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The Brilliant Insanity Behind the New Mac Pro's Design

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The last we heard of the Power Mac G4 Cube—a computer everyone loved, but no one could quite figure out—was in a press release from 2001. Twelve years later, we've finally met its beautiful, brilliant, and not altogether sane successor.

Back in July of 2001, the future of the Cube wasn't entirely clear. In a press release, Apple's reps explained their reasoning:

“Apple® today announced that it will suspend production of the Power Mac™ G4 Cube indefinitely. The company said there is a small chance it will reintroduce an upgraded model of the unique computer in the future, but that there are no plans to do so at this time.

‘Cube owners love their Cubes, but most customers decided to buy our powerful Power Mac G4 minitowers instead,’ said Philip Schiller, Apple’s vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing.”


And with that, Apple killed one of the most innovative personal computers it had ever produced. Placed between Apple’s entry-level iMac and high-end Power Mac, the Cube was too expensive for consumers and not expandable enough for pros. Still, everyone loved it because it was, for lack of a better description, awesome. And so, for the last twelve years, we hung onto that “small chance" that Apple would reintroduce the Cube, hoping that someday, the product’s concept would finally make sense.

That day came yesterday.

The Concept

Last week, I wrote about the future of the Mac Pro, a time-tested machine that had slowly become the most anachronistic product from Apple’s hardware offerings. As I saw it, the company had four options: kill the Mac Pro, give the current Mac Pro case a spec bump, evolve the design, or completely change the game.


Apple obviously went with the fourth option. It’s important to consider why they would choose this path over the others. Successful revolutions of product archetypes occur when a team realizes that an underlying technology has advanced or been replaced. This is what happened with the iPhone. Every mobile phone company in the world had touchscreen designs they never released; Apple, though, was the first to realize that touch screens had caught up in usability and manufacturability. In cases like this, it pays to be the first to discover and take advantage of the opportunity. Usually, it puts you years ahead of the competition, which is stuck making products the old way.

Conversely, sometimes the archetype is too advanced for the underlying technology. For example, Alan Kay came up with the idea for a thin device with a keyboard that could be carried around like a book back in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until the 90s that computing technology could even approach what he had in mind, and it wasn’t until the 2010s that the tablet truly came of age. You can’t force an idea if the tech isn’t there to support it.


The concept of the new Mac Pro is very similar to that of the old Cube: A powerhouse PC that is very small and externally upgradable. That concept was not viable in 2000, when all we had for I/O was FireWire 400 and USB 1.1. Fast forward to 2013, and the technology has caught up to the archetype. We now have Thunderbolt 2, 802.11ac, and USB 3, not to mention cloud storage options. The expandability limitations are gone.

Put simply, we’ve come to a tipping point where the internals of a tower PC limit upgradability more than the externals do. There will be users who will miss optical media and PCI card slots—just like there were users who missed SCSI and floppy drives—but the vast majority of what gets added on to a pro computer today is done externally.


The Design

Let me just say this about the Mac Pro: this type of design can only be produced by a company that is first, truly led by its industrial design team, and second, completely nuts. No sane engineer would ever let this leave the design stage because it goes against everything you’re supposed to do with electronics. You’re supposed to arrange boards parallel to each other to maximize space efficiency. You’re supposed to have I/O ports that attach to the board in parallel, not perpendicularly. You’re supposed to end up with something that is roughly the shape of a box, because that's the easiest and most efficient way to manufacture a device.


To get a design that looks like this on the outside, you have to start with the inside. Like the Cube, the new Mac Pro is designed around a thermal core that pulls air from the bottom to the top of the machine. Unlike the Cube, which relied on convection cooling alone, the Pro has a fan located at the top of the machine to accelerate the air moving through it. Apple is using some of the same tricks it first used on the Retina MacBook Pro to ensure the fan runs as quietly as possible with a specially designed blade.


The triangular thermal core is a single piece of extruded aluminum that has been machined and anodized black. Extruding aluminum is a lot like using the old Play-Doh Extruder, except you’re using aluminum instead of Play-Doh. Large, solid billets of aluminum are heated in an oven and then forced through a small die. That triangular-shaped core comes out of the extruder as one large tube. Here's a video demonstrating the process:

After the tube is cooled, it gets cut into shorter sections and then goes through a series of secondary machining operations, creating mounting fixtures that allow other parts to attach directly to the core. Herein lies the beauty of the thermal core design. Not only does it act as a cooling chamber, it also provides the underlying structure for the entire device. Every component attaches directly to the core—boards, fan, the base, and even the outer housing. It’s an extension of Apple’s "unibody" philosophy: Several parts are replaced by one well-designed part. This allows Apple to reduce complexity and invest money in making the remaining parts much higher quality.

The outer housing is made through a process called impact extrusion, shown in the video above. This process is commonly used to make products like Sigg water bottles. A solid puck of aluminum, called a slug, is loaded into the machine and then punched into shape in one quick motion. After this step, the part goes through a series of secondary operations that cut the holes for the I/O and add the now-trademark Apple polished chamfer. The part is then polished and anodized black, creating a mirrored black finish.


Here again, Apple took the hard way out. A typical sandblasted finish—like you would see on the back of the iPhone 5—hides imperfections in the surface. Polishing makes imperfections more pronounced. Basically, Apple needs to get the housing absolutely perfect before it gets polished.


Small Details That Caught My Eye

  • The location of power button could be problematic. Maybe people will be more likely to leave their Mac Pros on their desks now that they are so tiny, but no one will be able to hide them under a desk because the power button is hidden amongst the back ports. Of course, why would you want to hide something that looks this good, but it’s still a pain in the butt. Another point—because the housing is polished, you’re going to leave a ton of fingerprints on the case when you hunt around for the power. A possible solution: What if the top of thermal core, inside the outer housing where I think the antennas are located, was one large power button? It would be hidden from view and would be a cool way to interact with the machine.
  • Black. Everything—the board, the aluminum inner structure, the fasteners—is jet black. It looks sinister. In a good way.
  • Backlit ports. The ports on the back are backlit when you turn the machine around to plug in a new device. Of course they do.
  • Polished chamfer. The detail that was first seen on the iPhone 5 and then propagated over to the iPod line and iPad mini shows up here as well. This is typically an expensive process, but Apple gets away with it because of economies of scale. A classic Ive & Cook mindmeld. If you use an expensive process on your entire product line over the course of millions of products, you’re going to dramatically lower its cost. Aesthetically, I like it much more on the Mac Pro than I do on Apple’s other products. On the Pro it’s a nice detail that makes you want to peer into the core of the beast. On products like the iPhone 5, I think it’s a bit too distracting.
  • Antennas. After trying to figure out how Apple was sending Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals through the all metal casing, I think I found an the answer. The antennas seem to be located at the very top of the Mac Pro, just inside the opening to the thermal core. It’s likely that the domed part that covers the fan’s motor is a material that allows signals to pass through it. Possibly glass or plastic.
  • Assembled in the US. To get this designation, you have to meaningfully modify the components to get the product to its finished state. You can’t just ship a product to the US, put it in a box and slap a “Assembled in USA” sticker on it. If I had to guess, most of the electronics were made overseas, while the housing, assembly of the product, and packaging were made in the US. Good for Apple for taking another step down this route.
  • Beyond the desktop. Can you imagine how cool server farms of these things are going to look? If I had to design a data center I would, without a doubt, arrange Mac Pros like the pod towers from The Matrix.

It’s hard not to gush about the Mac Pro. The conceptual thinking behind the device is equalled by its design execution. If the final product Apple releases later this year matches the promise made yesterday, this is as close to perfect as you can make a pro desktop computer in 2013.

Looking at this machine, you can understand the 8 Mile, “Lose Yourself” moment Phil Schiller had on stage yesterday. “Can’t innovate anymore my ass,” he said, literally losing himself in the moment and looking to pick a fight. If you go back and listen to his introduction you can practically hear the adrenaline rushing through his voice as he shoved the question of Apple losing its touch back in the face of its critics. This machine has swagger—and apparently, Apple still does too.