At that special roundtable meeting with a select few journalists Apple admitting that the Mac Pro Trashcan "has met the needs of some of our customers, and we know clearly not all of our customers". In the same session, we learnt a little about how Apple propose to develop the Mac Pro and take it in a different direction. Add to that the speculation about what a new modular Mac Pro might look like, some of which, in my opinion, are completely off the scale, I wanted to explore what I think we can expect to see and not see in the new Mac Pro to be released sometime next year.
Before we get started though I want to declare that these are my opinions and as we will learn there is actually very little to go on.
Where Are We Starting From?
The Mac Pro 6.1 trash-can replaced the Mac Pro 5.1 'cheese-grater" but the trash-can hasn't seen much, if any, love from Apple since then until now. In this select meeting, Apple's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller talked about the design and launch of the original 2013 Mac Pro trashcan, which he oversaw, as a product they thought would be great for the majority of our Mac Pro users. However, in reality, they discovered, and now acknowledge, that it was great for some and not others and enough others for Apple to hold their hands up and say that the original trashcan design didn't live up to expectations for enough users for them to look at a new design for the Mac Pro, even though Apple acknowledged in this meeting that the proportion of Mac users that are Mac Pro users is at the low end of a single digit percentage although they wouldn't be drawn on an exact amount.
What About The iMac And The Mac Mini?
Another interesting fact that came out of this meeting, is the changing usage profile of the iMac over the last 10 years or so. When Apple first released the humble iMac, it was very much pitched at the consumer market. However more and more 'pro' users found the all-in-one design appealing and Apple clearly picked up on this too, even releasing a 5K iMac recently. Apple is recognising that pro applications and workflows, that would have been the core of what a Mac Pro would do, are now being done on an iMac whether its audio or video, graphics or art and they have recognised that there is, even more, work they can do in developing the iMac for the pro market. In this meeting, the matter of the Mac Mini was also raised and it would seem that according to Phil Schiller the Mac Mini is an important product in Apple's lineup but they still consider it more of a consumer machine with some pro use. But I digress, back to the Mac Pro story.
The Apple Mac Pro Gets A Speed And Processor Bump Now
As an interim measure, Apple has announced a speed bump to the Mac Pro trashcan so that the $2999 model goes from 4 Xeon CPU cores to 6, and from dual AMD G300 GPUs to dual G500 GPUs. Whereas the $3999 model goes from 6 CPU cores to 8, and from dual D500 GPUs to dual D800 D700 GPUs. So this is performance increase or a price drop, depending on which way you would like to look at it. But Apple wanted to stress that this isn't a new machine so they are not changing anything else, so no USB-C, and no Thunderbolt 3 and we see that these new machines are now listed on the Apple.com website.
Problems With The Existing Mac Pro Trashcan Design
Now that I have had time to analyse the conversations and how it has been reported by two people in the room, the bulk of the discussion about the Mac Pro seems to have centred around the limitations of the existing Mac Pro 6.1 design. Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of Software Engineering talked about heat, mainly from the Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) and the way that the rest of the industry has gone for a single large (but heat producing) GPU whereas Apple implemented 2 smaller GPUs in the 2013 trash-can to try and keep the heat output down to manageable levels.
Moving onto examples of the type of software that the current Mac Pro isn’t well-suited for, Craig Federighi talked about applications built around virtual reality, as well as some high-end cinema production tasks that are really designed to work with one big GPU and don't work so well with 2 smaller GPUs, although Apple's own pro apps like Final Cut Pro X work very well with this twin GPU architecture, not unsurprisingly as Apple wrote the code to match their hardware design.
The problem for Apple is that this decision to go with twin GPUs has backed them into a corner. In this meeting, they acknowledged that the only way forward is to change the system architecture and to base it around one single powerful GPU in a unit that could handle the increased cooling requirements that this change of direction will require.
What About The New 2018 Mac Pro?
Having analysed what has been reported about what the new 2018 Mac Pro might look like, everything seems to be based on one statement from Apple's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller...
We think it’s really important to create something great for our pro customers who want a Mac Pro modular system, and that’ll take longer than this year to do.
That, in essence, is all we have to go on. To answer the question I posed as the title of this story "What Do I Think It Will Look Like?" we don't really know. Reflecting on what was actually shared in this meeting, there was very little about what the new modular Mac Pro will look like, Apple has stayed true to their colours and remained tight-lipped about new products.
We do know from the discussion about the limitations of the existing trashcan, that the 2018 Mac Pro will have one larger GPU and I think we can surmise that elements, especially the GPU, will be replaceable but it is my view that this modular design will be mainly to make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis including high-end CPUs and GPUs that run very hot, rather than a Mac Pro that will have a lot of user upgradeable elements to it, as the Mac Pro cheese-grater had. In my opinion, as much as it pains me to say it, this concept would sit much better with Apple's design ethos, as it seems that the only reason they are looking at a new Mac Pro is the way that GPU usage has changed which means the existing Mac Pro 6.1 doesn't suit a number of pro users, like some high-end cinema production tasks referred to by Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of Software Engineering.
Will It Be Like A Cheese-grater?
In my opinion, no it won't. I cannot agree with people that have interpreted this to mean something much more like the cheese-grater Mac Pro, with others talking about it being exactly like a cheese-grater. We have to remember that those of us needing pci-e slots are a very small percentage of that single digit percentage of Mac users. It is pretty impressive that Apple is prepared to produce a new Mac Pro for the low-end single digit percentage of Mac users, so I would counsel you not to get your hopes up for a machine that will have pci-e slots.
Being realistic I would expect it to have Thunderbolt 3 capability. It would be bonkers to produce a new version of the Mac Pro which only supported Thunderbolt 2.
Moving onto processors, it needs to support the latest processors so that Mac users can get the same bang for our buck as Windows users who have access to the current generation of processors. It should have memory slots with plenty of expansion space, rather than soldered in memory, so we can extend the machine's memory as software and the OS develop.
It would be lovely if it was rack mounted but I suspect that the new Mac Pro will still be a 'designer machine' rather than a workhorse, so the best we can hope for is that it will be equally at home in a machine room and in the studio.
With all the talk about single GPUs, it would be great if the 2018 Mac Pro would support 3rd party GPUs but wouldn't that mean pci-e slots? So I suspect that the GPUs will be a more proprietary form of GPUs rather than convenient and cost effective GPUs that Windows users have access to, we shall see.
As I have already said, in my opinion, there is no chance that the 2018 Mac Pro will have pci-e slots in it, but it would be great if it supported pci-e slots over Thunderbolt 3 natively and embedded in the design, so those of us using Pro Tools HD will have a convenient and easy-to-implement solution. But we are going to have to budget for a Thunderbolt 3 to pci-e expansion chassis, but let's hope that at least Apple makes it easy to support.
As to price, I don't think this is going to be cheap. Apple is going to be looking for a swift return on their investment from this single digit percentage market of Mac users. That said, hopefully, the modular design will provide Apple with a product with a longer life and so a better ROI but we will have to see.
What Could Avid Do To Help?
In writing this article I had a 'eurka' moment. Rather than be asking Apple to make a Mac Pro with pci-e slots for the very small percentage of the single digit percentage of Mac users, why not ask Avid to solve the pci-e problem? After all, it is their implementation of pci-e cards to fulfil a zero latency solution that is the fly in the ointment. Surely it wouldn't be too difficult to extend the HD Native Thunderbolt product into something that would work for HDX? Or even better, what about combining the DSP with the I/O into one box with a Thunderbolt 3 connection to the computer? That would solve so many of our problems. So Avid, are you up for this?