Requiem for a Trashcan

Written by David Mikucki on April 5, 2017

Creative professionals know how to tax a computer, especially those in fields like motion graphics, filmmaking, and 3d design. While many in our culture look down on creatives as not doing real work, the computers we use certainly don’t share that opinion. Rendering out frame after frame of ray-traced, physically textured goodness is enough to make any computer sweat.

For quite some time now, it has felt like Apple really doesn’t understand our needs. These industries have been changing dramatically over the last decade. It used to be that final renders were something you would do on a farm of high-powered computers. But it’s now reasonably possible for people to render out complex animations on their desktop computer using not just CPU power, but GPU power—the same kind of hardware that gamers use.

…But not if you have a Mac. First of all, most of Apple’s hardware offerings focus on saving space and weight. In a world where most people’s idea of a heavy computing load is watching a YouTube music video and a Twitch stream while checking your Facebook, Apple’s emphasis on portability over performance has mostly worked for them. I actually just downgraded from a 12.9 inch iPad Pro to the 9.7 inch for precisely that reason. Smaller is more convenient as long as your needs are smaller. Everything from the iMac to the MacBook is designed for minimalism, and most users love that. I even love it, in the right context.

But what if your needs are maximalist? What if you’re planning to squeeze every ounce of performance you can out of your CPU, GPU, RAM, SSD, and any other letters of the alphabet living inside your computer? You need a Mac Pro. But, for some reason, that got smaller too. Which is funny, because I do a lot of things with my 2009 Mac Pro, but tossing it in my bag and taking it to a coffee shop isn’t one of them. It’s honestly not even something I really want to do.

Virtually everything about the 2013 Mac Pro tells me that Apple doesn’t understand me, their customer. Its compactness, its inability to be upgraded (even by Apple), its lack of support for two CPUs, their decision to use AMD over Nvidia, the fact that it hasn’t had a real upgrade in 1,200 days (I’m not counting the recent landslidegrade) all scream to me that Apple has no idea what I want in a desktop computer.

You see, I don’t need my computer to be small. Would it be great if I could take my computer to a coffee shop to do motion graphics or 3d work? Maybe. But if Apple made a laptop that’s as powerful as a modern desktop is now, that would just mean there’s a new desktop out there that’s at least 3x as powerful, and I’d want that over the convenience of portability. I squeeze every ounce I can out of my computer. Just like the iPhone will probably never be thin enough for Apple, the Mac Pro will never be powerful enough for creative professionals. We’ll always want more.

Sure you can get a single CPU today that’s faster than the dual CPUs of 2010, but you know what would be even better than that? Two of them.

Furthermore, and one can hardly blame Apple for not seeing this in 2013, but AMD graphics were the wrong way to go. Creative professionals who want to use their GPUs for computing tasks are largely moving to Nvidia and CUDA, not AMD and OpenCL. That’s an excusable mistake, but what is not excusable is not changing course for 1,200+ days, despite public outcry. Actually, let’s add 365 to that, since we won’t see the promised modular Mac Pros until next year—more on that later.

Interestingly, the year-over-year performance increases of CPUs from Intel has slowed dramatically. It’s to the point where now, four years later, if Apple were to put brand new Xeon’s in the Mac Pro, we might see around a 2x performance increase from the 2013 model. That same four year time span a decade ago would have been more like a 4x increase. A lot of people have cited that as a reason to excuse Apple’s slowness to upgrade the Mac Pro. If all you care about is CPU performance, that argument might carry some weight. But CPU performance is not the only thing that matters anymore.

The other thing we care about is GPU performance, and unlike CPUs, those have continued to get faster year-over-year at a staggering weight. The Nvidia GTX 1080 brings an astonishing amount of performance at a crazy-low price. People who need that kind of performance have been putting two or three of them in their desktop computers (PC’s) and are getting photorealistic renders nearly instantly.

With the trashcan Mac Pro, Apple bet on all the wrong horses. Every company is entitled to do that once in a while, but here we are over three years later and—until yesterday—all we’ve heard from Apple is silence. It’s no wonder the industry is gritting its teeth and switching to PC. I tried something similar recently. But enough about the past, let’s talk about Apple’s recent announcement.

A New Hope?

In yesterday’s announcements about the Mac, Apple admitted that when they removed the corners from the Mac Pro, they painted themselves into one (a thermal corner). I don’t think I’ve ever seen Apple come so close to admitting they made a mistake. While I really appreciate their willingness to critique the trashcan Mac Pro, they missed a few things I think are important.

They talked about its inability to support larger, single GPUs due to thermal issues. Frankly, it’s not about “single” GPUs. I doubt I’ll ever have the money for it, but I want to be able to put 3–4 GTX 1080’s in my Mac for rendering. I want thermal support for that kind of power. Hopefully, the modular Mac Pro will support at least two high-end PCI-Express video cards.

They also talked about modularity. That isn’t something I expected, to be honest. When Apple made the cheese-grater Mac Pro, it wasn’t too different from how other computers were made. Most computers at the time upgradeable; that’s what a computer was. Even in Apple’s product line, you could upgrade several parts in your Mac Pro, your MacBook, and even you iMac with varying degrees of difficulty. Now virtually none of Apple’s products are easily upgradeable.

Apple has said their new computer will make the GPU and the CPU modular. This is exciting. Replacing the CPU in any Mac that I can remember has never been terribly easy or possible, but if they make it as easy as on a PC desktop (or perhaps easier?), that will be great. Apple’s past modular computers were modular because that was part of what computers were. Now that the definition of computer no longer inherently means modular, I wonder what an intentionally modular Apple computer will look like.

The steps they took to “update” the current Mac Pro are amusing at best. We are still at a place where, if I wanted to give Apple $7,000 for a computer, they couldn’t give me something that I want. All they did was make it so I only have to give them $5,000 for a computer I don’t want. It’s a bit like watching someone try to stay cool, calm, and collected after shooting himself in the foot. I’m sure there are creative and professional fields that really like what is effectively just a price drop on the nearly-four-year-old Mac Pros, but it doesn’t do anything for me. I’ll be sticking with my 2009 cheese-grater Mac Pro until the modular ones come out.

All of that being said, my overall take on the announcement is positive. While they didn’t describe the problem with the Mac Pro as thoroughly as I might have liked, their proposed solution does really seem to solve the problem so long as it allows for:

  • Multiple CPUs
  • Multiple GPUs
  • Ideally, modular PCI-E SSD storage
  • More than 64GB of RAM
  • Better OpenGL Support (this is a software issue)
  • Truly modern components at launch (the latest CPUs and DDR5)
  • Support for Nvidia cards and specifically the still-unsupported 10xx line.
  • Xeon CPUs and error correcting memory which John Siracusa convinced me to care about.

Let me be clear. I love the Mac. I switched over from Windows (and Linux) about five years ago and have only glanced back—and that not without wincing. I’m very glad Apple has admitted there are problems in serving my demographic and that they’re working to correct them. I’m not super excited that it will take them a year to address the problem, but I am glad they are taking the time to do it right.

Just a week ago I was considering building a hackintosh, but the recent announcement has sufficiently convinced me to wait and save my pennies for the Pro Mac Pro (possible nickname?) to come out. I guess I can be glad my wallet has a year to prepare.