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The Apple Beat: Understanding the new Mac Pro

By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla

Using and reviewing Apple's Mac Pro (Late 2013) gave me a renewed appreciation of desktop computers as well as a good feel of what it is like to command a vast amount of processing power in such a small cylinder. It wasn't until the Mac Pro was gone from my desk that I really understood the importance of Apple's new design direction for their Pro desktop.

I recently acquired a Power Mac G4 Cube complete with the 17-inch Cinema Display for dirt cheap, and I've also been trying to upgrade my ageing 2006 Mac Pro, the first one that shipped with Intel's Xeon processor. It was after spending time with these apparently disparate desktops, that I began to better understand why the Mac Pro is such an important step in desktop computer design.

I've always been a laptop person, I like to move around and find the prospect of sitting on a desk in fixed position uncomfortable. Desktops aren't my natural habitat but I do value what they offer in terms of power, expansion, convenience and permanence. That said, I'd sooner choose a MacBook Pro over a powerful iMac or Mac mini.

The G4 Cube has always fascinated me. This computer came out in 2001 and it was so far ahead of its time (and also rather expensive and precariously positioned between the delightful iMac and the workhorse full-sized G4 desktops).

The Cube had G4 power but it was way smaller and it looked sublime. It was an art piece that served a function and it featured so many design innovations that really changed our understanding of what is possible. It is definitely in my top five best Apple-designed products list.

When Steve Jobs showed this thing off and then flipped it over to gingerly pull out the core from the chassis, the audience was blown away and I still get goose bumps when my Cube powers up and boots into OS X Tiger, it is my favourite machine to write on, mostly because the lack of modern software and apps reduces any distraction. Being fanless, it is also sublimely quiet. I'm keeping this thing forever.

The thing I like most about the G4 Cube was that it is very much like an iMac but without the display. You could upgrade the RAM, the HD and even the graphics card, but everything else was pretty much standard, which made it predictable and a known entity when it came to troubleshooting and repair.

The previous Mac Pro and the Power Macs behind it, are different beasts. The 2006 Mac Pro's hulking aluminum chassis is 40-plus pounds of imposing pro power. My midrange model, which has the two-dual core Intel Xeons running at 2.66GHz, had millions of possible permutations for users to configure. The RAM could be upped to 32GB (even if Apple officially supported 16GB), it could take 4 Serial ATA drives, various graphics cards, sound cards, optical drives, anything you wanted or could afford.

The old Mac Pro was also elegant, the chassis was devoid of spaghetti strands of wires and connectors that most PCs of the time had, everything was modular and neat. The plug-and-play simplicity was just unbeatable. I ditched various hard drive enclosures just by integrating them into the Mac Pro and the design served me well.

But it was far from perfect. Now that I've decided upgrade my Mac Pro so it can run as close to 2014 performance, I'm discovering a number of symptoms to having too much choice.

Swapping in RAM on the old Mac Pro is super easy, but I'm running into issues where RAM chips aren't showing up, or when they show up, they're half the value or capacity they originally were. Bizarre.

I'm planning on adding an SSD, upgrading the processor and graphics card so I can squeeze a few more years out of this Mac Pro, but it's not as easy as I thought.

It's also quite tedious to have to get on the floor and angle around to open the old Mac Pro and fiddle with the RAM or hard drives. The RAM, graphics card and processors also need to be Mac-specific or have to run special firmware, which is a headache to figure out.

This issue has been completely eliminated from the new Mac Pro. Apple probably understood the frustration of users who had to do a lot of tweaking and adjusting. The new design is more compact, but also makes it infinitely easier to access the internals, not unlike the G4 Cube.

More importantly, all the expansion is available externally, so conflicts and buggy incompatibilities with third party devices have been minimized or even eliminated.

So, the new Mac Pro is really the perfect compromise between a large and powerful workstation class computer and a convenient and reliable appliance that works with minimum fuss. That's definitely progress.

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Reader Comments (3)

> More importantly, all the expansion is available externally, so conflicts and buggy incompatibilities with third
> party devices have been minimized or even eliminated.

That is like calling a mattress that you CAN'T flip over because the manufacturer cheaped out and only padded one side, a "No-Flip" mattress. You're taking something that is actually a negative attribute and claiming it as a positive feature.

And where this analogy really works is that just like a "No-Flip" mattress wears out much more quickly than a two-sided mattress, the new Mac Pro cannot be upgraded with PCIe cards, so it's longevity as a useful computer for professionals will be shorter.

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTrevor

from what I understand the Mac Pro PCIe cards will be able to be upgraded, it's just they are so new there aren't any to buy yet. Since they socketed the GPU, the PCIe cards surely will be upgradable.

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterfarsighted99

PCIe cards? The only PCIe cards in the new MP are the graphics cards, and they use proprietary ribbon connectors. Upgrades may be possible in the future, but won't be easy or cheap.

As for the author's 2006 MP - personally I'd eBay it and get a 2009 version. The DDR3 RAM is miles cheaper than the 2006's FB-DIMMs, it runs Mavericks without hacks, the CPUs use the much newer Core-i architecture. Most PC graphics cards run fine in Mac Pros (you just don't see the Apple boot screen). If you want to upgrade the CPU in a later MP, it's easiest with 2010-on versions. Get a single CPU model + a 6 core 3.33Ghz chip for best bang for buck.

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

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