Apple's latest desktop offering bucks the company's usual trend by being surprisingly open to users.
The second generation Mac Pro arrived late last year. A radical redesign of the original classy but traditional tower, it was Apple's response to reports that recent upgrades to its top-of-the-range model had fallen short.
Ahead of shipment this month, the design has already drawn some interesting reactions. "Subwoofer", "Coke can" and even "wastepaper basket" were some responses to its cylindrical form. Remove the top of the dark, reflective aluminium casing by flipping the main panel lock switch and inside looks a bit like the central console area of Doctor Who's Tardis.
The physical design of the Mac Pro is, therefore, interesting. At first glance, it is one-eighth the size of the previous tower Pro, with a diameter of 16.7cm and a height of 25.1cm. But you have to start with the silicon and some of the decisions it has driven.
Torn down by repair specialists iFixit, the guts of the Mac Pro had a quad-core Intel Xeon E5-1620 v2 CPU with 10MB L3 cache (models can scale up to 12 cores) and two AMD FirePro D300 graphics processors (each with up to 3GB of GDDR5 VRAM). These are state-of-the-art devices – a criticism of the last tower system was that it did not pluck its CPU from the top of the Intel tree.
To handle these chips and a plethora of peripheral devices, the Mac Pro's container is designed around a single fan. This pulls air from under the case, through the core, and expels it from the top. Then, a large triangular heatsink sits inside to cope with emissions from both the CPU (or CPUs) and the GPU. The central base-fixed fan also cools the computer's 450W, 12.1V, 37.2A integrated power supply.
Turning to the the key features and boards in the computer, the iFixit team found four faces within the cylinder. On the outside, two graphics cards are attached to the front with the logic board behind; there is a third panel with slots for up to four 4GB DDR3 RAM modules; and the fourth has the control panel/ports (4 x USB, 6 x Thunderbolt 2, 2 x Gigabit Ethernet, 2 x 3.5mm ports for audio in/out and 1 x HDMI 1.4).
One interesting exception, though, is the AirPort wireless card. This is located centrally underneath the MacPro's roof, nested within a gold-coloured antenna array, and surrounded by the exhaust ports.
So, this sounds like a typically innovative but complex Apple design. Never mind what the the warranty says, it forewarns users from self-upgrading or trying to fix the Mac Pro, doesn't it? AppleCare is your friend? In fact, one of the more striking revelations from the iFixit teardown is this: "For being so compact, the design is surprisingly modular and easy to disassemble.
"Non-proprietary Torx screws are used throughout, and several components can be replaced independently. The easily-opened case is designed to make RAM upgrades a snap. The fan is easy to access and replace."
And there's one tricky but arguably very welcome thing to come. "While it will require a bit of digging, the CPU is user-replaceable – meaning intrepid fixers should be able to save considerably by upgrading from the base-level processor configuration," says iFixit.
That is a genuinely intriguing point. As its flagship desktop, the quad-core Mac Pro starts at $2,999 (£1,745) in the US and £2,082 in the UK, rising to $3,999 and £2,750 respectively for the six-core version (prices pre-tax). There are then further upgrade configurations available, priced according to the usually high Apple margin mark-ups.
The one respect in which the Apple handcuffs do remain on is storage. You can get the company to configure the box up to 1TB of PCIe-based flash, but there is no DIY option. Instead, you are invited to plug-in external discs, most likely via the Thunderbolt ports for the heavy duty tasks most customers will have in mind.
As noted, the first Mac Pro models that will be used in anger are only just reaching users but initial reaction to its configuration has been warm, if not yet ecstatic. Certainly, it is seen as much more of a step forward than the last of the Pro tower systems, and Apple obviously has a weather eye on its many supporters in the digital imaging community.
With its 8/10 fixability score, the computer could also see Apple acknowledging that – at this lofty end of the market – it has to give its users much more access to the box. However, go carefully if you are tempted. This is not a toy despite its size.
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