The first hint that maybe Apple’s Mac Pro computer isn’t for everyone is the machine’s $3,099 base price. Even from a company with a reputation for premium hardware, that’s a lot of cake. But if you work in video production, photography, tinker with animation or are employed as an audio engineer, it’s a cost that eventually, if not immediately, you’ll be happy to pay. Why not now? Because the hardware underneath the Mac Pro’s sleek back exterior is so advanced that many software developers haven’t yet had the opportunity to tweak their applications to fully leverage it.
The computer’s base price nets the buyer a beast of a machine: A 3.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon processor, 12 GB of DDR3 ECC memory, Dual AMD FirePro D300 graphics processors with 2 GB of GDDR5 VRAM each and 256 GB of solid state storage. The cost of tweaking a Mac Pro into the workhorse of your dreams can quickly approach the insane. I tested a version with a 12 core processor, 32 GB of memory, 512 GB of flash-based storage and those drool-worthy Dual AMD FirePro D300 capable of running multiple 4K displays or up to six of Apple’s 27-inch Thunderbolt displays was worth close to $8000.
This is a piece of computing hardware one buys because they know they need it, and not because it’ll look good sitting on their desk.
At six inches in diameter and nine inches tall, the 2013 Mac Pro is close to four times smaller than the last aluminum-clad rectangular behemoth that bore the Pro moniker. The reason for this is simple: While upgrading the 2013 iteration of the Pro is as easy as removing its rounded aluminum sheath, exposing its chassis and swapping out its processor, memory or storage for something faster or more spacious, there’s no room inside to jam in an optical drive, additional slabs of solid state storage or other after-market goodies. This of course is by design: Apple built the Pro to be small in order for it to be portable, making it easy to pack it up and transport it to use on location at a photo shoot, or edit video and process effects right after they’ve been shot on a soundstage.
This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to pair the Mac Pro with additional hardware: a compliment of six Thunderbolt 2 ports that can connect up to 36 devices simultaneously, four USB 3.0 ports, audio line out, an HDMI port for connecting an HD television or 4K display to and a pair of Gigabit Ethernet connections make it possible to connect an almost endless variety of storage options and peripherals to the already powerful machine. This adaptability makes the Mac Pro far more future-friendly than past iterations of Apple’s Pro lineup have been. What’s more, as it relies on a single fan to draw cool air up through the bottom of the computer and push hot air out through its top, the new Mac Pro is significantly quieter than its predecessor, which used multiple fans spread throughout its enclosure to keep things at a safe operating temperature.
The only real issue I had with the hardware was that all of it’s ports are located on the back, making it difficult to swap out a connected drive, or connect a USB thumb drive to the computer without walking around to the back of my desk or turning the Pro around. But you can say the same of Apple’s current Mac Mini, Thunderbolt Display and iMacs too. Hidden, mildly difficult to access ports is the price we pay for beautiful hardware. And it seems that most Mac users are fine with the sacrifice.
But none of this power or the Mac Pro’s it-looks-like-the-future industrial design mean much if the machine doesn’t perform as well as a less expensive workstation running OS X or a Windows-powered PC.
At the same time as Apple sent me a Mac Pro to take for a spin, they also provided me with copies of Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor – software designed to take advantage of the computer’s dual GPUs – and a thumb drive full of 4K video content to tinker with. The hardware made it possible to edit the content and see results of my work almost instantly. The power of the Pro became even more obvious as I watched it render multiple video effects, in real-time, with the video footage.
But here’s a kick: Not everyone will be able to enjoy this kind of power. For now, most of the applications and games out available for OS X aren’t designed to take advantage of the Mac Pro’s dual GPU setup. Playing Borderlands 2 on the hardware, for example, didn’t net me significantly better graphical results than I’ve enjoyed on a 2013 MacBook Pro or iMac. The same goes for polishing or editing video in a program other than Final Cut Pro X. That said, this is new hardware, so it’s hard for software makers to be faulted for being a little behind the curve. In time, there’s little doubt that software companies that specialize in producing tools for Mac-based professions will catch up, resulting in some serious tools for this serious piece of computing machinery.
The Mac Pro is a compact, beautifully designed powerhouse that video, design and photographic professionals will love to include in their workflow – eventually. For most, the hardware is still so new and so advanced that they’ll be disappointed to find that many of the software tools they rely on daily still haven’t been optimized to leverage the full power of the computer’s impressive internal hardware.