Apple upgrades Mac Pro, promises radical modular models and new displays after this year

The following was written by Ben Lovejoy, at 9to5Mac


Many of us wondered whether the Mac Pro line was dead, but Apple has told Daring Fireball’s John Gruber and others that it is continuing development on its high-end desktop, and will after this year be releasing a ‘completely rethought’ model with a modular design intended to make the machine more upgradable.

Apple is currently hard at work on a “completely rethought” Mac Pro, with a modular design that can accommodate high-end CPUs and big honking hot-running GPUs, and which should make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis.

The company is also updating the existing Mac Pro today – and will be making new Apple Displays to go with the future model, along with new pro-focused iMacs …

 

The company admitted that its 2013 model approach hasn’t been as upgradable in practice as it had hoped.

At some point [Apple] came to the conclusion that the 2013 Mac Pro concept was fundamentally flawed. It was tightly integrated internally, which allowed for some very nice features: it was small and beautiful (a pro machine that demanded placement on your desk, not under your desk) and it could run whisper quietly. But that tight integration made it hard to update regularly. The idea that expansion could be handled almost entirely by external Thunderbolt peripherals sounded good on paper, but hasn’t panned out in practice. And the GPU design was a bad prediction. Apple bet on a dual-GPU design (multiple smaller GPUs, with “pro”-level performance coming from parallel processing) but the industry has gone entirely in the other direction (machines with one big GPU).

Phil Schiller acknowledged that the 2013 Mac Pro had not been well received by many pros, and it was this that had led to the radical rethink.

With regards to the Mac Pro, we are in the process of what we call “completely rethinking the Mac Pro”. We’re working on it. We have a team working hard on it right now, and 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.

As part of doing a new Mac Pro — it is, by definition, a modular system — we will be doing a pro display as well. Now you won’t see any of those products this year; we’re in the process of that. 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.

In the interim, we know there are a number of customers who continue to buy our [current Mac Pros]. To be clear, our current Mac Pro has met the needs of some of our customers, and we know clearly not all of our customers. None of this is black and white, it’s a wide variety of customers. Some… it’s the kind of system they wanted; others, it was not.

In the meantime, we’re going to update the configs to make it faster and better for their dollar. This is not a new model, not a new design, we’re just going to update the configs. We’re doing that this week. We can give you the specifics on that.

The CPUs, we’re moving them down the line. The GPUs, down the line, to get more performance per dollar for customers who DO need to continue to buy them on the interim until we get to a newly architected system.

Apple told Gruber and others that as the new machine won’t be available this year, it is today upgrading the existing model, albeit in modest form.

In the meantime, Apple is today releasing meager speed-bump updates to the existing Mac Pros. The $2999 model goes from 4 Xeon CPU cores to 6, and from dual AMD G300 GPUs to dual G500 GPUs. The $3999 model goes from 6 CPU cores to 8, and from dual D500 GPUs to dual D800 GPUs. Nothing else is changing, including the ports. No USB-C, no Thunderbolt 3 (and so no support for the LG UltraFine 5K display)

The meeting was a high-profile one, with Craig Federighi, and John Ternus, who heads Mac hardware, also present. Schiller was unusually frank.

As we’ve said, we made something bold that we thought would be great for the majority of our Mac Pro users. And what we discovered was that it was great for some and not others. Enough so that we need to take another path. One of the good things, hopefully, with Apple through the years has been a willingness to say when something isn’t quite what we wanted it do be, didn’t live up to expectations, to not be afraid to admit it and look for the next answer […]

The current Mac Pro, as we’ve said a few times, was constrained thermally and it restricted our ability to upgrade it. And for that, we’re sorry to disappoint customers who wanted that, and we’ve asked the team to go and re-architect and design something great for the future that those Mac Pro customers who want more expandability, more upgradability in the future.

While many of us had feared that Apple now had limited interest in the pro market, the execs said that this is not the case. The company’s research shows that a full 30% of Mac owners use at least one pro app –those used for things like music creation, video editing, graphic design, and software development – half of these more than once per week. This 30% is what Apple considers its pro market.

Even among pro users, however, Apple said that notebooks are by far the most popular form factor, followed by the iMac. This is why it has prioritized the new MacBook Pro machines, and would also be making new iMacs with a pro focus.

Schiller also said that new iMacs are in the works, slated for release some time this year (no specifics other than “this year”), including “configurations of iMac specifically with the pro customer in mind and acknowledging that our most popular desktop with pros is an iMac.”

Craig Federighi then jumped in, and said: “That is a pretty incredible evolution that we’ve seen over the last decade. The original iMac, you never would’ve thought as remotelytouching pro uses. And now you look at today’s 5K iMac, top configs, it’s incredibly powerful, and a huge fraction of what would’ve traditionally — whether it’s audio editing, video editing, graphics, arts and so forth — that would’ve previously absolutely required the Mac Pros of old, are being well-addressed by iMac. But there’s still even further we can take iMac as a high performance, pro system, and we think that form factor can address even more of the pro market.”

The execs were keen to dispel the idea that Apple was now focused on iOS devices, with limited interest in the Mac line.

Ternus put it plainly: “Some of our most talented folks are working on [the Mac]. I mean, quite frankly, a lot of this company, if not most of this company, runs on Macs. This is a company full of pro Mac users.”

Schiller added: “As far as our horizon line can see, the Mac is a core component of the things Apple delivers, including to our pro customers.”

While a year or more is a long time to wait, many people – myself included – are going to be extremely happy to hear this news, not just for what it says about the Mac Pro specifically, but Apple’s broader commitment to the future of the Mac.

An earlier version of this piece said that the new Mac Pro was promised for next year when Schiller actually stated that it wouldn’t be this year. It seems unlikely Apple would be announcing something more than 20 months out, but after today, I guess nothing is impossible!

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