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

CDM is an online magazine for creative technology, from music and DJing to motion and more.