The original design of the Mac Pro — well, technically the Power Mac G5 — was one of the longest-lived in Apple’s history, lasting the entire decade from 2003 to 2013. And it’s been affectionately known as the “cheese grater” from the very beginning, even though none of its holes even have so much as the shadow of a blade:
Clearly, that wasn’t good enough for Apple, which took the opportunity yesterday to make sure its new Mac Pro — the first in six years — would forever be associated with coarsely shredded cheddar, grated parmesan, and perhaps some lemon zest.
“But wait,” you say. Weren’t we all perfectly happy making fun of Apple’s trash can already — aka the 2013 Mac Pro? Why would Apple abandon a perfectly good dustbin for a cheese grater instead?
Well, it turns out that a tiny wastebasket like the 2013 Mac Pro is actually rather difficult to upgrade to newer, more powerful components year after year, even for a company like Apple. In 2017, the company wound up having to apologize that it hadn’t been able to offer upgrades for three years running — characterizing that gap as a “pause” — and admitting that Apple had “designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner” because it couldn’t actually fit newer, larger graphics chips into the same cylindrical design.
But Apple’s troubles are kind of missing the point: many pros want to be able to upgrade their workstation themselves, and both the Mac Pro and similar Windows machines have shown that the trash can has been a terrible design for that particular desire.
Here are some examples:
This is the Samsung ArtPC Pulse, and here is a snippet from its manual: “Due to this computer’s design, memory cannot be added, replaced, or upgraded. Also, additional storage space cannot be added.” Joy.
Technically, it is a modular PC, as you can see from the 1TB snap-on “storage module” that can optionally fit beneath the speaker on top, but it’s not clear that Samsung ever sold any other modules — or even additional storage modules — to expand its capabilities. Since Samsung includes the storage module with every computer, I’m not sure why you’d ever remove it.
“Upgrading Corsair One is straight-forward,” says Corsair of its powerful circular file of a gaming PC... before revealing that the only components you can actually upgrade with the company’s blessing are the memory modules and SSD.
Technically, you could do more with its standard-size sockets for its CPU, SFX power supply, Mini-ITX motherboard and PCIe graphics card, but it’s not simple and Corsair employees recommend against replacing the GPU — which makes sense, because at the very least, it uses a custom half fan, half-liquid cooler that might take some skills to properly swap onto a new board.
When MSI launched the MSI Vortex, the company actually advertised that you could swap out its twin GPUs thanks to the use of modular MXM graphics boards. Great! Only there isn’t much of a market for MXM, they cost a lot, and I’ve so far failed to find any instructions from MSI on how to actually do that properly. This LinusTechTips video suggests it could take a while to disassemble the Vortex first.
It’s telling that MSI has moved on to the far-easier-to-upgrade Trident line, for which it provides its own upgrade tutorial video.
The HP Pavilion Wave is not a trashcan for pros. It was a mid-range consumer PC. But just in case you’re curious: “NOTE: The chassis is not designed for hardware upgrades,” reads a line in its user manual.
While most of these cylindrical PCs appear to have been announced in 2015 or 2016 as answers to the Mac Pro design and lack of upgrades, the Asus Mini PC ProArt appears to be the only professional waste receptacle that truly belongs to the modern era — impressively managing to fit up to a Core i9 CPU, Nvidia Quadro P4000 graphics and 64GB of RAM into a compact workstation.
Shame that Asus outright forbids you to upgrade it: “NO DISASSEMBLY,” warns the user manual. Even if you ignored the warning and attempted to swap out the GPU anyhow, you’d need to find a similarly svelte single-slot graphics card to replace it.
When I trudged through page after page of search results looking for garbage pail PCs, the Lenovo IdeaCentre 620S was the last I found, but most definitely not the least. Not only is it perhaps the most convincingly wastebasket-shaped — better still, a wastebasket angrily flipped over — but the product page claims you can upgrade the CPU, GPU, storage and memory “in just two steps” despite its tiny 3-liter frame. “First, simply slide off the cover, then use a screwdriver to open the inner shell. Et voilà!” the company says.
In reality, it’s a little bit more complicated than... hell, let’s just call it a lie. The company’s service manual shows that you have to remove the stand, then there’s five screws just to remove the cover, five more to pull out the internal chassis, two more to remove another cover, and three more to get at the graphics card. IT Pro called the design “frustratingly fiddly” to the point they recommend not upgrading the PC at all.
Believe it or not, it’s actually easier to replace the RAM on the 2013 Mac Pro compared to many of these Windows systems, even if other parts range from hard to impossible. That’s because the outer shell is super easy to take off. Heck, iFixit says most of the components are easy to remove and replace — but other than the CPU and RAM, you’d need to get those replacements from Apple.
That’s because, like every other manufacturer on this list, squeezing down a PC’s traditionally rectangular, right-angle-mounted components into a tiny cylindrical form factor has required computer builders to design, source, or cobble together exotic components and mounting mechanisms that aren’t easy to find replacements for.
Now, take a look at the ease with which you can theoretically upgrade Apple’s new 2019 model:
There’s something refreshing about the simplicity of a rectangle, particularly ones you can easily upgrade just by shoving other rectangles into the side.
But I have to admit that in a more perfect world, the trash can might have worked for pros. A world that Apple was trying to build, in fact — because for the past decade, Apple has been the champion of a standard that could let PC upgrades exist outside of a computer, instead of mating directly with its motherboard.
Originally called Light Peak (when Apple first dictated the idea to Intel) and originally designed to use fiber-optic cables, you may now know it as Intel’s Thunderbolt — and it’s morphed into a standard called Thunderbolt 3 that not only offers single-cable docking stations for laptops, but can provide enough power, display and data signals to stick a powerful graphics card or giant storage array outside a computer and still tap into the vast majority of a component’s full potential.
Thunderbolt could have been the modular solution
Apple wound up sticking Thunderbolt ports into almost all of its computers — The 2013 Mac Pro had six of the Thunderbolt 2 variety — but adoption has remained slow because it required proprietary Intel chips, licensing, hardware design changes, and software support to work, and so Thunderbolt devices have been expensive. It’s only in the past couple of years that Intel has gotten rid of the royalties, and the first batches of external GPUs are still working out some kinks. Today, a Thunderbolt 3 external hard drive can easily cost 50 percent more than a USB-C one, but soon, Thunderbolt 3’s benefits will come to the USB 4 standard.
Apple’s not going to wait. Instead, it’s using Thunderbolt on the inside of the Mac Pro to make it that much more modular — adding even more power and data bandwidth for internal upgrades than your typical Windows PC has now.
The new Mac Pro was Apple’s chance to build a PC, and it looks like the company’s gone above and beyond. Now, the questions are whether Apple will truly tap into the whole PC component ecosystem for its modular parts, or take a more proprietary stance — and whether pros will be able to afford this supercar of a computer.