The Ultimate Mac Workstation Is Almost Here — But Are Pro Users Still Among the Mac Faithful?

Today was the day — at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple finally revealed its long-gestating plans for a new, modular Mac Pro system. What it unveiled is a big and beefy new desktop tower, encased in a stainless-steel housing featuring a latticework reminiscent of the old “cheese grater” Mac Pros in their big patterned metal bodies, that can be loaded as needed with an assortment of hardware that takes it from your garden-variety Xeon-packing desktop workstation to a kind of supercomputer for video-editing types who want to play multiple streams of 8K ProRes Raw without a hiccup.

The release of the new Mac Pro is part of Apple’s bid to win back pro users that it’s lost over the years, thanks in part to the abrupt way it sprang the redesigned Final Cut Pro X on the industry, but also to the ossified design of its pro workstations, which grew exceedingly long in the tooth as the company seemed to dedicate more and more time to its lucrative business in cell phones and consumer electronics.

Under the Hood

Let’s start with the base system. A new Intel Xeon processor with up to 28 cores is at the heart of the new Mac Pro, which has large L2 and L3 caches along with 64 PCI Express lanes to ensure processing bandwidth. The processor alone has dedicated access to 300 watts of power; it’s kept cool by a big heat sink and three fans pushing air through the case. The system supports up to 758 GB of 2933 MHz DDR4 ECC memory via six channels and 12 DIMM slots (1.5 TB is an option on 24-core and 28-core processor systems only). All-flash storage starts at 256 GB but can be configured up to 4 TB; all of the data is encrypted by Apple’s T2 security chip.

The name of the game this time around is expansion, so the Mac Pro has been outfitted with eight PCIe expansion slots — four double-wide slots, three single-width slots, and one half-length that comes with an Apple I/O card (sporting two Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-A connectors and a headphone jack) already installed. Two 10 Gb Ethernet ports are built in, and the system comes with a 1.4kW power supply. The system is 20.8 inches high (or 21.9 inches with the optional wheels that let you roll it around your facility), 17.7 inches deep, and 8.58 inches wide. (An optimized version for rack-mounting is also expected to be available.)

MPX Module

Radeon Vega II Duo graphics on an Apple MPX Module

Now here’s where that modular design comes in. The Mac Pro can pack some fearsome graphics firepower thanks to the new MPX Modules — basically PCIe graphics cards packing AMD Radeon Pro 580x or Radeon Pro Vega II GPUs and with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity built in. (That means each MPX Module you install actually increase your access to Thunderbolt 3 ports.) What really differentiates these cards is their additional PCIe connector, which allows them to hold two GPUs connected by something called an Infinity Fabric Link, which Apple said accelerates data transfer between the GPUs by five times compared to the PCI bus speed. Configured as the Vega II Duo, the two GPUs combine to deliver 28 tflops of performance and 64 GB of memory. Combine that with a second MPX Module and double those numbers again, reaching 56.8 teraflops and 128 GB of high-bandwidth memory in a four-GPU Mac workstation.

Video editors get their own performance module: Apple Afterburner. Designed for 4K and 8K workflow, Afterburner is a ProRes acceleration card designed to allow native editing of high-resolution Apple ProRes files in Final Cut Pro X and supported third-party applications. The company figures it can handle up to three streams of 8K 30fps ProRes Raw, up to 12 streams of 4K 30fps ProRes Raw, or up to 16 streams of 4K 30fps ProRes 422.

Apple took pains to insist that it’s taking the needs of pro users seriously, stressing its relationships with vendors. For example, Blackmagic Design is supporting Afterburner in DaVinci Resolve, Avid is enabling support for up to six Pro Tools HDX cards in the Mac Pro, and Maxon said that Redshift will be optimized for the Mac Pro by the end of 2019, and that Metal support is being developed for Cinema 4D. Additional Mac Pro support has been pledged by Autodesk, Red Digital Cinema, Foundry, SideFx, Otoy, Unity, Pixar, Epic Games, Universal Audio, Cine Tracer, Pixelmator and Serif, Apple said.

Separately, Atomos announced today that 8K ProRes Raw recording will be an option for its just-announced Neon Cinema Series monitor-recorders with the release later this year of the Neon 8K Master Control Unit. “We’ve once again collaborated with camera and computer ecosystem partners to deliver ProRes Raw at 8K resolution, which is built for the amazing new Mac Pro,” said Atomos CEO Jeromy Young in the prepared statement.

Top-down view of the new Mac Pro.

Top-down view of the new Mac Pro.

The baseline Mac Pro model with eight-core 3.5 GHz (4.0 GHz Turbo Boost) Xeon processor, 32 GB of RAM, 256 GB of storage, and Radeon Pro 580X graphics will sell for $5,999 and will be “available to order” this fall, Apple said. (Does that careful phrasing suggest that the systems won’t be shipping in large quantities until 2020? Stay tuned.) Obviously sensitive to the perception that the Mac Pro is a pricey chunk of computing hardware, Apple said it had calculated the cost of a PC using similar components at around $8,300, making the new system a relative bargain.

For facilities who may be considering purchasing a small fleet of these things, along with appropriate (and application dependent) numbers of expansion modules, the cost of those various upgrades will likely be as important as the base system price when it comes to calculating a return on investment. That means we’ll have to wait a little longer to see whether the new Mac Pro has what it takes to regain some of Apple’s lost ground in the pro market.

HDR on the Desktop: Apple’s Pro Display XDR

Apple also showed a matching monitor, which it’s calling the Pro Display XDR. XDR is supposed to stand for eXtended Dynamic Range, which is basically Apple’s way of saying this one goes to 11. It’s a 6016 x 3384 32-inch LCD panel with 10-bit P3 color that uses what Apple describes as a fairly fancy system of 576 blue LED backlights with “custom lenses and reflectors” to precisely control the brightness level of different pixels. The pattern on the rear of the display is actually a heat sink for those backlights, which Apple said allows the display to maintain a full-screen brightness of 1,000 nits indefinitely, with peaks reaching 1,600 nits.

Apple Pro Display XDR

Apple Pro Display XDR

Apple also offers an optional upgrade from its typical anti-reflective screen coating to a matte screen with a “nanotexture” etching designed to reduce reflectivity and enhance contrast for optimal quality. Again seemingly taking a defensive stance when it came to price, Apple reps on stage today compared the monitor favorably to Sony’s much more expensive (upwards of $40,000) BVM-X300 4K OLED mastering monitor. Of course, they didn’t note that it’s missing the SDI I/O options, out-of-gamut display, and other features that are generally considered critical in a professional production environment.

Still, if the display’s HDR capabilities are as impressive as Apple claims, it sounds like a pretty good deal at $4,999. Well, scratch that and make it $5,999 if you want the version with the nice micro-etched screen. Oh, wait — did you actually want a stand to hold the monitor up? That’s another $999, for a total of $6998. (Though it’s actually a really cool stand, with a magnetic connector and the option to flip the monitor into portrait mode on a whim, the Apple faithful could actually be heard gasping at that last $999 upcharge over the event’s livestream.) Alternately, a VESA Mount Adapter will be available for $199.

Like the Mac Pro, the Pro Display XDR is expected to be available to order this fall, Apple said.