Say cheese! The end of Macs with storage and expansion slots is proving very unsettling to some. If it's not unsettling to everyone, well, blame how much better at making music laptops and cheaper desktops have gotten. Photo (CC-BY) Paul Hudson.

Say cheese! The end of Macs with storage and expansion slots is proving very unsettling to some. If it’s not unsettling to everyone, well, blame how much better at making music laptops and cheaper desktops have gotten. Photo (CC-BY) Paul Hudson.

For all this debate over the new Mac Pro, you really need to know only two things:

1. The current Mac Pro is not a good value at the moment.
2. We have no idea how much the new Mac Pro will cost.

And so, everything else (minis, iMacs, MacBooks, and yes, even PCs) rule the roost. That’s good for music, because (as a couple of commenters observed), they’re all working just fine. The Mac Pro I thought was newsworthy last week in that it demonstrated that more internal horsepower is coming to high-end desktops, and that those machines can (whether you like it or not) rely on external devices – meaning Apple can make them really small.

The response to last week’s editorial, though, revealed just how divisive this machine can be. Boy, did readers complain – shouting at me, shouting at each other. It’s also like a walk down memory lane. Mac users and Windows users are fighting again. People are complaining that a new computer from Apple will completely destroy professional workflows because of an absence of expandability, that Apple doesn’t understand the pro market. Ah, memories.

For other good analysis, veteran Apple watcher Peter Cohen has a great story:
A closer look at the new Mac Pro [iMore]

Take note: upsides include fast internal storage, dual Ethernet, loads of Thunderbolt ports, lots of I/O bandwidth, 4K displays. Likely a quiet studio machine. Loads of power. The downside: we don’t know how much it will cost or exactly when it will be available. (It’s really, really tough to overstate how important that is.)

To be fair, if you’re heavily invested in internal hardware, this is still really bad news. And Mac users may feel the situation is out of their control, because unlike Windows users, Apple is their only vendor. (That’s true of some of you, anyway; some of you are happily building Hackintosh machines.)

But what I think is missing from the online debates (on CDM and elsewhere) is one cold, harsh reality: the current Mac Pro seems a waste of money, 2010 technology at premium prices:
On the US Apple Store, the base model will set you back US$2500. To get the higher-end Intel chip, you need to shell out $3800.

That’d all be find if you got performance to match. But have a look at Macworld’s Speedmark scores. The 12-core Mac Pro (the one that costs as much as a used car) isn’t only outrun by a fancy new Retina MacBook Pro. It’s also slower than an iMac, or even the top-of-the-range Mac mini. Clarification: A reader notes that it’s also worth considering Geekbench scores. These are more of a raw measure of memory and CPU performance, and here, Mac Pros are at the top of the (Mac) list in both 32-bit and 64-bit modes. Even the original 2010 model fares well. These will, I agree, be a better measure of som raw audio performance – particularly renders. I think the real-world application tests from Macworld are also worth considering, though they are absent music apps. It’s probably unfair to call the Mac Pro slow, but the performance you get from your investment is disappointing given its cost – and the absence of high-speed ports is also a problem.

Switching to Thunderbolt and USB might well be pricey if you have a big investment in internal hardware. And buying one internal hard drive is definitely cheaper than buying one in a case with a cable.

But you simply can’t say the current Mac Pro status quo is a good value situation. It’s an expensive machine without necessarily delivering equivalent speed.

And economizing by buying internal hardware is not always an advantage in an age when more and more pro users run laptops (or minis, or iMacs). Yes, external hardware generally costs more. It’s also easier to move and easier to swap with other computers, which can ultimately be a better value.

Also, it seems a small Mac Pro could be useful to audio users, who often move machines for everything from audio installations to stage setups. It’ll also be great news if this machine is quieter. We’ll know more later this year; it’s just too soon to say for sure.

Upgradeable, yes. But the cost of the machine itself is very high - and GPU and CPU upgrade options often aren't the best buys for a Mac tower, either. Photo (CC-BY) Glenn Batuyong.

Upgradeable, yes. But the cost of the machine itself is very high – and GPU and CPU upgrade options often aren’t the best buys for a Mac tower, either. Photo (CC-BY) Glenn Batuyong.

What is uncertain about the new Mac Pro

I think there are other concerns here that have more weight, though.

1. We don’t have any idea how much this will cost. (Fairly large issue here. Speculation is on the expensive end, but no one really knows.)
2. Internal PCIe flash storage here should be faster. But we don’t know what capacity it will have.
3. We don’t know what will happen with Pro Tools hardware. Clarification: apart from putting it in a PCI expansion slot chassis, of course. But I still say Avid could benefit from making a Thunderbolt product.)
4. The future of USB3 and Thunderbolt accessories is unclear. As I said before, I think the Mac Pro could be a push for both the Mac and PC sides. But vendors are cagey about talking about all their concerns as this involves future designs. We just don’t know what will happen. (USB2 and FireWire, by contrast, are safe bets.)

Despite concerns 3-4, though, I’m generally optimistic about the potential for external hardware, and vendors are generally telling me the same. They’re saying their stuff will work. In fact, they’re typically saying this is all more bandwidth than they need. (That’s a good thing.)

Back to the current Mac Pro pricing, the problem here is that the new Mac Pro isn’t just competing with the old Mac Pro. It’s competing with the Mac mini, iMac, and MacBook Pro – all of which are well loved. It’s safe to say that competition for the old Mac Pro has been going very badly.

The New Mac Pro is also competing with Windows PCs with conventional expandability. Here, though, there are some twists. The PC ecosystem isn’t delivering on the advantages of Thunderbolt yet. Those same Windows towers also have to compete with the aforementioned, well-liked Mac machines that deliver loads of performance and (cabled) expandability on the cheap. And there are some potential advantages for graphics users on the OpenGL side.

The bottom line for me is this: cost and value, not the absence of slots or storage bays, will determine the fate of the Mac Pro, and perhaps all desktops like it. Video users, those biggest consumers of storage bandwidth, often get by with external arrays.

The real question marks are what will happen with Pro Tools hardware that relies on PCI slots, and what this will cost. But if this isn’t creating the same angst in everyone, it’s because, increasingly, small desktops, all-in-ones, and laptops are happily fulfilling the performance needs of people doing production. Desktops can still be a better buy for certain users on the PC side, but the time when that was true on the Mac has already past.

Now, the jury is out on whether the Mac Pro will again give high-end users a reason to invest in high-end hardware. And anyone who claims to know the answer to that while lacking the price tag and most of the pieces of the hardware compatibility – whether they’re a skeptic or a believer – is taking a big gamble.

A historical note

To be fair, the Mac Pro is the biggest disruption to the top-of-the-line Mac desktop since the switch from PowerPC to Intel. By comparison, the Power Mac G4 was well liked, even with the switch to AGP for video, had a range of slots for I/O hardware and graphics. (Just don’t overstate upgradeability. You can still run OS X 10.4 on the 1999-vintage machine, but in the entire time since its launch, GPU options have been few.)

But we have been here before. On Create Digital Motion today, I point out that you can go all the way back to the 80s: the new Mac Pro fairly deep similarities to previous machines from Steve Jobs. And if it does serve visual creativity well, it could be a fitting tribute to that legacy:
Steve Jobs’ Dream of the Visual Workstation, Surfacing Again in New Mac Pro

  • brian botkiller

    Somehow I feel that I’ve made a lot of these arguments happen ;) Thanks for the update, Peter.

    • edisonSF

      ….

    • brian botkiller

      Finally!

  • synthetic

    Sure glad I didn’t invest in any Universal Audio hardware. I guess I won’t buy any hardware at all for a while – anything compatible with my current Mac Pro won’t work on the next one and vice versa. And who knows how long Thunderbolt will stick around. Given Apple’s history, probably less than five years.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Thunderbolt is an Intel technology, and an extension of PCIe. Whether it lasts then has more to do with how enthusiastically vendors embrace it. One of those vendors who is investing in it is Universal Audio, though, so I’m not sure how they fit as an example here.

  • Mogadishu

    On the other hand, Firewire has been around since 2000ish. And it is still going (with adapter), but you do the math. USB has a similar track record as well.

  • sexbot

    If someone made a thunderbolt connected external PCI card ‘bay’, then some of these concerns could be alleviated. Hell, even laptop users could then use PCI cards.

  • Robin Parmar

    The subtext you keep returning to in the article concerns the value proposition. Apple hardware has never been good value, so I don’t see the current news as anything but business as usual. When does this company not screw their loyal fan base? A professional computer without internal expandability is silly. My current box has 6 TB already. Putting all that externally would make a ridiculous mess.

    • DPrty

      My current machine has 20tb in drives. I repair computers … when a Mac Motherboard has an issue the replacement costs$$$ and they fail more often then you may think. I think the real value is Hackintosh just tri-boot a Mac/Windows/Linux machine .. it leaves little to be wanted. If you want to get really crazy .. put an Atari St and Amiga emulation in it. Hehe

  • DK

    One point that should probably be refined a bit: the current MacPro, though outdated, isn’t exactly ‘slow’ (http://browser.primatelabs.com/mac-benchmarks ). Geekbench is a much better benchmark for audio performance than whatever Macworld’s Speedmark is doing.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Okay, that’s fair. I may have been overly dramatic. Speedbench I think is still relevant to audio users in terms of overall day to day performance. Neither is really specifically tailored to audio. Jim at Macworld and I actually once put together a test suite with Logic. I’m not sure how I’d do it today. My basic idea was that simultaneous real time performance was what mattered to audio, and neither benchmark is a perfect indicator.

      So, we can at least say expensive and outdated. But slow is a reach.

    • Frankie

      I would be perfectly happy with my other 8 core mac pro if i could find more memory on reasonable price. But no. You get 16gb to laptop memory with same price than old 4gb Mac pro compatible memory. When running After effects the 8 cores rule! Problem is low memory.

  • itchy

    apple makes good stuff , i think by now people should understand they know what there doing and have a plan in place. there stuff might be expensive but it lasts long.

    i don’t agree with everything apple does , but usually more than less.

    everyone shit on the ipad now , everyone wants one.

    • no

      I don’t want one.

    • D@rth T@ter

      nobody cares what YOU don’t want..

  • Mike Rodriguez

    Pro Tools will die. At least Avid Pro Tools, They have lost a ton of quality engineers and are not in any position to survive the current pricing debacle that is the HDX card. How fast will they sell them now? Clearly there is a lack of foresight from the company. There is no reason why they were not on top and in front of this change that many, many, people were predicting. Why didn’t they have a interface with a built in thunderbolt port? The native system is a joke, it works but really, do I need a box then connect another box to it? Why can’t they have DSP built in to their interfaces like UA. I see AVID selling Pro Tools and their video editing software to sperate buyers as they break up and sell off the company assets. Avid Pro tools will die, long live Pro Tools.

  • Jakob

    Well, the thing with the new MacPro is that on the one hand it shows Apple’s current strategy of encapsulating its ecosystem fully from “the outside world” (esp. in terms of hardware), which is convenient for USERS, but absolutely unacceptable for PROFESSIONALS. At least in my opinion. The question is and always will be: Is a Mac really worth its money? Personally I tend do build hackintoshes rather than buying a mac, because I like tinkering around with hardware, and as someone already stated, I also think Apple products have never been good value. And what I think is problematic about Apple’s product strategy: I think not giving the customer the possibility to expand hardware and maybe tinker around with their machines a little bit just results in a lack of comprehension of the technological background of a computer. God, my little brother didn’t even know what RAM is half a year ago…

    Yeah, and on the other hand thee new MacPro shows us what an outdated system ProTools is. This company (Avid) just deserves to go broke. I mean, I am a ProTools user, as well as several other Audio software, and I think ProTools is a really great program. But it’s simply outdated.

  • votejoel

    I LOVE the Apple OS, being kind-of a UNIX kind of guy. However, I switched from Mac’s to PC’s when Apple switched to Intel MPU’s. I didn’t see the point of paying a premium for the same Made in China Hardware. The creative applications I use, both music and Graphics (Adobe) work the same on both platforms. I have the knowledge to build, fix or upgrade the open PC architecture. I run Ubuntu Studio on some older systems when I need a fix.

    I tend to keep desktops quite for some time. I like the fact if I need USB 3.0, I buy a $25 board and there it is. And that’s what I plan on doing for a couple of systems. The fact my HP PC’s didn’t come with Firewire was not a problem, another $25 board fixed that too.

    The installed a second hard drive and more memory in the last Mac desktop I bought before I even turned it on. I hope it works out for Apple.

    joel in Dallas

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Right, and generally I think that PCs have been more open to this kind of flexible upgrade than Macs ever have. That’s no to say they still can’t be a good buy for some users, but it’s one of the things you should weigh.

    • Blob

      “I like the fact if I need USB 3.0, I buy a $25 board and there it is.”

      Exactly. That is the whole point of using a desktop system for professional work – if its not upgradeable or modifiable, then you’re most likely wasting money.

      Although I now work with laptops (both Mac and PC), I still keep around an old 2005 PC tower. I recently upgraded it with 4Gb RAM, a faster hard drive and I’m possibly still going to upgrade the CPU (currently browsing second hand deals).

      It’s running Windows 7, is compatible with my MOTU interface, and recent versions of Cubase and Live work just fine.
      I can still record a band and I do soundtrack and sound design work with this machine, after almost a decade.

      The new Mac Pro does not seem to have this kind of flexibility or potential lifespan, and that limitation appears to be clearly intentional.

  • SomeDude

    I just don’t understand all this brouhaha about “what will happen with Protools ?” NOTHING will happen, business will go as usual. You will put the cards in a PCI expansion box, connected to a TB port.
    For years, I’ve been running 3 old UAD-1 cards in a PCI expansion box connected to an old MacbookPro’s expresscard port. It’s working 100% fine.
    In fact, I’m quite stunned that so many so-called “audio professionals” seem completely unaware of the existence of PCI expansion boxes .

  • Frankie

    The Hackintosh threads on forums have been on flames since new mac Pro was introduced. people are buying cheap G5 towers and fill them with latest Hackintosh compatible parts. All that crowd have been waiting to upgrade their Mac Pros, but now the first choice seems to be Hackintosh. It’s great as it will as fast machine as you want to spend money on.

    • http://be.net/oxoa oxoa

      My Hackintosh is in a rack case, I use it for my VJ gigs.
      We need a dual cpu socket motherboard with thunderbolt!
      then I’ll upgrade to 12core / 64GB RAM / 512GB SSD / GTX 6xx or GTX 7xx
      I’ll never consider buying a mac pro for the only fact that 3500€ get me all of the above…

    • DPrty

      I would guess you can get all of that for a whole lot less then 3500€

    • http://be.net/oxoa oxoa

      Really?
      Xeons x 2, 512GB SSD, are expensive items.
      then let’s say I add a GTX 690 that’s a 900€ card
      numbers add quickly…

  • heinrichz

    I expect Apple to present a significant Logic update along with the Mac Pro release and one goal of Apple might be exactly to get less people to use Pro Tools then..

  • http://www.waveplantstudios.com waveplant

    Let’s not call it outdated just yet – at least not from a power perspective. As noted, the fastest current MacPro benches (on Geekbench) at over 20,000. The fastest current i7 is about 14-15000. 5-year old MacPros are about 10000, and it took a few years for the i7s to even get there. If you’re running a mostly or all plugin based system, you need all the power you can get. Personally speaking, I like to upgrade when I get a really substantial boost in power – usually on a 5 year schedule, and the only way to do that if you’re upgrading from an old MacPro is to get another MacPro – even a current one. For all the expenses and trouble, I’m not sure a 40% power upgrade with an i7 is worth it – plus, all the i7s run pretty hot and fans run at full blast constantly when you’re pushing the processor hard, which audio work tends to do pretty regularly.

  • sanbaba

    so nice to see someone cover this with blinders off. the issue, as always, is that mac pros are holy $*#&$!! expensive. If you like the apple way, fine. But this redesign looks a lot like upcharging all their evangelists for the privilege to me.

  • George Pepper

    I still have a G4 450 Cube – that I maxed the RAM out on, and installed a TwinView video card so it runs a 23″ lucite Cinema HD Display – and it is still the quietest computer ever to run older versions of ProTools LE on. No fans at all. And, of course, those interfaces are USB or Firewire, so the paradigm will be the same with the new Mac Pro, but T-bolt is a quantum leap in powerful connections.

    The limitation with the Cube, of course, is that manufacturers stopped supporting the PPC machines, so I had to move on to Mac Minis to use the Lexicon FW 810s interface I discovered I liked. Not satisfied with my desk space, I then got a 2012 Mac Pro and 2×27″ LED Cinema Displays, but guess what? The only expansion card I had to put in it was to get… more USB and Firewire ports. lol.

    Assuming three things, 1] the price is manageable, 2] It is quiet enough, and 3] manufacturers make T-bolt interfaces that I’ll like, I can see moving very happily to the new Mac Pro. Won’t mis my current BUB Mac Pro at all. Mac Cube to Mac Tube, right?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Actually, a very good point. The G4 Cube was I think mainly ahead of its time. It made too many performance concessions for that form factor to be appealing to everyone. And I know there were some serious quality issues – like on the power button (not the part you want to fail).

      But I think the Cube also had one of the best, perhaps the best, after-market resale value of any recent-era Mac. So it can’t be called a failure – maybe this does work out, in the long run, to be a smart way to make desktops.

      I know there have been some innovations on the PC side of small form factor desktops that have greater upgradeability, too, so I wouldn’t necessarily discount this even from the PC perspective.

  • D@rth T@ter

    Huh, you completely contradict yourself by finally quoting the geekbench scores..a total inversion of your point…ok value, not so much, but they still kick the laptop and imacs arses

  • Tim OBrien

    Quite frankly, too many people splash out way too much cash for Pros. I bought a quad-core iMac last fall and with 12gb of ram and a couple of outboard firewire drives, the thing is a monster for a third of the price of a Pro.