Mac Pro: The Review

Preface.

Let me start off by saying that the Mac Pro is not an easy product to review. It is a product that is so easily misunderstood. Search the hashtag ‘Mac Pro’ on Twitter and you will find a mesmerising variety of memes and divided opinions. The aim of this review is to help answer two key questions. Why does the new Mac Pro exist? (and the Mac Pro line more generally) and is the price reasonable or is it over priced? To answer those questions we first need to take a trip back to 2006.

*Full Disclosure. I do not own a Mac Pro (nor do I need one) but was fortunate to spend several hours with a release unit equipped with an 18 core CPU and four top end GPU’s.

How did we get here?

Apple didn’t have much success in the high end technical space prior to 2006. The company wanted to do something about that because the Mac line was perceived as mainly for running creative software. By 2006, Apple had already transitioned most of the Mac range to Intel chips and away from ageing Power PC processors. This left only the Power Mac G5 running on Power PC silicon. At WWDC 2006 Apple unveiled the successor to the Power Mac G5, the Mac Pro and the transition to intel was complete.

The first generation Mac Pro featured a design reminiscent of the new third generation Mac Pro. It sported a tower design with an easy to remove side access panel. Almost every component of the first generation Mac Pro could be upgraded or replaced with relative ease. The outer casing featured small ventilation holes milled into the aluminium and symmetrical handles and feet. The distinctive design of the first generation Mac Pro was commonly referred to as the ‘Cheese Grater’. Apple has clearly taken inspiration and design cues in the new third generation machine (we’ll get to that).

The Mac Pro 1.0

Apple was slow to update the Mac Pro, sticking to this tried and true design for 7 years. Unfortunately they were also slow to update the specifications available to new customers. By 2012 the pro community became frustrated with the lack of updates. A member of the community contacted Apple CEO Tim Cook directly searching for answers. Tim (in an uncharacteristic move for Apple) returned the email offering reassurance that the Mac Pro was going to receive a major update with more news later that year.

As promised at WWDC 2012, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior Vice President of world wide marketing unveiled a radical redesign of the Mac Pro. This new design was as far away from the 2006 Mac Pro as one could imagine. The design was cylindrical, incredibly small and with an outer casing that could be completely removed to allow access to the internals. It was designed around a ‘dynamic thermal core‘. Apple believed they were on to a winner. They had what appeared to be an innovative design in a more compact and easy to access form factor.

The Mac Pro 2.0 (aka the trash can).

Unfortunately Apple had over designed the second generation Mac Pro, placing more emphasis on form than function. The ‘dynamic thermal core’ designed to cool the compact form, became the undoing of this second iteration Mac Pro. The thermal system combined with a compact size, crippled the machine. It simply didn’t have the ability to cool newer, larger graphics cards that came out after the machine itself had shipped in January 2013. Apple had failed to foresee this and so it became impossible for the tech giant to update the Mac Pro to modern specs without redesigning it.

Now we’ve established why the Mac Pro had to be completely reinvented for late 2019. Let’s dive into the details of the new model.

Design.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Yes, it looks like a cheese grater (I swear no cheese was hurt in the making of this review….). It returns to the tried and true tower form factor of the original product. Apple has built on the legacy of the former design making several key improvements. At the front, large spherical lattice structures are milled out of the aluminium case. These structures offer a functional purpose by facilitating optimal airflow whilst maintaining structural rigidity. The stainless steel handles and feet are actually part of an internal frame that the case rests on. The case sports a mechanism on top for locking it into place on the frame. Apple calls the steel internal frame the ‘Space frame’. Extra Terrestrial or not, the frame also forms the primary mounting mechanism for the internal components.

An innovative twist and pull locking mechanism enables the external case to be removed easily. Internal components can be accessed on the fly.

Most ports are accessed to the rear of the machine, trademark Apple logo located on either side of the case. Additional ports can be found at the top of the machine. It is hard to over state just how sturdy the machine feels. It’s heavy, coming in at 18kg (about 40 pounds) so you won’t want to move the machine too often to access those ports….unless of course you add the optional $400 wheels.

I wasn’t able to get hands on with a unit equipped with wheels but they are also available post purchase. Photo credit – Mac World.

The design of this product feels very well considered. Apple couldn’t afford another misstep in the Mac Pro line. The design is a happy merger of form AND function. Each element of the design is in service of both. The lattice spheres add visual interest whilst helping cool the machine. The stainless steel frame adds a welcome contrast to the matte aluminium casing yet also forms the structural mounting point of the components. The casing is beautiful, sturdy and very easy to remove in an instant making upgrades and cleaning that much quicker. Of course, it’s what’s on the inside that counts right?

Specs and Internals.

The point of the Mac Pro is not it’s handsome (albeit meme worthy) design. The Mac Pro is a machine designed for work flows of the highest level that demand the most capable and powerful components. Let’s break this down into CPU, GPU, RAM, Ports and Cooling.

CPU

The Mac Pro was designed to be flexible and to be upgraded. Whilst that is the case, sensibly their are many options to customise the internals at the point purchase. For the CPU, Apple has opted for Intel’s Xeon W workstation silicon. It starts with an 8-Core system with the option to go up to 12, 16, 24 or even an insane 28 cores! It’s no wonder the machine requires it’s 1.4kW power supply to keep everything ticking over efficiently.

The Mac Pro logic board.

GPU

The GPU (graphics processor unit) is an interesting story. Apple has created expansion enclosures that slot right into the computer, docking with the logic board. Apple refers to them as ‘Mac Pro Expansion modules’ or MPX modules for short. The Mac Pro supports two MPX modules. MPX modules are essentially containers that house the GPU. Each MPX module can actually house two GPU’s meaning the Mac Pro can support four GPU’s in total. MPX modules dock to the system using PCie slots. This is great news for future upgrades as it assures compatibility with future GPU cards based on industry standards.

The GPU in the base model is a single AMD Radeon Pro 580X. You have the option to go all the way up to an AMD Radeon Pro Vega II, four of them if you desire. Keep in mind it’ll cost you more than the price of a small car to add four of those top line graphics cards. No joke.

After Burner

That isn’t quite the end of the story for graphics. Apple has designed another optional expansion module called the ‘Apple Afterburner’. The Apple Afterburner is essentially a video accelerator card. “Created to transform the workflow for film and video professionals, Afterburner accelerates ProRes and ProRes RAW video codecs in Final Cut Pro X, QuickTime Player X and supported third-party applications.” In layman’s terms, if you shoot video in supported formats, render times will be dramatically improved and even makes proxy media unnecessary. You can edit video in the timeline at full resolution (depending on the display you connect to the Mac Pro).

Ram, Storage and Ports

The Mac Pro supports up to 1.5TB of DDR4 ECC RAM. Yes you read that correctly. The machine has 12 user accessible DIMM slots enabling memory upgrades on demand and as required. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where an individual user would require such a high amount of memory. Consider that typical notebooks and desktops ship with anything from 8 – 64GB as standard. 64GB isn’t even 1/15th of the memory that the Mac Pro can support. I suspect this large memory expansion will be of most use in the server rack version of the Mac Pro, soon to be found in render farms and stack systems. Still….it’s nice to know the machine is future ready for many years to come.

Other points worthy of mention include support for up to 8TB of solid state storage with 3.4 GB/s read and write speed. This will enable the system to access even the largest files in an instant and write large files to storage on demand. Around the back you’ll find two USB A ports and two thunderbolt 3/USB C ports. At the top of the machine are two additional thunderbolt 3/USB C ports and a 3.5mm audio jack. Yep.

Cooling

Apple doubled down on thermal performance in the Mac Pro. The largest heatsink Apple has ever included in any Mac is supported by three large, but whisper quiet fans. The fans use asymmetrically positioned impeller blades to spread the sound over multiple frequencies. It makes the machine sound quieter, whisper quiet even during the most demanding tasks.

So what does this all mean?

The Mac Pro is a powerhouse. It’s that simple. Even the most complex tasks are no match for this machine. Want to render multiple streams of 8K broadcast quality footage? You got it. Want to create animations with the same output quality as Disney Pixar? With the high end specs you can do that. Need to have hundreds of instruments loaded into a single Logic Pro workflow with dozens of effects and plugins running simultaneously? No problem. The entry level models of the Mac Pro will handle these kinds of tasks about as well as an iMac Pro. With the higher end configurations, it won’t even break a sweat. I have yet to see an example of a workflow that has pushed the spec I tested to even 40% of it’s maximum CPU output. It’s that good.

In my testing, I was able to export a ten minute project with 4 streams of 4K Apple Pro Res 4444 Footage in less than 1 minute and 32 seconds. It rendered the footage at over 5 times faster than real time. You just don’t see this kind of performance on….well…anything. Certainly not anything Apple has created before and very few of the big name PC makers either.

I think it is super important to be clear on a few things. This machine was not designed for the average consumer. Even amazing tech YouTubers like MKBHD, Jonathan Morrison and iJustine will struggle to get this machine to bottleneck. MKBHD makes a point of shooting footage in red raw 8K and this system will still handle that footage like a hot knife through butter.

Pricing

The Mac Pro third generation, starts in at £5499 or $5999 in the US. The price can be as much as ten times this cost if you max it out with upgrades and additional options. That doesn’t include the cost of a display and most certainly not Apple’s Mac Pro companion, the Pro Display XDR. The fundamental question however, is does the Mac Pro justify it’s high price tag? Or is Apple asking too much for too little? Well….on this occasion the Mac Pro is actually a bargain. Comparable workstation class machines with similar (or worse) performance from competitors such as Dell and HP can cost in excess of $100,000. Competitors don’t even include pricing on their websites for products in this class, you have to call and ask. Furthermore the build quality and external design of competing products in this class aren’t even close to the Mac Pro.

This product was designed to save time and save money. If you frequently edit broadcast quality footage, if you produce audio content in high volume or do just about anything in which time and deadlines are extremely tight, then the Mac Pro ‘may’ be for you. Being able to work without any CPU throttling or any other kind of bottleneck really can be a life saver for high end creative professionals. You don’t have to worry about lost productivity while projects render or export. The time this machine can save you, will save you money in the long term IF you work in a field that truly requires this level of performance and in HIGH volume.

The Bottom Line

Apple needed to build a product that was flexible, that could meet the needs of the most demanding creative professional work flows. They needed to build a product ready for the future and able to be easily upgraded for many years to come. The design needed to be as functional as it was beautiful and have the feature set that users in the market for this product truly care about. The Mac has felt over shadowed for some time by iOS but Apple is taking several steps to address that concern amongst the Mac faithful.

With regard to the Mac Pro, Apple really needed to deliver. And they did.

Review scale out of 5.