Reviewing the new Mac Pro has been an interesting challenge.
It’s very much the product that professional Mac users have been asking Apple to make for years: a modular, high-performance Mac tower. And demand for such a machine is well and truly pent up: Apple’s last Mac Pro came out in 2013, featuring a daring cylindrical design that the company was unable to update for years because of thermal issues. After much consternation about the future of the Mac, Apple admitted it needed to start all over with the Mac Pro in 2017. Two and a half years later, we’re looking at one of the most precisely and cleverly engineered desktop computers ever made. I have been dying to review it.
At the same time, the Mac Pro is not a single product. There are no stock configurations aside from the it-has-to-start-somewhere $5,999 base setup, and the machines won’t be sold in the company’s retail stores. Apple’s expectation is that customers will configure almost every Mac Pro to order, all the way up to a top spec with a 28-core Intel Xeon W processor and two AMD Radeon Pro Vega II Duo GPUs that hovers near $54,000. Simply figuring out which Mac Pro to review in a way that reveals something interesting has been a process.
Configuring a Mac Pro to review was a challenge
Making things more complicated, while Apple did provide Mac Pro units to a few excellent YouTubers who use Final Cut Pro, it has not offered any traditional review units to the press, citing the above-mentioned difficulties in picking a representative spec sheet. So we ended up buying our own Mac Pro. (Apple did seed reviewers with the Pro Display XDR, which we also reviewed; you can find that here.)
So to get this right, we needed to find a configuration that is broadly representative of what pro users might actually buy, allows us to investigate Apple’s performance claims, and hopefully reveals something interesting about what pro users might experience if they upgrade to this machine. And we needed to do all of this knowing that we wouldn’t just send this machine back when the review was done, like we do with every standard review unit. This one was going to be ours to keep.
Happily, we have a bit of an advantage: The Verge is part of Vox Media, a company full of media professionals who use a huge variety of software to work on everything from Netflix shows to print magazine design. And of course, The Verge’s own art and video teams make illustrations and motion graphics for our site and YouTube all day long. So we called in a few friends, let everyone use the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR to work on their various projects, and had them report back.
Welcome back to the game, Apple.
To configure our Mac Pro, we turned to Murilo Silva, the director of post production technology at Vox Media and a 16-year veteran of studio technology. (Before Vox Media, he worked at the color house that did Game of Thrones.) Murilo is broadly in charge of all the tech for the teams that work on everything from Vox.com’s Explained on Netflix to Eater’s No Passport Required on PBS. After some conversation, we settled on a configuration right in the middle of Apple’s options: a 3.2GHz 16-core Intel Xeon W processor, two Radeon Pro Vega II graphics cards, 96GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. We also added Apple’s new $2,000 Afterburner card, which is a dedicated processor called an FPGA that accelerates decoding ProRes video files in certain apps.
We did not get the $400 wheels because, seriously, we’re spending our own money here.
All of this added up to $16,599 worth of Mac Pro; $18,072.16 with tax out the door. And for comparison’s sake, we also bought a PC workstation built around a newer AMD Threadripper processor. We’ll come back to that.
The Mac Pro is a beautifully designed machine, inside and out
The Mac Pro, once it arrived, was an instant head-turner. It really is a beautifully designed machine, inside and out. Put aside the cheese grater jokes, and just look at it: there just isn’t another PC that is this precisely engineered. That pattern of cooling vents on the front and back is instantly recognizable, the ports on the top are really useful, and the whole thing is ridiculously quiet in operation: Apple’s gone to great lengths to vary the speed of the fans constantly so that they don’t cause any harmonics or rumbles. It is a shockingly quiet computer for the amount of power it contains.
Inside, the entire thing is a masterful example of Apple engineering every inch of a machine: there are no internal cables. Screws are held in place with springs so they don’t fall to the ground when you loosen parts. There are numbers printed on the interior to guide you through disassembly step-by-step. Apple could have shipped a generic ATX tower with off-the-shelf parts inside, and people would have bought it to run macOS; the company went above and beyond with the design of the Mac Pro. My favorite little flourish? The Mac Pro’s single USB-A port is on the inside of the machine because a lot of pro apps require a hardware DRM dongle to operate, and Apple wanted a secure port to tuck those out of the way. It’s all just clever like that.
After over a month of testing, our team had only two quibbles with the design: first, you have to unplug all of the cables to remove the case, which is almost certainly because Apple wants you to disconnect the power cord before getting inside. Second, the headphone jack would have been much more useful on the top of the case; our video editors routinely plug and unplug their headphones, and it’s hard to get at the port on the back of the case when it’s on the floor. That’s it. All in all, it’s fair to say that Apple has built one of the nicest tower PCs ever made. It almost makes the wait worth it — almost.
As you’d expect, we ran some standard benchmarks on our Mac Pro, which indicated that it is indeed the fastest Mac at Vox Media. But those benchmarks don’t really tell the whole story. What mattered to us was whether people could make use of all that extra power to do their jobs. Like many production houses, Vox Media is an Adobe Creative Cloud shop, and our expectation was that we’d be able to crank on Photoshop and Illustrator and manage heavy editing workflows in Adobe Premiere and After Effects. We also do color work in DaVinci Resolve, and we stress Cinema 4D and Pro Tools quite heavily.
What we found is that while the Mac Pro might have a lot of raw horsepower to spare, most of our software was just not able to use it yet.
Here’s Estelle Caswell who works on Explained on Netflix and the Emmy-winning Earworm series on Vox’s YouTube channel:
Currently, I use the 2019 iMac, and I mostly work in Premiere Pro and After Effects, though sometimes I dip into Logic and Photoshop. In After Effects, previewing comps with just a handful of effects can be laggy, so typically, I preview comps in a half or a quarter quality when I’m trying to work super-fast.
I was hoping that when I tested out the Mac Pro, I wouldn’t have that issue, but I ran into the same problems that I do on my iMac at home. If I move a shape, all of a sudden, the picture will go from super-clear to incredibly pixelated, and the only way to get rid of that is to render the scene and play it.
So for Estelle, there was a clear ceiling to performance. But what if you don’t push your machine to the limit every day? Did the Mac Pro make a difference for less-demanding creative tasks even if those tasks don’t peg the processor? Stevie Remsberg, the senior art director at New York Magazine and a heavy Photoshop user, didn’t see much of a speedup in her daily routine:
I use a 2019 iMac. It didn’t feel faster at all. I was working off a server via VPN, so it’s possible that was slowing things down, but I got the spinning ball often. I mostly just worked in InDesign and Photoshop as I normally would, but, honestly, my current setup works fine for what I do. I rarely experience any issues with slowness. I can’t see any real upside to using this computer for what I do.
We also gave the machine to Noam Hassenfeld who produces Today, Explained, a podcast that comes out every day against a relentless news cycle. If anyone would see the benefits of a speed boost, it’s that team. And… it still wasn’t that much faster as he used Pro Tools.
I use a 2017 MacBook Pro. I have to work pretty fast on Today Explained. Sometimes I only get a couple hours to turn around a project, but I don’t think the Mac Pro would help me do my job any better than I currently do it.
All the programs that I use run just as fast on my current computer as they do on the Mac Pro. So, there’s really no point in getting a Mac Pro from me at my current job, but if I were working on a much more intensive, lush project with 100, 200 tracks, I think the Mac Pro could make a difference.
Of course, these results surprised us since the Mac Pro has many, many more CPU cores, wildly faster GPUs, and more RAM than most of the machines we were testing against. Eventually, we realized that almost none of our software was really pushing multithreaded CPU performance, and we hadn’t really lit up the GPUs at all.
So we turned to Verge senior motion designer Grayson Blackmon who spends an awful lot of time waiting for things to render, because, for some reason, we’ve decided to torture him by making him work on a 2015 iMac for the past year. Grayson was dying for a faster machine:
I work primarily in Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, and Cinema 4D. Deadlines are one of the biggest factors for me, since rendering can take a really long time, especially when working in 3D and being on such an old computer can really limit what you’re willing to try creatively.
Using the Mac Pro isn’t that much faster on a day-to-day basis. When you need the power, it’s there, but it’s not like it opens a Chrome tab any faster. I didn’t notice any playback slowdowns, so in that regard, it’s much faster than my normal workstation.
I tried bringing up our 4K project for the Ikea video since we had to make proxies for that to be editable. It was very smooth to edit and scrub around in. The biggest thing was the individual apps themselves would be slow. In Photoshop, I tried to save a PNG, and it took forever. Illustrator was also slow.
We created an animated illustration using Cinema 4D that we would have otherwise been unable to make [on deadline]. Having 32 threads meant that rendering using the CPU was much faster than my old iMac. This meant that I was able to make artistic changes and view the results quickly. Then when it was time to render out the animation, it really used all the power of the CPU, meaning we could finish it by our deadline.
Finding a use case that really pushed the GPUs was a challenge, especially because at the time I was using the computer, none of Adobe’s software was optimized to use them.
I am pretty sure that when the Mac Pro sleeps, it dreams of Grayson saying “None of Adobe’s software was optimized to use the GPUs.”
Because ultimately, that’s the story with the Mac Pro: the hardware is way, way ahead of software support. When we ran benchmark tests that pushed the GPUs, they turned in solid numbers, but so few apps were optimized to use Apple’s Metal graphics system that we basically never saw that performance in action during our day-to-day work.
None of Adobe’s software was optimized to use the GPUs
We were able to test ProRes video in Final Cut Pro in order to test the Afterburner card, and it definitely made previewing multiple 4K videos in full-res possible, but we don’t work in ProRes or Final Cut Pro, so the card didn’t accelerate our usual workflows. Apple has strongly hinted that the programmable nature of the Afterburner card will lead to additional format support in the future. But there’s no timeline for that, so I’d hold off on buying one unless you know for a fact you’ll get a speed boost from it.
In certain situations, the Mac Pro offered a clear speed boost by virtue of having so many more CPU cores than our other Macs, but you need apps that really take advantage of multithreading for that, and, well, Creative Cloud’s multithreaded performance is, at best, controversial. I mean, look, we tried to edit the video for this review on our Mac Pro using the full-res 4K video files in Premiere instead of lower-res proxies, and it dropped frames. That’s exactly the sort of thing Apple promotes the Mac Pro as being designed to overcome… if you’re using Final Cut Pro. You see the problem.
We just had Adobe chief product officer Scott Belsky on The Vergecast, so I asked him and his team for a timeline on Mac Pro support; they basically told me they don’t have one yet, but it’s coming. And that’s going to be true for a lot of software, not just Creative Cloud. Apple hasn’t had modern pro machines of this class for a long time, and there hasn’t exactly been a lot of demand for software to take advantage of the extra power.
Like so many things Apple, it’s a bit of a walled garden: if you live in Apple’s pro apps, and use Apple’s preferred formats, the Mac Pro will be very fast. But step outside Apple’s ecosystem, and things revert to more familiar territory. The good news is that this Mac Pro seems likely to inspire some optimizations, but it’s hard to say how long those will take.
The other problem is that the Mac Pro runs macOS Catalina, which has been a little messy. Catalina also killed support for a bunch of older 32-bit software and required upgrades for basically everything else. It wasn’t a problem for us, but if you’ve got a bunch of weird old Photoshop plugins or some ancient app that’s key to your workflow, Catalina might just kill it for good. It’s definitely something to be aware of.
None of this is particularly surprising. The Mac Pro is a new computer running new software, and software updates, in general, are a fact of life. But it’s been so long since the last Mac Pro, and Catalina is so different with some apps that the amount of change really adds up. Installing a Mac Pro isn’t the usual iterative upgrade. You can’t just drop one in your workflow and expect it to go faster. It’s more like dropping it in, upgrading your software, seeing what broke, fixing it, and then maybe going faster if your apps are good at multithreading and have Metal support.
I asked Apple about all of this, and they didn’t seem surprised — they know that the Mac Pro is a bit of a reset, after all. And pro customers often buy single machines as testbeds before deciding whether to place a bigger order and upgrade across the board, so the impact of software updates isn’t necessarily huge. To be fair, that’s basically what we’re doing with our Mac Pro. We’re just also publishing the results of our tests.
It’s been a long time since Mac versus PC benchmarks really meant anything. Apple’s been using Intel chips for a very long time now, and the days of Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller racing PowerPC Macs against Pentium chips in Photoshop bake-offs are long gone. Computers are all pretty fast now, as our testers repeatedly told us.
Mac Pro benchmarks
|Geekbench GPU, CUDA v Metal
|Geekbench GPU, OpenCL
|Pugetbench Premiere 4K ProRes playback
|Pugetbench Premiere 4K ProRes export
|Pugetbench Premiere 4K RED playback
|Pugetbench Premiere 4K RED export
|Pugetbench Premiere 4K heavy GPU effects playback
|Pugetbench Premiere 4K heavy GPU effects export
|Pugetbench Premiere 4K heavy CPU effects live playback
|Pugetbench Premiere 4K heavy CPU effects export
(higher numbers are better)
But pro machines are different. Every ounce of extra speed matters in a production environment, and now that there’s a Mac operating at the high end of price and performance, it’s both fair and interesting to see what a similar amount of money gets you on the PC side.
Once again, we turned to Murilo to spec out a machine, and he picked a Boxx Apexx 4 with a 3.7GHz 32-core AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X processor, dual Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti graphics cards, 128GB of RAM, and a 2TB SSD, which adds up to $12,707 on the Boxx website, or $3,892 less than our Mac Pro. (We bought it from our reseller; it was $14,247 with tax out the door.) That’s a lot less money for a faster CPU with more cores, but it’s a vastly less elegant design and an incredible increase in noise; where the Mac Pro was always virtually silent, our PC basically sounded like a vacuum cleaner at all times. I cannot stress enough how much uglier and louder this PC was than the Mac; they are on different planets in terms of design.
But in terms of bang for the buck, the PC trounced our Mac Pro. In nearly every benchmark save Premiere Pro playback tests, the PC came out ahead, and usually by significant margins. (We were not able to run After Effect benchmarks because the test suite gave us errors on the Mac Pro. Catalina!) Of course, different configurations of the Mac Pro might lead to different results, but you’d end up spending even more money, and it’s not a guarantee you’d see a speedup since you’d be getting more cores but slower clock speeds. (Apple warns in a Mac Pro white paper that the more expensive Xeon chips it offers might actually be slower for certain applications due to this trade-off.)
One of the benefits of a tower PC is that you can swap out parts over time to improve performance as technology evolves, so it’s possible that you could buy a cheaper Mac Pro now and improve it over time. But even that is new for today’s Apple and nascent in practical reality: the Mac Pro might be modular, but that modularity is currently limited to a handful of Apple-blessed expansion cards. Yes, the Mac Pro has PCI slots, but that doesn’t mean you can just plug an Nvidia graphics card in and have it work since Apple won’t allow the company to write macOS drivers.
We’ll just have to see how Apple handles the tension between having a vibrant third-party expansion ecosystem with its general desire to control the platform. Nothing about the company’s recent history suggests third parties are going to win this battle, but the pro market is very different than the consumer market, and it’s possible Apple opens up a little more with this particular machine.
As we were reviewing this Mac Pro, I realized that I could have just re-printed our 2013 Mac Pro review, and no one would have really noticed because the results and takeaways are so similar: Apple’s made a beautiful computer with a remarkably quiet fan design, Adobe’s apps don’t really take advantage of the extra power, and it will be exciting when developers lean into Apple’s technology bets and unlock the potential of this machine.
Seriously, here’s what David Pierce wrote in our 2013 Mac Pro review:
In many ways, the Mac Pro is the fastest and most powerful Mac ever made. But today, as it stands, it’s not a drop-in improvement that will instantly make any and every setup faster — its greatest tricks are enabled when software is specifically tuned to this hardware.
Now, there are major differences between the 2013 Mac Pro and this new machine — the most important being that Apple appears to have learned some key lessons from that machine. This new Mac Pro has far more raw capability, far more cooling ability, and far more room to grow than the old round Pro. But it’s still true that very little pro software really takes advantage of the technology bets Apple’s made with this machine, and it’s not a must-buy for every pro user until the software ecosystem evolves.
It’s also true that Apple made a huge deal out of this machine, the Pro Display XDR, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The company is doing its best to signal a renewed commitment to pro Mac users, and it’s pretty fun to think about the Mac platform in terms of expandability and performance again. Competition is good for everyone, after all. But putting out a new Mac Pro of this caliber is just the first step in a much longer race.
Also, Adobe, if you’re listening, we’d love a Creative Cloud update for the Mac Pro.
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