Apple Finally Delivers the Mac Pro, its Magnificent Beast

Only Apple could make a powerful enterprise machine feel this amazing

Apple's new Mac Pro at WWDC 2019

Apple’s passion for elegant design has, over the decades, served it well. From the iconic first iMac to the first iPhone, the classic iPod to the Apple Watch and yes, even your AirPods, the company has delivered form and function in almost equal measure. But that obsession with curves and cutting edge design failed it in 2013 with the introduction of the Mac Pro.

Circa 2013, it was a relatively small, beautiful device, an unusual triangular motherboard and component system wrapped in a removable, ultra-polished aluminum shell. Sure, some called it “trash-can aesthetic,” but Apple lavished an insane amount of attention on the design and finish of that chassis. The world has never seen anything quite like it. And the world it was designed for — the high-end, power-hungry creative workstation world — wanted little to do with it. Despite the size and impressive power, it didn’t meet the basic needs of its market, especially when it came to customizability and upgrade options.

A few years into Mac Pro’s somewhat ignominious lifespan, Apple made the hard choice: to start over. Even more unusually, Apple chose to tell a handful of journalists (including this one) about its plans. Back in 2017, Apple executives went into surprising detail about where they’d gone wrong and what they planned to do to serve this small but crucially important market.

As Apple SVP Craig Federighi told us back then, “The Mac Pro, the current vintage that we introduced, we wanted to do something bold and different. In retrospect, it didn't well suit some of the people we wanted to reach,” he admitted. Apple gave us the outline of what they hoped to accomplish without revealing a single spec or image. That would have to wait, for years it turned out, until Monday when, from the stage of its 2019 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple finally revealed the all-new Mac Pro.To say it’s a stunning departure from what came immediately before it would be an understatement. Put simply, the Mac Pro is an every-lesson-learned reimagining of Apple’s workstation-class macOS computer.

All Hail the Tower

Apple's John Ternus with the reveal of Mac Pro

What I didn’t know when I sat down with Apple to talk Mac Pro two years ago is that Apple already had a workstation shape in mind and was also fully committed to building a next-gen, ultra-pro-level display, the equally impressive Display Pro XDR.

At a glance, the new Mac Pro is an obvious descendant of the pre-cylinder Mac Pro. It’s a large, 40-pound tower. However, those comparisons only go so far. It’s also clear that while a tower is the obvious choice to support massive power, ultimate customization, and heat management, the new Mac Pro is not built on the bones of earlier models. It is, quite clearly, completely new.

The top of the Mac Pro from WWDC

The stainless-steel bar frame that runs from the round, polished feet through the base and then the top plate curves over the body and then runs back down through the top plate, and down through the thin base. By itself, it looks like an engineering model (the feet unscrew so you can replace them with wheels). Sitting just above that base is an equally removable 1.4-kilowatt power supply. The aluminum chassis has a nifty twist-and-pull unlocking system on top to slide completely off the frame.

The grille of the Mac Pro at WWDC

On the front and back (along with port and power supply access) is an unusual honeycomb-style grill comprised of overlapping, carved-out spheres, a design concept that significantly predates the new Mac Pro (literally a cool design looking for a home). The result is both an arresting look and a canny airflow heat-management system.

Thrilling Power

Augmented Reality view of the new Mac Pro on an iPad

Without the constraints of a tiny, overly-designed chassis, Apple was free to focus on what really mattered to the Mac Pro market: power and lots of it.

While the $5999 system starts with an 8-core Intel Xeon CPU, the Mac Pro supports up to a 28-core Xeon. Some might call that a massively overbuilt CPU, but Mac Pro customers might just smile at the prospect. Of course, no one at Apple is telling us how much that will cost. The Mac Pro can also support up to 1.5 TB of RAM. That’s Random-Access Memory to run a ton of the most intensive applications, and, as far as I know, there’s never been another workstation-class system able to support that much system memory. Instead of shoving all those memory slots deep inside the Mac Pro body, they live on the back of the motherboard for easy upgrade access.

All that horsepower is supported by an insanely powerful AMD Radeon Pro 580x graphics card, one Apple called during its WWDC presentation “the most powerful graphics card in the world.”

There’s also something called an Afterburner Accelerator card, an optional, specialized card for handling ultra-processor intensive jobs like live editing of multiple 8K video streams. Typical workstations are forced to edit proxies and the post process the full-resolution video elsewhere. Afterburner puts it all in the monster…er…Mac Pro.

The system has ample room for a pair of beefy MPX modules that add graphics power and additional USB-C and Thunderbolt ports. Even within those modules, there are customization choices, including filling them with RAID arrays.

On the front are a pair of giant fans, which apparently manage airflow so efficiently that none of the other modules, components, and cards need fans. That, in concert with the unique heat-sink capabilities of the body, provides a relatively quiet workstation that, just like the classic Mac Pro tower, is designed to live discreetly under your desk.

To put all this power in context, Apple set up a multi-room demonstration area where professionals worked on live edits and real time renderings in Maya and multi-track Logic X Pro edits (Apple claims the system can edit up to 1,000 audio tracks at a time). It was quite something watching the 28 cores fire up to render a hyper-realistic lizard in real-time. Most of the systems Apple showed off were loaded with the 28-core Intel Xeon CPU, so your performance and price tag will certainly vary.

Seeing is Believing

The new Pro Display XDR at WWDC 2019

A workstation-class system like the Mac Pro deserves (or is it demands?) a display like the Pro Display XDR.

Like the Mac Pro, the XDR has a fairly industrial look with a thick body and an optional, wide, flat foot-like base sticking out from under it. On the back is the exact same grill ventilation system as the one that exists on the Mac Pro, providing similar heat-wicking capabilities.

The 25-pound, 32-inch LCD display is an engineering wonder. It’s a 6K Retina display with a total of 20 million pixels. It’s also a reference display that promises accurate colors and contrast, something pros need for film, television, print, and art.

There are other reference displays, including Sony’s well-known BVM HX310, but that one costs over $40,000. By contrast, the Pro Display XDR costs $4999 and can maintain 1,000 nits of brightness indefinitely (reference displays typically can’t maintain that brightness forever). To build sharp, non-blooming images on what is essentially an LCD display is quite an accomplishment. Apple starts with blue LEDs and then focuses each of them individually, sending the light forward and back and then forward again to control the quality, focus, and bloom, which allows for the brilliant color and blacks without light or color bleed.

Back of Pro Display XDR at WWDC

I do not know much about displays, but when I saw Apple’s display in a side-by-side comparison with other reference displays and one high-end Dell panel, the differences were obvious. The XDR is brighter with more contrast and deeper blacks than all of them. Apple is also selling a model with a specially-etched screen (yes, it comes with a special cleaning cloth) to reduce glare. In my anecdotal experience, it did an excellent job.

One bit of bad news here is that the display does not ship with a stand. Instead you can pay $1,000 for a special stand that adjusts up and down but, more importantly, lets you switch the screen to portrait mode. This is a huge boon for programmers, and for those who like their content lengthwise. The Display Pro XDR is VESA compatible, so you could just as easily mount it on a wall.

Similarly, the Mac Pro is sold in a rack-mount style, which sheds the case and moves the stainless-steel handles to the front.

One extra bonus to all this new high-end hardware is some equally impressive packaging, which promises to be unlike anything Apple has ever delivered before – it’s also completely made out of recycled paper.

Apple decision to forgo a sublime and portable design has resulted in a slightly retro-looking Mac Pro that houses hyper-aggressive performance specs and the promise of almost unlimited customization. It will come with a hefty price tag, but for its target market, this may be the thrilling Mac Pro they’ve been waiting for.