Death of the Mac Pro? I Think Not

2011 – Yesterday’s hot Mac rumor, since picked up by just about every site covering Apple news, is that Apple is questioning the future of the Mac Pro and may be discontinuing its most expensive (and undoubtedly most profitable per unit) computer.

Mac ProI don’t buy it. Granted, this top-end Mac with prices starting at $2,499 with a single 2.8 GHz quad-core Intel Xeon Nehalem CPU, 3 GB of memory, a 1 TB 7200 rpm hard drive, an 18x SuperDrive, and ATI Radeon HD 5770 graphics isn’t Apple’s biggest seller. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for a very expandable, very powerful Mac for power users – and you can get up to 12 cores of Nehalem goodness if you need it and have $6,199.

The argument goes that for most people most of the time, a quad-core i7 MacBook Pro or iMac is going to provide all the power they need and then some, so with every step those models take forward, the market for the Mac Pro shrinks. (For that matter, for most people most of the time a dual-core i5 is all they need, and a lot of us are productive with even older Core 2 Duo or PowerPC technology.) That makes some sense, but people doing Photoshop and video work often want all the power they can get and many times use two or more color accurate displays. And in many cases, they don’t want glossy screens.

A second argument is that Thunderbolt eliminates the need for four internal hard drive bays, two internal optical drive bays, and three available PCI Express expansion slots. After all, Thunderbolt can be used to connect external drives and, in theory, anything PCI Express supports, so all your Mac needs is a sufficiently powerful processor, a fast boot drive, and however much memory you need.

If you need better graphics, there will be a Thunderbolt equivalent to the graphics card. If you need a big hard drive, a RAID array, or a second SuperDrive, you can connect it with Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt Is Not the Answer

Well, that’s the theory. In reality, there just aren’t a lot of Thunderbolt peripherals eight months after Apple introduced the first Macs with Thunderbolt. Somewhere down the road it may become practical to rely on Thunderbolt for your next video card, but that’s just not the case today.

Further, Thunderbolt devices cost more than standard external USB and/or FireWire devices, which invariably cost more than internal drives and video cards. If Apple were to kill of the Mac Pro, it would make system expansion a lot more costly for power users.

Original Mac Pro designI don’t see the Mac Pro going away. The Mid 2010 model is well overdue for an update, but Apple seems to be waiting on Intel’s next generation chipset, Sandy Bridge, expected in early 2012.

There are Mac users who need more power than a 3.4 GHz quad-core i7 iMac offers, and I don’t see Apple abandoning them. There are Mac users who need more than the 16 GB of memory a MacBook Pro supports or the 32 GB you can put in an iMac, and I don’t see Apple abandoning them either. There are Mac users who need multiple internal hard drives, and I don’t see Apple leaving them behind. There are Mac users who need multiple graphics cards and displays, and I don’t see Apple leaving them in the lurch.

As powerful as the top-end iMac is, it doesn’t have multiple drive bays, expansion slots, or the ability to use 96 GB of memory – all features the Mac Pro has. Frankly, I can’t see Apple selling a pro desktop with less than four hard drive bays (for internal RAID), three PCI Express slots, or two optical drive bays, and memory demands only increase over time.

What the Mac Pro doesn’t yet have, which is surprising since even the entry-level Mac mini has it, is Thunderbolt. Why didn’t Apple release a 2011 Mac Pro with Thunderbolt? What were they waiting for?

The 2012 Mac Pro

Where does that leave the Mac Pro? Overdue for an upgrade to more powerful processors, desperate for two or more Thunderbolt ports, and hankering for 6 Gb/s SATA and onboard SSD – areas where the iMac currently has an edge over Apple’s pro Mac.

The Mac Pro enclosure is probably due for an overhaul. Apple introduced it with the first Power Mac G5 way back in 2003, and it is prone to dings and dents and bent handles. Any new design will probably incorporate some of the aluminum unibody technology found in the Mac mini, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro – even if it’s only to create more robust feet and handles, but I can see it being used for cooling as well.

Here’s my tentative spec list for the next Mac Pro:

  • Sandy Bridge chipset, 4 to 16 core options
  • 2-4 Thunderbolt ports with optical support
  • USB 3.0 ports replacing USB 2.0 on current model (which has 5 ports)
  • 6 Gb/s SATA support and room for for 4 hard drives, 2 optical drives, 2 onboard SSDs (same connector used in current Macs)
  • 3-4 PCI Express slots
  • official support for 128 GB of memory
  • legacy support for FireWire 800, but perhaps no longer 4 ports

Honestly, it’s going to be a big machine. There’s no other way to have that many drive bays, sufficient power, and adequate cooling, but Apple may come up with a surprisingly new design. Do not expect it to be any less expensive than today’s Mac Pro.

The 2012 Mac Desktop

The Mac mini, iMac, and MacBook Pro meet the needs of most users, but there is a small group that needs or wants more expansion options without having to pay $2,500 for a Mac Pro. This is a small market that Apple should address, as it can be a very profitable one with lots of build-to-order options. Maybe this would be a minitower, maybe an updated cube-shaped design, maybe something completely different, but I think it would sell well enough to get a lot of us old timers who remember $1,500 G4 Power Macs something to move to:

  • Sandy Bridge chipset, 2-8 core options
  • 2-3 Thunderbolt ports with optical support
  • 4-6 USB 3.0 ports
  • 6 Gb/s SATA support and room for 2 onboard SSDs, one optical drive, one hard drive, and an extra bay for either an optical drive or a second hard drive
  • 2-3 PCI Express slots (a video card would be optional by using built-in video of Intel Core i5/i7 CPU)
  • official support for 32 GB of memory
  • 1 legacy FireWire 800 port

Price this at $1,200 or so with a dual-core i5 (and offer a huge range of processor options), 4 GB of memory, a 1 TB hard drive, and a SuperDrive. Make the keyboard and mouse available separately as with the Mac mini. Include the Magic Trackpad to help users adapt to the OS X 10.7 Lion way of doing things. Offer some video card options.

Basically, Apple, throw us a bone. We’ve been using our G4 and G5 Power Macs long enough. We’ve seen the power of Intel, but for whatever reason (drive bays, expansion slots, etc.), we’re not prepared to pay for a Mac Pro and not going to be happy with a Mac mini or iMac.

And then there are the MacBook, iMac, and Mac mini users who realize they need a bit more, not to mention the Windows switchers who think of drive bays and expansion slots as standard features.

Keywords: #macpro

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