Apple's aging Mac Pro is falling way behind Windows rivals

Maybe the company is waiting for faster GPUs and SSDs to feature in a new high-powered workstation

Apple's Mac Pro desktop.

Apple's Mac Pro has components tightly organized in a cylindrical chassis.

Credit: Apple

Apple's Mac Pro is aging fast, especially with screaming-fast Windows desktops being announced in recent weeks.

Introduced in 2013, the Mac Pro was a top-of-the-line desktop at the time. It looked exquisite in its sleek cylindrical design, and it sported new features like Thunderbolt 2 ports, plus the latest CPUs, GPUs, and NVMe (non-volatile memory) storage.

More importantly, it was a signal that Apple had not abandoned the professional computing market. That Mac Pro was a relief to those clamoring for an upgrade from an older version of the computer, which last received a facelift in 2010.

But the Mac Pro is again falling behind the competition, with powerful new workstations from Lenovo, Dell, and HP now carrying superior technology. The PC companies are waging an active campaign to tempt Mac Pro users, many of them creative professionals, to move over to Windows PCs with better CPUs, GPUs, and memory. The new Windows desktops are targeted at video editing, professional applications and the creation of virtual reality content for headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

Among the powerful new Windows workstations are HP's new Z Workstations. Starting at $4,363, the Z Workstations announced this week can be configured with Intel Xeon E5-2600 v4 chips, which have up to 22 cores. Two Nvidia Quadro M6000 GPUs in an SLI (scalable link interface) configuration can provide superfast graphics performance. The PC supports DDR4 memory, and it has multiple slots for SATA, SAS (serial-attached SCSI), and NVMe SSD storage.

New Dell Precision workstations, announced last week, can also support the latest 22-core Xeon E5-2600 v4 chips, based on the Broadwell architecture.

By comparison, the Mac Pro -- which starts at $2,999 -- supports up to 12-core Intel Xeon E5 chips based on the older Ivy Bridge microarchitecture, which started shipping in the third quarter of 2013. The Mac Pro has older AMD FirePro GPU models and DDR3 memory. The Thunderbolt 2 ports are also outdated; Thunderbolt 3 is two times faster, with its 40Gbps data transfer rate.

The Mac Pro is still a fast computer, but creative professionals want the latest and greatest hardware, said Bob O'Donnell, principal analyst at Technalysis Research. "I compare it more to a low-end workstation," he said. The Mac Pro is adequate for engineering applications and video editing, but faster computers will allow creative professionals to dabble in VR, O'Donnell said.

VR is a niche but emerging market, and workstations will need more horsepower for visual computing, O'Donnell said. 

Apple hasn't indicated it is focused on VR, which still has an uncertain future. But earlier this month, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey said Rift headset support would come to Macs if Apple ever releases "a good computer" to handle the stereoscopic content. VR headsets require top-line CPUs and GPUs in desktops.

Apple has more than VR to consider if it wants to retain Mac Pro users. Apple may enter the fast-growing car market, and computer-aided automobile design will happen on workstations like Mac Pro, O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell also suggested Apple could opt to merge Mac Pro with the iMac. It's not an unprecedented idea; Apple in 2010 killed its Xserve product line and provided a guide for users to transition to the Mac Pro or Mac Mini.

But patience has its virtues. Maybe Apple is waiting to pounce on some pending breakthrough technologies that could put the Mac Pro leagues ahead of its Windows rivals.

For example, Intel is developing superfast Optane memory SSD products, which will come to high-end gaming desktops and workstations later this year. Intel claims that Optane, which is based on a technology called 3D Xpoint, is 1,000 times faster and durable than NAND flash storage.

Faster GPUs are en route as well. Apple has shown an affinity for graphics processors from AMD, which plans to release GPUs based on its Polaris architecture later this year.

AMD's rival Nvidia this week introduced a new GPU called Tesla P100, based on its new Pascal architecture and targeted at high-performance computing. Nvidia could also release Quadro GPUs, based on Pascal, for workstations later this year.

Or Apple might upgrade the Mac Pro simply to show evidence of its technological superiority over Windows rivals. There's no mantra like "good-enough computing" for high-end desktops like the Mac Pro, O'Donnell said. "It's about maintaining relevance," O'Donnell said.

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