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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!