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Scaling down the Mac Pro

The Mac Pro is a beast.

The case is huge. It hasn’t seen an external redesign since 2003 or a major internal redesign since 2006. It’s nearly 50 pounds loaded. It’s only updated whenever there’s a new generation of Xeon CPUs from Intel, which only happens about every 18 months. This can sometimes make it seem painfully out of date: for instance, today’s Mac Pro still doesn’t have Thunderbolt, 9 months after the port’s introduction, and the base $2499 configuration, which is slower than every 15” MacBook Pro today, ships with only 3 GB of RAM and a 1 TB hard drive.

And it’s very expensive. As Intel has raised Xeon prices and Apple has widened their margins since the line’s introduction in 2006, Mac Pros have become worse deals. A worthwhile configuration usually costs over $3500, often even $5000, and that’s assuming you already have a monitor and you don’t mind buying third-party RAM and hard drives.1

Apple doesn’t sell a lot of Mac Pros. Only 26% of Macs sold today are desktops, and that includes the very popular iMac and the Mac Mini. I don’t think Apple ever breaks out the numbers by product line, but I’d guess that fewer than 5% of Macs sold are Mac Pros. So it’s not very surprising that the Mac Pro may be discontinued soon.

What could Apple change about the Mac Pro to make it attract more buyers?

Smaller?

Probably not significantly.

The top third is optical drive bays and the power supply. They can drop down to just one optical bay, and could even use a slim laptop drive (or omit optical drives entirely), but the huge power supply still needs to go somewhere. The power supply can’t be meaningfully downsized: since Apple uses the same power supply in every Mac Pro, it needs enough capacity to power the fastest CPUs with all RAM, disk, and expansion slots filled with the highest-draw options.

The hard drives are arranged very efficiently. There’s not a lot of savings to be had if the case still needs to hold four 3.5” hard drives. If they got rid of the optical bays, they could put the hard drives in their space, but it wouldn’t be a big reduction overall.

The midsection must be left mostly open so full-length PCI-Express cards can fit.

The bottom third needs to hold the huge Xeon heatsinks and the 8 RAM slots (in dual-CPU models).

If the case is made any narrower, the fans need to be made smaller as well, which would require them to spin faster and produce more noise.

So any meaningful size reduction will make the Mac Pro less desirable to a significant portion of people who actually do buy it.

Cheaper?

Given what the Mac Pro is — a high-end Xeon workstation — it’s actually priced competitively with PC equivalents most of the time.

I just went to Dell’s website and configured a workstation as close as I could get2 to the dual-2.66 GHz Mac Pro with AppleCare:

At this level, and considering that the comparison is only approximate (since it’s impossible to configure exactly matching systems), that difference is negligible. The problem isn’t that Apple’s overcharging for the Mac Pro. The Mac Pro’s specs are just far above what most people want to pay for an expandable tower PC.

The only way to significantly reduce its cost is, again, to remove the reasons why many of its customers buy it:

Consumer-class CPUs?

Apple could make a smaller, much cheaper desktop Mac by abandoning the Xeon CPUs and just using Intel’s mainstream desktop CPUs, such as the quad-core 3.4 GHz Core i7-2600K. They already offer this with the iMac. But if you’re reading about the Mac Pro, you probably want more internal expansion than the iMac will accomodate.

Going to desktop-class CPUs has two big downsides for Mac Pro buyers:

Since so many Mac Pro buyers choose it specifically to have the most CPU power or the highest RAM capacities available, this might not be an acceptable tradeoff to many of them.

As a point of comparison, almost all desktop-class motherboards today are limited to 16–24 GB of RAM, and the top-end 3.4 GHz Core i7 CPU (available already in the iMac) gets a 64-bit GeekBench score of 12,575. The Mac Pro released more than a year ago maxes out fairly affordably at 48–96 GB, and the top-end dual-2.93 GHz Xeons score a 24,159 in Geekbench. And it’s probably going to be updated to even faster CPUs in a few months.

If a 16 GB RAM ceiling and about 12,000 Geekbench points are enough for someone, Apple probably already serves their needs with an iMac or MacBook Pro. Even the Mac Mini maxes out at 16 GB and just under a score of 10,000 today.

And if they need more power or RAM capacity, only the Xeon platform can deliver it.

Less expansion?

Thunderbolt is, essentially, PCI-Express over a cable. It’s fast enough for hard-drive enclosures that let their drives run as fast as if they were internal. It’s even fast enough for some external GPUs. Many roles of the Mac Pro’s PCI-Express slots could be replaced with Thunderbolt peripherals.3

I wonder how many Mac Pro owners use all four hard-drive bays. I bet the number has decreased over time as individual hard drives have grown so large and SSDs have become so fast.4

If card slots and internal drive bays aren’t as necessary as they used to be for a Mac Pro customer, it’s much more likely that a Mac Mini, iMac, or even a MacBook Pro might solve their needs sufficiently for less money.

But for the buyers who do need card slots, internal 3.5” drive bays, or some edge-case Mac Pro capabilities such as the ability to drive lots of monitors, no other Mac can fill the Mac Pro’s role. They’re the ones still buying them, after all — any reduction in expansion potential would leave them stranded.

A matter of time

It’s impossible to significantly change the Mac Pro without removing most of its need to exist.

But I think it’s clear, especially looking at Thunderbolt’s development recently, that Apple is in the middle of a transition away from needing the Mac Pro.

Fewer customers will choose Mac Pros as time goes on. Once that level drops below Apple’s threshold for viability or needing to care, the line will be discontinued.

I bet that time will be about two years from now: enough time for Apple to release one more generation with Thunderbolt and the new Sandy Bridge-based Xeon E5 CPUs in early 2012, giving the Mac Pro a full lifecycle to become even more irrelevant before they’re quietly removed from sale.

A few power users will complain, but most won’t care: by that time, most former Mac Pro customers will have already switched away.


  1. Configuring the single-socket 2010 Mac Pro with 16 GB of RAM, a reasonable amount for power users, costs $775 from Apple or $145 from OWC

  2. I configured the Dell Precision T5500 workstation with Dual Xeon X5650 (2.66 GHz) CPUs, 6 GB (6x1) RAM, 3 Year ProSupport, Mini-Tower with 1394 Card, 256MB ATI FireMV 2260, 1 TB 7200 RPM hard drive, 16X DVD+/-RW, and Internal Chassis Speaker ($5). I couldn’t find options for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FireWire 800, or optical audio ports, but their warranty includes on-site service, so there are a few mismatches but I think this is a good approximation. 

  3. Very few Thunderbolt peripherals exist yet. One interesting theory to consider: if Apple did discontinue the Mac Pro, it might force peripheral makers to adopt Thunderbolt more aggressively for devices such as professional video-capture cards. This may be more valuable to Apple than the Mac Pro. 

  4. If so, Apple probably doesn’t sell many RAID cards anymore. Maybe this is also why they discontinued the Xserve RAID in 2008. Also worth noting: Fibre Channel is no longer exclusive to the Mac Pro. 

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