Apple’s latest Mac Pro was finally revealed at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference as a machine for the most power user of power users. The video discussed audio engineering, color grading, and video transcoding. Apple’s product page mentions code compiling, animation, compositing 8K scenes, 3D rendering, and “analyzing enormous datasets.” This isn’t just for pros, Apple seems to claim; it’s for capital-P Pros.
Exactly who these pros are and why the Mac Pro is the perfect device for them remains somewhat unclear to me, even after testing the new machine for a few days and speaking to various professionals that Apple is ostensibly targeting. That’s in part because Apple, on the same day it announced the Mac Pro, also announced a smaller, M2 Ultra Mac Studio with the exact same RAM, storage, and processor options. The former, nevertheless, costs at least $3,000 more and carries a towering starting price of $6,999.
I wanted to know whether Apple’s purported target demographic — people who spend their days animating, making visual effects, and doing various other tasks generally associated with big, powerful computers — were actually interested in purchasing this machine. So I asked a bunch of them, and the answer, basically across the board, was no. Not because the Mac Pro is bad but because Apple’s other computers, namely its laptops, have just gotten too good.
Zach Passero, who does editing, animation, and visual effects for films, has been a diehard Mac Pro user for over a decade. “I’m still a big champion of the old trash can,” he says, referring to the oft-maligned 2013 design. He was skeptical when the M1 Max chip was announced — he’d never envisioned that a laptop could handle his heavy workload. But he gave the 16-inch MacBook Pro a shot and was surprised — and a little bit sad — to find that it felt just as fast as his older desktop. “Video editing, even doing effects, compositing, animating — it has been a smooth and fluid process,” he says. “I’m like, ‘This might actually suffice for a while.’”
Passero still loves the Mac Pro, but he can’t justify buying the latest one when his laptop is so good. “There’s something about my experience using the M1 chip where I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I need the full Mac Pro,’” he says, with some disappointment in his voice.
Vikram Bodicherla, a staff privacy engineer at WhatsApp, previously owned two Intel-based Mac Pro models — one for home and one for work. The minute the M1 Max came out, he jettisoned both of them. Like Passero, Bodicherla now spends his day — he works on mobile apps for Android and iOS, as well as “server-side stuff” — on a MacBook Pro with the M1 Max. He can build much faster. He hasn’t even considered buying Apple’s new desktop. “I don’t really need any other computer,” he says.
Kevin Ford, who shoots and edits documentaries, has been using the Mac Pro for years. He’s owned both the tower models and the trash can. But he switched to the latest 16-inch MacBook Pro with the M2 Max a few weeks ago, and he’s not looking back — it can do everything he needs. He can cut 4K and 6K footage. He can color correct. He can even create graphics and titles. As a bonus, he can now do it all on the road; the last project he cut, which is now on Netflix, was done entirely in hotel rooms and airplanes.
“I’m very practical when I’m looking at a piece of equipment — what will allow me to do what I need to do for the best cost?” Ford says. “If the cheese grater was priced at a certain point, would that have been more attractive to me? Possibly.” But, he adds, his new MacBook is “working very well.”
But it’s not just that the MacBook has gotten better with the release of Apple’s M-series chips. The Mac Pro, with the release of the Mac Studio, has also gotten significantly more confusing.
The Pro I received to test vastly outperforms Intel models from 2019 — even those with Apple’s fancy Afterburner card that cost thousands of dollars more. But it’s a step backward from those other models in another way: modularity.
The 2019 Mac Pro was endlessly configurable, and ports could be swapped out and upgraded as users needed. Much has changed. Spec choice is now more limited (there are only two processor options, for example, and memory is now capped at 192GB where previously up to 1.5TB was available). The 2023 Mac Pro’s memory is not upgradeable after purchase for the first time in the model’s history.
And now, of course, the Mac Studio is here. And while the Pro delivers impressive performance, you can now get that same performance in a less expensive and much more compact chassis.
I had similarly specced models of the Pro and the Studio on hand to test. Both included Apple’s 24-core M2 Ultra processor with 76 GPU cores, as well as 128GB of unified memory. While the two look quite different, and the Mac Pro has a couple extra ports, I can confirm that their performance is close to the same.
The primary advantage that the Mac Pro can claim over the Studio is the fact that the former has PCIe expansion slots — six full-length PCIe Gen 4 slots, specifically, as well as a half-length Gen 3. These, in theory, allow for some degree of modularity, where a user could slot in additional storage, IO, or other peripherals.
Except: that doesn’t include desktop GPUs, which mitigates the utility of these slots for graphic use cases significantly. The Mac hasn’t supported Nvidia cards for quite some time, and Apple’s own silicon doesn’t support AMD’s GPUs, either. Further muddling this matter is the fact that most PCI-E cards can now be used with Thunderbolt via an external enclosure — you specifically need to require the PCI-E 4 x16 speeds in order to gain a tangible benefit from those extra thousands of dollars.
The slots, with those caveats, didn’t blow anyone I spoke to out of the water. “Would it be nice to have? Yeah, totally… if it wasn’t a machine that started at $7,000,” said Evan Stone, a senior iOS engineer at the software development agency MartianCraft. (Stone also works on the MacBook Pro with M1 Max, and he’s a fan; he has one for work and another at home.)
Passero used to be a huge fan of the Mac Pro’s expandability, but his new MacBook performs so well that he doesn’t feel the need to add anything extra. “The new silicon chips and these built-in GPUs that they have, and the neural networks, I’m finding that most of my needs are met,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Do I just settle in and see how this goes?’”
The lack of support for desktop GPUs makes the feature particularly confounding for graphic professionals. “GPU support, that’s what we mostly use PCIe for,” said Tom Lindén, who runs a 3D animation agency. Other than a capture card, he says, “there are not that many expansion cards that would be useful.”
The only aspect of the Pro that Lindén finds particularly compelling for his studio is its double ethernet port. “We’re simulating huge simulations, so fast networking is really important,” Lindén says. “I don’t know how much we’d be able to utilize two slots — like if that would help the speed.” He thinks for a moment. “I guess it could, probably.”
“I would probably just get the Mac Studio and be done.”
Emilio Guarino, a music producer and engineer, thinks that feature is mostly useful for “edge case kind of scenarios” in his field. “If you’re doing game development, I’ve seen session files where the track count is like two or three thousand. You might need the added expansion for that,” he says. “But if I’m just doing commissions or just building virtual instruments and samples... I would probably just get the Mac Studio and be done.”
What about additional storage? People mostly shrugged. “I’ve never really hit that limit, and I have a very large chunk of the company’s code base on my computer,” WhatsApp’s Bodicherla says — companies as large as his, he explains, generally have processes in place that mean their engineers don’t need to hold unreasonable amounts of data on their personal machines. “If you’re doing a huge ML model, it might make sense to download everything. But even then, I feel like for running that one odd job, you could always go to, like, a server cluster,” he muses.
“I can’t justify paying double for a machine that has a couple of slots,” said Danny Nathan, founder and CEO of the product design and venture studio Apollo 21.
In general, the attitude among the professionals I spoke to was not skepticism so much as confusion.
“I don’t know why they made two different products,” said Vyacheslav Drofa, a UX director at Alty, which engineers mobile applications for banks, as he looked bemusedly at the Studio’s and Pro’s identical spec sheets.
“The offering across the board from Apple has gotten so powerful that, frankly, the Mac Pro feels a little unnecessary,” echoes Nathan, who has owned a number of Mac Pros throughout his career but is now very happy with his 14-inch MacBook. “I think we all appreciate it for what it is and what it demonstrates, but at no point has anyone said to me, ‘So when are we getting an office load of these?’”
Many people across industries, who were confident that the Mac Pro wasn’t a good investment for them, spitballed about who it might be ideal for but weren’t exactly sure. Maybe architects need it, Stone suggested. “Really, really tough machine learning tasks,” posited Serhii Popov, a software engineer at Setapp. 3D rendering, Guarino proposed, but only if you’re doing a lot of it. DevOps, others said. But there was one use case that pretty much everyone suspected might tangibly benefit from the Mac Pro and its plethora of slots: VFX.
David Lebensfeld, founder and VFX supervisor at Ingenuity Studios, was dubious. “That doesn’t seem like something a VFX studio would use,” he said after I described the product. Nobody on Lebensfeld’s team has expressed interest in the Mac Pro — there has been “zero chatter” about the product, he says.
Lebensfeld’s company is all in on Windows and Linux, and that’s common for studios of Ingenuity’s size. Switching over to the Mac Pro, given its price point, would just be impractical. Lebensfeld gets better value out of Windows PCs, which support the latest GPUs from Nvidia and can be equipped with the exact parts and specs that each team needs. When a part breaks, they can grab another one off the shelf.
In fact, some of the VFX and animation professionals I contacted for this story declined to be interviewed because they simply don’t know much about Macs — they just aren’t widely used in that industry at this point. The reality is that these types of studios need to keep their hardware functional and up to date. Replacing a full Mac Pro system — let alone a fleet of them — regularly would be an absurd cost.
“It feels like they’re gonna put this chip in every laptop and iPad that they can, and then later, they’re gonna fuse 20 of them together, and that’s the Pro.”
Lebensfeld speculated that the Mac Pro might be better for small businesses and independent artists who work with heavy graphics. But Lindén’s smaller studio is also fully a Windows shop, decked out with high-end Nvidia cards (which decisively outperform the M2 Ultra in programs like Blender), largely for the same reason. “We like to keep updating our machines with new hardware when we need to,” he says.
Deborah Wright, a digital sculptor, has the same hang-ups; she also uses a Windows PC. “I really, really love Mac... but it’s become prohibitively expensive,” she says. “Part of the attractiveness of a PC is my ability to customize the heck out of it,” she adds. “You buy a Mac, and you hold onto it for a few years. Buying a PC, you’re switching out your hardware pretty regularly.”
Wright suspects her next purchase might be a MacBook Pro, which, while not modular, is at least more affordable. “Their displays are just exquisite,” she says. “Velvet on the eyes.”
Mac Pro (2023) Benchmarks
|Benchmark||Mac Pro||Mac Studio|
|Geekbench 6 CPU Single||2766||2623|
|Geekbench 6 CPU Multi||21203||21397|
|Geekbench 6 GPU Metal||221671||224158|
|Geekbench 6 GPU Open CL||128867||129482|
|Cinebench R23 Single||1746||1735|
|Cinebench R23 Multi||28836||28924|
|Cinebench R23 Multi 30-min loop||28914||28902|
|Shadow of the Tomb Raider (1080p, highest)||130fps||135fps|
|PugetBench for Premiere Pro||961||975|
|4K export (Adobe Premiere Pro 23)||1:02||1:00|
But the larger issue among the professionals I spoke to, and one that will likely take many more product cycles for Apple to truly fix, is one of trust. Apple, the business behemoth that it is, still has a reputation to build in the enterprise space. In order to become a go-to purchase for studios, Apple doesn’t just need to make the Mac Pro more competitive on price — it needs to reestablish itself as a brand that industries can rely on for years to come. And it needs to make some amends.
“Apple doesn’t really have a great history of servicing this market,” Lebensfeld said. “Do you want to hang millions of dollars of equipment purchases on a company where you know this isn’t their main focus?” He added, “It really feels like an afterthought. It feels like they’re gonna put this chip in every laptop and iPad that they can, and then later, they’re gonna fuse 20 of them together, and that’s the Pro.”
And while Apple’s decision to overhaul Final Cut Pro was over a decade ago, studios still haven’t forgotten. Almost all of the video professionals I spoke to brought it up. “Every filmmaker in the world was using this,” Lebensfeld complained. “And they lost that whole market. They just don’t take it seriously.”
“They really did screw us over on that,” Ford, the documentarian, agreed. “I was really upset.”
I searched high and low and ended up connecting with over 20 professionals for this story in order to locate someone who enthusiastically wanted to buy the Mac Pro. I found exactly one: Drofa. He loves the cheese-grater design.
“The killer feature is when somebody comes and says, ‘Okay, you have a Mac Pro,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I can make a cheesesteak,’” he explained. Asked about the Mac Studio, he replied, “I don’t trust that small thing.”