Mac Pro (Late 2013) Review

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Mac Pro (Late 2013) Review

While the old Mac Pro limped along, receiving half-hearted updates (and wasn’t even available for sale in some countries), Tim Cook promised that Apple was “working on something really great” for pros. We expected to see something new and unusual, but the extent to which Apple has reinvented its high-end desktop is astonishing.

We’ve never seen anything quite like it really—the closest thing is possibly the G4 Cube. It’s a workstation-class computer that’s just 9.9” high and 6.6” wide, and it operates almost silently. As a physical object, its shining black aluminum exterior is well into objet d’art territory, and as a computer it is absolutely a thing of gripping, unchecked desire. But is it the pro machine—the tool—that the most demanding users wanted?

The design and functionality go hand-in-hand, as is Apple’s trademark. It’s still the usual PC components, of course, but the balance has changed. It used to be that the Mac Pro offered all the processing power you could ever want, with a dual-CPU beast as one of the standard configurations, but only ever one graphics card as standard. Now, you get one multi-core processor (without even the option for a second), but dual graphics cards as standard, all arranged around a central core that keeps them cool. There’s absolutely a huge amount of power on offer from this setup, but the hardware has to be properly used to unlock it fully.

When software is designed to take advantage of the combination of twin graphics cards and processor, it flies. Final Cut Pro X, Apple’s video-editing software, is the flagship for showing off how everything can work together. On the new Mac Pro, you’re able to edit and apply effects to multiple 4K videos (which is four times the resolution of full-HD 1080p video) in real-time with no stuttering issues (depending on settings). The processor is used lightly by Final Cut, with the huge throughput and computing power of the graphics cards made proper use of. This is the Mac Pro in full bloom, with every part used for the tasks it’s best at.

The only problem is that this is an ideal, and isn’t what performance is like universally yet. Take Adobe Premiere, one of Final Cut’s rivals. It hasn’t been rewritten to take full advantage of the Mac Pro’s new hardware setup yet, relying almost entirely on the processor, and the result is that the new model offers little speed advantage over its years-old predecessor. The new Mac Pro is still extremely powerful when it comes to CPU options, matching its predecessor by offering up to 12 cores. But having something that matches the old Mac Pro isn’t the point. We want to exceed it.

Part of this must come from Apple itself, as it helps developers to use the power with better support in OS X. At the moment, there’s no way for both GPUs to be used automatically for 3D work in OS X as there is on Windows (including on the Mac Pro in Boot Camp, in fact). It’s possible for software to access both GPUs by sending different tasks to each one, but by supporting this at the OS level, Apple can speed up the process of the Mac Pro reaching its potential in more tasks. That said, we expect software that needs, say, the full 12GB of VRAM available on the highest-end graphics cards to be optimized without any input from Apple, where possible. As it stands, there’s power in the Mac Pro that can end up going to waste.

We expect these performance considerations will iron out over time, as software (both on Apple’s side and that of third-party developers) starts to take full advantage of the Mac Pro. For optimized tasks, its performance is astonishing, besting everything else Apple has made by huge margins—have no doubts about that. For Apple’s vision of using huge GPU power to complete many tasks faster than a CPU could, this is a nearly perfect machine. But it’s important to note that Apple is not in total control of its vision here, and indeed needs to do more to fulfill it—an optimized version of Aperture would be a good start!

There has been concern over the expandability and upgradeability of the Mac Pro, thanks to its use of things like non-standard graphics cards and a lack of extra drive space inside, but It turns out that much of it should be upgradeable internally, and we’re comfortable with the raft of external ports for expansion otherwise—six Thunderbolt ports allow for 36 accessories to be attached, and four USB 3 ports bring even more high-speed access. External storage drives can operate easily fast enough through Thunderbolt to not be a problem, so the only issues are of tidiness and convenience; these aren’t worth ignoring, of course, but they’re relatively minor. 

We do have one significant upgrade concern, though, which is the maximum of 64GB of RAM offered by Apple. Right now, this limit is partly set by the fact that the Mac Pro has only four RAM slots and 32GB RAM sticks aren’t available yet. However, while Mavericks can support 128GB of RAM, Apple officially says the Mac Pro can support only 64GB. The last Mac Pro supported 128GB, though, by virtue of having more slots than this one. If you work on, say, extremely complex Photoshop files, this could be a cause for concern, especially for future-proofing—though only for very high-end use.

In daily use, our main gripes with the Mac Pro have been odd teething issues more than fundamental problems. Despite the ludicrously fast internal SSD (suitable for extremely high-end video editing), it was often frustratingly slow to load folders when using the open/save file sheet built into OS X. Similarly, support for 4K screens needs work, especially since it’s a major draw of the Mac Pro. For a start, we’d like to see a Retina-like HiDPI mode available by default, since interface details at 4K are tiny. But also, it officially supports only two particular 4K display models, with other displays working, but not at their full capabilities—in particular, one Dell monitor could only be used at 30Hz (meaning it refreshes 30 times per second) rather than 60Hz. It even interfered with one game we tried, causing it to run in slow motion because it was supposed to be locked to 60Hz. We expect these to be fixed in software as time goes on, but the 4K issue in particular is important to be aware of. 

We’re not surprised to see some early issues; after all, this isn’t designed for consumer use yet. The old Mac Pro was “the tower Mac”—it was expensive, but there were reasons to consider it even if you didn’t need its power for high-end use. But the new one is different; most consumer-level apps simply won’t be capable of using a large chunk of its power. Pro users should consider the fact that the Pro is the most powerful Mac available, but in some cases the highest-end iMac is as good a buy. If your software will be optimized to exploit the dual GPUs (ask its developer; even Maxon has told us its 3D apps don’t yet), this is a brilliant machine, but it’s worth waiting to find out before buying at the very least.

The Mac Pro is for those who make a buying decision based on a cost/benefit analysis rather than a bank account check. The truth is that most people shouldn’t consider getting one, no matter how desirable it is. What the Mac Pro shows is that Apple is still capable of rethinking hardware designs: of creating something utterly beautiful, astonishingly powerful and totally unexpected; of reviving and reinvigorating not just these products, but the parts of us that yearn for them. 

The bottom line. The Mac Pro is beautiful, powerful, and a feat of engineering. It’s very much only for pros, though, and will need better support from Apple and developers to unlock its full potential.

Product 

Mac Pro

Company 
Apple, Inc.
Contact 
Price 
$8,099.00 (as reviewed), $2,999.00 (default)
Positives 

Astonishing power. Brilliant design. Generous ports selection.

Negatives 

Needs better app support.

Score
0

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