Apple’s recent announcement that they would make a new Mac Pro is as heartening as it is disturbing. Heartening because it confirms Apple’s commitment to creative pros. Disturbing because it reveals that Apple has only just started thinking about making a next generation Mac Pro and consequently it will not materialise until at least a year from now, whilst Apple decides exactly what a next generation Mac Pro should look like. Here’s a suggestion…
Steve Jobs may have been fond of Henry Ford’s adage “If I’d done what my customers wanted, I would have built a faster horse,” but sometimes a faster, horse is exactly what’s needed. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel…cylinder, cube, or dodecahedron. The tower is a tried and tested form factor that just works!
Apple’s previous take on the tower (aka the cheese grater) was typically elegant and innovative. Built like a tank, it included a 4 bay (software) RAID array and offered a cable free, screw free, tool free design, that ensured maximum air flow, easy accessibility, and consequently minimum fuss for hardware upgrades. In fact it roundly addressed almost every shortcoming of other towers. So successful was its design, that many creative are still using 2010 and 2012 Mac Pros on a daily basis, albeit in upgraded form.
Think Inside The Box
Arguably the one shortcoming of Apple’s tower designs was an insufficient number of PCIe slots (which left some users with no option but to invest in expensive third part external expansion chassis’). Admittedly ever more powerful CPU/GPUs have allowed industry standard software such as Pro Tools and Adobe Premier Pro to do more and more without the need for proprietary PCIe cards, and Apple’s timely championing of Thunderbolt has meant that hardware which once had to be located in the box because of the need for a fast internal interface, can now be relocated outside of the box. However, external boxes need cables and in some cases PSUs, which creates multiple points of failure, and clutter than is not in keeping with the elegance that is at the heart of everything that Apple does. Added to which, as VR, AR, 8K video, and who knows what else enter the mainstream, the need for proprietary internal cards that power content creation may expand. That’s why we say give creative pros the six PCIe slots they have always wanted…which, incidentally, is the same number that is found in some PC cases.
Nvidia currently make the GPUs of choice for many visual applications and have done so for some time, so it is important that Apple and Nvidia put aside any differences in the interests of the new Mac Pro shipping with either an Nvidia GPU as standard, or as a built to order option. Going forwards, Apple, Nvidia and AMD should commit to ensuring that all GPUs are fully supported by MacOS, and that driver updates are released in parallel with PCs, so that users can upgrade their new Mac Pros with confidence.
Think RAID Array
In the future, as SSDs become bigger and cheaper, hard disk drives will become as distant a memory as 5.25″ floppies and cassette storage. However, we’re not there yet. Some current estimates suggest that SSD/HDD price/size parity will not happen until 2020. In the meantime, creatives require big fast storage for editing, grading and archiving video, storing massive sample libraries, rendering out After Effects projects, animations and VFX, and this mostly requires big, fast RAID Arrays. Apple got it very right when they incorporated a 4 bay software RAID array into their old Mac towers. At the time 4 HDDs was sufficient to edit the then emerging HD video standard and more than fast enough for audio purposes. But nothing stands still. 4K video (which is 4 times larger than HD) is arguably more pervasive now than HD video was in 2010, and 8K video (which is 4 times larger than 4K) is here and likely to become a new industry standard by 2020. That’s why we say to Apple take things one step further and build an 8 bay hardware (not software) RAID array into the front of the new Mac Pro; one that will take hot swappable 3.5″ HDDs, 2.5″ SSDs, and M.2 NVMe SSDs…and add a further two internal M.2 connectors for separate NVMe system and cache drives (for which SSDs are an absolute essential). And if a built in Raid Array is not an option, then include Mini SAS & eSATA, as those are the interfaces found on most professional RAID arrays.
Think of the largest amount of memory anyone could possibly ever need…then double it…then double it again…and you still won’t have anywhere near enough for creative purposes…as the history of computing demonstrates…and that’s before you even start to factor in real-time AR 8K video, massively component modelled 64bit/196KHz audio plug-ins, truly photorealistic animation, gigapixel photo stitching, and all of the other memory hungry applications on the horizon. Give us terabytes of RAM & Petabytes of fast solid state storage and we’ll still complain that we need more…and we will…so give us the latest stable RAM technology and lots of slots…at least 16 (preferably more). They might not all be filled initially, but they will all be filled eventually.
Think USB & Thunderbolt
Creatives often have setups that involve multiple control surfaces and musical keyboards. Some of these will be plugged in permanently, for which rear facing sockets are ideal, some need to be plugged in occasionally, for which front facing sockets are best, so Apple should include a healthy amount of USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 sockets on both the front and the rear.
Obviously…but now that video over IP and Ethernet audio are increasingly a thing in production circles, and a number of medium and high end control surfaces connect solely via Ethernet, more and faster Ethernet sockets/channels would be forward looking.
Yes we know its retro, and we know that Apple, as a rule, like to eliminate old tech, but video editors frequently need access to archive material, a huge amount of which is on formats such as mini DV & HDV, the cameras and players for which communicate via FireWire. Furthermore, there’s a whole generation of musicians with perfectly good FireWire audio interfaces that they would be loath to dispose of for no good reason. So Apple should take it as a compliment that the adoption of the FireWire tech it played such a major part in driving forward is still in such widespread use today and ensure that the new Mac Pro contains at least two FireWire 800 ports – one on the front and one on the back…and NO, dongles are NOT the answer!
Think Optical Disc Drive
Many Millennials may think that CDs are really odd looking bits of vinyl, but creatives know better. DJs need to burn CDs as not all venues have Pioneer’s new USB stick based decks; filmmakers need to burn DVDs & Blu Ray discs as many film festivals cannot or will not accept digital files; and creatives need to master/author discs. The two optical drive bays of the 2010/2012 towers is overkill, but one is a necessity and it should be filled with a UHD Blu-ray BDXL Burner that supports 128GB Quadruple Layer (QL) and 100GB Triple Layer (TL) Blu-ray Disc authoring.
Think Card Reader
Not all filmmakers have access to a DIT to transfer card data to drives on set. Many will do so after the event, as will most photographers. A fast, built in, multi format card reader would be perfect for this.
Musicians love 19″ rack mountable gear. Offer a kit that allows the New Mac Pro to be mounted in a 19″ rack and they’ll buy two. Hell, add CV & Gate i/o and offer it in Eurorack format, and they’ll buy four (NB we’re not actually suggesting that it is offered in Eurorack format).
Anyone working with audio wants their gear to be as quiet as possible. If Apple can’t make the new Mac Pro silent (by which we mean silent, not quiet) without compromising its performance, perhaps they could include a very long monitor lead, or build in wireless video sending tech.
Think Headphone Socket
Don’t even think about removing it!
Apple has stated that it has experimented with touchscreen based desktop computing and feels it adds nothing to the user experience. If those experiments involved placing the screen at 90 degrees to the keyboard and running spreadsheets, we’d have to agree. However, running creative apps with a screen at 45 degrees or flat is an entirely different story. Any app that involves drawing, rotoscoping, mask creation, and retouching is ideally suited to a combination of stylus & touchscreen, whilst audio apps such as Pro Tools, Ableton Live and Apple’s own Logic Pro, are simply crying out for a multi touch interface. Microsoft’s Surface Studio is, at the very least, proof of concept…and, rather surprisingly, quite a lot more in this regard, whilst Slate Media Technology’s Raven absolutely nails multi touch audio for Macs. Offering creatives the option of a big, high resolution, colour accurate, multi touch monitor, that can be used horizontally, vertically, and at any angle, as a primary or secondary monitor, would be a giant leap for creative kind.
In a ‘fireside chat’, Apple reportedly told reporters that the new Mac Pro will be “modular.” That makes us nervous. We have Lego, we have modular synths, we don’t need either in computer form. What we need is a box, all of whose contents can be easily and readily upgraded…and by all, we mean all – not just memory, drives & GPU, but CPUs, motherboard and PSU. That means three things. Firstly, no soldered components. Secondly, a commitment from Apple to design future Mac Pro motherboards to a common form factor. Thirdly, a commitment from Apple to sell us these future motherboards (and other components) direct, at a reasonable price, and/or to make them available via third parties.
In an era of almost instant disposability, making a computer that will be as usable in a decade as it is now (albeit with upgraded components) will be true (and environmentally friendly) innovation, the sort of innovation of which Apple could deservedly be proud. And if using the same computer for a decade or more seems far fetched, it should be remembered that in mid 2017, lots of creative pros are still using (significantly upgraded) Mid 2010 Mac Pros.
One More Thing…
In the past, if you bought a base model of Apple tower, although it was upgradable to an extent, it could not be upgraded to the same spec as a top of the range model. We think that was a mistake. Not everyone who aspires to owning a Mac Pro is necessarily rich or professional. And some who are professionals, even if they are successful at what they do, may be freelancing and so have a sporadic income. Being able to buy a base model and upgrade it piecemeal, over time, to the spec of a top of the range model and beyond, would be a massive incentive for many to enter the Mac Pro sphere…especially if Apple can find a way to make that base model insanely affordable for struggling musicians, low budget filmmakers and starving artists.
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