The Sky Is Falling! End of the line for Mac Pros?

By • November 28, 2011

All month long I have received panicky sounding phone calls, emails, and monitored discussions on forums about the widely circulated rumor that Apple is thinking of discontinuing its venerable Mac Pro line of computers.
My response: Folks, get a grip!

First of all, if you are a composer who has always lived in Europe, there is a high likelihood that you have always been PC based rather than Mac and have somehow managed to get some work done. However, for guys like me who have always used Macs, the anxiety is understandable. But….(you knew there was a but coming, right?)

There are two aspects I wish to discuss:
1. Is it likely to happen?
2. What will we do?

While no one I know at Apple will say it to me, my guess is, yes the Mac Pro line will be discontinued eventually. For years, a key part of Apple’s marketing seemed to go “famous guy A thinks outside the box and does amazingly creative and successful stuff on a powerful Mac, so you want one too so that you also can work like a real Pro.”

Although I do not have the numbers, I think it is safe to assume that the total sales of Mac Pros and Apple’s Pro apps for a year equal a bad week for either the iPhone or iPad. I have seen an estimate from a knowledgeable source that says they amount to app. 3% of Apple’s overall revenues. Also, clearly, Apple seems to be moving towards a unified OS that integrates Macs, iPhones, iPads, and iPods together in a way that the user never really needs to get under the hood, which is literally the opposite of the way most composers think. We want to tinker. Also, MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Minis are getting faster chips, more cores, and allow more RAM to be installed. It is not hard to imagine in the not too distant future for instance an i7 Mac Mini Quad Core with the ability to house 4 16 GB memory sticks. Put two of them together and you have a computer array that is more powerful than any Mac Pro on the market at half the cost and that is not much bigger than a ham sandwich.

So what about those of us who use PCI-e cards and multiple internal hard drives who still believe that neither Firewire or USB 2/3 will be as reliable, low latency, and with a higher track count? Well, we have been down this road before. ProTools users say their NuBus systems give way to HD rigs at considerable expense. SCSI gave way to SATA and IDE. Personally, I migrated from PCI to PCI-x to PCI-e at some expense and inconvenience. We do what we have to do and the police do not come in the middle of the night and confiscate our rigs if we choose not to upgrade.

But ultimately Thunderbolt (or Lightpeak) is the answer. It is the first protocol that promises to deliver all that we have come to expect from PCI-e and maybe more. Companies are hard at work building Thunderbolt compatible audio interfaces and hard drives. At the moment they are few, pricey, and not really tested in the heat of battle but this will change, and change rapidly in my opinion. Magma has already built a chassis that will allow us to use our current audio interfaces and devices to connect via Thunderbolt and hopefully this time around, there will be viable competitors so that it is not so pricey as Magma chassis have historically been.

So as you look around your studio as it presently is configured with one, two or more towers, maybe they are in a machine room to eliminate having to listen to fans. Maybe you are controlling them all from several keyboards and mice or just one of each, as I do. Maybe they are all Macs, all PCs or a mix of Macs and PCs. Theoretically, let us say you are using one or more audio interfaces, PCI-e or Firewire/USB, and you have lots of internal and external drives, as I do. Now add up all the money it would cost if you were buying it all at the same time today with the latest and greatest Mac Pro as the centerpiece. Even if you are a shrewd and persistent shopper, you are talking about a lot of money and taking up a lot of space, not to mention your ecological footprint.

Now imagine 3-5 years from now spending half as much as that fully tricked out top of the line Mac Pro. You have a laptop or iMac as your main machine and two or three smaller machines, like Mac Mini servers and/or small PCs, rack mounted with little or no fan noise, loaded with RAM with fast processors with Thunderbolt audio interface(s) speaking to each other through Ethernet, maybe with networked drives that all the machines can access, all using a smaller ecological footprint leading to lower electricity bills. Also, it is all integrated and controlled by a tablet like an iPad 4 if you wish with integration with your iPhone or Android phone instead of hardware controllers.

Is this really something to fear? I think not. As technology evolves, we evolve. If it comes to pass down the line that the Mac Pro becomes extinct in terms of new machines, fear not! Go boldly into that new paradigm.

Comments

By Tommy Nilsson on November 28th, 2011 at 3:07 pm

if Apple gives up MacPro, I will give up on Apple (after 20 years of loyal support). I will have to switch to PC for 12 plus cores and RAM that approaches 100GB. I have resisted but will never step down to an iMac or a Mac-Mini. I have several of those anyway but they are useless for high-end computing. So go ahead, Apple, loose the high-end users. It will kill you in the long-run. It’s like Mercedes deciding only to produce A, B and C class and no longer SL and S. The brand would loose serious appeal and turn people away. If you are not best at high-end performance, than you are just one of the crowd. And what happened to front row? Will not upgrade to Lion out of principal. Oh well…..Life was better whern you were a rebel with a cause, now you are just another company for profit…

By Nicholas Varley on November 29th, 2011 at 4:51 am

I agree with your article Jay, provided that i7 iMacs/Minis come with space for 32Gb of Ram. Until they show up, the MacPro is going to stay put, in fact i’ve just bought another one just in case I need spare parts.

BTW what’s up with the quip about Europe lol ? Only PC guys I know work in accounting 😉

By Tyrone on November 29th, 2011 at 8:19 am

Thanks – very interesting article.

I certainly am worried about the loss of the Mac Pro. Or at least, I was. Your article has helped put a few things in perspective.

I’m still a bit worried about pushing all the data down one Thunderbolt connection – even though I know it can handle it. That’s just the “old school” worry in me coming to the surface.

The new MacBook Pros, for example, offer incredible power already … maybe we just don’t need those very expensive two ton Mac Pro computers anymore … hmmm …. ☺

By Tom on December 1st, 2011 at 10:47 pm

All good for audio guys, but video will have considerable growing pains to endure. What about RAM intensive 64 bit video apps that are only now entering the workflow now? What about SDI cards? Highend graphic cards? The solution will be PCs – not Macs and thus Apple begins to lose the “creative” that it may not regain for some time. Final Cut X is a perfect example. For those that vest their time, money and education, coming back will not be an easy thing. I really don’t think we’ll be seeing the first 4K feature film edited on an iPad for quite a while.

By Adam on December 4th, 2011 at 10:59 am

For the price of a Mac Pro vs. an iMac these days… I would much rather get the iMac and save the money considering that we are doubling the amount of cpu cores so often. All we need is external PCI to expand. I think these will be cheaper and cheaper and with thunderbolt, we can already daisy chain multiple iMacs. Once we have a thunderbolt to eSATA… we should be able to say goodbye to the Mac Pro with confidence.

By Chris on December 7th, 2011 at 10:37 am

Thanks Jay, that was a good read. I’m actually thinking about buying an iMac and using that as my sequencer and relegating my Mac Pro to slave status. Haven’t fully decided yet. In an ideal world, I would get a second (or a third!) Mac Pro but the pricing has just become so prohibitive. Even more so in the past two or three years. I , like many others, have wondered about this machine’s future. Thanks for shedding some useful insight on the matter.

I’ve considered buying a PC slave but, for comparable money, I could possibly replace my sequencing machine instead and stay entirely in the Mac environment, which would be my preference.

There are drawbacks to every scenario at this time however.

By Jon Ong on January 3rd, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Btw, the newest 2011 MacBookPros can house up to 32Gigs of RAM =) I have one with 16gigs of RAM and it’s awesome. Quad Core i7… don’t think i’ll be getting a Mac Pro ever. and I’ve managed to make some amazing music with it, and with my full template loaded up!

By David on January 10th, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Who the hell wants to compose music on a laptop? I run three 22″ monitors in my music studio because I need the screen realestate for Logic and other apps/plugins that I run. Apple not providing people with information about their fuiture is seriously messing with people’s livlihoods.

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