On March 8, 2022, the Mac Studio, then Apple’s most powerful computer ever, was introduced, leaving many Mac Pro users slightly befuddled and confused. Even more so when Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware Engineering, John Ternus, teased a new processor for the Mac Pro on stage at that event, saying "just one more product to go: Mac Pro, that's for another day." (via MacRumors (opens in new tab)).
Could a Mac Pro launch happen within the next few weeks? We’re not so sure, despite the publication of four recent patents (via Appleinsider (opens in new tab)) that tackle the issue of third party GPU support while skirting around the other ones (system memory expansion, third party accelerators etc). Appleinsider is quick to note though that “Apple does apply for patents constantly, and there is no guarantee that even granted patents will lead directly to products. Plus patents might be applied for years before Apple can use them.”
The current Mac Pro was launched all the way back in December 2019, with the model before that (featuring the infamous cylindrical design) in June 2013, only to be discontinued six years later when its successor was launched. So Apple is content with, well, making its target audience wait. If the gap is maintained, then you won’t get a new Mac Pro till June 2026 at least, which is roughly twice the refresh cycle of any business machine and AppleCare+ warranty for the MacPro.
Apple is ruthless at canceling product lines when the ROI is simply not there: the Xserve, the iPod and the MacBook to name just a few. So adding the Mac Pro to that list wouldn’t be such a big deal; it is not - after all - a household name and it would make sense at a time when worldwide desktop and laptop sales have suffered record declines due to tightening budgets. Then there’s the Mac Studio which some may say, is a great substitute for some Mac Pro users at a much more affordable price point.
The arrival of the Arm-based M series serves the overwhelming majority of the product lines at Apple with the Mac Pro being the only one left out due to its peculiarities. This is great for mobile CPUs with integrated graphics, but more difficult when going up against a workstation with up to four dedicated GPUs like the previous Mac Pro, or Windows-based workstations. So Apple will need to add in the ability to use upgradeable GPUs to satisfy demanding users. The M1/M2 chips also use non-upgradeable unified RAM that is built into the package, something that is not going to fly with a full workstation where users want to be able to upgrade their RAM at any time.
I spoke with engineers and consultants at Puget Systems, a boutique PC vendor specialized in Windows workstations, with an obvious vested interest in the Mac Pro debate.
One of them told me that “Yes, we are actually seeing Mac converts crossing over. These are fun for me, because I use both MacOS and Windows, so I think it's great helping these folks realize they can have more control over their experience. The biggest reason is cost-to-performance. They realize that a $5000 system can be better than a Mac Studio they were using, or the fact that a Threadripper often performs better than a $24,000 Mac Pro with a good amount of the Mac options checked.”
The hardware race
Another vendor told us that they also saw a fair number of Apple defections, “We don’t always know the specific issue that turned them away from Apple, but relevance and newness of the hardware and overall value are two very common themes.” our interlocutor told us.
Then there’s the issue of software: “the move to Apple M1/M2 chips seems to be a confusing move for some, because Apple is now using their own created CPU/GPU chips and there's software attached to this new hardware that has to translate software that ran on the previous CPUs Apple had used for well over a decade. Some customers came to us feeling like the move to Apple's own CPUs left them behind.”
This is something that became apparent when I compiled the list of best laptops for AutoCAD. While AutoCAD supports MacOS, a lot of the important plugins and addons do not, running only on Windows. At least one US university issued a blanket ban on using Apple computers for AutoCAD, showing that making software run natively on the M2 is just very expensive and time consuming and unless you already have an established user base for it, it’s a bit of an ROI conundrum.
I do not believe, for one second, that Apple engineers are unable to solve any of the technical challenges that an M2-based Mac Pro may present but there’s a significant opportunity cost attached to that and Apple may view it as a distraction to cater for the needs of a tiny slice of the overall audience. After all, adding multiple GPUs, ECC memory exceeding 1TB, RAID, support for external GPU and potentially support for multi-processors goes against the unified vision of Apple, which tends to be more monolithic. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, Apple decides to bring solid state storage on the die itself - somehow.
The last piece of the puzzle is the relentless drive for more powerful components at the top end of the market, something that’s partly down to AMD’s resurgence. Intel and AMD on the CPU side and AMD and Nvidia on the GPU side are delivering the sort of hardware upgrades that Apple will find hard to match even with a refreshed Mac Pro.
The Xeon processor in the 2019 Mac Pro was launched almost four years ago and while comparing it to a laptop processor in a consumer benchmark (Passmark) may not tell the whole story, the Xeon W-3223 is slower than the AMD Ryzen 7 4980U, a processor that equipped some 2021 Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 devices.
And the same goes for the graphics cards, the storage technology and mundane things like Wi-Fi or USB. The ability to spend money to get much better performance is not something that Mac Pro users can envisage doing. Will that be different in a month’s time? We shall see.