We could get a new M1 Max-powered Apple Mac Pro this year – but why?

The top of a Mac Pro desktop computer on an abstract background
(Image credit: Future / Apple)

Fresh rumors have predicted that we're going to get as many as seven new Apple Mac models this year, but it isn't the number of releases that's surprised me – it's that the Mac Pro has been included in that list.

Rumors about upcoming Apple product releases are hardly unexpected, given the success and popularity of its ecosystem. But with Bloomberg's Mark Gurman anticipating that the mighty Mac Pro desktop will be upgraded with Apple silicon alongside, well, the entire Mac family, a whole new can of worms has just been opened.

Most of this current batch of speculation started when several supply chain leaks gave us some insight into a likely 13-inch MacBook Pro refresh. Gurman, a recognized Apple analyst, has since suggested that we can expect up to seven new Mac models in 2022 that will all feature some version of the M1 SoC (system-on-a-chip), one of which being the powerful Mac Pro desktop workstation.

Specifically, Gurman predicts that "a half-sized Mac Pro, the first with Apple Silicon, with the equivalent of either two or four M1 Max chips" could be announced this year alongside "super-powered versions of the M1 Max". These chips will come in two varieties: one that doubles the M1 Max’s capabilities to 20 CPU cores and 64 graphics cores, and one that quadruples it to a whopping 40 CPU cores and 128 graphics cores.

Before we jump the gun, we really want to drill home that this information is purely speculative for now, even if it comes from a trusted source. The capabilities of the M1 SoC are well documented, having impressed us so much that we stuck the M1-powered MacBook Air at the top of our list of the best laptops you can buy right now, but there's still an issue that makes its inclusion within a Mac Pro desktop a little perplexing.

There's a reason that these desktops are still rocking an Intel system, and it has nothing to do with the processor, and everything to do with its support for discrete graphics cards and creative applications. You can configure the Mac Pro with workstation-class GPUs like the AMD Radeon Pro W6800X (in fact, you get it configured with two), alongside a whopping 8TB of SSD storage and, uh, 1.5TB of DDR4 RAM.

Simply put, this is designed to be a complete beast, equipped to tackle anything that can't be served by a MacBook Pro laptop. The top-end configuration costs almost $50k, so it's safe to say that this isn't a product that everyone will be queueing up for. Which is why I'm not convinced that Apple will be able to match the power of a workstation graphics card using a SoC (system-on-a-chip).

What's cooking in Apple's kitchen?

Apple M1 Processor

(Image credit: Apple)

That said, I'm more than happy to eat my words. The M1 absolutely knocked the socks off of Apple critics back in November 2020, proving that ARM-based systems have a bright future ahead of them and subsequently dragging rival offerings like Windows-on-ARM through the proverbial dirt, so I'm expecting big things.

This also isn't the first time that rumors have appeared about Apple creating a 128-core GPU, though most previous speculation has painted this as an actual video card that would slot into a PCIe slot. 

Support would have also been an issue this time last year, as ARM-based systems lacked native support for a lot of the applications that creatives would be running. But app developers have really pulled things out of the bag, with support either already implemented, or at least in the works, for many software packages that need some hefty graphics prowess to run, such as Unreal Engine and Zbrush. 

For apps like Maya where no support has been announced, emulation like Rosetta 2 works well as a suitable workaround. This doesn't mean that support for ARM wouldn't be an issue, just that it's far less of one than I would have anticipated 12 months ago.

There are some other considerations that need to be made: If the target market for such a powerful GPU (integrated into a processor or not) is so niche, why waste so much money on developing one when it could simply maintain its current relationship with AMD? What does Apple think it could offer users that hasn't been covered by either AMD or Nvidia?

This leaves a few outcomes: either Apple will retain its current relationship with AMD for desktop graphics, or Apple is developing its own discrete graphics cards. Or, alternatively, the upcoming M1 Max additions are going to blow our minds.

Regardless, it's likely that the current version of the Mac Pro will be around for some time, as this anticipated silicon-powered version is described as a 'half-sized' Mac Pro, though we would hope that the configurations get an update to keep them in line with the latest generation of hardware like DDR5 RAM. 

Between this and the rumored 27-inch iMac Pro said to be in development, it seems Apple really does want to cover the entire spectrum of computing, regardless of how small the target demographic will be. I'm keen to see what can be made possible with a SoC in workstations, providing it won't cost more than a car to buy one.

Jess Weatherbed

Jess is a former TechRadar Computing writer, where she covered all aspects of Mac and PC hardware, including PC gaming and peripherals. She has been interviewed as an industry expert for the BBC, and while her educational background was in prosthetics and model-making, her true love is in tech and she has built numerous desktop computers over the last 10 years for gaming and content creation. Jess is now a journalist at The Verge.