When Apple puts its mind to a task, it’s a safe bet that the end product will be something special – but the new Mac Pro is out of this world.
After years of research and design work at Apple’s labs, what has emerged is radically different from any desktop PC you’ve ever seen – a high-end workstation system, crammed with cutting-edge components, which looks more like a beautiful hi-tech bin than a computer.
In keeping with Apple’s wider design ethos, the Mac Pro is a minimalist affair. Its unusual cylindrical shape, finished in a dark, polished gunmetal grey, is blemished by not a single mark – not even an Apple logo – until you reach the “rear” of the device, where all the connections are elegantly arranged on a single panel.
Even this has been meticulously designed, with all Thunderbolt, USB and Ethernet ports stacked in two columns. Cleverly, the labels and lines surrounding each individual group are backlit, illuminating when the system fires up, or whenever movement is detected. If you happen to have your Mac Pro stowed under a desk, those backlit labels make it easier to locate the port you’re looking for.
The Mac Pro’s big party trick is how easy it is to open up. Flip the single catch at the top of the chassis next to the port panel, and (assuming all cables have been disconnected) it’s possible to pull the entire exterior sheath up and off, with a satisfying, Star Trek-esque whoosh. It reveals a suitably exotic interior, with four RAM sockets sitting in two spring-loaded banks on either side, and the rear of the two graphics cards between them, one of which has the system’s single PCI Express-based SSD mounted on it.
The Mac Pro is certainly eye-catching, but what’s really clever about the design is the way that Apple has completely deconstructed the traditional desktop. Instead of everything sprouting from a single, monolithic motherboard, Apple has opted for a modular approach, with each major component mounted on a separate board.
This explains how Apple has crammed so much into so little space (it really is compact, rising a mere 251mm from the desk and measuring 167mm in diameter). What it doesn’t explain, though, is how the Mac Pro gets rid of the heat generated by all of its powerful components.
In more traditional high-end workstations and PCs, there’s usually an assortment of fans and heatsinks, all working together to cool the system. They draw air into the chassis, distribute it to the graphics cards, CPU, power supply and other components, and push it back out of the box again. Inevitably, under load, such an arrangement can make a lot of noise. The smaller the chassis, the harder those fans have to work, and the louder they become.
In the comparatively tiny Mac Pro, the main heat-generating parts – the CPU and graphics cards – are attached to a single, Toblerone-shaped heatsink that runs up the centre of the tubular case, with one component on each side. Apple calls this the “thermal core”, and it requires only a single fan to keep things cool, which is mounted at the bottom of the heatsink. This sucks air in from outside, pushes it across the surface of the heatsink and vents it out of the hole you see at the top.
It’s an incredibly efficient system: despite the cramped nature of the chassis, the Mac Pro barely ever registers more than a quiet hum. Even with the 24 logical cores of our review unit at full pelt, we had to put our ear right over the vent to hear it over the the office air conditioning.
The hardware inside the Mac Pro is, inevitably, a touch less exotic than the exterior design. Nonetheless, the sheer amount of power it’s possible to pack into it remains impressive. Our review unit came with a 12-core 2.7GHz Intel Xeon E5-2697 v2 CPU (complete with Hyper-Threading, Turbo Boost capability up to 3.5GHz, 30MB of L3 cache and a QPI running at 8GT/sec). It also had 32GB of DDR3 RAM, a 512GB PCI Express SSD with a claimed throughput of 1GB/sec, and a pair of AMD FirePro D700 GPUs.
The graphics cards are custom parts, and thus can’t be compared directly with AMD’s retail FirePro boards. With AMD’s Tahiti XT core at the centre of things, though, and 6GB of GDDR5 RAM, the closest comparison is with AMD’s FirePro W9000 cards, which cost a breathtaking $4450 each.
For the specification above, you’ll be paying a handsome $10,469. However, this isn’t the only line-up available. The range starts at a much more reasonable $3999, for which sum the Mac Pro comes equipped with a quad-core 3.7GHz Xeon E5-1620 v2, 12GB of DDR3 RAM, a 256GB PCI Express SSD and twin AMD FirePro D300 cards. It tops out at $11,299 for a 12-core system like our test unit, with 64GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, and in between there are options based on six- and eight-core Xeon E5 v2s.