Video pros react to the Mac Pro: GPU and storage concerns

In the run up to WWDC there was a lot of speculations as to how a new Mac Pro from Apple might shape up. We even rounded up lots of opinions about the future of the Mac Pro in this article. We expected that any move away from extendibility would be greeted with exasperation by the pro Mac user, after all, this was what the Mac Pro offered than no other Mac did.

On the night Apple revealed that it was pursuing Thunderbolt 2 as its answer to expandability, and despite the fact that the new Mac Pro would be bereft of PCI Express expansion ports, a quick look at Twitter suggested that people were endeared to the new design.

We were a lone voice that evening as we tweeted: "Something about the Mac Pro reminds me of the Cube. I wish it didn't."

Was the initial reaction to the Mac Pro actually Apple fans rather than the traditional Mac Pro power users? Even now, a whole week later, most of the opinions seem to be loving rather than hating the Mac Pro. Our suspicion is that the pro Mac user, the traditional audience for the Mac Pro is keeping stum while the die hard Mac fans are chomping at the bit, desperate to get their hands on this impressive new Mac that may well fall outside of their price range. We also wonder whether there any Mac power users left – has Apple neglected the industry for too long? 

What the professional Mac Pro users think

We have also studied the thoughts of bloggers in the video editing fields and been in touch with Lou Borella, the editor who set up the MacPro Facebook page last year after Apple's minor update to the pro Mac.

Borella observed that the initial reaction is positive, but that a storm maybe brewing: "I think the comments have been more positive and optimistic than negative. It's not an overwhelming number but I think Apple's first look is being met with more open minds than anger. That could change very quickly in either direction when the pricing and final specs are announced however."

What the Mac Pro 2013 offers

For now the new Mac Pro is worthy of its praise. On paper - and right now that’s the only place you are going to see it - the Mac Pro is one hell of a machine. Inside it’s cylindrical case that is a fraction of the size of the current Mac Pro (with its decade old case) you’ll find an Intel Xeon E5 Ivy Bridge processor, the potential for 12-cores, double the CPU performance of the current generation, dual AMD FirePro workstation-class GPUs able to run up to three 4K displays at once, third generation PCI Express architecture, and 1866MHz ECC DDR3 Ram. There is also PCIe-based flash memory, which is 10 times faster than any traditional desktop hard drives.

If you are after expansion ports Apple's solution is four USB 3.0 ports, six Thunderbolt 2 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet porta and HDMI out. Thunderbolt 2 is the newest iteration of Intel’s thunderbolt technology that is double the speed of Thunderbolt 1, at 20Gbps. Each Thunderbolt 2 port supports up to six daisy-chained devices, so with six Thunderbolt 2 ports, the new Mac Pro can support up to 36 Thunderbolt peripherals.

This replaces the pair of 16-lane PCI Express 2.0 slots and two 4-lane PCI Express 2.0 slots in the current Mac Pro. There is also no optical drive but who cares about that (if you do, get an external Super Drive).

Some video professionals recognise that this is a highly configurable Mac.

Larry Jordan shares his thoughts on the new Mac Pro in his blog here. "One of the key things I realized was that this system is envisioned to be highly configurable," he writes.

"The current Mac Pro is the most customizable system that Apple makes. Configuration is at the heart of the new Mac Pro as well. While I expect that there will be one physical unit, we will have a lot of choices about what goes into that unit," he adds.

Where’s my expansion?

Of course some Mac users are going to bemoan the lack of internal expansion. As David Austerberry writes for Broadcast Engineer: “If I upgrade, that spaghetti under the desk will be joined by more Thunderbolt spaghetti connecting to external storage.”

Austerberry explains that at his feet currently is a “cat’s cradle of CAT5 and USB cables”. His Mac Pro houses four hard drives and an optical drive. If he want’s to upload a camera card to the new Mac Pro he will require a remote desktop card reader, he complains.

“If I need to plug in an external drive to bring in video content, I can attempt to plug in at the back, but the chassis isn't going to turn easily with all the cables plugged in. Some front connectors would have been dead handy!” he adds.

Borella makes a similar point about access to the ports: "I really don't know how many times Apple thinks we will be spinning this thing around. I'm sure the motion controlled illumination is nice but there are going to be so many wires hanging off the back of this machine that turning it around will not really be feasible."

Did you really need that expansion in your Mac Pro?


Incidentally, according to Jordon’s blog, 80% of Mac Pro users don’t have any PCI cards in their system, aside from the graphics card. Perhaps the fuss about expansion options is fuss over nothing.

Borella admits that he probably won't miss the expansion options. "I have a Kona LHe that has been in my 2008 MP for five years but hasn't been used in the last two," he writes.

This echoes the admission of Macworld editor Dan Frakes who wrote: "I loved that I could upgrade pretty much everything, but in reality, I rarely swapped out more than hard drives, RAM, and the occasional video card or optical drive. Only once did I ever use an additional PCI slot. And yet because of their extensive expandability, the pre–2013 Mac Pro models use lots of floor space and lots of electricity, and they generate a lot of heat."

Thanks to Thunderbolt, those people who do need expansion are no longer limited by the number of card slots the computer has available. Borella admits: "As an editor I probably will not need any cards and I'd bet that all of my future needs will be satisfied via Thunderbolt."

“Apple essentially provided a virtually unlimited number of card slots for users that need the maximum in expandability," writes Jordon.

Apple’s will still have a challenge proving that Thunderbolt 2 isn’t only an alternative to the old fashioned expansion offered by PCI Express cards, but a better solution. Presumably this lesson will be easier to teach when a few more companies have got behind Thunderbolt 1, let alone Thunderbolt 2.

However there's still likely to be a few complications in certain industries. Borella points out: "I know the audio guys have a lot to complain about especially those using ProTools… I believe that most of the external hardware needed for Protools is sold by Protools/Avid right?... We are talking about a company in Avid that pretty much refuses to innovate. They hold on to old tech forever and rarely optimize their code to take advantage of any new hardware."

"The new Mac Pro depends on third parties abandoning the older technologies," said Borella.

What pros really need: storage

The other question is whether the new Mac Pro will meet the storage needs of these professional Mac users. Borella notes: "I will miss the internal storage. I speculated that Apple would give us some sort of proprietary flash memory like my MacBook Pro. I was hoping that there would be some extra space for a few of these but it doesn't look like it. Does this mean that whatever storage choice we make at purchase we will be stuck with for the life of the machine?"

"Not to mention the cost for large amounts of proprietary Apple flash storage. I know those costs are coming down but its still going to be pricey at launch," Borella adds.

The lack of Thunderbolt peripherals mentioned above is also significant when it comes to storage. Jordon notes that the "missing piece is the lack of high-speed Thunderbolt-native RAID 5 storage systems, with the notable exception of Promise."

There are "very, very few 5 to 10 drive RAID 5 systems, which we editors need the most", he writes.

While the PCIe Flash memory will also be fast, there is unlikely to be very much of it, compared to what video and other creative pros are used to. It seems likely that many will be relying on external hard drives (and with them yet more cables).

What pros really need: fast

What people need is "a fast computer coupled with lots of RAM and a really fast storage system," writes Jordan.

The Xeon E5 in the Mac Pro certainly looks like it will be very fast and the 126GB memory is also incredibly fast - Apple claims it offers 60GBps memory bandwidth.

Borella's first reaction to the new Mac Pro, as outlined on his FaceBook page was that it will be "screaming fast." He writes: "I think the machine will be screaming fast. There is definitely something to be said for PCIe Flash memory, even more so than standard SSDs. I have a client with OWC Accelsior cards installed in a 2008 Mac Pro and a 2012 Mac Pro. They are definitely faster than SSDs which are SATA based and can bottle neck at the connection." 

What pros really need - graphics

However, a cause for concern for Borella and other video professionals is Apple's choice of graphics processor, or specifically, the lack of choice of GPU.

The new Mac Pro will offer two AMD FirePro workstation-class GPUs with up to 6GB of dedicated VRAM. Apple says that its new Mac Pro will provide more than 2.5 of the graphics performance of the current models. Apple also claims it will be able to drive three 4K displays. It all sounds very impressive.

However, it doesn’t appear that the new Mac Pro’s GPUs will be upgradeable or replaceable, and this may be an issue for those Mac Pro users who have extended the life of their Mac Pros by upgrading them to the latest video card and especially for Mac users who's software is not built to utilise the new graphics card.

Borella explains that when he first heard the claims that the Mac Pro would feature dual GPUs he "was drooling at the thought of two NVidia Titans". Apple has, as far as we know, set on AMD cards. "Will they be our only choice?" asks Borella. "They look like they are proprietary cards engineered specifically for this machine. It doesn't look like there are the standard ports on the end of the cards where we plug in our monitors," he observes.

"So all the celebrating we did when Nvidia and AMD announced new Mac specific cards earlier this year might be for naught. It doesn't look like any standard graphic cards will work in this machine without an external chassis of some sort. Nvidia and AMD might start building cards specifically for this machine but that would seem like a very expensive endeavor for them," he writes.

Will software need to be updated to work with the new Mac Pro?

There are also some Mac users who will be dependent on software that’s been optimised for Nvidia GPUs rather than those from AMD. Since the new Mac Pros use AMD components does this mean that some software won’t work?

The crux of the matter is the difference between OpenCL and CUDA. If code uses OpenCL, no modification is required. However, those applications that use CUDA-API will need re-coding.

Borella believes that when Schiller mentioned OpenCL in the keynote, stating that: "you all should be using it", Schiller was "talking right to Adobe". Borella explains: "Adobe has to get off the CUDA bandwagon and start writing their code that will be more universally compatible."

In the past Adobe has favoured Nvidia cards – tapping into its CUDA technology so that AE CS6 and CC's ray-traced 3D renderer can only tap Nvidia GPUs, not AMD ones (though it can still run using the CPU-only, albeit more slowly).

However, unless Adobe is restricted by some exclusive deal with Nvidia, we expect that After Effects CC (above) will be updated in the future so its ray-traced 3D renderer supports the FirePro cards by the time the Mac Pro ships. Premiere Pro CC offers is optimised for both AMD cards (using OpenCL) and Nvidia cards (using the CUDA platform).

Apple itself revealed that it will be releasing a new version of Final Cut Pro for the new Mac Pro. However, it’s not the case that current versions of Final Cut will not work with the new Mac Pro, according to reports.

It would appear that the software will work, it just won’t work as well. "The Mac Pro will run all current Mac software. However, if the software wants to take advantage of the dual GPUs, it may need to be reconfigured to do so," explains Jordan in his blog. 

How much will the new Mac Pro cost?

Borella sums up what he expects will be a very expensive machine. "We are still talking about the most expensive Intel chips, the most expensive AMD graphics cards, proprietary Flash storage, a whole bunch of R&D and Engineering and the obligatory Apple tax… This machine will not be cheap and when you trick it out with the biggest GPUs and a lot of Flash storage we are going to start getting into second mortgage territory. Factor in external TBolt boxes for legacy devices and we might be talking poorhouse."

What the people who’ve used it say

Developers at Pixar and The Foundry were able to try out the new Mac Pro. Apple has produced video interviews with these developers – but unfortunately you need access to a developer account to watch them.

The Foundry’s Jack Greasley revealed: "I can tell you that the speed and power of this machine really stands up. Mari running on this machine out of the box is the fastest I have ever seen it run." During the keynote, The Foundry announced that its 3D painting package MARI, (used in Avatar and The Avengers) is coming to the Mac.

Changing the way pros work

Borella admits that the new Mac Pro will change everything about his workflow, but writes that he is "more intrigued and excited than scared and perturbed".

"This machine will change the way my peripherals sit on my desk. It will cause me to take a hard look at my current monitor situation. It will cause me to rethink the gear I bring on remote edits. It will cause me to re-evaluate my home network and my NAS devices. It might even cause me to give a harder look to FCPX," he writes.

"For good or bad this Mac Pro will change everything and cause a ripple effect in my entire computing life. And its probably about time," he writes, adding: "When I look at the existing tech that is sitting on and under my desk I realize that I have been looking at pretty much the same picture for the last 20 years. Its probably about time that some company takes me to the next step."

The good news about the Mac Pro 2013

The preview of the new Mac Pro proves that the Mac and its operating system are still very much on Apple's roadmap. However, the fact that Apple needed to make this move and preview the new machine is telling. Perhaps the company has neglected the pro market for too long and needed to remind those Mac users that they still matter to it. Or perhaps Apple needed to bring back the emphasis on the Mac Pro as the flagship Mac that previewed the features we would all hope to eventually see on our MacBooks and iMacs. Proof, as Apple's Phil Schiller said, that the company can still innovate.

In his blog, John Siracusa observes that the Mac Pro is Apple's 'Halo Car'. That it is the vanity product into which Apple ploughs its research and development, and seeks to impress the world. "By allowing the Mac Pro line to languish for so long, Apple has negated any possible prestige effect and abandoned an arena where it could safely push the limits of PC performance," Siracusa writes.

Siracusa makes the interesting observation that the Mac Pro was always the place for new technologies to premiere before they made their way to the Mac. He opines that: “Apple should keep pushing the limits of PC performance because it’s a company that loves personal computers. If Apple can’t get on board with that, then all the other completely valid, practical reasons to keep chasing those demons at the high end are irrelevant. The spiritual battle will have already been lost.”

It would appear that for Siracusa the Mac Pro isn’t just a machine for pro users, it's the machine through which Apple can demonstrate the fact that it is at the cutting edge. And if the Mac fans our there love the Mac Pro for that reason, then Apple’s doing a good job.

The problem with the Cube was that it was never meant to be a flagship product. It was an expensive option that didn't sit at the top of Apple's range of Macs.

It looks like the Mac Pro is good looking with a brain.

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...