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Apple's aging Mac Pro is falling way behind Windows rivals

Agam Shah | April 8, 2016
The company could be waiting for faster GPUs and SSDs before releasing a new high-powered workstation.

Apple's Mac Pro is aging fast, especially with screaming fast Windows desktops being announced in recent weeks.

Introduced in 2013, the Mac Pro was a top-of-the-line desktop at that time. It looked exquisite in its sleek cylindrical design, and it sported new features like Thunderbolt 2 ports, plus the latest CPUs, GPUs and NVMe storage.

More importantly, it was a signal that Apple had not abandoned the professional computing market. The latest Mac Pro was a relief to those clamoring for an upgrade from an older version of the computer, which last received a face-lift in 2010.

But the Mac Pro is again falling behind the competition, with powerful new workstations from Lenovo, Dell and HP carrying superior technology. The PC companies are waging an active campaign to tempt Mac Pro users, many of them creative professionals, to move over to Windows PCs with better CPUs, GPUs, and memory. 

The new Windows desktops are targeted at video editing, professional applications and the creation of virtual reality content for headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

Among the powerful new Windows machines are HP's new Z Workstations. Starting at US $4,363, the Z Workstations announced this week can be configured with Intel Xeon E5-2600 v4 chips, which have up to 22 cores. Two Nvidia Quadro M6000 GPUs in an SLI (scalable link interface) configuration can provide super-fast graphics performance. The desktop supports DDR4 memory, and there are multiple slots for SATA, SAS (serial-attached SCSI) and NVMe (non-volatile memory) SSD storage.

New Dell Precision workstations, announced last week, can also support the latest 22-core Xeon E5-2600 v4 chips, based on the Broadwell architecture and also introduced last week.

By comparison, the Mac Pro -- which starts at $2,999 -- supports up to 12-core Intel Xeon E5 chips based on the older Ivy Bridge microarchitecture, which started shipping in the third quarter of 2013. The desktop has older AMD FirePro GPU models and DDR3 memory. The Thunderbolt 2 ports are also outdated, and Thunderbolt 3 is two times faster, with its 40Gbps data transfer rate.

The Mac Pro is still a fast machine, but creative professionals want the latest and greatest hardware, said Bob O'Donnell, principal analyst at Technalysis Research.

"I compare it more to a low-end workstation," O'Donnell said.

The desktop is adequate for engineering applications and video editing, but faster computers will allow creative professionals to dabble in VR, O'Donnell said.

VR is a niche but emerging market, and workstations will need more horsepower for visual computing, O'Donnell said. 

Apple hasn't indicated it is focused on VR, which still has an uncertain future. But earlier this month, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey said Rift headset support would come to Macs if Apple ever releases "a good computer” to handle the stereoscopic content. VR headsets require top-line CPUs and GPUs in desktops.

 

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