What the Mac Pro Announcement Means for Apple

An admission of fault is not a sign of weakness

The 2013 Mac Pro (which, sadly, is the current model) is a curious product. What could be mistaken for Darth Vader’s waste basket was born out of an aging design and pressure from tech reviewers that Apple “can't innovate anymore.” Cupertino’s SVP of worldwide marketing, during the Pro’s unveiling at their 2013 developers conference, defiantly retorted “Can't innovate anymore, my ass!”

Fast forward to the present day, four years later, and in an unprecedented sit-down with computing journalists, Apple SVP of engineering Craig Federighi admits “We designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner.” In other words, the black trash can was an engineering dead end. The purpose of the discussion was to hype a revamped and modular Macintosh Pro that will be released next year. 

Mac Pro design 2006-2012. Credit: Apple Support

If this sounds familiar, it ought to; this was the approach used in Mac Pros of 2012 and as far back as 2006. The 2006 design was inspired by the Power Mac line, which came in a modular, full ATX form factor as early as 1999. This idea of a properly user-upgradable desktop Macintosh is tried and true, with roots literally in last millennium. 

Apple is backtracking with their roadmap for the Mac Pro, and that’s not a bad thing. The internal design of the current (that is to say four-year-old) Mac Pro is essentially a triangle that sits inside of its cylindrical housing. On one side you have the processor, ram, and logic, and on the other two lay dual AMD graphics cards.

“Apple is backtracking with their roadmap for the Mac Pro, and that’s not a bad thing.”

The two AMD FirePro D300 (build to order configs include the D500) GPUs were among the most powerful of their time, but Moore’s Law applies to graphics too and sure enough, the steady march  of throughput and efficiency led to a poorly aging, so-called top-of-the-line product. Not only can the current design of the Pro not accommodate more powerful, higher temperature graphics cards, but it has an inherent flaw of software optimization. 

If the only programs a Pro user works in are first party, then they will have a lovely time using Apple’s aesthetic and quiet custom-built mini-rig. The problem lies in the prevalence of the Adobe suite of creative apps. Adobe software is optimized for NVIDIA’s proprietary CUDA Cores. Since the Mac Pro uses dual AMD GPUs, the graphics cards are underutilized and the processor bears a greater portion of the load.

Apple SVP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller [left] and SVP of engineering Craig Federighi [right]

Not only are the GPUs under utilized, but in some cases only a single graphics card is used at all. Federighi said “There’s certain scientific loads that are very GPU intensive and they want to throw the largest GPU at it that they can…. Certain kinds of high-end cinema production tasks where most of the software out there that’s been written to target those doesn’t know how to balance itself well across multiple GPUs but can scale across a single large GPU.” NVIDIA SLI and AMD CrossFire, methods of using dual graphics cards, are used by a tiny sliver, an irrelevant minority of users and so developers rarely optimize their software for these niche configurations. 

Apple has been going down a long road of user hostile product decisions, including soldered on components. User-upgradability matters far more to desktop users, which is why there has been less outcry against this trend in Apple notebooks. The MacBook Air, the first non-upgradable Apple laptop, arguably couldn’t have been made if the battery, RAM, hard drive, and processor were end user-serviceable. All Mac customers are now locked into their computer's specifications at the time of purchase.

When these types of decisions leaked over into Apple's iMac, Mac mini, and Mac Pro desktops, the design choices became unjustifiable. Apple’s rare show of humility will ultimately make the company stronger as it looks to engender goodwill from the desktop computer community, some of whom use their high-end Macs to develop Apple-exclusive software. Let’s hope you can upgrade the RAM on next year’s model.