Like Clippy from Microsoft Office 97, the Mac Pro pops up from time to time simply to remind you that it still exists. And, although it hasn’t shown its face in a new light since late 2013, it won’t be long before we see it reinvented, in the form of the iMac Pro slated for December.
Of course, we understand that not everyone needs a monitor, mouse and keyboard attached to their computer. Plus, given that the Mac Pro is cheaper than its iMac equivalent will be upon release, we get that you might want to settle for the older model. But, is it settling, or is the Mac Pro still worth it four years later?
Well, truthfully, it depends on who you are and what you’re buying it for. From the moment it was conceived, the Mac Pro was designed for power users. And we mean it when we say that. No regular consumer needs the industrial might of an Intel Xeon processor, nor would you have a reason to own a desktop bearing 64GB of RAM. It’s superfluous.
However, while 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, obviously Apple’s all-in-one machines can’t compete when it comes down to performance-per-dollar comparisons.
That said, there are plenty of Windows PCs that easily beat out the Mac Pro these days. Frankly, most of the picks on our best gaming PCs list would do the trick. Whereas the Mac Pro was cutting-edge for its time, AMD’s FirePro GPUs are long outdated now and, if you don’t mind the Windows ecosystem, you would be way better off building your own rig if performance is a priority.
Nevertheless, 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Pro went off sale early last year due to an amended EU safety regulation, the graphics card it offered was already well out of date.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 most recent 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 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 that we reviewed back in 2014 has a 3GHz, eight-core Xeon E5 coupled with a pair of AMD FirePro D700 GPUs, 64GB of RAM and 1TB of PCIe-based flash storage. The two Mac Pro models you can buy right now will set you back $2,999/£2,499/AU$3,999 and $3,999/£3,299/AUD $5,299, respectively from Apple. Still, our review unit was a custom build, thereby ramping the price up to $8,099/£6,579/AU$10,229).
Either way, you can find a Mac Pro from secondhand retailers for significantly cheaper. The lowest price we’ve seen is $1,999 in the US by a considerable margin. Granted, if you search hard enough, you’re bound to find something cheaper.
Gabe Carey has also contributed to this review
First reviewed January 2014