REVIEW: Apple Mac Pro (2014)

Apple Mac Pro

Apple is well-known for the secrecy that surrounds its product launches, so it was something of a surprise when it gave the world a sneak preview of its striking new Mac Pro model last summer – a full six months ahead of its (slightly delayed) launch this January. There was a good reason for this uncharacteristic display of openness.

The existing Mac Pro – with its relatively conventional tower PC design – had not received a significant update for some years, and when Apple ended sales of the Mac Pro in Europe last March it seemed as though the future of Apple’s professional product line was in doubt. The decision to preview the new Mac Pro months in advance was therefore a calculated move, intended to reassure Apple’s professional users that it was still very much focussed on the professional market, and on new technologies such as 4K video.

Distinctive Design

Apple Mac Pro

There was another motive behind that sneak preview too. Apple’s new management team clearly wanted to refute suggestions that it could no longer create innovative new products following the death of visionary founder, Steve Jobs. On that score, Apple has already succeeded, because the new Mac Pro is radically different from any workstation system the industry has seen before.

The ebony cylinder that houses the Mac Pro measures just 9.9 inches high (25.1cm) and 6.6 inches in diameter (16.7cm). It’s visually striking, but the compact design will also appeal to users who need to transport the device from location to location – ideal for video shoots – or organisations that need to run multiple units together in a rack system.

It’s technically ingenious too, as the hollow central column acts as a single large cooling vent for the entire system, drawing air in through the base of the unit so that it cools the internal components before being expelled through the fans that sit right at the top. As a result, the Mac Pro is extremely quiet – probably quieter than your office air conditioning – and also stays cool, despite the high-end hardware running inside it.

The disadvantage of that compact design is that there’s little room for internal expansion. The outer case can easily be removed to provide access to the memory and solid-state drive, but there are no expansion slots inside the unit at all.

Apple is taking something of a gamble, placing all its bets on an array of six Thunderbolt 2.0 ports at the rear of the machine. With data transfer rates of up to 20Gbps, these Thunderbolt 2.0 ports are capable of driving multiple monitors – including up to three separate 4K displays – as well as adding additional storage and other upgrade options.

Pro Performance

Apple Mac Pro

Applications such as 4K video-editing require tremendous performance and, as always with Apple kit, that performance comes at quite a price. An ‘entry-level’ Mac Pro starts at £2,082.50 (ex. VAT) for a model with a quad-core Intel Xeon processor running at 3.7GHz, along with a pair of AMD FirePro D300 graphics cards, 12GB of memory, and 256GB of solid-state storage.

There’s also a six-core model priced at £2,750 (ex. VAT), which runs at 3.5GHz, with 16GB of memory and twin FirePro D500 graphics cards. Apple also provides a variety of build-to-order options, such as the 8-core processor and twin D700 graphics cards included in our review unit for a total price of £4,600 (ex. VAT).

And those prices don’t even include a keyboard and mouse, let alone a monitor. Throw in a Sharp 4K monitor for £2,920 (ex. VAT), and the top-of-the-range 12-core processor option and you’ll break the £10,000 barrier with no trouble at all.

But, just for once, we won’t argue that it’s cheaper to buy a Windows PC. Browsing the HP and Dell Web sites did show us a number of less expensive Xeon workstations with prices starting at around £1,200 (ex. VAT). However, none of these had specifications that directly matched the dual GPUs of the Mac Pro, let alone features such as its high-speed Thunderbolt ports or innovative design. For the time being it does seem that the Mac Pro really is one of a kind.

Software & Hardware

Apple Mac Pro

Whether or not the Mac Pro justifies that sort of price depends not just on the particular tasks that you use it for, but also on the specific applications that you use within your organisation. Apple obviously hopes to target a wide range of professional users with the Mac Pro, but it’s clear that the system’s primary focus is on video-editing – particularly users working with 4K video. With that in mind, Apple has ensured that its own Final Cut Pro editing software is capable of utilising the Mac Pro’s twin graphics cards to improve performance for tasks such as playback and rendering of 4K video.

“We saw the role of the GPU in these high-end apps,” Apple told us during a recent demo session. “Nobody else gets this kind of performance with 4K video.” Having seen the Mac Pro effortlessly running nine separate streams of 4K video from its internal SSD we’re inclined to take their word for it.

However, reports suggest that rival editing tools, such as Adobe’s Premiere Pro, hadn’t been optimised to exploit the twin GPUs in the same manner and that rendering performance in Premiere wasn’t significantly faster than with the previous generation of Mac Pro. But, just as we were preparing this review, a posting on Adobe’s Premiere blog announced support for additional GPUs, including the AMD FirePro models used in the Mac Pro.

Upgrade Decision

The new Mac Pro takes Apple’s professional systems to a new level in terms of both innovative design and raw horsepower. It’s expensive, of course, but if the apps that you use most are updated so that they can fully exploit the power of the Mac Pro’s twin GPUs then the high cost of the system may well be justified. If not, then some users may prefer to hang onto their existing Mac Pro or iMac system for a little while longer.