On March 8, 2022, the Mac Studio, then Apple’s most powerful computer ever, was introduced, leaving many Mac Pro users a bit confused. Especially when John Ternus, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, teased a new processor for the Mac Pro on stage at that event, saying, “Only one more product to go: Mac Pro, that’s for another day.” (via MacRumors (opens in new tab)).
Could a Mac Pro launch happen in the next few weeks? We’re not so sure, despite the publication of four recent patents (via Appleinsider (opens in new tab)) that address the issue of 3rd party GPU support while working around the others (system memory expansion, 3rd party accelerators, etc.). However, Appleinsider is quick to note that “Apple is constantly filing patents, and there is no guarantee that even granted patents will lead directly to products. In addition, patents can be filed for years before Apple can use them.
The current Mac Pro launched all the way back in December 2019, with the model before it (with the infamous cylindrical design) in June 2013, but was discontinued six years later when its successor launched. So Apple is content with, well, keeping its target audience waiting. At least if the gap is maintained, you won’t get a new Mac Pro until June 2026, which is about double the refresh cycle of a business machine and AppleCare+ warranty for the MacPro.
Apple is relentless in canceling product lines when the ROI is simply not there: the Xserve, the iPod, and the MacBook, to name a few. So adding the Mac Pro to that list wouldn’t be too big of a deal; after all, it’s not a household name and it would make sense at a time when global sales of desktops and laptops have suffered record declines due to tighter budgets. Then there is the Mac Studio which some say is a great replacement for some Mac Pro users at a much more affordable price.
The arrival of the Arm-based M series serves the vast majority of product lines at Apple, with the Mac Pro being the only one left out due to its quirks. This is great for mobile CPUs with integrated graphics, but more difficult if you’re competing against a workstation with up to four dedicated GPUs, such as the previous Mac Pro, or Windows-based workstations. So Apple will have to add the ability to use upgradeable GPUs to satisfy demanding users. The M1/M2 chips also use non-upgradable unified RAM built into the package, something that won’t fly with a full workstation where users want to be able to upgrade their RAM at any time.
I spoke with engineers and consultants at Puget Systems, a boutique PC vendor specializing in Windows workstations, with a clear vested interest in the Mac Pro debate.
One of them told me, “Yeah, we actually see Mac converts crossing over. These are nice for me, because I use both MacOS and Windows, so I think it’s great to help these people realize that they can have more control over their experience. The biggest reason is cost-performance ratio. They realize that a $5,000 system can be better than a Mac Studio they were using, or the fact that a Threadripper often outperforms a $24,000 Mac Pro with a lot of Mac options checked.”
The hardware race
Another vendor told us they also saw quite a few Apple defects: “We don’t always know the specific issue that turned them away from Apple, but relevance and novelty of the hardware and overall value are two common themes.” our interlocutor told us.
Then there is the issue of software: “the move to Apple M1/M2 chips seems to be a confusing move for some because Apple is now using their own made CPU/GPU chips and there is software associated with this new hardware that must translate that ran on the previous CPUs that Apple had been using for more than a decade. Some customers came to us feeling that moving to Apple’s own CPUs left them behind.”
This became apparent when I compiled the list of the best laptops for AutoCAD. While AutoCAD supports MacOS, many of the important plug-ins and add-ons do not, as they only run on Windows. At least one US university has issued a general ban on using Apple computers for AutoCAD, showing that it is just very expensive and time consuming to run software natively on the M2 and unless you already have an established user base for it it’s a bit of an ROI conundrum.
I don’t believe for a second that Apple engineers can’t solve any of the technical challenges that an M2-based Mac Pro can pose, but there’s a significant opportunity cost involved and Apple might consider it a diversion to accommodate the needs of an small portion of the general public. After all, adding multiple GPUs, ECC memory of more than 1 TB, RAID, support for external GPU and possibly support for multiprocessors goes against Apple’s unified view, which tends to be more monolithic. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple decides to put solid-state storage on the die itself in the future – one way or another.
The last piece of the puzzle is the relentless push for more powerful components at the top end of the market, something that’s partly due to AMD’s resurgence. Intel and AMD on the CPU side and AMD and Nvidia on the GPU side deliver the kind of hardware upgrades that Apple will find hard to match, even with a refreshed Mac Pro.
The Xeon processor in the 2019 Mac Pro launched nearly four years ago, and while comparing it to a laptop processor in a consumer benchmark (Passmark) may not tell the whole story, the Xeon W-3223 is slower than the AMD Ryzen 7 4980U, a processor that equipped some 2021 Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 devices.
And the same goes for the graphics cards, the storage technology and everyday things like Wi-Fi or USB. The ability to spend money to get much better performance is not something Mac Pro users can imagine. Will it be different in a month? We will see.