eyebrows, it's choice of graphics chips that may make a difference to the applications you use every day. Tools such as After Effects and Nuke will need to be updated before they can take advantage of all that the 2013 Mac Pro has to offer.
Announced on Monday, the 2013 Mac Pro has dual graphics chips from AMD's FirePro range. Apple hasn't said which cards are included, but from the quoted specs they appear to be the same chips as found in AMD's top-of-the-line FirePro W9000 graphics card – which feature 6GB of graphics RAM (and ECC RAM at that), a 384-bit memory interface and 264GBps memory bandwidth.
The Mac Pro is the only professional Mac with graphics chips from AMD – both the MacBook Pro and iMac offer Nvidia chips only. As both company's lines support OpenGL for 3D graphics processing, whether the new Mac Pro has AMD or Nvidia graphics seems of limited influence at first glance – but each company offer specific technologies for optimising 3D graphics (such as Nvidia's OptiX) and accelerating video processing and other 2D effects (where Nvidia favours its own CUDA technology, while AMD uses OpenGL's cousin tech OpenCL).
The choice of FirePro graphics chips may concern After Effects users, where Adobe has favoured Nvidia cards – tapping into its CUDA technology so that AE CS6 and CC's ray-traced 3D renderer can only tap Nvidia GPUs, not AMD ones (though it can still run using the CPU-only, albeit more slowly). See the AE CC and AE CS6 tech specs for more details.
However, unless Adobe is restricted by some exclusive deal with Nvidia, we expect that After Effects CC (above) will be updated in the future so its ray-traced 3D renderer supports the FirePro cards by the time the Mac Pro ships. However, those sticking with After Effects CS6 may not be so lucky, as Adobe is focussing its development plans on Creative Cloud. We've reached out to Adobe and will update this story when they respond.
GPU acceleration in the Mac version of Premiere Pro CS6 is also locked to specific card – again the tech specs list primarily Nvidia models, though two AMD chips in specific 2011 MacBook Pro models are supported. Again only time will tell if Adobe updates the CS6 version of the new Mac Pro.
Premiere Pro CC offers wider support, being optimised for both AMD cards (using OpenCL) and NVidia cards (using the CUDA platform). Again, there's a set list, but it shouldn't be much effort to add the Mac Pro – and the W9000s we suspect are in the 2013 Mac Pro are supported on Windows.
The Foundry's NukeX 7.0, which adds GPU acceleration to the standard Nuke edition, requires an Nvidia card. Again, we've reached out the The Foundry and will update this story when they respond, Some GPU-accelerated third-party plug-ins, such as GenArts Sapphire, also require a CUDA-supporting Nvidia graphics card.
The Foundry has also used the launch of the Mac Pro to announce a Mac version of its Mari 3D painting application, due later this year.
For the other key Mac-based editing systems, Avid's Media Composer 6.5 – and the forthcoming 7 – and Autodesk Smoke 2013 use OpenGL only, while Apple's own Final Cut Pro X uses OpenCL for GPU-accelerated effects (so works with both AMD and Nvidia boards).
For 3D artists, certification seems to be the only issue. Autodesk's Maya 2014 is certified on the Mac for NVidia Quadro cards only – but AMD chips, such as those in the 2011 MacBook Pros, do work. While Maya can tap CUDA for specific tasks – such as to accelerate rendering – this isn't core to the product.
Cinema 4D includes no hardware brand-specific functionality.
Where companies will have to expend more effort to optimise their software for the new Mac Pro is in that it has two graphics chips. For example, while Premiere Pro CC's Mercury Engine can tap both GPUs for video encoding and output, it can't for real-time video effects. We will update this story as more information becomes available.