Mac Pro (2018) full review
The last time Apple updated the Mac Pro it made a big deal about how it was revolutionary and proof that Apple could still innovate. That Mac Pro is now four years old and Apple hasn't been able to upgrade it since because, in the words of Apple's senior vice president of Software Engineer, Craig Federighi: "We designed ourselves into a thermal corner".
This revelation was made at a briefing with a select few journalists in April 2017. At the meeting Apple admitted that it had made a bit of a mess of the Mac Pro and explained that it was “completely rethinking” the design and its approach. Creatives cheered, or at least those ones who were still listening. There is more information about this briefing here: New Mac Pro latest news.
What went wrong with the Mac Pro
The 2013 Mac Pro was built around a thermal core that cooled a 12-core Xeon processor, a 256GB flash drive, up to 64GB RAM, and two GPUs, all squeezed into a tube that was 9.9in by 6.6in. Read our review of the 2013 Mac Pro here, also, here's How to choose the Mac with the best processor for your needs.
While some joked about its resemblance to a trash can, the 2013 Mac Pro certainly did have all the looks. But when Apple had made its design choices it had made some assumptions about the path that future workstation technologies would take, and unfortunately, while the design of the Mac Pro did a great job keeping it cool, thanks to the thermal core, the internal design just couldn’t accommodate the processors and GPUs that were to arrive over the years that followed, and as a result Apple was unable to update the Mac Pro in its current form.
This might have been forgivable but for the fact that those people who did purchase a Mac Pro couldn’t update their models either. Much better processors and GPUs have arrived since the ones that Apple used in the 2013 Mac Pro, but no Mac Pro user was able to take advantage of these.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Mac Pro when it launched back in 2013, and finally went on sale that Christmas, was the fact that it was not user upgradable.
The old ‘cheese grater’ Mac Pro (pictured below) had been popular because it could be upgraded with faster graphics cards, better CPUs, extra storage space thanks to the internal drive bays and PCI Express expansion slots. With the 2013 Mac Pro Apple tried to tell pros that the Thunderbolt 2 ports provided on the Mac Pro would give them all the upgradability they needed. Pros laughed at the idea and wondered how they would find the desk space.
As a result, in the four years since the introduction of the trash can Mac Pro many Pros have been creating their own ‘hackintoshes’ with the CPUs and graphics cards they need. Those pros who aren’t desperate to run macOS (or Mac OS X) have just switched to the Windows of Linux workstations that have left Apple’s Mac Pro for dust.
Apple's plans for the new Mac Pro
There were only two things Apple could do. Either it had to pull out of the workstation space all together and face the onslaught of bad press about turning its back on the creatives who made the company popular in the first place, or it needed admit to its failings and go back to the drawing board and start again with the Mac Pro.
The company announced that it would be doing the latter at a briefing with a select few journalists in April 2017. Apple told journalists that it was "completely rethinking" the design of the Mac Pro.
But what do we know of this "completely redesigned, next-generation Mac Pro architected for pro customers who need the highest-end, high-throughput system in a modular design, as well as a new high-end pro display," as Apple’s VP of marketing Phil Schiller described it?
It would seem that when it made its announcement in April 2017, the company wasn’t far along in its reinvention of the Mac Pro. Nor was there any prototype to show off at WWDC in June 2017, and no more information given at that event, other than a reiteration of the promise that something is in the pipeline.
However, while Apple has revealed very little about the new Mac Pro, in December 2017 the company released the other new pro machine that it promised at the same April 2017 briefing. The iMac Pro (which you can read about here: iMac Pro review) offers some clues as to what we can expect from the new Mac Pro when it arrives.
In addition the comments made by Schiller and the two other Apple VPs present at the briefing in April give us some insight as to just how much of a revamp Apple is conducting. Apparently it’s a "radical revamp" if you were wondering.
The most important aspect of the redesign is that Apple’s not going to back itself into a thermal corner again (surely someone else has made that joke). Schiller said: "We want to architect it so that we can keep it fresh with regular improvements, and we're committed to making it our highest-end, high-throughput desktop system, designed for our demanding pro customers."
So that’s great; Apple won’t take another four years (probably by the time it launches, five years) to update the Mac Pro with the next round of processors and GPUs… But what about user upgradability. That’s that the pros have been crying out for.
Apple does promise that it will be a modular system. This suggests that the Apple workstation will have easily replaceable parts that use standardized interfaces.
Apple being Apple, the fear is that the company will use proprietary connectors, meaning that the computer can only be upgraded with parts that it approves. We can only hope that this won’t be the case.
There is some indication that Apple is going to allow users to upgrade the new Mac Pro: the current iMacs are upgradable, at least to a point: It's possible to access and update some components in the standard iMacs, although the RAM in the iMac Pro is less accessible than the RAM in the standard 27in iMac, Apple recommends that if you want to do so then you should probably ask an expert.
It seems likely that, in order to meet the demands of a modular system, the new Mac Pro will be larger than the current 'trash can'-style Mac Pro. We don't think that it will revert to the old cheese grater-style Mac Pro though, if anything, we expect that the new design will fall somewhere between the two.
However, some concept designs have appeared that imagine how the Mac Pro might look is Apple looked to the Mac mini for inspiration.
Illustrators at German magazine Curved have come up with some impressive concept designs for a more modular Mac Pro - have a look at their website here. The concepts mimic the Mac mini design, but illustrate a way in which users could access and replace the processor, graphics card and other components.
They have also published a YouTube video here:
We love the designs, but think it's unlikely that Apple would unify the Mac mini and the Mac Pro design in this way - plus it doesn't really allow for thermal cooling, the issue Apple has with the current Mac Pro.
That said, there is no need for Apple to make a Mac Pro that is as large as the old-old aluminium Mac Pro. The old machine needed space for a 3.5in drive bay, internal storage bays, and optical drive bays. The new machine will just need room for the SSD cards, GPU, a CPU socket to feed multiple cores, four RAM slots, and a motherboard. In addition to that some Thunderbolt 3 pros and, the pros will be hoping, some PCIe expansion slots. All that should fit neatly inside a relatively small case.
An older concept illustration, from January 2017 - so before Apple revealed that it has plans for the Mac Pro - came up with an idea for a Mac Pro that would be slightly bigger than the current model, though not as large as the older version.
In that case, the Mac Pro was reimagined by graphic designer Pascal Eggert. At the time he told Cult of Mac: "At it’s core this is really just a very quick asset I made to try out new render software, but I also wanted to find out just how big or ugly a Mac Pro would have to be to fit standard components."
Eggert said that, according to his calculations, the smallest the Mac Pro could be was 150 x 2 70x 330 mm.
Cooling is obviously the key with the Mac Pro design. Apple said that it had decided on the components of the 2013 Mac Pro before it set upon the black cylindrical design, rather than trying to squeeze the components into something with an inflexible design.
We expect that the company will also take the same care over the design of the new Mac Pro: ensuing that the machine is built around the components, and in such a way to accommodate future components, rather than the design coming first and the components being squeezed in.
Fundamental to the design will be the thermal core, as was the case last time. Apple spoke about the thermal cooling of the new iMac Pro at WWDC in June 2017, which emphasises just how important it is.
We can take a look at the design of the iMac Pro and the way it is cooled to at least get an idea of how effectively Apple will address the issue of cooling in the Mac Pro.
Related to the way the Mac Pro keeps itself cool is the noise it makes, and this was one of the things Apple did get right with the Mac Pro in 2013.
The current Mac Pro remains silent even during the most demanding operations, meaning it is ideal for audio workflows and music production. It’s the reason why some audio professionals are still choosing the Mac Pro over the MacBook Pro, which can get pretty noisy when it’s working hard.
You can expect Apple to place similar emphasis on keeping the noise down with the new Mac Pro.
Since Apple introduced the 2013 Mac Pro there have been a number of new generations of processors from Intel that Apple hasn’t been able to take advantage of.
When the Mac Pro was first unveiled in 2012 it used Intel's Xeon E5 V2 Romley processors, a processor generation from 2011. Since then Intel has introduced Xeon’s under the codenames of Grantley (Xeon E5 V3), and now Purely, with Skylake (V5) and Cannonlake (V6) branded variants.
Those Cannonlake Xeons may not arrive until 2019 though, which might coincide nicely with the launch of the Mac Pro. Although, Apple may not be so keen on waiting for Intel to make the new chips available.
The current Mac Pro offers 6, 8, or 12-core versions. The iMac Pro offers 8, 10, 14 and 18-core Intel Xeon W processor options. Given that next-generation Xeons are heading towards 28, or even 32-cores, it is a fair bet to suppose that the new Mac Pro will offer more than 18-cores as an option.
The clock speed is likely to start from 3.8 GHz and go higher.
Another possibility: the system could be based on the next-generation Ryzen (or Threadripper) CPUs from AMD.
Also, look out for the next generation EFI BIOS - which will address some of the limitations of BIOS including making better use of features in 64-bit operating systems and supporting more than 2TB of storage.
The 2013 Mac Pro uses Dual AMD FirePro D500 or D700 graphics processors. Since this was a product name created for the Mac Pro, it’s necessary to do a little sleuthing to find an equivalent that could be used for the next Mac Pro.
The D700 matches the AMD FirePro W9000, which at the time was AMD’s best performing workstation GPU.
AMD has since introduced the Radeon Pro as a successor to the FirePro line up and Apple is already using the Radeon Pro Vega 56 graphics processor in the iMac Pro.
But when it comes to predicting what the next big thing will be after the Radeon Pro Vega we’d need a crystal ball and since we don’t have one we’ll have to wait.
That said, maybe what really matters is whether pro users will be able to update their Mac Pro to take advantage of the latest and greatest graphics cards when they launch. If Apple allows this then it matters less what’s inside the Mac Pro at launch.
High-end users will be looking for GDDR 5 graphics cards that support DirectX 12 and OpenGL 4.5. Expect at least 10GB on-package high-bandwidth memory.
This might not come from AMD - Apple could look elsewhere for the GPU in the Mac Pro, especially after issues with faulty AMD graphics cards in the first batch of 2013 Mac Pros meant that Apple had to offer replacements to some users.
Officially the 2013 Mac Pro handled up to 64GB RAM spread over four slots (four 16GB RAM modules). However, it is possible to upgrade it to take 128GB RAM with third party solutions.
Given that the iMac Pro is configurable to take up to 128GB of DDR4 memory, it would be very peculiar if the Mac Pro didn’t offer that option this time round. There is also the possibility that it could be configurable to 256GB RAM.
We’d hope that Apple continues to make is easy to install more RAM when required.
There have been requests that Apple should provide some bays for internal hard drives in the new Mac Pro. This might seem a bit backwards, but while flash memory is still expensive, the most cost effective option for anyone working with large file sizes is going to be a hard disk. Perhaps Apple will offer a Fusion Drive as a build to order option, although such a scenario is unlikely due to the amount of space it would need to allocate if hard drive options were to be included.
As for solid state storage, this was the only option on the 2013 Mac Pro and while the machine shipped with 256GB as standard, it was possible to opt for 512GB or 1TB build to order options. Given that the iMac Pro offers 1TB, 2TB or 4TB of fast flash storage the new Mac Pro will surely top that.
The current Mac Pro sports six Thunderbolt 2 ports. The new Mac Pro is obviously crying out for an upgrade to Thunderbolt 3 which has the added benefit of doubling up as USB Type-C.
What Mac Pro users have been asking for since the 2013 Mac Pro arrived is PCI slots though. If Apple shipped a Mac Pro with PCI slots (a feature the prior Mac Pro had) this would allow users to easily add faster SSDs and better video cards.
Of course this may be less necessary than it was when the only ports on offer were Thunderbolt 2, because Thunderbolt 3 is being widely adopted by the rest of the PC industry due to the integration of USB Type-C. This should pave the way for a diverse and competitive accessory ecosystem.
Another feature that’s arrived with the iMac Pro is 10 gigabit Ethernet, we have no doubt that we’ll be seeing this with the new Mac Pro too.