Apple’s new Mac Pro is a supercar


I’ve been to the Geneva Motor Show half a dozen times, and I can confidently say that the new Mac Pro looks tailor-made for that exhibition of exotics. It’s got a huge and imposing metal grille up front and tons of speed and power on the inside. It’s built with bespoke components, performance-optimized aerodynamics, and a starting price that means most of us will only ever get to look at, never own, one. And even though we’ve never seen it before, it’s instantly recognizable as an expensive, glamorous powerhouse machine. Yes, Apple’s 2019 Mac Pro is the supercar of the computer world.

Like the latest debut from Lamborghini or McLaren, this Mac Pro has an immediate visual impact, looking at once familiar and enticingly novel and different. It carries on a family lineage – from the original Mac Pro, pretending the 2013 “trash can” never happened – expressed in the pair of steel handles and the latticed front and rear. Apple’s famously meticulous attention to detail is expressed in the curves and forms of this Mac Pro chassis, and it’s the little touches that make the design intriguing and memorable. There are no corners to the aluminum sheath, for instance, which slides on and off with apparent ease.

Those little touches are helped by Apple’s outsize budget, of course, as few PC makers would indulge in having dual-layered, precision-cut aluminum frames just to create the hypnotic effect of the new grille. All designers aim to create iconic looks, but those become a high priority with supercars, and I’d argue they’ve long been a priority with Apple’s design chief Jony Ive, for better (the MacBook Pro and Air of yesteryear) or worse (the silly charging method for the Apple Pencil). Nobody buys a Ferrari just for the way it drives, and even if you have purely functional reasons to get this new Mac Pro, you’ll still feel more satisfied with it just because of how it looks. This is a class of glamorous performance machines where looks matter.

To see the 2019 Mac Pro once is enough to remember it for a long time.

A pretty shell is only the start of a supercar’s appeal, however, and the more rational justification for owning one is what the thing can do. When I had my first experience of a McLaren 650S Can-Am being driven to its limits, I had my entire understanding of physics challenged by that car’s acceleration, deceleration, and ability to negotiate turns at lethal speed. Apple, in its habitual immodesty, is promising similarly breathtaking performance with its new Mac Pro.

The graphics subsystem of the Mac Pro comes with the audacious claim of being the “world’s most powerful graphics architecture.” It certainly has impressive numbers, with the new AMD Radeon Pro Vega II cards offering up to 14 teraflops of performance (that’s more than two times the Xbox One X or three times the PlayStation 4 Pro) allied to 32GB of memory with 1TBps of bandwidth. Upgrade to the Radeon Pro Vega II Duo for two GPUs per card, and buy two cards, and you’ll have a total of four GPUs with 128GB of high-bandwidth memory inside that handsome metal frame. This is all achieved with Apple’s new bespoke MPX expansion modules, which use a combination of PCI Express and Thunderbolt 3 to give more power and bandwidth to AMD’s cards.

Apple says the Mac Pro will be able to drive up to six 6K displays, which would equate to a resolution north of 122 megapixels. The company stresses that this is an extreme computer for highly demanding tasks like 3D film animation and environment modeling or 8K video editing. One of its demonstrations during the Mac Pro event featured a thousand audio tracks loaded up in Logic Pro X. That’s a good example of the performance headroom of this new machine: truly heavy-duty professional tasks that would overwhelm lesser machines can be sustained by the Mac Pro’s excess of power provided by an Intel Xeon CPU with up to 28 cores and a maximum of 1.5 terabytes of memory.

Apple advertises this new Mac Pro as a much more modular and flexible computer than its predecessor, but that’s a low standard to compare against. This is still a mostly proprietary Apple box, with a custom cooling setup spanning the entire system, making the addition of your own graphics card or aftermarket coolers inadvisable. Not that you’ll even have the option to insert Nvidia graphics cards until Apple provides or approves the necessary drivers.

As with the custom, passively cooled MPX Modules, the power supply unit is also a custom design that spans the entire bottom of the case, providing a monstrous 1.4kW without a dedicated fan. A trifecta of large intake fans at the front, allied to a blower on the side, are responsible for cooling the entire system, which is nice and efficient when you outfit it with Apple’s parts, but probably a nightmare if you want your own.

Mac Pro users will have to rely on Apple updating and expanding its range of MPX Modules for when they want a graphics upgrade, and the storage options max out at 4TB, lacking the abundance of SATA SSD ports of other motherboards. At least there are a full dozen DIMM slots for boosting your memory.

Just like a supercar, this Mac Pro comes with the claim of being designed purely for performance, with form following function at every turn. But the price the buyer pays, aside from the considerable monetary outlay, is a sacrifice of some basic comforts and conveniences. The Mac Pro comes preconfigured with an add-in card to provide I/O ports on the rear: two USB-C / Thunderbolt 3, two USB-A, and a headphone jack. That plus another two Thunderbolt 3 jacks at the top and a pair of 10Gbps Ethernet ports are all you get outside of your graphics card’s video outputs. Granted, most other motherboards have way too much legacy cruft on the back, but that’s still quite meager for anyone with plenty of added gear to plug in and a distaste for dongles and expansion hubs.

There is no denying that Apple’s 2019 Mac Pro is the most “pro” computer the company has ever designed. After the iMac Pro, which had plenty of power and a very high price of its own, it seemed like the Mac Pro would be left without a place in Apple’s portfolio, but the company just pushed it way up into the rarified air of genuinely extreme professional workloads and tasks. This is not a device that should be judged through a consumer lens, nor can it easily be compared spec-for-spec with Windows alternatives that don’t run the same Mac software.

And yet, even with an all-out commitment to delivering a performance beast, Apple couldn’t help designing something beautiful and alluring. The company isn’t selling the Mac Pro to consumers, just as the pre-sold Bugattis in Geneva aren’t on sale, but it is speaking to us, nonetheless. Apple is demonstrating its design and engineering acumen, parading its metalworking skill on four wheels, and daring us to dream of owning one of these Mac Pros one day.

The world of computers is always going to have higher specs, more performance, and expanded capabilities. Six 6K displays today, eight 8K displays tomorrow, it’s inevitable. But it takes Apple to wrap all that up into a luxurious, not entirely practical, yet altogether gorgeous form.