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The Mac Pro ends the Apple Silicon transition, but it’s just one step in a much bigger journey

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In recent years, Apple’s Macs have been on not one but two journeys. The first is obvious; it’s the company’s transition away from using Intel chips toward its own Arm-based Apple Silicon. And with the new Mac Pro announced this week, this transition is complete. Intel’s chips have been expunged from Apple’s computers.

But Apple has also been on a second journey: to build high-end machines for professional users that those pro users actually want. It’s been almost exactly a decade since Apple launched the now-infamous trash can Mac Pro, which the company failed to keep updated with the latest and greatest hardware due to its compact and inflexible design. It was a difficult era for professional Mac users working in production environments where every ounce of speed matters. 

“We made something bold that we thought would be great for the majority of our Mac Pro users. And what we discovered was that it was great for some and not others. Enough so that we need to take another path” was how Apple’s then senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller described the trash can Mac Pro during a roundtable interview in 2017

Apple made a big step toward repairing its relationship with these customers with its 2019 Mac Pro, which ditched the compact cylinder and brought back the hulking cheese grater tower design. But that model was almost immediately dated after Apple revealed its Intel processors would be a dead end. With the 2023 Mac Pro, Apple is finally combining the two key elements — chassis and chips — and could have everything it needs to leave the complaints of the trash can era in the, well, trash.

Apple’s ill-fated 2013 Mac Pro.
Image: The Verge

One of the fundamental issues with the 2013-era Mac Pro was that it was designed for a future of computing that never arrived and wasn’t equipped to deal with the hardware that did. “I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will,” was how Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi described it in 2017 after the Mac Pro had gone three years without a spec update. “The architecture, over time, proved to be less flexible to take us where we wanted to go to address that audience,” he said.

Specifically, Apple assumed high-end users would be using multiple smaller GPUs rather than single large cards. “For certain classes, a single bigger GPU would actually make more sense. But that [2013 Mac Pro] architecture doesn’t really support that,” said Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering John Ternus. “And we didn’t see as much take up in dual GPUs as we would have expected.” GPUs were already starting to head in the wrong direction for that, getting bigger and more power-hungry.

Another assumption was that pro users would be relying more on external Thunderbolt-equipped devices for the kind of modularity normally offered by internal PCIe slots. It’s not dissimilar to the direction Apple assumed laptops were going when it scooped out all their useful ports in favor of Thunderbolt

For both desktops and laptops, Apple’s vision was similar: outsource the bulky ports and modular components to external devices like docks, monitors, and eGPUs, leaving the core laptop or desktop computer free to be as sleek and compact as Apple’s industrial design team could make it.

“I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will”

This future never quite panned out. Apple was forced to change tack, and in 2019, we saw it return to a refreshingly old-fashioned design for the Mac Pro. It was big, it was powerful, it was packed with PCIe expansion slots, and it ran “shockingly” quietly. It may not have been as sleek and compact as its predecessor, but its utilitarian design was svelte in its own way.

But it also, arguably, suffered from a software ecosystem that wasn’t able to take full advantage of the horsepower on offer, at least when we reviewed it the following year. “Apple hasn’t had Pro machines at this class for a long time, and people haven’t built software for them,” Nilay Patel said in our video review. “So, if you live in Apple’s pro apps and use their formats, it’ll be faster. But that’s not the case for everything else.”

Although Apple’s own software like Final Cut Pro worked great, we found third-party software often struggled to make full use of the 2019 Mac Pro’s hardware. Whether it was Pro Tools, InDesign, Photoshop, or Premiere Pro, none of the software we tried seemed to offer the kind of performance you’d expect out of a computer starting at $5,999. “Eventually, we realized that almost none of our software was really pushing multithreaded CPU performance, and we hadn’t really lit up the GPUs at all,” our review noted at the time

That’s all changed with the transition to Apple Silicon, which was announced just half a year after the Intel-based Mac Pro started shipping to customers. Regardless of whether it’s down to the raw power of the hardware, the way Apple has managed to corral developers into supporting it, or, more likely, some combination of the two, we’ve found that third-party industry-standard software absolutely flies on Apple’s new chips.

“The Mac Studio is the computer everyone wanted the Mac Pro to be,” my colleague Monica Chin wrote in our review of the Mac Studio last year. “I did not see anything crash or not work the way it was supposed to. What I did see was a host of professionals being shocked by how much they could get done on this machine. They were using the same software they use every day, but they were doing things with it they’ve never been able to do before.” Whether it was Adobe’s Photoshop or Premiere Pro or Avid Pro Tools, all signs pointed toward an app ecosystem that had evolved to make use of Apple’s hardware. 

The inside of the new Mac Pro, with PCIe slots for days.
Image: Apple

Not to mention plenty of rear I/O.
Image: Apple

The strengths of the Mac Studio don’t guarantee success for the new Mac Pro because the latter needs to offer more than just raw performance. In fact, in terms of performance alone, the new Mac Pro may be very similar to the Mac Studio announced alongside it. Both machines can be configured with the new M2 Ultra chip, with up to a 24-core CPU, 76-core GPU, and 192GB of unified memory. (Interestingly, Apple supposedly had plans for a higher-performance chip for the Mac Pro, but Bloomberg reports it axed it over cost and complexity concerns.) If all you need is raw performance, it’s likely you’ll be able to save some money and opt for the Studio over the Pro.

Instead, what Apple hopes the Mac Pro will offer is expandability. “For those users who need the versatility of internal expansion, Mac Pro combines PCIe slots with our most powerful [M2 Ultra] chip,” said Ternus in a statement alongside the computer’s announcement. That means more external ports and PCIe slots than you can shake a stick at. 

“For those users who need the versatility of internal expansion, Mac Pro combines PCIe slots with our most powerful chip”

The Mac Pro is equipped with seven PCle expansion slots total, with six of these being open with support for PCIe Gen 4. Apple namechecks digital signal processing (DSP) cards, serial digital interface (SDI) I/O cards for connecting cameras and monitors, and additional networking and storage cards as the kinds of things users might want to plug into these slots.

External ports include eight Thunderbolt 4 ports (six on the back and two on top), three USB-A ports, two 8K HDMI ports, and two 10Gbps Ethernet ports. Oh, and there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack as well, though annoyingly, it continues to be placed on the back of the machine.

And yet, the Mac Pro’s modularity appears to only go so far. Apple’s announcement makes no mention of being able to upgrade its memory (which was possible on the 2019 Mac Pro), and there was no mention of being able to plug standard graphics cards into its PCIe slots like we’ve seen with previous models. The CPU in the 2019 Mac Pro wasn’t officially user-upgradable, but it used a socketed design that users reported being able to swap different Intel CPUs into with relative ease. 

But the reason for Apple’s new limitations is almost certainly the same thing that unlocked so much performance on last year’s Mac Studio: Apple Silicon. Apple’s chips use an integrated design that bundles CPU, GPU, and memory into a single chipset that’s not designed to be removed from its motherboard. Although we won’t know for sure until people get their hands on final retail units, it’s highly likely that these core components of the 2023 Mac Pro won’t be user-upgradeable. 

It’s made Apple Silicon something of a double-edged sword for professional users, unlocking more performance but at the cost of modularity.

So no, we’re probably not going to see users swapping out their M2 Ultra processors to M3s in a couple of years’ time. But that doesn’t mean Apple necessarily has another trash can on its hands. Many of the problems with the 2013 Mac Pro stemmed from the fact that Apple itself struggled to release spec upgrades over time, having to rely on both Intel for CPUs and AMD for graphics. As it settles into a regular update cadence for its M-series chips, Apple has laid the groundwork for a much more seamless upgrade cycle this time around.

The Apple Silicon transition is complete.
Image: Apple

Although it seems like a surefire thing in retrospect, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how successful Apple’s switch to Apple Silicon has been. Prior to Apple’s big announcement, Arm-based processors had only really been successful in smartphones. A couple of manufacturers had attempted to make Windows laptops work on Arm (perhaps most notably with the Surface Pro X), but none had delivered on the promises of the architecture without significant compromises.

Apple has not just successfully transitioned its entry-level MacBooks to Arm, where the architecture’s battery life benefits were the biggest appeal, but it also upended our concept of Arm performance for both laptops and desktops. Apple not only ported its own operating system and apps but also convinced major third-party developers to do the same.

The iPhone manufacturer is notorious for its love of control. It controls how people can use its smartphones and which apps they can install. It controls how the repair ecosystem around them works. And with its transition to Apple Silicon, it has an unprecedented amount of control over how it makes its Macs. It doesn’t need to wait for Intel and AMD to release new chips to upgrade its computers or rebuild a relationship with Nvidia. Now, as it starts its next journey, Apple can march to the beat of its own drum.

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