Mac renaissance: How Apple’s chip transition yielded such an oddly configured Mac Pro

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Mac Pro at WWDC 2023

 Weirdly specific design decisions for the new Mac Pro notwithstanding, power professionals who rely on the Mac ecosystem are in the best place they’ve been in probably 20 years.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

If you ever wanted proof that Apple still supports the Mac Pro because a very select few of its major customers rely on it, the new Apple silicon-based Mac Pro is proof positive.

The new Mac Pro is far from a revolutionary device. In fact, it’s actually rather perplexing from a broad market perspective. But if you look at it with the assumption that it was purpose-built for specific customers with specific needs, it makes sense. I’ll come back to this in a minute. But first, let’s talk about Macs and pro users overall.

Also: All the Mac news from WWDC 2023: Mac Pro, Mac Studio, and M2 Ultra

Back to the future

Up until five years ago, Apple had done so little in terms of upgrading pro-level Macs that many of us thought the platform was being abandoned. It had been years since Apple updated the Mac Pro or the Mac mini, for example.

That trend was interrupted briefly by Apple’s last gasp of Intel-based upgrades, which flowed from the fall of 2018 to the very end of 2019. The long-ignored and universally reviled trash can Mac Pro from 2013 was replaced with a breathtakingly expensive but modular and functional design. Even the Mac mini got a strong upgrade.

But then, in 2020, everything changed. Apple began replacing its Intel-based devices with new ones based on the M1 proprietary Apple silicon chip. What was astonishing about this was not only how powerful this new chip was, but also how smooth the migration was.

With a few limited application exceptions (Windows virtual machines, and some games), everything worked just fine on Apple silicon. And when developers recompiled their applications for the M1, those applications blazed with speed.

As 2020 drew to a close, the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac mini were migrated to the new M1 chipset. The MacBook models are Apple’s best-selling Mac models, so it made sense for them to lead the charge. The Mac mini was used as a developer prototype, so moving it quickly into production helped as well.

Also: Comparing the best Macs: Is a MacBook or Mac Studio right for you?

Early 2021 brought a new 24-inch iMac based on the M1 (there is still no 27-inch Apple silicon iMac). But then came a very positive sign for pro users. Apple was actively improving its chips, introducing more powerful M1 series wafers in the form of the M1 Pro and M1 Max. Those chips quickly found their way into Apple’s laptop line.

Not only were these upgraded chips more powerful, but they finally — after years of pain on the part of professional users — broke the machines out of their 16GB RAM prison, offering 32GB and 64GB models.

2022 also heralded big upgrades for the Mac line. The base chipset M1 got a gargantuan upgrade in the M1 Ultra. This was an astonishingly powerful chip with a ton of cores.

Also: AI was all over Apple’s WWDC. It was just running in the background

Apple made this chip available for its brand-new model, the Mac Studio. Shockingly, the Mac Studio corresponded very closely to the Mac mini Pro I suggested a few years earlier. The Mac Studio gained ports, a much larger maximum memory throughput, and fast Ethernet. Yes, it was twice as tall as a Mac mini, but it was still physically small.

The laptops got a new base chipset, the M2. Sporting tighter components on the wafer, the M2 is incrementally faster than the base M1, but still not as quick as the M1 Max and M1 Ultra.

The needs of pro users

So, by the end of 2022, pro users had pro machines. The Mac Studio was a beast, and able to meet the needs of the vast majority of pro users who wanted a desktop machine. And the MacBook Pro with M2 was also quite powerful and met the needs of most mobile power users. It was clear that most pro users were set. I bought a Mac Studio when I ran out of performance capability on my M1 Mac mini because there was finally a place I could go for more power.

That, by the way, is a key way to measure whether a computer product line is suitable for pros. If more power is needed, if there’s a need to grow computer capability, is there anywhere to go or do you need to start over on a new platform? Pros need to know there’s a growth path.

From about 2012 to 2019 or so, that headroom wasn’t there. Pros taking on more and more challenging projects had to decide whether they needed to switch to a platform that could accommodate their RAM and performance needs.

But in the last few years, that’s been less of a concern. And 2023 has reduced that concern even further.

Also: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro: How to decide which Apple laptop to buy

Early 2023 brought Apple customers M2 Pro and M2 Max-based MacBook Pros. And then, this week at WWDC, Apple pushed out some even bigger improvements.

I’m skipping over the announcement of a 15-inch MacBook Air, because while it’s a big thing for mainstream users, power professionals have had the 16-inch MacBook Pro for a while, and that’s where the performance lives.

But Apple did introduce a major upgrade to what’s fast becoming the mainstream machine for pro users, the Mac Studio. Just fifteen months after the release of the M1 Mac Studio, Apple announced and released the M2 Mac Studio, capable of running the also newly released M2 Ultra chip.

A sixteen-month upgrade offering is very unusual for Apple. Apple rarely upgrades its desktop machines this quickly, but that’s what Apple has just done. The company has once again made the Mac Studio its highest-performing computer — and assured pro users that more headroom will continue to be made available over time.

Also: How to preorder Apple’s new MacBook Air, Mac Studio, and Mac Pro

I’ll be honest. I want the new M2 Ultra Mac Studio. But my last year’s model M1 is so functional and meets my performance needs so well, that I don’t need to get one. What’s comforting is knowing that the minute I reach capacity on my current daily driver, there’s somewhere to go. That assurance has long been lacking on the Mac platform.

And then there’s the new Mac Pro

The design decisions behind the new Mac Pro surprised me. To explain my surprise, I need to start by comparing the new Mac Pro to the new Mac Studio. Here’s the base Mac Pro, which lists at $6,999:

  • Apple M2 Ultra with 24-core CPU, 60-core GPU, 32-core Neural Engine
  • 64GB unified memory
  • 1TB SSD storage

That’s it. Sure, you can spend an extra $400 for wheels and you get the modular case and PCI Express bus. A Mac Studio with that exact configuration is $3,999. In other words, the Mac Pro’s case and PCI Express bus is $3,000.

Let’s see if that holds up for the maxed-out Mac Pro configuration. Here’s what’s in that config:

  • Apple M2 Ultra with 24-core CPU, 76-core GPU, 32-core Neural Engine
  • 192GB unified memory
  • 8TB SSD storage

That configuration clocks in at $9,599 and other than the $400 wheels (you can’t make this stuff up!), that’s the most you can spend on a Mac Pro. But here’s the thing: The exact same Mac Studio with the exact same top end of RAM and onboard SSD storage is $8,799. In this case, the difference (for the case on the Mac Pro) is only $800.

Also: Boost your security and productivity with the top Mac apps

But don’t get fixated on the case and bus…yet. The key thing I want you to know right now is the Mac Pro is no more powerful than the Mac Studio. Both have the same top-end. They are identical from a processor, GPU, and RAM perspective. There’s no place to go after that.

Now, here’s a big difference between the last Intel Mac Pro and this new one based on Apple silicon. If you had the coin to spend, you could bring that Intel Mac Pro to 1.5TB of RAM. The old (and no longer listed for sale) Intel Mac Pro could support eight times more RAM than the new model.

Most applications wouldn’t come close to needing that much RAM. But for in-memory databases, big data, certain scientific analysis projects, and some virtualization projects, terabytes of RAM on a single machine are necessary. The new Mac Pro provides no headroom above 192GB.

Clearly, the new Mac Pro provides no additional headroom, processing power, or RAM over the Mac Studio. But it does provide a nice spiffy, modular case and — wait for it — PCI Express slots. It provides six full-length PCI Express Gen 4 slots in the form of two x16 slots and four x8 slots.

Also: SSDs and GPUs heading for a speed boost as new standard doubles bandwidth

If this were an Intel-based box, the inclusion of PCI Express would make sense. There are a lot of special-purpose instrumentation, communications, and controller boards that use PCI Express. If a buyer wants to add special features, they could just buy the board, configure it, load the drivers, and use it.

There’s one word in the previous sentence that might raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Do you see it? Yeah, I knew you would. It’s “drivers.” PCI Express boards ship with Intel-based drivers. To make those boards run at native speeds on an M2-based Mac Pro requires those drivers to be rewritten for the Apple silicon architecture. That’s no trivial task. Notice that Apple did not name-drop a single external card vendor.

Sure, it’s possible that some emulation is theoretically doable, but it’s a long shot and would vastly diminish performance.

Also: The best laptops you can buy: Does anything beat Apple’s new 15-inch MacBook Air?

Let’s put this all together now:

  • The new Mac Pro offers no computing advantage whatsoever over the Mac Studio.
  • The only differentiating factor is the PCI slots on the more expensive Mac Pro.
  • Most PCI Express boards will not support the new Mac Pro because the sales volumes are too small and the complete rewrite effort is too expensive.
  • Therefore, there will be very, very few PCI Express boards that will run on the Mac Pro.

So what would convince a PCI Express vendor to make a custom Apple silicon driver? I contend that the only way that will happen is if an existing, very large, and lucrative customer wants that to happen.

And so, ipso facto, the new Mac Pro architecture was designed specifically to meet the needs of a few key Apple customers. Pretty much nobody else will have a use for it as designed.

I still think my architecture design was better

Before the Mac Pro came out, I sat down and put on my computer architect’s hat and spec’d out what a Mac Pro could be in a world where high-performance Apple silicon was delivered as a system-on-a-chip (SoC).

In my design, expansion was implemented using a blade architecture, with each blade containing a full SoC computer. The blades were connected over a high-speed SoC bus that could move data between the blades at speeds far faster than a network connection.

My design allowed for the creation of a moderately coupled (somewhere between the loosely coupled architecture of a network and the tightly coupled architecture of local multi-processing) system that could scale to meet the needs of professionals.

Also: The best Raspberry Pi alternatives (and single-board computers explained)

One big win of my design is that as new Apple silicon processors were released (let’s say the M3 family), blades could be selectively swapped out and upgraded. As it stands now, when the M3 family comes out, there’s no upgrade path for the new Mac Pro.

Where pros stand in the 2023 Mac ecosystem

Weirdly specific design decisions for the new Mac Pro notwithstanding, power professionals who rely on the Mac ecosystem are in the best place they’ve been in probably 20 years.

Even though memory headroom is limited at 192GB, that’s still a lot of RAM, especially when most casual and business Mac users are hard-pressed to need 16GB. The M2 processor line, especially the M2 Ultra, offers enormous processing power across the board.

With a few limited exceptions (mostly for applications that need terabytes of RAM), if a pro user needs capability and scalability, the Mac line can now offer it.

Also: Apple announced a ton of software features at WWDC. Here’s everything new

While the new Mac Pro won’t appeal to most buyers, its introduction marks a powerful milestone and the end of an era. Apple announced its plan to move from IBM PowerPC processors to Intel at WWDC in June of 2005 –18 years ago.

With this week’s introduction of the new Mac Pro, and the removal of the last surviving Intel product from Apple’s store, that 18-year era has come to a close. A lot of good came from that architecture, particularly interoperability with the larger PC ecosystem, but there were inherent limits (like the reliance on other vendors for processor innovation) as well. A big reason Apple left the Macs seemingly to die in the late 2010s was because of those limits.

With the transition completed to Apple silicon, and all of Apple’s products relying on substantially the same home-grown technology, the company has a better chance of fulfilling its vision without being hobbled due to reliance on other vendors’ innovation schedules.

Bottom line: The state of the pro user Mac ecosystem is better than its ever been. 

So what do you think about the Mac Pro? What about the pro Mac ecosystem overall? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also: Top network-attached storage devices: Synology, QNAP, Asustor, and more


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.





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