The Mac Pro is a statement. With a vented case that calls to mind a kitchen tool, it’s a homage to and advancement of the Power Mac G5 that fans affectionately likened to a cheese grater. Sporting a current generation Xeon processor, it’s an Apple device that seems to have finally launched on time and in step with its competitors. Still, the paltry GPU and SSD that comes with the $6,000 base model seems incongruous with the rest of its industry-leading design. To the point that I kept asking myself as I walked through the showroom Apple had set up to show off the device, would it be worth the high price Apple products command?
The best Apple products are pricy but come with enough premium polish that they feel worth it. I love my MacBook Pro: I like the underutilized Touch Bar and how fast the computer runs. And I adore the multitude of Thunderbolt ports. Likewise, the iPad Pro and iPhone XS are expensive devices that feel like they’re worth their price tags. The experience, from hardware to software, is good enough that you can justify the cost.
But other devices aren’t worth it—chiefly the MacBook and MacBook Air. They’re middling devices with outdated hardware that makes their inflated prices seem obscene.
The Mac Pro, starting at $6,000 (!) feels like it could easily be slotted in the latter category—Overpriced and underpowered. The base model has a new GPU based on aging architecture, a wimpy 256GB of storage, and, notably, an approximately $1,200 CPU. (The 28-core processor Apple boasted about costs more than double that retail, and will probably cause a corresponding jump in price for the machine.) The other components in the base model would possibly get the price above $2,500, if you wanted to build the device yourself. So the Apple tax appears, at a glance, absolutely outrageous. After doing the math in my head, I found myself gobsmacked.
Zoom in on some details, and that price starts to make sense. This thing has some serious flexibility and throughput when you look at its inputs and outputs, though you might miss it at first glance. The back of the Mac Pro is devoid of ports compared to a typical Windows machine. There are a handful of Gigabit Ethernet ports and USB-A ports, plus two Thunderbolt 3 ports and everything is so clean it looks sparse. (Another two Thunderbolt 3 ports reside on the top of the device.)
That’s remarkable because Thunderbolt 3 ports don’t often come in desktop motherboards—especially consumer ones. You have to go to the pro side of the market to find them. Same with the whopping 8 PCIe slots on the Mac Pro. You’re more likely to find that in a pro workstation built by Apple rivals like HP and Dell. The average gamer or consumer looking to dip their toes into video doesn’t need all that flexibility. You only really need those slots if you’re a pro who requires a fiber connection directly into your computer, or a multitude of GPUs to handle an 8K render.
You and me? We don’t need that shit.
Similarly, we don’t need the 1.5TB of RAM that you can potentially pack into the Mac Pro. You and I will never, ever need 1.5TB of RAM. But someone working with medium format digital images or an 8K video project? That would have been a pipe dream for them until yesterday when most workstations could only support half that quantity of the pricy ECC RAM Apple is putting into the Mac Pro’s 12 DIMM slots.
Consider all that, and what it would cost to build up a similar machine, and the Mac Pro starts to seem not just logical, but practically affordable. A device similar to the base model $6,000 version of the Mac Pro would cost over $9,000 from HP and close to $6,300 from Dell. And that doesn’t include the extra Thunderbolt 3 ports, or capability to support 1.5TB of RAM.
It’s not just about the specs of the machines and the IO throughput. It’s the little things that make me think that the Apple premium might be worth it. Consider how this beast is put together and designed to be air-cooled, so you don’t need to fuss with closed loop water pumps. Granted Apple had complete control over the demonstration area, but when I saw the Mac Pro in action yesterday, I didn’t hear fans whirring as I watched 8K footage play in real time on three monitors. The case felt cool to the touch. That strikes me as potentially impressive.
Also potentially impressive is the Afterburner FPGA (an FPGA is a processor usually built for a specific, niche task—like the FPGA’s found in console emulators). The custom card Apple built is designed to accelerate the ProRes codec fancy film editors use. It seems, on the surface, incredible as it allows computers to handle 8K footage without a stutter. Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategies, told me via email that “accelerating video processing is a big deal” for the production houses and video editors. But we still don’t know a whole lot about the Afterburner itself. “Very few details that were given about it during the keynote,” Sag said.
We do know about the GPUs offered. The Radeon Pro 580X found in the base model is, on paper, pretty wimpy. It uses the old Polaris architecture first introduced in 2016, and the 8GB of DDR5 RAM seems paltry. Notably, none of the Mac Pros Apple showcased at an off-site demo used that GPU, which does not bode well for its performance compared to the other cards offered. (Apple opted to demo machines with the more powerful and more expensive cards based on the newer Vega architecture.)
We shouldn’t count that 580X out though. I keep thinking about the MPX Module that Apple packs each GPU into. There’s potential to eke more performance out of the old GPU via the MPX module. With the Mac Pro, you won’t just go buy a GPU card and drop it in. (I’m sure you, theoretically, could.) Instead, you’ll get GPUs already packed into the MPX module, which is designed to keep the core of the GPU cooler than the stock cards from AMD. It gives the chips internal support for Thunderbolt 3, while also allowing Apple and AMD to build custom GPUS that pair one or more GPU together on the same board.
That’s really cool! Is it cool enough to almost make up for using a 580X instead of something like the newer Navi-based GPUs AMD announced at Computex last week? I’m not sure.
I’m not sure of a lot of things. I’m downright conflicted. There’s enough engineering prowess and enough impressive tech specs to make the MacPro seem like it’s worth the Apple Tax. Particularly given the demos I witnessed.
But until we get to open this thing up and try rendering some 8K footage in real time and outside of a controlled situation, it’s hard to call this machine incredible. For now, it’s merely impressive, even if it looks like the old grater my mom keeps in her kitchen.
Correction 6/4 4:57pm EST : This piece previously listed the comparable device from Dell as selling for $9,000. The wrong CPU was selected in that build. Choosing a comparable CPU drops the price to $6,300—which is still more than the Mac Pro. We regret the error.