With the debut of the new Mac Pro on June 3, we can finally say, “welcome back to the professional market that you unceremoniously dumped overboard a few years ago, Apple.” (Sure, true believers will say Apple never left, but uhh, trashcan amirite?)
The good news is Apple returns to the pro game as only Apple can: with high-end specs, even higher prices, and one actually bad-ass looking Mac. And no, we don’t mean the actual looks, because, well, the looks are in the eyes of the beholder. Yes, if you have nothing kind to say about cheese graters, don’t say it. What’s more impressive, what’s more important to a crowd who cares only about performance, is what’s inside.
And there, Apple doesn’t disappoint (mostly).
Apple spared almost no expense with the new Mac Pro. As we break down the specs you'll see where the money went--to get the best that money could buy.
CPU: 28-core Xeon W. As always, Apple doesn’t say which CPU it’s using, but by all indications, it’s an Intel Xeon W-3275M or Xeon W-3275. Those CPUs are based on Intel’s Skylake cores and have a base clock of 2.5GHz, a turbo boost of 4.4GHz, and a Turbo Boost Max 3.0 clocks of 4.6GHz.
The Xeon W-3275M/W-3275 are basically the the server versions of the “desktop” Xeon W-3175X (reviewed here) and can cost more than twice as much as the Xeon W-3175X’s $2999. Other distinctive touches (more details on Intel’s ARK, where we’ve lined them up for you) include Deep Learning Boost and security features, but one key difference is RAM. On paper the “desktop” Xeon W-3175X tops out at 512GB of RAM, while both of these chips can support a ton more. The W-3175W takes it to 2TB, while the W-3275 maxes out at 1TB.
RAM: As we note above, the key difference with the Xeon W Apple uses is likely the RAM supported. Apple offers the new Mac Pro with up to 1.5TB of ECC DDR4 RAM. That’s a lot. Apple also decided to mount the 12 RAM slots on the reverse side of the motherboard, on the opposite side of the CPU. It’s a pretty cool touch and frees up space around the CPU for more PCIe slots, as well as more room for cooling. It’s a good idea and something easily done on a platform not handcuffed by current industry standards (*cough* ATX).
GPUs: For GPUs Apple sticks with Team Red, AMD. The menu of GPU options ranges from an ancient, budget-y Radeon Pro 580X to an actual high-end Radeon Pro Vega II Duo. That Radeon Pro Vega II Duo is essentially two Radeon Pro Vega II cards on a single card. A single Radeon Pro Vega II, which Apple sells as another option, will feature 64 compute units, 32GB of HBM2 memory, and up to 14.1 teraflops of single-precision performance. The Duo combines two of those cards into what Apple calls the “world’s most powerful graphics card.”
And yeah, to jam that claim a little more in your face, Apple designed the Mac Pro to run two of those Radeon Pro Vega II Duo cards, for up to 128GB of HBM2 and 56 TFLOPs of performance.
Apple says the Radeon Pro Vega II Duo will use AMD’s Infinity Fabric to connect the two GPUs on the PCB. Previously, Infinity Fabric was used only to connect AMD’s chiplets. Just as impressive is Apple’s claim it will use Infinity Fabric to connect single GPU Radeon Pro Vega II cards. We’d guess it’s using a bridge connector, which can be glimpsed on the top of the card in the image above.
If you’re wondering what that “All-new PCIe connector” is along the bottom, it’s for power delivery. Apple says it’ll handle up to 475 watts of power. Combined with the 75 watts from the standard x16 PCIe slot, it looks like there’s no need for internal wiring harnesses for the GPU.
We’re not sure whether Apple did the “All-new PCIe connector” for power delivery alone, or if it felt it needed more lanes for the second GPU. We do know Apple has long had an obsession of trying to minimize internal power harnesses. Previous Mac Pros went so far as to use proprietary power harnesses that connected the GPU directly to the motherboard, rather than running it to the PSU. We’d guess it’s to make the wire runs neater. The “All-new PCIe slot” itself is also likely an Apple-only design, as the PCIe SIG said it didn’t recognize it.
Storage: As you can see from the image above, it looks like there are two M.2-style slots for storage, as well as two SATA data ports inside of the new Mac Pro. At least that’s what we thought at first. Apple’s website, however, seems to indicate the two storage modules are mounted on the reverse side along with the RAM. So we actually don’t know what those two large slots on the left side of the motherboard are, but they may be for wireless modules.
Apple said the Mac Pro can support from 256GB to 2TB of storage, with sequential reads of 2.6GBps and write speeds of 2.7GBps. The modules don’t appear to be, and likely are not, compatible with M.2, of course, as they’re also encrypted using Apple’s T2 chip. Apple’s MacBooks have typically had pretty awesome performance (but not great thermal performance), so the storage is likely to be top-notch here.
Speaking of thermals, Apple doesn’t actively cool the graphics modules, which it calls MPX, nor the CPU. Knowing the heat generated by the 28-core desktop Xeon, that’s an amazing feat. But it's not that cut-and-dry. While there are no fans on the heat sinks of the GPU or CPU, there are huge ones on the case itself. The three fans are designed to move air through the chambers for the CPU and GPUs directly, so they’re really actively cooled in a way.
We've seen this design approach from Apple before. The company has long favored custom cooling chambers. The idea is to rely on larger fan diameters for lower rpms and eliminate the need for additional fans on the chassis. Apple claims the Mac Pro is as quiet as an iMac Pro. Let’s hope Apple is right, because we’ve experienced Apple’s Power Mac G5 chamber approach in the past, and it was about as acoustically pleasing as a helicopter hovering over your front lawn.
The secret sauce: Apple’s Afterburner
The Mac Pro's hardware is impressive, but 28-core Xeons and Radeon Vega II cards are possible to get on the PC. Even Apple’s blazing-fast SSD performance can be replicated on PC today.
Where Apple’s new Mac Pro is likely to have a leg up over PCs is its Afterburner. The Afterburner uses an FPGA (field programmable gate array) that Apple says is capable of decoding up to three streams of ProRes RAW video or twelve streams of 4K ProRes RAW video in real time.
Today, most professional video editors rely on editing lower-resolution proxy files to speed up the process. Apple says the Afterburner can “virtually” eliminate the need for using proxy files, which would speed up workflows and offer up higher-quality previews too.
It is one of the secret sauces that Apple has going for the new Mac Pro. The other big part of the equation, though, is optimization.
Mac Pro is likely to have an edge
With Apple’s Radeon Pro II Vega and its Afterburner card, the new Mac Pro is likely to give even the most high-end PC workstations a good run for the money in applications and tasks common to both platforms. Where Apple will take it up a notch in speed is optimized applications.
We’ve seen many, many, demonstrations of PC desktops, workstations, and laptops kicking Mac butts up and down the field in applications available on both platforms. It’s also where we’ve seen fans scream, “use Final Cut Pro!” the loudest
They say that because Final Cut Pro is actually optimized for Apple’s hardware family. Now take Final Cut Pro and optimize it for high-clock 28-core Xeon, dual Radeon Vega and Afterburner card, and you’re going to have a real beast of a performer.
The big question is how far Adobe, Black Magic, and other partners are going to go to optimize for Apple's hardware.
Upgrade alert: It’s proprietary as hell
One strength the PC has relied on is industry standards. This allows for easy upgrade paths, using the strength of competition and scale to lower prices and increase performance. Apple’s new Mac Pro is, as always, proprietary as hell. As far as we can tell, the RAM follows industry standard, but not much else does. The Radeon Pro Vega II Duo is not standard. That means if you want a card that uses the longer PCIe slot power, it’ll have to come from Apple.
While the new Mac Pro would, in theory, allow you to install and power an Nvidia graphics card, drivers for the card would have to come from Apple. That means the chances of upgrading a Mac Pro, beyond the RAM, will require those upgrades to come from Apple.
That is a limitation that should give any buyers pause. Apple’s history has been to neglect its desktop products soon after introducing them. Anyone who drops a load of cash for any Mac product should do so knowing that you could be stranded again.
It’s also still impressive as hell
Let’s be fair to Apple though. Despite its proprietary-as-hell nature, the Mac Pro is the impressive tour de force of Apple engineering and capability that we thought we'd lost on the desktop side. Putting the RAM on back of the motherboard and “passively” cooling the GPU and CPU are high-aspiration design cues. Whether they’re the the right design is to be determined, but we have to credit Apple for going back to its roots.