Outpaced by iMac, where to now for the Mac Pro?

David Braue
27 November, 2009
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The latest iteration of Apple’s iMac family has created quite a stir, rocketing to the top of many computer buyers’ must-have lists and setting a new standard for a desktop computer’s default screen. Yet as the new iMacs – affectionately nicknamed ‘iBeast’ by many fans – fly off the shelves, Apple faces a new sort of challenge, this time of its own making.

That challenge, of course, is what to do with the Mac Pro, Apple’s traditional high-end Mac. Known for its legendary power – it was the first 8-core desktops on the market and has long been a favourite of designers and other professional Mac users – the Mac Pro has also had a pricetag to match its reputation. With a base quad-core configuration at $4499 and the 8-core setup starting at $5899, the Mac Pro was definitely not your average home computer.

With the quad-core i7 based iMac now turning in performance comparable to that of even the 8-core Mac Pro, however, Apple has created something of a conundrum for itself. How can it continue to justify the higher price of the Mac Pro when the systems don’t currently offer a performance advantage?

Some will argue that the Mac Pro’s highly expandable design will continue to make it a favourite of those who need massive amounts of RAM, storage space, RAID capabilities, 30-inch or larger displays, and the like. And yes, those users will still flock to the Mac Pro.

For the rest of us, however, the high-end iMac and its 27-inch screen – and the fact that it costs less than half the price of the Mac Pro that it outperforms – has all but eliminated any requirement to shell out for the Mac Pro. Yet while this may be good for consumers, it’s not great for Apple, which wants to be able to justify the great expense of the Mac Pro in order to pad out its bottom line.

This all begs a quite obvious question: what will the next generation of Mac Pro look like?

Many punters have already flagged the impending launch of ‘Beckton’, the successor to the ‘Nehalem’ Intel Xeon processors in the current Mac Pro, as a good sign of what’s to come in the Mac Pro line. These 8-core processors support up to 16 DDR3 RAM modules – think 64GB of RAM – per processor and are designed for high-end server environments in which companies run dozens of virtual servers simultaneously.

They’d also run Adobe InDesign pretty… darn… fast. Building the next-gen Mac Pro around one, two or even four of these chips would not only push the desktop performance envelope to new heights, but it would put Apple in a great position to transfer that expertise into its poor-cousin xServe lineup, which really deserves a lot more respect than it currently gets.

But power is nothing without applications, and here’s where Apple needs to play its cards right. Snow Leopard Server offers a robust a new operating system to support these capabilities, but it is still seen to sit outside the realm of acceptable business applications by many companies. If Apple could bridge these gaps to enterprise customers through better integration with Microsoft Windows Server 2008 – and offer a Mac Pro of similar capabilities for high-end desktop applications – that could hardly be a bad thing.

Ultimately, however, with so much power going into its desktop systems now, Apple may want to focus on its fundamental architecture to differentiate the Mac Pro even more. With its Grand Central Dispatch application-threading framework now built into Snow Leopard, Apple could bring applications to absolutely unmatchable new heights by pairing a Nehalem or Beckton-based system with scads of RAM and a highly-threaded application environment.

An internal implementation of xGrid, paired with the right Mac Pro architecture, could even bolster the environment by facilitating the distribution of Mac OS X tasks throughout the system. Give a Mac Pro four processors and a system bus that allows them to be logically treated as different computers, and Apple could sell the Mac Pro as a high-end computing cluster in a box.

It would be specced way too high for the majority of users, but those power users who want near-supercomputer capabilities in their high-end desktops wouldn’t be able to resist the lure of the Mac Pro.

However the Mac Pro actually emerges – I predict a March timeframe for the launch – Apple has the opportunity to set a new standard for its high-end systems. This time around, however, it won’t be simply a question of speed; the 27-inch i7 iMac has enough of that to go around. By considering its real audience and building a horizontally integrated new Mac Pro architecture to suit its needs, Apple can put daylight between the iMac and Mac Pro – and reassert its value once again.

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