the new mac pro…

So yesterday was the opening day (and keynote presentation) of Apple’s “WWDC” 2013. Among other things (like trying to spin OSX playing catch-up to Windows as new features; e.g. GPU scaling, functional multi-monitor support, and new low-level CPU optimizations) they offered a sneak peak at the forthcoming Mac Pro refresh.

I suppose I shouldn’t have expected much, this is the “New Apple” after-all, but it seems like they’re just completely ignoring the “Pro” market entirely.

The new Mac Pro:

Now, I can appreciate the technical feat of cramming an intel socket 2011 CPU and dual-GPU’s into such a small form factor (9.9″ tall x 6″ diameter) but I’m at a loss trying to find a market for this other than “People with more money than sense.”

First, the entire system looks to be 100% custom PCB designs, you will never be able to upgrade your CPU or GPU’s, you might not even be able to upgrade the SSD if Apple pulls the same crap they’ve done before and designed their own connector instead of using the M.2/NGFF standard. And don’t forget that there’s zero expansion slots for any auxiliary pcie devices like raid controllers, network cards, video capture cards, audio mixing units, etc. And well, you better hope your apps/workflow don’t rely on Nvidia CUDA tech, because I seriously doubt that Apple convinced both AMD and Nvidia to bend over backwards and design custom boards for a single new computer with limited market potential, and quite frankly I don’t think Apple has the technical expertise/experience or the desire/motivation to design custom GPU boards from scratch. And lastly the CPU. I applaud Apple for finally moving to intel Socket 2011 platform, but I’m dumbfounded by their choice to use a 12-core chip instead of two 6-core or 8-core chips. Anyone that understands CPU’s knows that in order to ensure those 12-cores on the same die don’t fry each other, the chip will run at a very low clock-speeds, likely 1.8Ghz-2.4Ghz per core, whereas a dual processor system with two 6/8-core chips could see 12/16 cores (24/32 threads) all running at 3.1-3.8Ghz. (See the intel Xeon E5-2687W for reference.)

So who is the system for then? Audio engineers? Why would they need dual fire-pro GPU’s? Mechanical engineers? Well, maybe for any apps that don’t rely on CUDA. Maybe 3D artists/designers/animators? Again, maybe for apps that don’t rely on CUDA (no 3Dsmax, Blender etc.) Maybe professional video editors? Apple has pushed the Mac Pro for the editing market for a long time, so let’s see!

Straight away we see that for professional editing the machine is flat out lacking the storage necessary to work on uncompressed video. Let’s look at some common video formats and how much disk space is required to store 5 minutes of footage in each format:

  • 1080p/24p (1920×1080, 24fps, 4-4-4, 12-bit color) – 67GiB
  • 1080p/60p (1920×1080, 60fps, 4-4-4, 12-bit color) – 167GiB
  • 1080p/3D (1920×1080, 72fps, 4-4-4, 12-bit color) – 200GiB
  • Ultra HD (3840×2160, 24fps, 4-4-4, 12-bit color) – 250GiB
  • Cinema 4K (4096×2160, 24fps, 4-4-4, 12-bit color) – 267GiB
  • RED ONE (4520×2540, 60fps, RAW bayer mask color) – 289GiB

Assuming that Apple allows up to ~1TB of SSD storage in the new Mac Pro, that’s ~970GiB (GiB = Gibibyte, unit used to represent base2 formatted computer storage, vs base10 used in most marketing.) Let’s assume that ~70GiB goes to the OS, Apps, Library files, temporary files, etc., and that leaves ~900GiB of “scratch” space to work on files.

That’s only ~17 minutes of uncompressed 4K/24p video and the disk is completely full, and that ignores the fact that a full SSD is considerably slower than rated speeds (a general guideline is always leave ~20% free space on your SSD to ensure consistent performance) and will in turn negatively impact the entire system performance.

I know what you’re going to say now though, that’s where thunderbolt comes in!

Well, yes and no. It’s true that thunderbolt is almost an external pcie interface, but each port (even version 2.0) is limited to the bandwidth of a single pcie 2.0 x4 link, meaning a real-world throughput of ~2GB/second. Compare that with an internal pcie 3.0 x8 link (the interface used by most high-end RAID controllers) at ~8GB/second; four times the bandwidth of thunderbolt 2.0. So for truly high-speed storage (like you’d want and need to comfortably edit 4K video) thunderbolt just can’t match a local/internal RAID array.

And let’s not forget that thunderbolt 2.0 peripherals aren’t even close to market yet, and when they’re released, you can expect a disk-less RAID array to be ~$1500-2000+ for the first couple of years. Ok, so how about using a network storage solution? Surely $2000 could build a capable, high-performance NAS/file-server, even with a 10Gbe connection. True, it most certainly could, except there’s no internal expansion of the new Mac Pro, and it doesn’t have a native 10Gbe connection. And 1Gbe can’t handle the bandwidth to do real-time editing of even 1080p uncompressed video. So back to thunderbolt, yes, it can handle a 10Gbe card from a bandwidth standpoint, but the cheapest one I can find is $1000 (compare with internal 10Gbe cards as low as $275 now) and being an external breakout box will need it’s own desk space, cable, etc. And of course, since it’s only designed for thunderbolt 1.0, you won’t want to daisy-chain the 10Gbe adapter, because you don’t want the added latency, or potential bottlenecking from sharing bandwidth.

And lastly, this all ignores the fact there’s very few thunderbolt capture cards on the market, even fewer that support 4K, and those that do (for professional level work) need an external rack to mount them, limiting any semblance of portability you may have gained with your tiny new Mac Pro. Wow, this new setup is so much better than dropping a couple pcie x1/x4/x8 cards into expansion slots.

So I just don’t see a market for this computer, I truly don’t. It will be another toy for rich people to flaunt their money, but it won’t find traction in real professional environments.

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