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Analysis: Considering The Reasons Behind Apple’s Mac Pro Delay

Analysis: Considering The Reasons Behind Apple’s Mac Pro Delay

Apple’s Mac Pro is looking pretty neglected and unloved these days – and Apple’s pro customers (and potential customers) aren’t particularly thrilled by Apple’s lack of attention to their truck-like professional level Mac. Apple has not truly updated the Mac Pro since 2010 (despite a minor refresh in 2012 because they could no longer buy the obsolete processors used in the machine). The Mac Pro retains a similar design as the 2003 PowerMac G5 – that’s a full decade.

Mac Pro

Despite the Mac Pro’s appearance of being abandoned, however, it appears that there are good reasons why Apple has put off releasing an updated model. We’ve received numerous insightful reports about next-gen Mac Pro models over the last month or two, and although we have been unable to verify the claims in those reports, they do reflect some likely reasons behind Apple’s hesitation to release updated models.

Hardware Availability

  • Processors
Ivy Bridge

Apple has typically used Intel’s Xeon processors to power the Mac Pro – but the side effect of choosing Xeon CPUs is that they are usually released significantly later than Intel’s mainstream desktop processors. The next suitable Xeon processor for the Mac Pro would be the 22nm Ivy Bridge Xeon E5 v2 – and according to the latest indications from Intel’s roadmap, the processor is unlikely to be released until sometime near mid-late 2013.

Considering the Mac Pro’s placement as the most powerful part of the Mac lineup, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for Apple to release new models until they can get their hands on enough of Intel’s next-gen desktop CPUs to release something cutting edge. Why would they release new models now, only to leave customers disappointed when new chips are released?

  • SATA Express

Apple’s Mac Pro should be a true powerhouse – the fastest, most outrageously powerful Mac Apple can produce at any given time. Part of the speed equation with today’s computers is solid state storage, which reduces the bottleneck caused by storage that is slower than the remainder of a computer’s components. SSDs have been pushing the boundaries of what the current SATA III interface is capable of – many SSDs have already reached the 550Mb/s read/write transfer speeds that can practically be achieved by SATA III.

In January of 2013, the SATA-IO group began the process of ratifying a newer, faster replacement for SATA III called SATA Express. As the name suggests, SATA Express combines a traditional SATA interface with PCI Express, allowing for much faster potential transfers at up to 4 times the current maximum speed (up to a theoretical 2GB/s when used with PCI Express 3.0). SATA Express is expected to become available for consumer products in mid-late 2013.

With a faster and far superior SATA technology on the verge of public release, it makes more sense for Apple to wait for SATA Express to become available to include in new Mac Pro models. Again, why should Apple upgrade the Mac Pro now, only to neglect including a feature that could improve it’s speed and performance significantly?

We’ve specifically heard that this is one of the key reasons behind Apple’s Mac Pro refresh delay.

  • New “Redwood Ridge” Thunderbolt Controller

Thunderbolt is expected reach its third generation of controller chips in mid-late 2013. The third-gen “Cactus Ridge” chips feature a number of power and performance improvements. The most significant change is DisplayPort 1.2 support, which will enable output at 4K resolutions (current Thunderbolt chips are limited to 2K), which would be necessary to support a 27-inch Retina display. These chips are expected to be launched around mid-2013.

Apple’s current Mac Pros lack any support for Thunderbolt whatsoever – largely due to the fact that suitable Ivy Bridge processors are not yet available, which would bring Thunderbolt support. Similar to the idea of waiting for SATA Express to become available, it would make sense for Apple to hold out on a Mac Pro upgrade until a next-gen Thunderbolt interface is available as well. Again, why would Apple release a Thunderbolt-enabled Mac Pro that’s just going to look lackluster within a few months?

Update (4/8/2013): Intel has now officially announced the new Redwood Ridge chips, which should launch sometime in late Q2 or Q3 of this year.

Note: I originally mistakenly stated that “Thunderbolt 2.0” would launch in 2013. I’ve updated this section with the correct information.

Large-Screen Retina Displays

Retina Thunderbolt Cinema iMac Display

As Instapaper developer Marco Arment keenly pointed out in June of last year, it’s also quite possible (and even likely) that Apple is waiting on new Mac Pros until they can release a 27-inch Retina Display. If Apple keeps up with their trend of offering Retina displays across their Mac line, it makes sense that this would include the Mac Pro. If Apple is going to go to the trouble of developing a 27-inch Retina Display, they’ll want it to generate as much buzz and interest as possible.

If they release a new Mac Pro before they can release a Retina Thunderbolt Display, Mac Pro users will buy non-Retina displays, slowing the potential sales of Retina Thunderbolt displays once they are finally released.

Arment sums the matter up nicely:

I bet the Mac Pro update is being held up […] because a standalone (27-inch?) Retina Display can’t be released until then, and Apple wants to release them simultaneously to capture a lot of buzz and profit in the pro market.

Why a standalone Retina Display can’t be released until then is also worth asking. My guesses help solidify the theory:

  • Large Retina panels will be in short supply for a while, and Apple needs them for the iMac first. They had a similar delay, probably for the same reason, between the release of the 27” iMac and the 27” Cinema Display using the same panel.

  • If a 27” Retina Display is a “2X” version of the current panel, that’s a 5120×2880 panel — running that at 60 Hz requires more bandwidth (over 21 Gbps for 24-bit color) than Thunderbolt offers today (up to two 10 Gbps channels).

Considering the difficulty Apple had in getting a sufficient supply of displays for their new iMacs, it’s likely that a 27-inch Retina display would not be feasible until at least mid-2013, and possibly later.

Think Different – Re-Imagining the Mac Pro

Mac Pro Concept

As I noted earlier, Apple has been using the same basic design for their professional desktop for an entire decade. It’s rare for Apple to keep a design around so long – and the Mac Pro’s design has become rather dated in that 10-year span. The Mac Pro is a huge, heavy giant of a computer – and in today’s world, there just isn’t any need for it to be quite so large and heavy anymore.

I suspect that Apple is working on a completely new – and significantly thinner – design for the next Mac Pro. Not only is a new design far overdue aesthetically speaking – it’s also important for Apple to keep up their reputation for designs that are stylish, efficient, and functional. Apple likes things to be as small and light as possible. The next design may be a Mac Mini-type shell with stackable, modular add-ons – or it could be a re-engineered version of the current Mac Pro case that retains as much of the Mac Pro’s expandability as possible, while reducing the immense bulk.

Great design takes time – and Apple may need to get their hands on the next-gen processors and parts they plan to include in the next Mac Pro before than can complete any new design they may have in the works. Considering the late 2013 expected time frane for much of that hardware, it’s safe to say that it would be at least late 2013 before any new Mac Pro hardware could be launched.

Tim Cook’s Promise

In response to an email from a concerned Apple fan regarding the future of the Mac Pro, Tim Cook promised back in June of last year that Apple is indeed working on something for pro users.

Our Pro customers like you are really important to us. Although we didn’t have a chance to talk about a new Mac Pro at today’s event, don’t worry as we’re working on something really great for later next year.

It’s unclear from the language of that email whether he was referring to an update to the Mac Pro, a complete redesign, or perhaps even a new product that’s more powerful and modular than the iMac, but different than the Mac Pro as we have known it thus far. The wording in the email seems to suggest that it will likely be later this year before Apple release their next pro-level machines.

Wrapping it Up

  • A Common Theme

Apple’s real reasons for putting off the release of a new pro-level Mac are, as always, unclear to anyone but Apple’s own employees working on the project – but there is a common and important theme reflected in ALL of the possibilities discussed above: the release timeframe. All of these possible reasons for delaying a new Mac Pro are at least partly due to the fact that appropriate hardware will not be available until at least mid-late 2013. I wouldn’t wager on anything happening until then. Count on it.

I don’t profess to have any insider knowledge about Apple’s plans for the future of the Mac Pro – but based on what I have heard, and a bit of deep thinking about all the matters related to releasing new Mac Pro hardware, I believe these ideas reflect much of Apple’s reasoning behind waiting a bit longer to release a new pro-level Mac. But once again – don’t quote any of this for fact – these ideas are nothing more than educated speculation.

What are your thoughts on the future of the Mac Pro? Let us know by sounding off in the comments!

  1. MRonin ⚜ says:

    I know I sound like a broken record but here goes. This is a huge point of contention for the vast majority of Apple’s pro and enterprise user base. We’ve been supportive loyal evangelists, some of use even more so when Apple was at it’s lowest points and needed all the boost it could get. Frankly lots of folks feel very slighted and frankly I understand. Apple is playing a very dangerous game with the Mac Pro and the people who do/have/or could rely on it and it’s sheer horsepower. It’s a game where thus far the consumer has come out on the crap end of the stick each and every time.

    I get Apple doesn’t like to speak about upcoming products or new releases of existing products. I also get that you may very well be correct in your reasons why we are still having to eek out every last drop of power from what is essentially a five year old computer. All of that aside though, if Apple lets the developer conference come and go without any mention of the Mac Pro, then I can assure you they will begin to lose customers. They may have reasons they feel are valid, but they should realize that the validity of their reasons may only be valid within the confines of 1 infinite loop.

    People in the pro market are irritated with the lack of communication and frustrated at being relegated to the Apples refuse pile. Something either tangible or at least a verification that something tangible is coming needs to happen if Apple is going to retain these customers. All I can say design wise is the Mac Pro should N O T in any way shape or form be a small form factor a’la a slightly larger Mac Mini. If I can’t swap drives, change video cards, access the logic board, change RAM, etc then it IS NOT a pro level box. Dressing up a Mac Mini and slapping in a dink 146 gig SSD and calling it a “Mac Pro” is more insulting than the idea of putting off a new Mac Pro simply because they can’t churn out 27″ retina displays.

    Yes Apple is in business to make money however they can legally, nope they don’t give one single fraction of a damn what I think or what anyone else on the internet thinks. However if they want to continue to draw in people that will spend big cash on computers will real horsepower, then they need to start caring and start listening and acting and communicating that these folks haven’t been forgotten. One brief letter from Tim Cook isn’t going to cut it for another year. If they put off the Mac Pro until the end of this year or the beginning of 2014 they risk releasing a computer that no one wants anymore and they will end up eating a large chunk of their cash reserves making up lost revenue because of it.

    1. rinze schuurman says:

      The problem with apple is that it is, like any big company, an oiltanker which has trouble to alter its course, in this case the information flow about its upcoming products. The silence about their future products always worked well for them in the past, when they were the defacto monopolist for media creation professionals who had no choice but to wait for the next big thing. It still works for their new client base of media consurmer products, cause consumers don’t have to make business plans to buy their next toy.

      But times have changed on the professional market. Apple isn’t the only store anymore to buy your media creation tools and there are competitors out there that produce cheaper or faster solutions while telling you what they are planning for the future. In the past we have seen this over and over, big names like IBM and Microsoft (or in my little field of expertise, Avid) making these mistakes, resting on the laurels of their monopoly and unable to change company policy in a different market. But then again, Apple has known to surprise us, let’s see if they still can.

      1. MRonin ⚜ says:

        You’ve hit the nail on the head really. While I get where Apple’s collective head is at with iOS being their cash cow. It’s like I wrote on Lou Borella’s facebook page yesterday, while the new iPad is great my photographers can’t use it to edit 300 meg camera raw files, my editors can’t install Final Cut or Avid on it, my designers can’t run Illustrator on it. So Apple I think needs to either make a clean break or give us something substantive.

        You’re correct they aren’t the only game in town now. If I have to tell folks “wait until next year” while their current Mac Pro’s are slowing down a little more every day, then they are gonna blow a gasket. If that happens then I’ll be force to find Wintel solutions for them.

  2. Jeffrey Talbot says:

    Look.. the MacPro, and the G5 before it all when thru lots of changes over the years… there is no reason why any of these technologies can’t be added in as they become available to new versions of the computer. USB3 and Thunderbolt have been around for quite a while now, but neither are in the MacPro.

    But both could be. I’m with MRonin… if Apple can’t do this very soon, the pro market will begin to look else where for both hardware AND software.

  3. MECutler says:

    The article makes sense on a superficial level – but by later this year there will be other new technologies coming soon. There will always be that. It is just like buying a new computer – wait a while and you will get more computer for less money. But that way you wait forever. Instead, you have to just jump in at some point and do the best you can at that point.

  4. max says:

    that “SATA express” logo you are using belongs to an acorean airline, its not the logo of the new bus speed 🙂

  5. staraffinity says:

    Why does it necessarily have to have Xeon processors? I don’t get it. Release a proper tower model with the ”normal” dekstop Intel processors in the meantime. It’s good enough for many professionals.

  6. rinze schuurman says:

    “many SSDs have already reached the 550Mb/s read/write transfer speeds” I think you mean MB/s

  7. mactastic says:

    The problem as I see it is – you can never satisfy all of the people, all of the time. When folk go out and buy an iPad and apple release a new one a month or so later – they are all up in arms.

    Its the same with the Mac Pro – I am using a 12gb 2.8, 2010 MP with lightroom and PS and it works fine.

    I would rather wait a few months for Ivy Bridge + TB Pro + SATA Express and all the other likely improvements than the Big A pushing out a minor increased spec pro that they then replace with an all singing – all dancing new model a few months later.

    Also, if apple were to bring out a core i7 based pro then it would need to be a single processor model as only the xeon processors are capable of being installed in dual processor based systems.

    We may all be surprised and maybe apple will have a deal with Intel like they did with TBolt and will have the processors early.

    Finally, I know lots of people are commenting on how old and faded the Pro case it – but for me – its as fresh as it ever was and iconic – thats why most mackintosh fans drool at the prospect of installing their systems inside G5 cases. nuff said….

  8. mactastic says:

    oops – last comment should have read as “Hackintosh” fans…

  9. I love this article, it gives me hope, but I disagree with the idea
    that the reason apple has not refreshed the Mac Pro in 3 years is
    because they’re waiting on “newer” technology.. If that’s true then why refresh ANY
    computer?? All technology ages and gets replaced… ANY PROCESSOR NOW is better than the current Mac Pro they don’t need to wait for Ivy Bridge Xeons, they have
    Sandy Bridge Xeons that would wipe the floor with the current Mac Pro
    processors.. With this stubborn mindset, then why even put in Ivy Bridge when
    we know Haswell is on the way? Wait no, lets push off the update till 2015 and wait for Skylake so we “don’t let anyone down..” Sorry… that’s not right.. Technology progresses, we pay the big bucks for the latest & greatest, it gets outdated within a year and we deal
    with it… This is how it is, always was, and always will be.. The Mac Pro users have been left hanging since 2010 for no good reason other than what apple has decided behind closed doors..

    But maybe, just maybe IvyBridge with its smaller footprint and
    reduced power consumption is fundamentally vital to the redesign of the
    all new Mac Pro… Maybe… I doubt it, I hope I’m wrong… I
    hope they truly do have something in store for late this year that will
    make us all say: “So THAT’S what they took so long for!!! It was
    worth it!” We can only hope..

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