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Thursday, January 09, 2014, 07:30 am PT (10:30 am ET)

Review: Apple's redesigned late 2013 Mac Pro

After years of waiting, pro users finally get a completely revamped Mac designed specifically to suit their needs, complete with bespoke chassis, high-powered internals and a price tag to match.

Mac Pro


"Beautiful," "exquisite," "sexy," "revolutionary." All these superlatives and more have been used to describe the new Mac Pro. With its cylindrical body, unique interior configuration and abundant power on tap, the machine may well be the next generation of computer.

What Apple has done, or is attempting to do, with the Mac Pro is break decades of thinking inside the box. Literally.

In building the new Mac Pro, Apple not only created a machine for professionals and enthusiasts, but crystalized its vision of the future of computing: a vastly expandable platform built on a powerful core unit, with high-speed I/O tendrils extending to daisy-chain-able external devices. Gone are easily swappable internal HDDs; the cavernous space for aftermarket components shrunken and replaced with a unique thermal core. About the only user-friendly add-on is RAM, but even that is limited to four DIMM slots.

All this change comes at a price, however, in both unit cost and usability. Starting at $3,000 for a base machine, Apple is certainly not targeting the everyday consumer.

Design



The new Mac Pro is perhaps the most radical generational design change Apple has attempted. The company eschewed the tried-and-true rectangular tower form factor in favor of a cylinder with compartmentalized innards. This is not a simple rejiggering of BTX logic board design; the Mac Pro was designed from the ground up to be completely different. To call it a rethinking of the modern computer would not be hyperbole.

Applying knowledge gained from "designing down" small form factor laptops, iPad and iPhones, Apple managed to squeeze a beast of a machine into a chassis only slightly larger than a shoebox. By now, we've all seen the promotional material touting the Mac Pro's cylindrical superstructure, its highly-polished surface and monolithic build. Watching videos online and seeing a product in person are two totally different things, however.

Mac Pro


Lifting the box — which itself is a study in minimalist packaging with a two-piece polystyrene skeleton holding the $3,000-plus Mac Pro in place — one quickly realizes how much tech Apple condensed into the small six-inch round footprint. On that note, the box contains only three things: the Mac Pro, its power cord and the usual welcome/quick start packet.

Weighed as a whole, the 9.9-inch tall Mac Pro comes in at 11 pounds. Considering the extruded aluminum outer shell with incorporated locking mechanism weighs in at just over two pounds, that leaves the inner heat sink (thermal core), fan, circuit boards and substructure at under nine pounds. Astonishing for a computer boasting workstation-class components.

Mac Pro


Save for an Apple logo screened out in raw aluminum on the rear of the machine, everything is black. Even the included Apple stickers and power cable are black; the polar opposite of Apple's traditional white aesthetic.

Sitting on a desk, the Mac Pro melts into its surroundings. The polished skin is highly reflective, yet not "shiny." In direct sunlight the black paint is almost iridescent. Fingerprints are a problem if you want to keep it looking brand new, and our test unit gathered quite a few as we constantly connected and disconnected external drives, cameras and other electronics.

The rear ports easily blend in with the all-black facade, which is nice until you have to use them. To aid in nighttime or dark room operation, Apple includes a bank of LEDs behind the rear panel that light up automatically when the computer is swiveled. The power button also has a built-in glowing LED somewhat like the old PowerMac G4 except in black aluminum.

Mac Pro


Helping keep the Pro low profile is an almost complete lack of noise. Apple obviously spent a lot of time on thermal design. When covered, the computer is almost like a smokestack, with collected heat rising naturally out of the well-ventilated top. A single large fan with custom blades allow for low-RPM operation, thus reducing noise. In use, a pillar of air is constantly being blown out through the top opening, but motor noise is near zero from anything more than inches away.

Mac Pro


Lifting the shell reveals three panels' worth of circuitry, as well as access to system RAM DIMM slots. On our two test beds, the quad-core came with three 4GB sticks of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC made by Hynix, leaving one slot open for expansion. The 6-core version came with four 4GB Hynix modules. As seen in the above image, the DIMM layout is graphically represented in "About this Mac," which in this case is showing the stock 12GB included with the 4-core machine.

Removing individual DIMMs is accomplished by lifting a bay release latch that frees a two-slot spring-loaded harness. The system is symmetrical, meaning both sides operate identically, while slots are numbered for convenience. Like past Mac Pros, DIMMs are attached and held in place via pressure exerted by the socket.

Mac Pro


Not much else is easily user-replaceable. The internal SSD can be removed with the right tools, but finding a third-party component to match will be impossible for the foreseeable future. Aside from the custom form factor, Apple's SSD is built with a PCI Express x4 pinout, not quite an industry standard at this point.

The drive is located on the external (or reverse) of the GPU circuit board, keeping it away from heat generated by the processor and dual graphics cards. Air still flows over these external components, though most is sucked up from the central thermal core to which all integral circuitry is attached.

Rounding out the machine's rear connections are two Gigabit Ethernet ports powered by Broadcom's BCM57762 controllers. Each is linked up to its own PCI bus with x1 link width.

Taken as a whole, the new Mac Pro's design is one of Apple's best case studies in form following function.

Performance



We tested the two standard Mac Pro configurations as offered through the Online Apple Store. The entry level model comes with a 3.7GHz quad-core Intel Xeon E5 CPU, 12GB of 1866MHz DDR ECC RAM, dual AMD FirePro D300 workstation GPUs with 2GB GDDR5 VRAM each and a 256GB PCIe SSD. Apple's second-tier Pro boasts a 3.5GHz 6-core Intel Xeon E5 processor, 16GB of memory, dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs with 3GB GDDR5 VRAM each and a 256GB SSD. The higher-spec'd version comes at a $1000 premium.

Mac Pro


While two "base models" are offered, the 6-core build is simply preconfigured with higher-end components out of the gate. The quad-core version can be configured to identically match the 6-core's specifications at the same price.

From the starting point, both can be kitted out with a 3.0GHz 8-core with 25MB of L3 cache or a 2.7GHz 12-core CPU with 30MB of L3 cache, as well as dual D700 GPUs with 6GB of VRAM each. Users can mix and match unregistered DIMMs in most 16GB and 32GB configurations, but the Pro requires registered memory when maxed out at 64GB.

Mac Pro


On page 2 of 2: CPU choices, Graphics, Storage, Thunderbolt 2 and displays, Odds and ends, Discounts, & Ratings.