Did Apple actually lame out on the new Mac Pros?

Apple rolled out new Mac Pros Tuesday, so of course I wrote about’em. Impressed by the power at first, after the warm fuzzy glow of new Macs wore off, I started noticing some things. Or rather, noticing some things that weren’t there – PCI 3.0, USB 3.0, eSATA, faster FireWire, 10GigE networking, Blu-ray burners, NVIDIA GPUs, and a $3500 price point for the “Big Mac.” What gives? Read on for what Apple giveth and taketh.

Here’s a list of things I and others were hoping might make the cut for the new Mac Pros, and why:

Apple’s big box, aka “Big Mac” was about $3500 for the top end machine

Apple was first to market with Intel’s latest and fastest

Blu-ray burners



eSATA – hot swapping, port multiplying at that – if not internally, externally, or some way to get it there

USB 3.0

more PCIe slots

PCIe 3.0


The “Big Mac” used to be a $3500 price point, and Apple used to be first to market with newest/fastest Intel CPUs

Brook breaks it down well here – used to be we had iMacs up to about $1500-2000, then Mac Pros at $2000, $2500, and then $3000-$3500. Then came Intel pricing, and that went out the window. Here’s why:

Price comparison: – configuring a Dell workstation with the following:
(Dell Precision T7500 workstation class machine)
-dual 6 core 2.93 GHz Intel 5670 (same as the Mac Pros)
-Windows 7 64 bit
-(comes with Office Starter 2010, no charge)
-1GB ATI FirePro V5800 (different/better but at least close-ish to the Mac Pro’s base model)
-a single 1TB 7200rpm SATA drive
-16x DVD burner

$6805. That includes the $430 instant savings by buying from Dell Small Business..

The closest equivalent new 12 core Mac Pro as far as I can tell? $5000, maybe $5300 to balance out the video cards more closely. So that’s at least $1500 less than Dell, an equivalent national vendor.

Let me single that out for the skimmers:

Dell box: $6805
Similar Mac Pro: $5300

Of course, Dell is shipping, Apple isn’t, and the Dell has more expandability, but that’s as close as I can get’em. But the price comparison is (somewhat) valid if Dell doesn’t alter pricing before Apple ships.

EDIT – I later found out I could’ve saved $140 by going with the smaller Dell 5500 series chassis.

So the issue isn’t “damn Apple is ripping us off” – because clearly they aren’t – the issue is more about living with Intel’s processor pricing. For instance, bumping the Dell up to 6 core 3.33GHz (not a listed option for Mac Pros yet) increases the price by $790. Dropping to dual core 2.0 GHz processors (4 core not 12 core) cuts a whopping $4110.

So push it to the maximum case, the jump from 4 core 2.0 GHz box to 12 core 3.33GHz box is exactly $4900 – just shy of what Apple is charging for the entire Mac Pro with 12 cores running at 2.93GHz.

This is clearly where your money is going – Intel processors. This is why, in part, I think Apple is pushing into their own lateral space for computing – phones and tablets – instead of continuing to duke it out with everyone else over the scraps left on the table after Intel is done eating. Intel is the winner in the battle for traditional desktop and laptop computing. Apple owning their own chip foundry and designs is what is allowing them to make the profits* they are, and I think will continue to make.

This is why it just isn’t possible for Apple to hit the $2000-2500, $2500-$3000, and $3000-$3500 price points any more – Intel charges too much for the processor jumps to even ALLOW Apple to hit those price points and still offer meaningful increases in power.

*(BTW, here’s where I say I’ve owned Apple stock since the mid-90s, so I clearly have a vested interest in the stock performance. Then again, I’m a professional Mac user and have been for over 20 years.)

OK – so egads the 12 cores are pricey, but that is just the world we are living in. Is it Apple’s fault that in order to offer a really fast machine it is really expensive? Nope. No way around it – it is Intel’s pricing model. Is Intel’s pricing model valid? That is either moot or another discussion, because Apple can’t do much about it for these Macs, other than committing to buy more processors to push their price down further.

OK – so why wait four months to ship it? Apple used to be first if not best with new Intel processors, and here they are 4-5 months late (they’ve ANNOUNCED the machines, they haven’t SHIPPED any yet). That is a quandary. Possible interpretations:

-Apple would have had to pay a premium to be first to market, and didn’t want the machines to be so expensive – possible, and likely. Remember, once launched, Apple NEVER reprices a machine – so the are a good deal at first, and a relatively sucky deal by the end of their lifespan. (Hmm….double checking that – reconfiguring that Dell with an 8 core 2.66 is still a $4745 box)

-Apple didn’t care enough to pay the premium to be first, so decided bag it we’ll ship when the price falls to acceptable – also entirely possible, and not mutually exclusive

-Apple was busy with other priorities and perhaps repurposed some engineering effort towards iPads or other projects internally – possible, but we’ll never know – they sure wouldn’t admit it if so. It was, according to something I read, 512 days since the last Mac Pros were introduced – boy that is a LOOOOOOOOOOONG time to go without an update on your workstations! That is eons and eternities in the computer world. And nothing sends a “Too busy, don’t care” message like not updating a product for almost a year and a half (hello, lonely AppleTV!).

OK – so that’s pricing and availability. But what about all the other things they coulda/shoulda/woulda on this Mac? Lets break it down.

Blu-ray Burners – OK, this is the most painfully obvious. I’ve already bitched at length about it at length, but allow me to summarize:

-Adobe shipped CS4, capable of burning Blu-rays, in September 2008
-Apple, yes YOU, Apple, shipped VERY LIMITED Blu-ray burning support with Final Cut Studio in the summer of 2009
-for the record, the first burner shipped in June 2006
-Apple STILL doesn’t include one. Worse yet, they don’t even OFFER a Blu-ray burner as a BTO option
-Apple is pushing a downloadable future instead of a disc based future. Fine. But the crucial difference is – they BELIEVE that will happen, but instead of waiting to watch the market to see if it does happen, they are trying to FORCE it to happen by….not offering something they easily could (well, Dell doesn’t…hmmm). Potentially a dick move, Steve. And yes, I suspect it is your call, personally, making this happen, trying to force the future the way you want it to be – all iTunes Store download-ified. How much are those licensing fees? I thought that all got sorted out a few months back. And adding one in, BTO? Not very hard to do last minute. It is one thing to SUPPORT your own endeavors (included online publishing tools very nice thank you), it is quite another to go out of your way to hinder the other options. Anybody have any countering evidence, I am happy to be informed and update this here and admit I was wrong. Blu-ray licensing may be a bag of hurt, but there are a lot of burners to choose from – you’ve already got software support, so what gives?

UPDATE – an anonymous reader suggested the following:

-its a playback issue
-if you COULD burn your own BR-D, you’d want to play it back on that same machine, right?
-Apple currently lacks Blu-ray playback software
-even if they had it, there’d be licensing fees to pay
-Steve doesn’t want to pay for that.
-if they didn’t/couldn’t offer it, it would be a bad/lumpy user experience – “Whaddaya mean I can burn but not play back – that’s stupid!”
-Yep, that would be stupid.
-Apple only offers solutions that are elegant and complete – thus, in this case, “perfection or nothing” seems to be the opted choice, with nothing being what we get from Apple

OK, if all that is true, then just CHARGE US FOR IT and let us decide! If it is money, pass it on to the customer, no?

How hard can be it to write a Blu-ray playback solution?

Other idea that raises – so if you play back Blu-ray, what would stop you (other than the law) from finding a Blu-ray ripping piece of software (Blu-ray equivalent of Handbrake, for instance) and ripping your Blu-rays to files that would – GASP – play on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod? Gee, at that point you could format shift your own media, and circumvent the iTunes Store, and not fall into Steve’s “Downloads for all, discs for none!” hegemony. Hmm. Maybe.

NVIDIA GPUs – now, it may turn out that Apple does offer NVIDIA GPUs with the new Mac Pros, but at the moment they are only touting new high speed ATI Radeon cards (see details here). IF (and hey, I’d be delighted to be wrong!) there are no NVIDIA cards offered (which would be a total break from the past and current offerings), this would be a problem. “Why? I just want a fast GPU, and if ATI has’em, great!” you may ask. These days it has gotten a bit trickier than that – specifically when it comes to a one-time best buddy, but now seeming rival (for Flash on iPod/iPhone/iPad) known as Adobe. See, Adobe’s Creative Suite 5 has this AMAZINGLY power GPU accelerated architecture called the Mercury Playback Engine. It does amazing things with the GPU to increase the number, size, and effects you can run on your tracks of video in Premiere…which just so happens to be a direct competitor to Apple’s Final Cut Pro. No NVIDIA, no Mercury Playback Engine, and you’re back to basic CPU acceleration. There went all the pizzazz out of Premiere. Fooey. So this may be a straw man – Apple may offer NVIDIA GPUs – I hope so – because I recall Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci for Mac at $1000 needs NVIDIA cards as well. Lets just hope that approved, high speed NVIDIA cards are offered for these Macs. If they aren’t, and there isn’t a damn good motherboard reason why, this is Apple getting just MEAN. Hopefully not – we’ll see when BTO options show up for the new Mac Pros.

10GigE networking – nowadays, with the pressure of deadlines I see constantly around us, and the heavier datarates that HD has heralded, we NEED SANs to be productive. Unless you’re a one guy shop, or really, REALLY like sneakernetting footage around on FireWire drives, some kind of EDITABLE network storage is needed. What do I mean by that? I mean something you can do realtime playback and editing off of without ever skipping a beat or a frame. Something as fast as local FireWire drive (and preferably FW800 at that). Apple and others have offered SANS for years, but they are FireWire based. And after the software and the cards, that’s $1500-$2000 more per station. Then an additional couple of Macs for metadata controllers, then a fiber channel based RAID, and you’re dropping $20K at the drop of a hat. Sitting here in Santa Monica, home of a TON of post production facilities struggling to deal with cratering budgets and declining advertising media, that cuts out a SAN for all but the highly profitable shops. And VFX? They need it even more, and their margins are even uglier these days – when the working environment is called “the smartest group of people in the nicest sweatshop” you know there’s a problem in that industry.

So – fast networking. It IS possible to put together a dual GigE based SAN by bonding channels and control channel and or yadda yadda yadda, but if we had 10GigE we wouldn’t NEED fiber channel SANs – just upgrade the controllers onboard to 10/100/1000/10000 Base-T and we’d be in bidness. Also, with a single internal drive capable of pushing data faster than even GigE can handle, it is TIME for that upgrade to happen anyway.

And did we get this? No. So you’d have to go out and buy a card instead. They ain’t cheap and they take up a slot (more on slots later).

VERDICT – somewhere between Fail and Missed Opportunity

Speaking of drive speed…

FW1600/3200 – the spec was announced in what, 2008? Wherefore art thou? FW800 was great when it was announced, because single drives were good for what – 25 or 35 MB/sec? And FW800 can push as fast as 80 MB/sec. Dandy in those days, but a typical 7200 rpm SATA drive is good for over 100, if not 120, MB/sec these days. Yep – one drive can saturate the bus with a single read operation. Wanna copy files from one external to another? The Mac still, excuse me, ahem – STILL has only a single FW800 bus, but four ports. That means they all share the same bandwidth, and if you plug a FW400 device in, does that not slow everyone down to FW400 speeds? So not only is the single bus saturable by a single drive’s operation, but it also has to play lowest common denominator with anyone in the group. Caravan strategy – only as fast as the slowest wagon. Everyone give him dirty looks. What could they have done? Faster FireWire formats were announced in 2008 – but oops, consumer hardware won’t be ready until later this year. OK – clearly not Apple’s fault – they would’ve had to wait even longer to ship new Macs.

But what about the single bus thing? Apple says you can install another card to add additional FW buses – but if you are the kind of user that wants/needs that, you’re short on slots often (that slot thing, we’ll get back to that).

Verdict: FW1600/3200 = Not Apple’s Fault. Multiple buses: continued shortcoming, perhaps fail (not all caps FAIL though)

eSATA – hot swapping, port multiplying at that – if not internally, externally, or some way to get it there. This allows for a MUCH faster bus. If Apple could get (and dunno if Intel makes a mobo that allows it) port multiplying SATA or eSATA ports on the motherboard, a simple and cheap slot cover interface could allow for exposing those ports to the outside world – and that means you can connect a port multiplying enclosure with as many as 5 drives in it. Or that slot cover could have the port multiplying chip/board on it (seen’em, can be done) to allow 5 ports. eSATA allows for 225 MB/sec throughput, and if I understand correctly, the newer 3Gb ports could allow for up to double that. You can buy cards that offer this, but again, they take up a slot (and yeah, this is what slots are for, but how big of a reach is this to alter the motherboard?). As a user this is frustrating, but if I were an Apple product manager, I’d be thinking of it this way – how hard is this to add? At what cost? How many users will use this? Would it confuse prosumers to offer a port that only one drive can be connected to, not daisy chained? I can see from Apple’s perspective why this is not offered, but it is vexing from a power users perspective.

VERDICT: missed opportunity, but at what likely cost and true widespread benefit to users?

USB 3.0 – OK, the spec has been out, there are some motherboards with USB 3.0 out there – so why don’t the new Mac Pro and iMacs have this? Does Intel not offer motherboards with it yet? Apple was the first manufacturer, WAY out in front, to offer USB 1.0 with the first iMacs. Wherefore art thou, version 3.0? Perhaps there isn’t/wasn’t in time a motherboard available suitable for Apple’s needs. But considering how long the refresh gap has become – 500+ days for Mac Pros, and 250+ days since the last iMacs – does this mean we’re waiting until next summer at least before USB 3.0 on ANY desktop Macs? So regardless of the technical facts, this from a user’s standpoint?

VERDICT: FAIL. Big fat one, too, perceptually, regardless of the tech facts (not quite see below)

UPDATE – an attentive reader found this link – basically, Intel has delayed including USB 3.0 on mobo until 2012, literally no reason given, even though other vendors are including it. Supposition – they are trying to force some space in the market to wait for LightPeak, their even faster optical standard to come out in the unknown future. Since Apple appears to be committed to Intel motherboards, were screwed till 2012 at least for USB 3.0. Now a fail not a FAIL, but cast dirty looks at Intel, and just sullen ones at Apple over this. Apple is all Intel mobo all the way these days, they’d have to switch vendors to address this. But that is NOT a consumer’s problem! We just want the new tech. Not excuses.

Bonus round – Blackmagic introduced some AWESOME new hardware (see here and here) Not only are these gut simple to install (uhhhhhh…..plug in one cable and a driver?) they can handle uncompressed HD data over a teensy little USB 3.0 cable – HOW COOL IS THAT! This also opens the door to connecting these kinds of gadgets to laptops (Express34 is too slow) – how extra cool is that! Oh, but wait – Apple DIDN’T release USB 3.0 on Macs, so Blackmagic is probably very, very disappointed right now. Why? Apple is incredibly tight with who they let know about upcoming hardware configurations. Sorry BMD guys, I feel your pain! But at least Intensity has PCIe option – oh wait, dammit…

(but you could buy a card to add USB 3.0….oh wait…)

The PCIe Factor – two parter here – PCI 3.0, where are you? And what about all these slots we keep needing to use, just to catch up to the latest tech, even on Mac Pros that haven’t even shipped yet but are already lacking today’s leading tech? OK, so PCI 3.0 they get off the hook – the standard has been pushed back to 2011, so absolutely not Apple’s fault. But these Mac Pros appear to still be limited to 40 lanes of PCIe – if you aren’t familiar, think traffic lanes to carry more data traffic. There are 40 lanes available in the current and last round of Macs. The GPU takes up 16, then you have one x16 slot and two x4 slots. Eek – what if I have a couple of x8 cards? Brook Willard in his post talks about getting expansion chassis and having to downclock cards (slowing some important computing tasks). Can we reconfigure around this like prior models? Maybe, but then you are PCI lane budgeting – on a $5000 base price box, should you be having to do that?

But lets look at it from a wider perspective – you’ve got 4 slots. You HAVE to use one for a graphics card. The good news is that modern cards can drive up to 3 monitors, so you really don’t need another card (you 0.0001%ers can go whine in your gold plated corner). But say you want a modern machine? Want to be on a SAN? Add a fiber channel card. Want another FW800 bus for copying between drives faster? Another card. Want USB 3.0? Add a card. Want pro video I/O? Add a card. Want a Red Rocket to accelerate stuff? Add a card. Want eSATA for faster external drive transfers? Add a card.

OK, not everyone needs all those, but right there that is 7 cards. And even if there were 3 more slots, you’d still likely run out of PCIe lanes.

VERDICT: for prosumers, occasional hassle. For power users: TOTAL ABJECT FAIL. I already can’t configure the machine I need to use in my home studio – Kona 3, Red Rocket, eSATA, FW800, USB 3.0 on top of the GPU.

Product manager’s likely response: how many of these users are out there? What would it cost to add to the base tower configuration? How many would use it? How many would not buy based on increased price vs buy based on increased capabilities? What percentage of our users are these people, and most importantly, how much purchasing power do they represent? And that’s why we won’t get it.

In Summary – did they lame out?

Lets break it down by category:
-first to market? Nope. Definitely weak, not necessarily lame though given the alternatives. Mild fail.
-death of the $3500 Big Mac? True, but Intel’s deal, not Apple’s. overall, disappointing but not fail
-price competitiveness? Against major vendors like Dell – EPIC WIN – and by about $1500
-NVIDIA GPUs? Dunno for sure yet. High end cards are ATI this time, hope there is a high end NVIDIA offered as well. Too early to tell, no opinion yet.
-no Blu-ray? ABJECT FAIL. Bonus round – possible dick move.
-10GigE? missed opportunity, not calamitous fail.
-eSATA? as much as I want it, missed opportunity, not calamitous fail
-USB 3.0 – as far as I can tell, FAIL. Big time. EDIT – ok just fail not FAIL, see above
-PCI 3.0? – not Apple’s fault – no fail.
-more slots? Apple used to fully equip their boxes with the extras, obviating need for cards. Now? Use up those valuable slots to put in the leading tech of the type Apple used to always be first on. Subtle fail
-FW1600/3200? Not Apple’s fault, no fail. Next time, if no USB 3.0 or FW1600/3200, ABYSMAL fail.

OK, so overall? I gotta sound like a parent – “Hey Steve, sit down – while you’ve shown some really nice progress (12 cores, price competitiveness) I am disappointed with the choices your guys have made made, you’ve blown it on a few calls, made some questionable judgements, but I can’t say it is an utter FAIL, just…massively underwhelming.” As I look at the technical reasons, I can excuse them out of a lot of it, but most customers aren’t going to do that. They are going to look at it and ask about USB 3.0, ask about faster FireWire, wonder about 10GigE and eSATA, maybe order some cards and be frustrated by the lack of slots and lack of PCIe lanes, and overall just feel like Apple isn’t NEARLY as cool as they were 3-4 years ago after the shift to Intel.

The big reason why? Apple used to “bake in” all the latest good stuff. Specifically, it was on the motherboard, the ones they designed. They were first with USB, with FireWire, early adopters of GigE and then dual GigE. These things were GREAT – at the time, PC users had to buy add-in cards for USB, then FireWire, then GigE (or a second port), etc. etc. etc. Now? All the latest stuff (available or nearly available) is NOT included. Most Red owners and power drive users I know have added an eSATA card if they have a lot of drive transfer stuff to do – eSATA is WAY faster than FW800. USB 3.0? Not included, and probably won’t be next year – gotta add a card. Faster FireWire? Add a card. Fibre channel? Not that I’d expect it on the mobo, but add a card. See where I’m going with this? The only forward progress has been dual then triple monitor support on the GPU – great but that’s all. Get where I’m going here? Used to be all the goodies were on the mobo, and now they are NOT – adds cost, takes up precious, precious slots/lanes.

Why no USB 3.0? They are married to Intel motherboards. So when will Intel have USB 3.0? 2012. No reason given when everyone else does, but we suspect it is to push Intel’s LightPeak agenda. Why no more slots, or more PCIe lanes? Probably Intel related reasons again. Why so expensive for the 12 core? Intel yet again. For overall speed, the move away from Motorola was mandatory, the move to Intel was necessary, perhaps mandatory. At the time, AMD didn’t have sufficient portable chips to do competitive laptops, and Apple likes single vendor solutions. Hmm…if Apple could only free itself from the limitations of Intel….

All of which leads me to….

The Changing Face of Apple
As a side note, remember how Apple changed their name from Apple Computer to Apple, Inc? And that ALL Macs are only about a third (I misreported 25% the other day, sorry!) of Apple’s income. Checking here, while Apple’s Mac sales were up 33% from a year ago (the dark days of 2009), Apple sold 3.47 million Macs for Q3. They also sold 8.4 million iPhones and 3.27 million iPads. Margins are estimated at 60% for iPhones and 30% for iPads. Gross margins were reported at 36.6% – so if iPhones (40% of revenue) are 60% and the average is 36%, I’d bet Macs are dragging down the gross margin numbers, wouldn’t you?

Tower sales were only up 18%, as compared to 40% and 70% in prior years. Notice a trend there?

So now I’m going into speculation mode – it has been reported that half of all Mac sales are mobile – I don’t know if that is by units or revenue, but work with me here. So half of 33% is 16%. Then we’re looking Minis, iMacs, and Mac Pros. I’d betcha Mac Pros are the least sold amongst that group – maybe 1/5 of those sales? So that’d be about 3% of gross revenue? And the high end towers – maybe 1/5 of those, so that’s less than 1% of Apple’s gross revenue is coming from 12 core Macs. How much are they going to worry about that group?

Apple doesn’t love us anymore, the way they used to. Fact. And if I had to guess, other than the Mac product managers, overall Apple (and Steve in particular) doesn’t care so much, and may not be nearly in love with Intel as they were a few years ago. Picture Steve. Picture Steve obsessing about iPad, Flash support/Adobe, iPhone 4, AntennaeGate, iOS, and all the things we picture Steve getting all serious about. Picture it. Now picture Steve getting into a screaming twist about tower Macs, PCIe lanes, USB 3.0 support, or FireWire 1600/3200. Wait – I can’t picture that – can you? Nope, not happening, drawing a blank.

We, the creative professional buyers, used to be a real, double digit chunk of Apple’s income, so they really cared. Now, we are single digits of GROSS revenue – not profit, gross. And we buy (relatively) low margin (to Apple anyway – dunno what margins Intel is making) equipment from them. If it were your business – a steady, not hugely growing segment of replacement sales to a niche market of a low margin product, OR, a hugely growing segment of lower cost but DOUBLE the profit margin products that sell to ANYONE with $200-$800 to spend – what would YOU focus your efforts on?

Apple doesn’t love us any more. It isn’t our fault – we still keep buying – and it isn’t like Apple is out to get us – they just found someone waaaaaaaaay sexier than us. Like the sudden rock star’s old girlfriend – we’re history. They’ve moved on to bigger and better things. We’re as cool as we ever were, but they’re just GONE. They’ll still return our calls (sometimes) and they like us and all, but they’re busy.


(I’ve copied and expounded on the “they don’t love us” thoughts some more over here: Yo Creative Pros-Apple Doesn’t Love You Any More. Here’s Why.


Mike Curtis

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