Three days with Apple's new Mac Pro: incredible speed that will accelerate with time
The Mac Pro is here. It is very fast now, and as developers get a handle on the machine and what it can do, it will only get faster.
After a half-year wait, the Mac Pro has shipped. We knew that it would be a conversation-generating subject — but we all grossly underestimated how complex a topic it would be. From a technical standpoint and from ongoing discussions about what it means to Pro users now and in the future, this latest Mac demands to be examined and delved into.
AppleInsider has been testing two different configurations of the Mac Pro since last week. We've been able to use the "low end" $5999 configuration, as well as the 24-core configuration with the Vega II Duo video card, the Afterburner card, and 192GB of RAM worth $22,199.
With these or any other configuration, it should go without saying that the Mac Pro is complete and utter overkill for daily tasks and for most users. Your money could — and really should — be better spent elsewhere.
What the Mac Pro is, and what the Mac Pro is not
Apple's original Mac Pro back in 2006 had configurations as low as $2199. But from a price to performance standpoint, it was the quad-core 2.66 GHz machine at $2499 that had the best bang for the buck. When you hear people remembering the Mac Pro, it was the great days of the $2499 model.
There were higher-end models too. The quad-2.66 and the 2.0GHz model were aimed at the market that Apple had previously served with the lower-end G5 towers, and the lower-priced G4 towers before that. The lower end of the lineup had tower-like pricing, and the higher-ends had pricing more similar to the workstations of the day.
As released in 2019, the new $5999 Mac Pro has more in common with those higher-end configurations from back in the day. And it is competitively priced similar to Windows workstations.
There is an argument to be made that there is value in a configurable tower with consumer-oriented Intel processors, one that we have made before. The Mac Pro as it stands today is not that, and wasn't ever intended to be that — and that is also an argument we have made before.
As has been robustly discussed in the AppleInsider forums, perhaps Apple would have been better served calling the new Mac Pro, the "Mac Workstation" or something similar to break the fixed mindset of the halcyon quad 2.66GHz Mac Pro. But, it didn't, so here we are.
It's okay to like the Mac Pro for what it is — a reasonably priced workstation — and still think that an Apple-engineered midrange tower like that 2.66GHz Mac Pro is a good idea. The two concepts aren't mutually contradictory, nor should they be wedded.
Mac Pro in the real world
One of our sources that we've relied on for over two decades has a very computationally-intensive task that can easily be broken up into sub-tasks and performed with GPU assistance. We really can't delve into the specifics of the application or the calculation, but the need for it has remained static over the years. And, the more timely the result, the better.
At the beginning of our relationship before the turn of the century, the calculation took three days to perform. Even as recently as 2016, the same task would take one full day.
On the Mac Pro 2019, on Sunday night, it took just a hair under four minutes using the 24-core Mac Pro configuration with a single Vega II Duo card, and the Afterburner.
The speed improvements go beyond just custom software. As a general rule, on the eight-core Mac Pro, we're seeing video encode times half of what they are on a high-end i9 MacBook Pro. The Mac Pro hit about 96 percent total CPU utilization.
The same encode on the 24-core model halves the shorter time again with about 80% total CPU utilization — leaving power for other tasks at the same time without impacting encoding times. It's the early days of our testing, but we also see 10-bit 8K video processing faster than real-time.
Between that, some other less-intensive video work that we've done, and other observations that we've made so far, even the "low end" is a brutally fast, incredibly quiet machine.
The total Mac Pro package
Hardware and operating system are two points of the computing triangle — the third is software. The software that had the incredible speed gains that we cited earlier is custom, and the coders responsible for the application in question have historically jumped on new macOS features immediately, like Metal 2.
Other developers aren't there yet. Because of that, the Mac Pro is built for tomorrow for most, not today. But, that's okay, as long as you're forward-thinking, as tomorrow is always on the way.
Metal has been around for more than half a decade, and has had slow uptake outside of Apple's walls. Setting the table for the Mac Pro, Apple shipped Metal 2 in macOS Catalina in anticipation of its new hardware, using Metal Peer Groups to rapidly share data between multiple GPUs in the new Mac Pro without hitting the CPU or system memory so hard.
This isn't seamless, though. Applications need to be correctly coded to take advantage of Metal 2 APIs. And, that Afterburner card has uses outside of Apple's prescribed ones, but it also requires just the right kind of workflow, and coding to boot.
There are other considerations. Our testing has so far shown that even under massive load, Photoshop won't use more than 10 cores. Other software has similar limitations, but we expect these limits to disappear as developers update software to fully leverage the new hardware.
Not everything can use the Afterburner card, so videographers will need to assess their software to see if that Afterburner makes sense, or if another video card will.
Like when Apple shifted to Intel, it's going to take a while for coders to take full advantage of what Apple has brought to the table with the Mac Pro. And, when it settles out, your sweet spot in the vast Mac Pro price range will vary.
And, these code improvements will have a positive impact on folks that don't have the Mac Pro.
No one true Pro, no one true Pro workflow
Every single AppleInsider reader has a unique workflow, and everybody has specific needs.
We've said it before, you don't need the Mac Pro to be a pro, and having a Mac Pro doesn't by default make you a pro. We aren't fans of Apple's wide-brush use of the term, but what you can always assume is that the products that have the name applied, are higher-end than the ones that don't.
What we know so far is that the Mac Pro is an incredibly powerful machine. Today, it isn't as fast as it will be in just a few months as more and more software takes advantage of what it brings to the table.
If you've gotten this far, you already know if you need one for work, or if the time-savings you will glean from it are worth it to you or your organization versus what it costs.
Still a lot to talk about
Since the Mac Pro debuted at WWDC, we've discussed what the machine will do with the target market, and what it can do for them. Now that the rubber has hit the road, these conversations have kicked into high-gear, and we've found that this is still very much a learning experience for everybody. Assumptions are being challenged, for better and worse,
Because of all this, our full review of the Mac Pro is going to take some time, and there will be a lot of steps along the way as we dive deeper into the hardware.
Where to buy
Apple's Mac Pro starts at $5,999 and can run upwards of $53,000. Discounts are available now, though, with savings of up to $1,600 off.