The new MacPro – we need to talk.

So Apple announced the new MacPro yesterday. At a first glance, I have to admit, I was impressed. After all these years, where Apple seems to have abandoned the pro community, they finally listened, got their shit together and provided something, that seems to check all the boxes of the wish list. But on a second thought, it doesn’t look so good anymore.

Is it really modular?

Yes and no. Though the new MacPro is hyped as “finally a modular Mac again”, it is only modular to some degree. Since the CPU is not soldered in, you can actually swap it later. You also can bolt in your own PCI cards like Video I/O, RAID, and of course GPUs, but not Nvidia, unless someone at Apple fixes the driver issue – and that’s probably not gonna happen anytime soon. So you are stuck with AMD, wich is not good when you need to work with RED material. But RED promised to support Metal, so let’s see how that works.

Can you bolt in your own SSDs and hard drives? Not sure, but with some tinkering and hacking it may be possible. But you can buy a (again not exactly cheap) Promise RAID Module from Apple, that plops just in. Though the power supply should be more than enough for everything you throw at it, if it fails, you can’t buy something off the shelf to replace ist, you need to buy the one from Apple. If you buy those MPX GPU modules from Apple (each 4 slots high, because of the huge fanless cooler), they cover most of your PCI slots, which leaves you only with a few slow slots, so keep that in mind, if you need more PCI cards, it may be a tight fit.

So in a nut shell: yes it’s somewhat modular, but in most cases only if you buy Apple modules.

The base configuration of the new MacPro

In the base configuration, the new MacPro comes in at 6000 bucks. For that money, all you get is an 8-core Xeon W with a base clock of 3,5GHz, four 8 GB sticks of RAM (four? seriously? – more on that later), a rather slow, minimalist 256GB SSD, and a mediocre Radeon Pro 580X.

That’s the very same card, that comes in a $2200 iMac. The description on the Apple website even says “not for GPU intensive applications”. Like what – surfing the web? – and this in a so called “pro” machine – WTF? So your next best choice is that Apple Vega 2 module, that – of course it adds an other hefty price tag on top of the $6000, just to get a hair more GPU performance, than out of a $400 Vega 64 card. And yes, that Apple module has more Memory, but most programs are never gonna use even half of it. To be fair, a lot of GPU memory can be useful in Fusion though. But if you really need 32GB, that’s your decision.

Also only the top two Xeon CPU options let you use all the PCIe lanes and features.  So with the $6000 entry model, you buy yourself a handicap, unless you upgrade to a better CPU later.

Even a 2018 regular iMac is faster and cheaper than that entry level grater – and yeah – of course for 6000 bucks, you can build a killer PC workstation, that blows both of them out of the water. No competition here.

Four sticks of RAM?

This is a 6 channel machine, and Apple provides you with 4 sticks in the base configuration- seriously ? Such a odd RAM configuration is usually a absolute no-go even for novice PC builders and it will slow you down even further. What where they thinking? Is that just to lower the entry price?

Who is this for?

Probably for people that really-really want to have the latest Mac (for whatever reason – I’m not going into psychology here), but don’t have the budget for a full blown version. Also for those who want to add upgrades like other GPUs, an other CPU or that Afterburner card later, but can’t wait until they can afford the whole package.

6000 bucks is not over the top when it comes to a beefy workstation, and I don’t have a problem with such a price tag per se. But I have a problem with that price tag and the entry level configuration – what you actually get for that amount of money is IMHO an expensive joke, and you get more speed and performance out of a 2018 iMac for less money, plus a free monitor on top of that.

So how about the full blown build?

A full blown MacPro will set you back around 32000 bucks (some say 50000 – we will see). What do you get for that kind of money? Actually a pretty beefy machine with Afterburner card, GPU galore, a 28 core CPU, 4TB SSD and 1,5TB(!) of RAM.

That’s a hefty price tag, but you get the worlds best and fastest workstation for that – right?

Well, not so fast. It depends on how you define that term. You actually get a super potent powerhouse with all the bells and whistles, but is it really worth the money?

Again, it depends.

Let’s say you are an Editor, you now can edit 3 streams of 8K Prores in real time. That’s great right? Yeah – but are you actually doing that? When was the last time you had three picture in picture streams on your timeline? If you are not stuck in the 90s, probably never. And why would you edit in a 8K timeline in the first place? Nobody does that. Even most of the biggest blockbusters are edited with HD proxies – and that didn’t hurt the editing at all. Heck here isn’t even a decent 8K preview monitor on the market (and no, you UI monitor doesn’t cut it). So what gives?

Okay, this is 2019 and I agree, we finally should get over proxies. I don’t like them ether, and I haven’t work with proxies for years now. But even on one of the oldest, almost vintage (Win7) workstations here, I can edit 4K in a HD timeline like butter – on a moder PC build, the same goes for 8K – even if it is RED material. So you pay for performance that you probably never use. You still want to pay for it?

To me that seems like buying a Lamborghini in a country with 80mph speed limit. If you have money to burn – be my guest. To each his own, but I rather spend my money where I can actually use it.

An other head scratcher are the PCI slots. PCI 3 in a machine that comes out in fall 2019, while other boards are featuring already PCI 4? Talking about future proofing…. If I shell out $32000 for a new workstation in 2019, I expected cutting edge components, not a almost a decade old standard.

Storage

Though you get 4TB of SSD with the full blown build, do you really want you clips living on the system drive (that is the scratch/cache drive at the same time? Again pretty much on top of any PC-builders 101 “DON’T” list for a good reason. So you have to pay and squeeze in at least an other (better 2) SSDs plus that Apple custom RAID box, and that goes on top of those 32000 bucks.

So even if you pay that much money, you still have to pay more, to get a proper workstation with a decent amount of drive space.

Is a 28-core Xeon CPU really what you want?

If you do a lot of 3D rendering, scientific or technical number crunching – than a lot of cores is what you want, since those programs are optimized to use all the cores and threads to the max. Though a more powerful 3D render farm can be build at a much better price.

But if your job is video editing, color gradig or compositing, probably not (it may help to speed up file conversion on programs like handbrake though).

Even Apple’s own FCP isn’t exactly known for great threading and use of cores, Premiere only uses some cores in the first place, while the rest is bored and goes to sleep, and Resolve (though it is pretty good optimized for using many cores/threads) get’s most of it’s performance from the GPU in the first place. I’m pretty sure a CPU with less cores (maybe the 16 core is the sweet spot here) at a higher base clock, would get you more performance in Resolve, than 28 cores at a lower clock speed.

The most benefit you get out of a full blown MacPro is probably compositing, where you work in full resolution, and need lots of RAM and at least some programs make good use of many cores.

What’s the deal with that Afterburner card?

The Afterburner card supports playback of up to 3 streams of 8K ProRes RAW or up to 12 streams of 4K ProRes RAW. Yeah, that nice, but as I said already, who really has an application for 12 streams of video?

Apple says there is no need for proxies anymore, the card des it all. But actually, who ever had a problem editing ProRes in the first place? Pretty much every half decent 2018 editing PC does that with ease anyway.

ProRes was even marketed as a codec that is super easy to work with. ProRes RAW even more so, what’s the point? That you can have 12 picture in picture streams? Really?

The only codecs that could use hardware acceleration these days are h264/265 and R3D. But here the Afterburner card does exactly nothing. Though it will probably be at least in the same price ballpark as the RED Rocket, you actually get not much out of it, unless you fiddle with 12 ProRes streams at the same time, at least for now. But the Afterburner is programmable, so maybe – somewhere in the future – we may see some R3D support (Rocket reloaded), but I think RED will solve that via Metal support bevore.

On the WWDC they had a full blown 28 core demo machine with a Da Vinci Advanced Panel and the new monitors.

They used 8k Red material for the demo, but it was converted to ProRes. As expected (for a $35000 machine) the Afterburner card was able to playback the ProRes clips in realtime – yay!

So this top of the line MacPro, with tons of RAM, 4 GPUs and a 28core CPU, you still have to convert your RED files into ProRes, and than you have to buy an ProRes accelerator card on top of that for playback? Yeah – sounds totally 2019 cutting edge to me.

Side note: The 8k TV was connected via a Decklink 8K Pro, and converted from SDI to HDMI. One of the XDR displays was connected as a video preview monitor (rather than an extension of the desktop) via Thunderbolt. This is the first time Blackmagic allowed users to connect monitors for full screen video without a Decklink card. Makes me wonder why they break their mantra, that you always should use a independent (from the OS) and dedicated video stream for preview, instead of just a computer monitor signal.

And while at it – the XDR Display

I really don’t know, who this monitor is for. As a UI monitor it makes absolute no sense, and as a video preview monitor, it doesn’t cut it. To small in size, more than 4K is an overkill for a preview monitor, and I’m totally with Juan Salvo who said

“Yes, 576 dimming zones, means 35K pixels per zone. That’s a joke for HDR. The 1,000,000:1 sited contrast ratio is based on full on/off zone. It’s laughable. The question is panels internal contrast. This is not a reference device. The specs alone tell us it’s not a reference device. There’s a grid of 32×18, individual light zones… for a display with 20million pixels. Does that sound like it’s enough? Compare with Sony BVM-HX310 with per pixel dimming and a true internal 1M:1 contrast.”

Personally,  I would rather buy the new 3000 nits – Vizio Quantum X 75-inch as preview monitor, for half of that money.

…and don’t get me started with that $1000 stand you have to buy extra.

You think the design of the Trashcan was bad? Hold my beer….

I know, I gonna get flak for this, but I think it’s not only ugly and miss proportioned as hell, but it looks like something out of a backyard workshop. There I said it.

On the other hand, I couldn’t care less.

When it comes to workstation housing design – now that’s not even on my list. Since I prefer my gear living in a 19″ rack, I don’t care about design at all. It’s all just black industrial 19″ cases here, and nobody ever looks at them. But that’s just my personal taste, your mileage may vary – to each his own.

Take away:

Yes the new MacPro is quite a powerhouse, and with the full blown version you not gonna have to wait on much while working, but you could have the same, if not better performance for a fraction of the money, if you build your own workstation (and if you know what you are doing). Also you will be much more future proof and flexible that way.

If you have money to burn, why not? Go ahead and get that beast. For me, I can’t justify to spend that amount on something with such a bad ROI, I need to be way more efficient, when it comes to buying/building workstations – but as I said, to each his own.

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