Teardown: Apple iMac Pro
Image credit: Apple
Apple’s new workstation packs a wallop, but is it future-proof?
The iMac Pro is Apple’s first professional-grade workstation in three years. Its specifications show how technology’s priorities have evolved during that time. However, the issue is whether the machine has evolved in step with them beyond offering unquestionable computing power.
This is a serious machine with a suitably breathtaking price. It costs $4,999 (UK: £4,082 ex VAT) in its standard configuration. The most powerful hardware options can take that up to $13,199 even before adding any peripherals and software. Pricing on the last iMac Pro started at $2,999.
In technical terms, the range starts with an eight-core 3.2GHz Intel Xeon W CPU with 32GB of DDR4 RAM, an AMD Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU, and a 1TB solid-state hard drive. It ends with an 18-core 2.3GHz Xeon W, 128GB of RAM, Vega 64 graphics, and a 4TB SSD.
The vast majority of E&T readers will struggle to justify that much muscle, certainly towards the top end - but not everyone.
Early iMac Pro demos focused on a number of key and fast-growing markets where developers now need machines that have an embarrassment of kerchunk. They included virtual reality, machine learning and 8K-resolution video (up to eight streams); all were among the hot technologies on show at CES 2018 earlier this year.
Beyond that, Apple sees potential in areas such as medical imaging and advanced architectural rendering. Heck, the iMac Pro can also seamlessly switch between applications running in OS X and on Linux and Windows virtual machines.
So while some fanboys will order the new machine, this is more an enabler of consumer (and other) products, rather than a consumer product itself.
IT managers may have cause to be wary. At $5,000 and upwards, they will be looking not only at the iMac Pro’s out-of-the-box capabilities but also its friendliness towards upgrades and repairs. The picture here is unclear.
Early analysis of the computer suggests that the Xeon W CPUs are custom implementations. According to the iFixit teardown, this makes an upgrade “at least theoretically possible,” but by no means guaranteed. Apple has said nothing publicly on this point, but bigger-volume customers are certain to ask the question.
The GPU presents another challenge, being BGA-soldered in place, which is “potentially, a major drawback on a ‘pro’ workstation,” says iFixit. “No easy graphics upgrades are possible, so choose your configuration wisely.”
Then, Apple has also introduced a new piece of in-house designed silicon, the T2. This takes on many subsidiary tasks previously performed by separate chips. Functions within the T2 include running the speakers and fans, disk control, data encryption, user verification and more.
Such integration simplifies the design, but it also means that if the T2 fails at one task once out of warranty, the owner is looking at a replacement of the entire chip – one that is single-sourced (Apple) and likely to be far more expensive than the individual, modular and widely available components it integrates.
Then, as iFixit, discovered, the iMac Pro shares that good old Apple design attribute of being tricky to navigate physically.
Apple has done away with the external RAM access hatch that featured on the 27-inch iMac 5K. According to iFixit, the RAM is still reachable, but getting there is “a major undertaking”. Similarly, many of the modular components that remain are “buried behind the logic board, requiring a lot of disassembly for access”.
Overall, iFixit’s repairability rating for the iMac Pro is just 3 out of 10. Let’s note that, as a benchmark, a three-year AppleCare+ package for the iMac Pro has a consumer price of $169.00 in any configuration. Don’t go home without one.
None of this takes away from the fact that this is an extremely powerful workstation and Apple claims to be confident that despite the price it is still more cost-effective than going down the build-your-own path.
Even so, it is hard not to have some nagging doubts about the iMac Pro’s future-proofing. Consider those target markets.
VR definitely has matured greatly, but that in itself raises questions. Consider where the state-of-that-art stood three –never mind five – years ago compared to today. Machine learning and 8K are, for all the current talk, nowhere near as long as their hype cycles. And as developers look to realise more viable AI-based implementations, demand for more hardware processing power is set to increase rapidly.
With that in mind, the iMac Pro seems to err just a bit too much towards lock-in.
Key components: Apple iMac Pro
1 Main chassis
2 Speakers (2x)
5 Heat sink
6 RAM memory sticks (4x)
7 Logic board
8 SSD modules
9 GPU BGA segment
10 Power supply
11 Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module, Apple/USI
12 CPU (removed), Intel
13 Platform controller hub, Intel
14 Multifunctional (T2), Apple
15 GPU, AMD
16 Ethernet controller, Aquantia