It's finally here. We've been waiting for Apple's new high-end Mac since the summer of 2012, when a user emailed Tim Cook about the apparent neglect of the Mac Pro range and was promised "something really great for later next year".
A year and a half on it finally arrived, but was Apple's late 2013 Mac Pro worth the wait?
Apple's Mac Pro range is designed for power users. If your needs aren't extreme enough to justify buying a Mac Pro – or your pocket isn't deep enough to afford one – you could go for an iMac.
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The iMac range is significantly cheaper than the Mac Pro, and has the advantage of having a built-in screen and coming bundled with a keyboard and mouse, all of which you have to supply yourself if you buy a Mac Pro.
If you'd rather not take the Apple path, there are plenty of high-end Windows PCs to choose from. Overclockers Gold Rush Gamer Pro gives a great gaming performance, and has a 250GB solid state drive. The Aria Gladiator Diablo GTX is great value for money but runs a little noisily, and the PC Specialist Vanquish Eclipse 670 MKII features a built-in Blu-ray drive, unlike the Mac Pro, which has no optical drive at all.
At first glance, the most striking thing about the new Mac Pro is the radical redesign of its casing. It's just 9.9 inches tall and just over 6.5 inches in diameter. By volume, it's an eighth the size of the previous-generation Mac Pro, and only a little over a quarter of the weight. But its smaller size doesn't mean it puts in a pint-sized performance...
It features the latest Intel Xeon processors, quad-core or six-core off the shelf. Eight-core and 12-core processors are available as custom options if you buy from the Apple Online Store, but there's no option for two processors. Its two AMD FirePro GPUs deliver up to eight times the graphical performance of the previous-generation Mac Pros, though to be fair, when the 2012 Mac Pro went off sale early last year due to an amended EU safety regulation, the graphics card it offered was already well out of date.
Unsurprisingly given its compact size and the way Macs have developed over the last few years, storage is solid state. Equally unsurprisingly, there's no optical drive. If you still use CDs and DVDs, you'll have to invest in a USB SuperDrive or similar external disc drive.
At the heart of the new Mac Pro is the thermal core, a unified heat sink around which the processor board and two graphics processor boards are attached. Where the previous Mac Pro had eight separate fans, the new Mac Pro only has one. It draws air through the base and out through the top of the casing, over the heat sink that stretches from the top of the Mac Pro to the bottom. Naturally, this means it runs very quietly. The 2013 Mac Pro is designed to be used on top of your desk, not underneath it, and its quiet running, attractive casing and minimal footprint means it's welcome to do just that.
Apple is known for its delightful design features, and the new Mac Pro is no exception. Turn the Mac Pro to get at the expansion ports around the back (as far as a cylindrical casing can be said to have a 'back'), and they all light up. Even if the Mac Pro isn't currently powered up, the ports are lit so you can plug in or disconnect peripherals. Leave it still for a few seconds, and the light fades to off again. Neat.
Most of the Mac Pro's main expansion options are geared around external peripherals, so it has an excellent range of data ports. There are four high-speed USB 3.0 ports, and six – yes, six – Thunderbolt ports. These are based on the new Thunderbolt 2 protocol, which combines the two 10Gbs channels offered by first-generation Thunderbolt into one 20Gbs bi-directional channel, making it ideal for streaming large amounts of data, such as 4K video. As up to six Thunderbolt peripherals can be daisy-chained to each port, the Mac Pro can support up to 36 Thunderbolt devices at once. You can, of course, use Mini DisplayPort monitors in a Thunderbolt port, and with adapters (sold separately), you can also connect your old FireWire peripherals.
There's also a HDMI port and two Gigabit Ethernet sockets, but don't expect an SD card reader. For wireless connectivity, there's 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Every system ships with dual GPUs. Off the shelf, these are Dual AMD FirePro D300 or D500 cards, but you can custom-configure them up to D700 GPUs with 6GB of GDDR5 VRAM on the Apple Online Store. Likewise, the processor (a Xeon E5) starts at a quad-core 3.7GHz, but it can be upgraded as high as a 12-core 2.7GHz chip. Memory is industry-standard, so can be user-upgraded. Up to 64GB can be installed.
The Mac Pro reviewed here has a 3GHz, eight-core Xeon E5 with twin AMD FirePro D700 GPUs, 64GB of RAM and 1TB of PCIe-based flash storage. The two off-the-shelf Mac Pros cost £2,499 (USD $2,999, AUD $3,999) and £3,299 (USD $3,999, AUD $5,299) respectively, but the custom options included in this review model drive the price up to £6,579 (USD $8,099, AUD $10,229).