I don’t think there’s any doubt that Apple is rethinking how the Mac Pro fits into their product line. I give it one more major refresh before it’s discontinued. There reasons for this are vast, which include lower volume of sales and Apple’s focus on consumer rather than the “professional” market.
Back in the 90s and even at the start of the 2000s, I loved being able to swap things like hard drives and video cards very easily, without having to reach for a set of Torx screwdrivers. My next desktop computer will undoubtedly be a fully spec’d out iMac. If there is one major component I can’t sacrifice on any of my computers, it’s the graphics card. I don’t play a ton of games on my Mac, but when I do, I want the absolute best performance I can get since I won’t be able to upgrade the GPU. This strategy seems to serve me well, as I typically keep my Mac for about three years, I want to squeeze every last ounce of power I can get, for as long as I can get it.
In 2011, we saw the introduction of Thunderbolt enabled iMacs, MacBook Pros, and MacBook Airs. As Apple continues on their trend with making solid state storage the de facto standard, it only makes sense that we turn to more robust and insanely fast Thunderbolt external storage solutions. So am I a bit sad that such an amazingly capable machine like the Mac Pro may be on its way out? Sure, of course I am. The nerd in me who likes to tinker is crying a bit right now as I write this.
In the grand scheme of things, even though the primary audience for the kind of upgradability and expansion options the Mac Pro offers is all but the smallest sliver of the market, those who do use these workhorses will be initially disappointed. From professional musicians to animators, the Mac Pro has been the only option to choose since its debut in 2006 (and the G5, G4 and G3 Power Macs before).
With any major product change, historically we tend to see the initial uproar of people who will complain, but in time will end up getting used to things and then wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. The iMac is more than capable — if not surpasses the current Mac Pro — of handling any task you can throw at it.
Thunderbolt is great technology, and although the external storage solutions available today are still on the expensive side, this will change very soon. As more manufacturers tool up their production lines to pump out Thunderbolt accessories, this is going to be how professionals who need to daisy chain multiple devices get things done.
Speaking of daisy chaining, as a musician, I wonder what Thunderbolt means for external audio solutions in the future. Apple still supports and ships FireWire 800 ports on their products, but how long until it gets put out to pasture? Clearly Apple is hoping and pushing for Thunderbolt to be the single, and perhaps best way of connecting things together.
The throughput and robustness of a Thunderbolt connection is far superior to that of FireWire. Not only is the connector itself simple, it allows you to do neat things like run just one cable from your Macbook Pro to your Thunderbolt Display. The Thunderbolt cable combines PCI Express and DisplayPort into a serial data interface, so it combines the MagSafe power connector and DisplayPort connector into one, which just so happens to send Ethernet over the wire as well (that is the neat part). Another advantage of Thunderbolt is that it can be carried over long distances, and technically can be made using less expensive cabling. I don’t know if Thunderbolt cables are cheaper to produce than FireWire, since I can’t find any information on that (perhaps someone can help there).
One major problem for professional musicians who use Mac Pros and multi-track audio editing software like Protools HD, is that these kinds of solutions require full-sized PCI Express expansion cards with Digital Signal Processing CPUs. For obvious reasons, the iMac is not well suited to fit these kinds of expansion cards. This can mean only one thing: audio equipment manufacturers are going to need to start making Thunderbolt enabled external audio solutions. Luckily for those that have concerns over audio hardware, an extra logic board could be added to existing devices already in production, which means you wouldn’t need to scrap the product and redesign the innards from scratch.
As 2012 products roll out from Apple, I’ll be waiting to see how things play out. I’ll be really surprised if the Mac Pro lasts more than one more refresh. I think we all know in our hearts, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” will the plug be pulled.