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The new Mac Pro is Apple’s chance to make a PC

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Apple’s professional users need upgrades

“Can’t innovate anymore, my ass,” proclaimed Apple exec Phil Schiller when he introduced the redesigned Mac Pro back in 2013. It was meant to be “the future of the pro desktop,” but it certainly wasn’t. Four years later, Apple was forced to admit that the Mac Pro was a mess after some of Apple’s most loyal customers claimed the company had lost touch with its pro users and truly lost its way. If Apple is ready to unveil its new Mac Pro on Monday at WWDC, there can’t be any bravado about “courage” or innovation. It should be a time to prove the company has listened to those who have felt underserved and rejected.

Apple doesn’t need to wow us with another innovative design. It needs to get back to the basics. Apple now has a chance to show it can make a truly impressive PC.

While Apple’s troubled MacBook keyboard design has been a source of frustration recently, it’s the Mac Pro debacle that has had a lasting impact on Apple’s professional woes. A community of developers and creatives have long trusted Apple to make high-quality, powerful hardware that works for their needs, but the trash can-shaped Mac Pro that first debuted back in 2013 didn’t cut the mustard. “I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will,” admitted Apple executive Craig Federighi two years ago.

Apple’s “cheese grater” Mac Pro

Apple’s Mac Pro looked pretty, but it was a classic case of form over function. It was tiny and powerful, but that also meant it was difficult to upgrade its components. Apple even hit troubles with upgrading the Mac Pro. “Being able to put larger single GPUs required a different system architecture and more thermal capacity than that system was designed to accommodate,” revealed Federighi. Apple had constrained the Mac Pro at a time when users wanted expandability and upgradability. These same customers previously used to saw the handles of their “cheese grater” Mac Pro in order to slide them into racks and throw hours of rendering tasks at these machines. Now, they had to wait years for upgrades that never came or face a choice of moving to a Windows PC or an all-in-one iMac.

Thankfully, it looks like Apple got the message loud and clear, and it has been dropping hints about what we can expect from the Mac Pro. Apple has promised a new Mac Pro for 2019 that is “inherently a modular system.” That should be music to pro users’ ears and a sign that Apple could return partly to the tower design. Apple has spent years developing this new Mac Pro, likely with a unique Apple twist to make it upgradeable over time.

If Apple has truly listened, we should see the basics like support for 18-core Xeon processors, large amounts of RAM, and healthy amounts of storage. But the key will be how Mac Pro owners can upgrade those over time, especially the ability to freely add stacks of SSD storage for video rigs and increase the RAM beyond even the 256GB maximum available on the iMac Pro.

Mac Pro 1024px
Inside Apple’s 2013 Mac Pro

GPU support will also be key. Apple has long favored AMD’s Radeon graphics cards, and any switch to Nvidia’s superior graphics will be messy. MacOS Mojave requires a graphics card that supports Metal, Apple’s API for hardware-accelerated graphics. Apple has phased out support for OpenGL in macOS, and the company fully controls the drivers for Macs. This has led to problems with Nvidia cards and macOS and a backlash from the pro community who are demanding that Apple properly support Nvidia GPUs. Red Digital Cinema president Jarred Land even tried to reason with a random Apple employee late last year in a very public plea for help.

“We need Nvidia support,” said Land to an Apple employee in attendance while giving a talk about 8K movie editing. “It’s really important... it’s not good for the community to just be on one platform so please just think about it, please.”

This GPU support isn’t just needed for video work, though. Anyone working with 3D objects and programs will be acutely aware of how Nvidia has carved out a market for 3D rendering apps that only work with its CUDA-compatible cards for GPU acceleration. That means apps like Redshift, Octane, Thea Render, and more will only work on Nvidia cards.

Apple’s iMac Pro
James Bareham / The Verge

A lack of true Nvidia support would mean cards like the RTX 2080 or Nvidia’s latest Quadro line simply won’t work on the new Mac Pro, and that would undoubtedly force more pro workflows over to Windows. At the very least, Apple’s new Mac Pro needs to fully support the larger graphics cards and offer clear access to PCI Express slots to upgrade the GPU and add additional I/O capabilities in the future. External GPU support is a good start, but it’s not the same as stacking multiple GPUs inside your own machine.

Apple will also have to delicately balance the pricing of this Mac Pro. The iMac Pro already caters for a lot of pro workflows, but it offers very little upgradeability for its $4,999 base price. Potential Mac Pro owners won’t stomach paying $4,999 for a similar machine that will be out of date in a couple of years. The previous Mac Pro debuted for $2,999, but pro users will be quick to calculate the upgrade costs this time around.

While Apple is rumored to be showing off the Mac Pro on Monday, it’s entirely possible the company could choose to wait for a dedicated Mac event. The only promise we have so far is that it’s arriving in 2019, and Apple can’t afford this promise turning into another AirPower moment.

Either way, Apple’s reputation is riding on the Mac Pro, and the choices that Cupertino makes. The community of professionals has made clear what it wants to see, and it’s now up to Apple to deliver that or face a difficult future without its most loyal champions.