Teardown: Apple Mac Pro
Image credit: Apple
Apple has addressed upgrade issues with its flagship desktop.
At the time, 2013’s flagship Mac Pro was a cool-looking desktop computer for people whose job it is to make things look cool. However, users soon found this supposedly smart cylinder limiting, lodging a raft of complaints about the design’s upgradeability.
Apple’s biggest mistake was an assumption that creative industries, the main target markets, were moving towards upgrades based on multiple smaller GPUs. Instead, the trend became towards larger single devices.
Two years ago, the company acknowledged the error. A senior executive told the US technology press that the shift had “required a different system architecture and more thermal capacity than that system was designed to accommodate”.
In late 2019, Apple released its rethink. The new Mac Pro has a rectangular tower shape, with a highly modular design strategy that makes upgrades easier and there is far more flexibility. So much flexibility that for those users who take all the available options and the new Pro Display XDR, Magic Mouse 2 and Magic Trackpad 2 (oh, and £400 for some wheels, rather than feet), the price can rise from a base of around £6,000 to nearer £60,000.
An iFixit teardown recently described the 2019 Mac Pro as “beautiful, amazingly well put together and a masterclass in repairability”.
The entire outer casing can be removed without tools using a twist-and-pull handle on the top. Each of the memory modules corresponds to a pop-out switch and the inner RAM covers have details printed on them showing which kind of memory to insert in each DIMM slot.
Another switch provides access to all the PCIe cards. I/O boards are secured with traditional Phillips screws. A lever separates the video card (or cards) from the motherboard. Removing the fans is also simplicity itself.
This is what the Mac Pro’s users demand from a professional-grade desktop. Special effects designers, for example, are not just looking for all the goodies they can add today, but also those they may need to add because of what are still rapidly evolving standards. Even though film and increasingly TV budgets now stretch into the tens and often hundreds of millions, project managers expect kit like this to have a healthy shelf-life.
Nevertheless, this is a computer that can already stretch from an entry-level configuration of octo-core 4.0GHz turbocharged Intel Xeon CPU with 32Gb of RAM and AMD Radeon Pro 580X video card with 8Gb of VRAM, to one that leverages – deep breath – a 28-core CPU, four GPUs and 1.5Tb of DDR4 memory across 12 RAM slots.
That ceiling, and the earlier problems with the 2013 edition, have also forced Apple to think carefully about thermal performance.
There is a four-fan system: three axial fans in a front array and a rear blower. This has been designed internally rather than bought off-the-shelf, so Apple has been able to apply balancing techniques and randomise the blade pass frequency to reduce noise and also make it less obtrusive.
Meanwhile, the unusually shaped grating pattern on the outer case has more than simply aesthetic intent. The aluminium surface and openings have been designed to maximise the surface exposure to hot air within the desktop, drawing away heat. That kind of passive cooling is often done with fins, but gratings were used here because the Pro will be installed in both vertical and rack-mounted horizontal configurations.
There is a chance that some of you reading this will genuinely be interested in acquiring the new Mac Pro. For you, the first question it needs to address is how well the new design overcomes the limitations of its predecessor. The second is how well it responds to accusations of neglect aimed at Apple from what is arguably its longest-standing user base. Given the late 2019 release date, it is generally thought too early to judge on either of these points.
The initial take from iFixit, though, is that the 2019 Mac Pro rates an extremely high 9 out of 10 for repairability. Its team’s main concerns are that some replacement parts may be extremely expensive (though these should be users with deep pockets) and that the computer uses custom Apple SSD memory cards authenticated for each individual machine by the T2 security chip (though there are plenty of other options and slots for memory expansion).
For the rest of us, though, there is innovation here. Not necessarily all of it will move down into Apple’s consumer and prosumer products, but the hope is that a good deal will.
Meanwhile, Apple has come up with a product that almost actively invites the user inside rather than posting ‘Keep Out’ all over the place.
It is true that the larger desktop form factor has always allowed more room for modularity, but as ‘right to repair’ becomes an increasingly global issue – and not just because of the war on built-in obsolescence but also recyclability concerns – iFixit may be right in noting that Apple and others increasingly see new and impending legislation as “downright scary” and are responding in kind.
Apple Mac Pro: key components
1. Heat sink
2. Cooling fans
3. Outer chassis/passive cooling array
8. CPU pad
9. Expansion rack support
10. Heat sink
12. Feet (4x)
14. Heat spreader
15. RAM sticks (4x)
16. SSD memory
17. RAM cover
18. Support bracket
19. Support bracket
20. Heat sink shroud
21. RAM cover
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