- Review Date: 12/27/2013
- Bottom line: The Apple Mac Pro (2013) is a powerhouse in a surprisingly small package, leveraging innovative design and extreme connectivity to completely re-imagine the professional desktop workstation.
- Pros: Dramatic departure from boring, boxy designs. Powerful performance thanks to Intel Xeon E5 processor and dual AMD FirePro graphics. Supports multiple simultaneous 4K video streams, and a wealth of external expansion options. Lots of ports, with 6 Thunderbolt 2 ports.
- Cons: Expensive, even for an Apple product. No internal access to processor or graphics cards. Warranty is relatively short.
There's no ignoring it, the new Apple Mac Pro (2013) is stunning. Aside from the occasional joke about the resemblance to more mundane objects—garbage cans, coffee makers, wine chillers—the Mac Pro (2013) has been grabbing attention because of it's complete lack of resemblance to every other boxy desktop on the market. But that distinctive look isn't the only thing that's different. The Mac Pro (2013) is a powerhouse in an astonishingly small and compact chassis, with a design that embraces innovations in manufacturing, cooling technology, and embodies concepts that may very well shape the future of the desktop PC. There are plenty of details to discuss, but one stands out—the Apple Mac Pro (2013) is our new Editors' Choice for single processor workstation desktops, and one of the best premium desktops period.
Design and Features
After three years without a new Mac Pro desktop, and a decade without an updated look for the desktop, the design-conscious folks at Apple have taken the opportunity to show their stuff and flex their muscles. The new ultra-minimalist design is a stark departure from the large silvery aluminum tower of the old Mac Pro, like the Apple Mac Pro (Xeon E5620). The new Pro still features an all-aluminum chassis, but that's likely the only similarity between the old and new.
The new Mac Pro is small and compact, a 10-inch tall cylinder (measuring 9.9-inches tall and 6.6-inches in diameter) that gleams and glistens like an artifact out of time, a piece of the future that's come to reside on your desk. We've reviewed other smaller desktops, like the Dell Precision T1700 SFF or the Falcon Northwest Fragbox (GeForce GTX 780 SLI), which put high-performance components into compact chassis designs, but the Mac Pro is in a class apart. The chassis is aluminum, inside and out, and it's dense, weighing 10.93 pounds. Between the sheer weight and the density of components inside, it's a lot heavier than it looks, but that weight only drives home the premium feel.
Though it appears to be burnished black in photos, it's more apt to call it a dark metallic grey—Apple calls it "Space Grey"—almost a cross between glossy black obsidian and polished chrome. The result most resembles polished hematite, and the glossy surfaces pick up reflections from everything around it. It's a futuristic look indeed; and that's certainly the impression that Apple wanted the new design to deliver. From the first unveiling to the subsequent ads and private briefings, Apple has pushed the idea that this is the design of the future. But central to this sleek new look is a design that rests on two main concepts: a design built around Apple's Unified Thermal Core, and a paradigm that emphasizes expansion rather than upgrades. Let's look at each.
Beating the Heat
The first concept is Apple's new Unified Thermal Core, a design that leverages both materials and design for cooling the hot components that fit inside this gallon-sized desktop. Inside, all of the Mac Pro's components are mounted onto a triangular aluminum frame. Extruded as a single piece of metal and then milled to exacting specifications, the inner frame serves as the primary heat sink for the processor and graphics. The three-sided design has one board covered in ports, with two more on the other sides of the triangle. Inside, the empty space has its cooling capabilities enhanced further with heat-dissipating vanes. Sitting on top of the whole thing is an exhaust fan, designed to pull air up from intakes on the bottom of the case, up through the components and cooling vanes, and then through the fan, which pumps the now hot air out through the top.
While the Mac Pro takes thermal design to a new level, this sort of vertical airflow design isn't unheard of—we've seen similar concepts in the Labs before, such as the Maingear F131 Super Stock (GTX Titan) which had a similar stovepipe design and aluminum chassis that helped to draw off heat from the components. The thermal design deeply influences the overall shape and look of the Mac Pro, but also allows the tiny chassis to house components that get much hotter than you would put into a comparably tiny small form factor desktop.
Expansion, Not Upgrades
The second concept is one of peripherals over upgrades. Apple's new paradigm does away with the easily accessible drive bays and swappable graphics cards of the previous models—like the Apple Mac Pro (Xeon E5620) from 2010—in favor of an external, modular approach. While you can still open up the case without having to reach for a screwdriver, you'll find far less opportunity inside for maintenance and upgrades. But that's not to say that it's entirely closed to the user; slide off the exterior shell of the chassis and you'll find access to four DIMM slots for RAM, as well as access to the internal PCIe-based flash storage. As for the processor or either of the graphics cards, both are tucked further inside, out of reach.
Upgrades—in the sense that connecting external storage or peripherals is an upgrade—are all done through the rear port selection. The primary feature on the otherwise blank exterior of the Mac Pro is the rear panel, which lights up for easy visibility whenever the tower shifts from its stationary position. On this panel, you'll find four USB 3.0 ports and six Thunderbolt 2.0 ports, along with two Gigabit Ethernet ports, an HDMI port, and jacks for headphone and audio line out.
While this lack of internal access and traditional expansion is significantly different from the standard workstation desktop, it is in keeping with Apple's overall approach in recent years. Looking at the Apple iMac 27-inch (Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M), for example, there's actually less opportunity for expansion, only providing access to RAM, and offering only two Thunderbolt ports for modular expansion.
Of the ports offered, it's the Thunderbolt ports that offer the most capability. Each Thunderbolt 2.0 port offers up to 20GBps of throughput, allowing you to connect not only individual monitors and small external drives, but giant RAID array storage, and PCI Express expansion. Makers of audio and video equipment have been working for months to come out with Thunderbolt-compliant equipment, along with support for better than HD video resolution. You can connect up to three 4K displays (or up to six regular Thunderbolt displays) through the Thunderbolt ports as well, and you can connect a 4K TV or monitor via HDMI. Thunderbolt also offers enough throughput to run multiple devices through a single port in a daisy-chain configuration.
The biggest concern about this new external modular approach to upgrading centers on the two major components you can't easily get to, and likely won't be able to service in-house: the processor and graphics cards. Apple's decision to go standard with dual-GPU systems will likely stave off the need to upgrade the graphics right away, but the fact that you can't upgrade or swap out the processor is still the large gaping hole in Apple's new strategy. It really becomes a question of how long the current hardware will be good enough. It may be cutting edge today, but will it still be in a year, two years? Apple will likely update the Mac Pro periodically for this very reason, but once your company has spent several thousand dollars on the Mac Pro, what you got is what you're stuck with.
Beyond merely looking good, the design team at Apple has also added several small touches that make the Mac Pro feel like premium product. The aluminum chassis is formed whole from a single billet of aluminum, shaped through several advanced manufacturing processes to have just the right shape, feel and finish. The milled edges of the top and the window for port access are not simply cut into the metal once; they are then cut and polished, for edges that are smooth to the touch, with none of the hard edges you might expect.
The previously mentioned chassis lock is a small sliding latch that you might miss the first time you look at the back of the tower. For the outside, this subtle feature is simply a textured spot on an otherwise glossy surface—mounted flush with the surface—with only small lock and unlock logos to indicate the latch position. However, if you slide off the outer chassis and look at the latch from inside, you'll see it's a stout sliding latch, separately machined and seamlessly attached to the interior. Despite it being the primary attachment for the entire outer chassis, the lock mechanism is extremely smooth to lock and unlock.
Though the entire chassis is designed around cooling the multi-core processor and dual FirePro graphics cards, it is very nearly silent. The ultra-quiet design is a godsend for sound engineers and producers, who need as silent a work environment as possible when recording and editing. It's also a boon to anyone who works in a Mac shop, where there may be seven or eight systems in use in one room, but now has effectively no fan noise adding to the usual office sounds.
The tiny size, compact design, and modular expansion setup make for a relatively portable workstation. While the office bound user might not make much use of it, photo and video editors will often haul along a workstation for use in the field, allowing them to edit together rough cuts while on location. For media professionals, that portability will let them take their work almost anywhere.Finally, Apple equips the Mac Pro with the latest wireless connectivity options, with Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11AC Wi-Fi, the new faster connectivity standard set to eventually replace Wireless-N. Between the numerous Thunderbolt ports and the Wireless-AC Wi-Fi, the Mac Pro is relatively future proof, assuming the CPU and GPUs don't ever need an upgrade until you're ready to replace the whole system and hand it down.
Every configuration of the new Mac Pro comes outfitted with a single Intel Xeon E5 processor—a workstation class processor, designed to offer plenty of raw processing power with minimal latency and maximum throughput—along with not one, but two AMD FirePro graphics cards. Unlike consumer graphics cards, which are optimized for gaming and multimedia, professional GPUs are designed to offer powerful and reliable processing for media editing and creation programs, engineering tools like CAD, and to also drive multiple displays for enhanced productivity.
Apple's move to include two such graphics cards as the standard configuration is a bold step, essentially prioritizing graphics rendering capability over number crunching CPU muscle. This is certainly a considered decision on Apple's part, and given the predominance of Apple products in the video and graphics industries, probably the right one for the intended market. Where dual-CPU alternatives are needed, you'll want to look other workstations, like the Lenovo ThinkStation D30, which boasts two eight-core Intel Xeon E5-2687W processors.
Our review unit of the Mac Pro isn't the standard pre-built system available for order. The entry-level Mac Pro comes with a quad-core Intel Xeon E5 processor and 12GB of RAM, two FirePro D300 GPUs (each with 2GB of dedicated memory), and 128GB of local flash memory. This is the lowest-tier system in the Mac Pro lineup, but also the most affordable, sell for $2,999. At the other end of the spectrum, a version of the Mac Pro kitted out with the best of everything rings up for $9,566: A 12-core Intel Xeon E5 CPU, 64GB of RAM, two AMD FirePro D700 GPUS, and 1TB of PCIe mounted flash memory.
Our review unit falls somewhere in between, but decidedly on the more expensive end of the scale. Selling for $6,799 through the Apple Store, our review unit isn't a standard model, but is instead upgraded to an 8-core Intel Xeon E5 processor (Xeon E5-1680 v2 at 3.0GHz), paired with 32GB of RAM, 1TB of PCIe-based flash storage, and outfitted with two AMD FirePro D700 GPUs (with 6GB of dedicated memory each).
Apple covers the Mac Pro with a one-year warranty, and offers 90-days of free telephone support. Though this is the standard for Apple products, it falls far short of industry norms, with other workstations from HP and Dell being covered with three-year warranties. This is based on the understanding that this workstation is under higher performance demands, while also critical to your employment and livelihood. It's also an acknowledgement that, for such an upfront investment, you need to get at least three years of usable life out of your purchase. That Apple is (not surprisingly) charging so much more without offering the same sort of standard coverage is a disappointment. AppleCare+, Apple's extended warranty service, will extend that warranty and technical support up to three years from the initial purchase date for $249.
The Mac Pro comes with OS X Mavericks (OS X 10.9) preinstalled. Our own Edward Mendelson praised OS X Mavericks for it's dozens of improvements over previous OS X iterations, unobtrusive security, and tight integration with both Apple software and iOS 7, awarding it 4.5 stars and naming it Editors' Choice for operating systems.
With OS X Mavericks comes all of the same iLife and iWork software that comes with a new consumer-level Mac. The iLife suite includes iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand, while iWork includes Pages, Numbers, and Keynote; Apple's equivalents to Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. This is basic business software that you would need to purchase separately for a new Windows workstation, but Apple now includes it for free with every new Mac.
Last but not least, there's a new version of Final Cut Pro ($299.99) that is built to take that tight integration to the next level with features that make the most of the Mac Pro's 4K video capabilities with features like simultaneous editing of multiple video angles, the option of viewing footage in full 4K on one display while editing said footage on another.
Workstations are built for performance, and the Mac Pro (2013) is no exception. Peel back the slick marketing and fancy design, and you'll find that the Mac Pro is still a potent work machine, built to offer the sort of performance that professionals need, but can't get from consumer-level systems. The Mac Pro scored 13.54 points in Cinebench, the best score we've seen among single-CPU workstations. It easily outpaced the Dell Precision T3610 (7.44 points) and HP Z420 (7.21 points), but falling behind the Lenovo ThinkStation D30 (25.31 points), which doubles down on processing power with two Xeon eight-core processors instead of one.
The Mac Pro also made short work of multimedia benchmark tests, finishing Handbrake in 29 seconds, and cranking through Photoshop in 3 minutes 3 seconds. The Photoshop performance isn't shabby, but it is more toward the middle of the pack than expected—the Lenovo ThinkStation D30 edged ahead (2:55), while the Dell Precision T3610 fell just behind (3:16).
With its two FirePro GPUs, the Mac Pro also offered solid performance in Heaven 3D. In our baseline test, set to 1366-by-768 resolution, the Mac Pro pumped out 113 frames per second, ahead of other top workstations, like the Dell Precision T3610 (67fps) and HP Z420 (40 fps). The Nvidia-equipped iMac came closer, with 108 fps, and the dual-GPU gaming-oriented systems pulled further ahead, with the Falcon Northwest Fragbox (GTX 780 SLI) scoring 279 fps, and the Maingear F131 Super Stock (GTX Titan) leading with 288 fps. Even when I dialed up the resolution to 1,920 by 1,080, and turned up all the detail settings, the Mac Pro still held its own, with 41 fps, putting it ahead of every workstation, but again falling behind the high-end gaming rigs.
To push the Mac Pro a little harder than our regular testing does, I re-ran our Heaven benchmark test, but ramped up as far past our regular settings, with full 4K resolution (3,840 by 2,160, the maximum resolution offered on the Asus PQ321), and detail settings ratcheted up—shaders were set to extreme, Anisotropy maxed out to 4x, and Anti-aliasing up to 8x. It dropped the frame rates to 10 frames per second, but also has the benefit of pushing the FirePro GPUs harder than our regular test.
Even during this test, the Mac Pro was virtually silent, requiring me to bring my ear within an inch of the chassis just to make out the sound of the whisper-quiet turbine fan. The portable hard drive I plugged in to the back made more discernible noise than the Mac Pro did, even when pushed. While it didn't get louder, it did get warmer, with the exterior of the Mac Pro reaching 96-degrees Fahrenheit, and air from the top exhaust hitting 106 (both as measured with a Fluke IR thermometer).Conclusion
Beneath the blank, inscrutable surface of the Apple Mac Pro (2013), there's a lot going on, from the potent processor and graphics hardware, to the completely new approach to hardware expansion. The Mac Pro isn't quite perfect. It's expensive, even given the usual premium for Apple products, and the one-year warranty and 90-day tech support is short and lackluster. Whether or not the lack of internal expansion is a detriment is yet to be seen, but at the very least it's a drastic change, that will force many professionals to change how they approach their work. At the very least, it's safe to say that the Apple Mac Pro (2013) offers some of the most exciting updates to desktop design we've seen, and backs it up with powerful professional-grade performance. The Apple Mac Pro (2013) is our new Editors' Choice for single-processor workstations, and one of the best high-end desktops we've seen in years.