Apple’s new Mac Pro: Does internal expandability really matter?

“Apple has announced its new Mac Pro professional desktop workstation, and it is 1/8th the volume of the old one,” Joel Santo Domingo writes for PC Magazine. “To get it so small, Apple had to remove one of the primary reasons to get a Mac Pro in the first place: There is no significant internal expansion space in the new 2013 Mac Pro.”

“Apple’s upcoming Mac Pro is an enigma. No, really, there’s a lot about the system we don’t yet know, including exactly which Xeon processors will be available, which dual AMD FirePro GPUs will be in the system, and the ultimate pricing of the Mac Pro,” Santo Domingo writes. “What we do know is that the system comes with replaceable PCIe flash storage as the main drive, four DIMM slots for 1,866MHz DDR3 ECC memory, and that everything is built around a massive heat sink with a single fan for cooling. The system comes with a HDMI port, four USB 3.0 ports, and six Thunderbolt 2 ports.”

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Santo Domingo writes, “Yes, you can connect USB 3.0 drives, Thunderbolt hard drives, and PCIe to Thunderbolt expansion boxes to the new Mac Pro. Expansion boxes like the ones from Sonnet and OWC let you pull the video input or graphics output card to your Thunderbolt Mac. They can also let you connect multiple eSATA drives to a Thunderbolt Mac if your company has standardized on eSATA drives. Displays aren’t a problem either: the system can support up to three 4K displays via Thunderbolt, but you can always connect a single HDMI display to the HDMI port and multiple DVI, VGA, or DisplayPort monitors using adapter cables. Functionally, external expansion can work just fine. External Expansion may work, but it is messy.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Who’s to say Apple or third parties won’t have stackable 6.6-inch diameter “expansion discs” that offer external drives, etc. that match and fit right underneath your Mac Pro and provide neat cord management solutions as well?

Think outside the box.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Fred Mertz” for the heads up.]

96 Comments

    1. The trick is that Apple really needs to have a lot of good, reasonably priced Thunderbolt options READY TO GO when that Mac Pro hits the streets–hard drives, raid, breakout boxes, etc. There are still woefully little options for Thunderbolt expansion.

      1. One man’s concern is another man’s opportunity. The new Mac Pro will offer fast-thinking third party manufacturers a great opportunity to offer an array of external solutions to people who want to purchase this gorgeous new Mac.

        I have a hunch too that many buyers of the Mac Pro will be more sophisticated than the usual readers of this website. What I allude to here is that in a corporate environment, many users will be hooked into network attached storage arrays and cloud storage in addition to the quickly declining expense for solid state internal or external storage stacks.

        As usual, PC Magazine is skating to where the puck was, not to where it’s headed. While I have always loved the vast array of drive bays and slots in the past generations of the Mac Pro tower, Apple sees a future where internal storage will become increasingly superfluous. That might sound strange now, but I trust that Apple’s engineering team have taken a hard look at where pro computing is headed.

        I once told a great graphic designer I was fortunate to work with that his job was to make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I explained that if I could see things as he did, then he wasn’t doing his job, which was to see things that I would not for quite some time. Apple has always been that way – the company’s visionaries have to see what we don’t – yet.

        Don’t worry. You will. Sooner or later.

        1. THIS is the post to read. Apple is skating to where the puck is headed. Apple has a pretty good record in this matter.

          I bet if you look at the total sum of MacPro installations, a very high percentage are already using external storage or SANs for their storage.

          Sounds a lot like the early reviews of iMacs – no internal expansion. We know how well those sold.

          1. The iMac is not, and never will be, a pro-level machine. To take the flagship workstation and remove its adaptability to legacy peripherals that, up until last week the old Mac Pro didn’t support at all, leaves prospective new Mac Pro buyers with a serious problem.

            We DO use all the connectivity options that our current Mac Pros offer, and have yet to come across a single dock that would replicate the functionality at any price.

            1. It depends on the Pro, what they do, and what they need. I know a lot of Pros (including this one) who will disagree with you about an iMac’s suitability for Pro-level work. Three G4 iMacs were way more than adequate to replace three 8100s when I moved to OS X.

            2. In what decade did you move to OS X ???

              Yes, we recall the days of the G4 Powermacs (our first OS X machine). 400 MHz processor I believe. Of course you can still use those machines for productive work — you just won’t be competitive with the rest of the industry if you attempt to do serious processing with anything less than the most powerful machines.

              Geekbench results:

              – Mac Pro, 2012 model, 12 cores X5675 processors: 21980 score
              – iMac, 27″ 2012 model, 4 cores i7-3770 processor: 12844 score

              With the old Mac Pro, you can accomplish 71% more work in the same time as the latest and greatest iMac. That’s significant.

      2. Hmm. Good point. People who buy the Mac Pro instead of a different Mac are probably REALLY cost-conscious and will be looking for reasonably-priced drives that don’t have that extra performance oomph.

        /sarcasm

        I mean, it would be nice, but my impression is that the Mac Pro is for people who prioritize speed/power over cost, so I think your comment is a bit silly.

    2. This is what I have in mind: an extension chassis that fits underneath the MacPro. This would allow loads of external disks, PCI slots etc.
      See .

      Note the similarity with the Cray1:

      1. Since Apple pre-anounced the new Mac Pro, third party manufactures have the ability to design and make their custom solutions for the new radically designed computer much closer to release time.

  1. Does internal expandability really matter? Absolutely YES. As a pro video editor I do need internal HD at affordable costs. In the moment I have 16 TB of HD inside my MacPro, 4 x 4 TB, plus 2 x 512 GB for boot and apps and user and so on. That was affordable since I could buy it separately with no extra case, with no extra charge for being Thunderbolt, and so on.

    As much as I love Apple, this MacPro is not the right one for me. It looks great, it will be really fast, but I will never ever stock external hard drives on my desk. To be honest, I am really sad about the fact that they forgot about users like me because I spent 250,000 Euros in Apple hardware over the last two years in my own company. I think, Apple made some money with me.

    However, I have a really fast 12-core 2010 Mac Pro with 64 GB of RAM, two displays, so it will still work for a couple of years.

      1. It **might** take up less space, but that storage is now going to cost roughly twice as much … and it will be louder (cooling fans) too.

        The alternative is remote storage, but it needs to be fast enough for the intended application … the Gigabit Ethernet on the ‘sneak peek’ needs to be replaced with 10Gbit to stand a chance.

        -hh

        1. You are assuming that TB will not come down in price. When iMacs first came out with USB standard, no one on the PC side used USB and it was “more expensive” then, too. As Apple pushes TB it will become more popular and drop in price. Watch.

          1. I wish that I could share the optimism behind your premise, but I’ve been through this before: SCSI in the 80s and 90s and then again with Firewire in the 90s and 00’s.

            Thunderbolt is already two years old and it hasn’t been picked up by mainstream Windows PCs…it is going to be more expensive forever.

            -hh

            1. You;re forgetting that there was a 1-year exclusivity between Intel and Apple for Thunderbolt. So, really, it has only been available to the mass market for about a year, and even then, designers knew that TB2 was on the brink, so it made sense to hold back.

            2. Unfortunately, there’s been excuse after excuse for why TB hasn’t taken off.

              Even the ‘Apple Exclusive’ year doesn’t cut it because this means that the WinTel PC manufacturers had an entire year to sort out and design their new PCs. Given how the PC clones rely on features to try to differentiate themselves from each other … since they can’t differentiate on OS … they historically have competed to be the first one out of the box with a new widget/feature.

              …and these TB-equipped PCs still did not hit the street back in 2012. So just where are they? Will they _ever_ come? It is history repeating itself, in the shades of Firewire 400, all over again.

              -hh

            3. You’re confusing excuses with facts.

              It is a fact that Apple had 1-year exclusivity on TB.

              It is a fact that it takes some time to design new internals to take advantage of new connectivity.

              It is a fact that most PC assemblers are privy to Intel’s roadmap.

              It is a fact that no company worth it’s salt is going to design and build out a machine with a chip that will be replaced by the time production levels can reach a reasonable point.

              It is a fact that TB is now ubiquitous across Apple’s computer lineup.

              It is a fact that Apple has been outgrowing the rest of the PC industry for years.

              It is a fact that this was not the case in the early days of Firewire.

              It is a fact that history does not always repeat itself.

            4. @gruvdone: true, history doesn’t always repeat itself, but certain fundimentals haven’t changed, such as how the Wintel PC clones still are all using Windows and are still looking for a good business case to successfully differentiate to make better profit margins.

              And sure, better chip versions do come along – – the facts here are that Apple adopted one of them last year (April 2012)…and yet, still no other new contenders have really joined the TB club.

              Similarly, the “ubiquitous at Apple” claim doesn’t hold water well, because Firewire had been ubiquitous too for a decade. Sure, you can point to Apple not ‘outgrowing’ back in 2001, but that’s really just an excuse: FW was already ubiquitous across the Apple product lines. The facts are that it functionally required the rise of eSATA as a standard and viable competitive alternative more than a half decade later to get FW’s prices to finally moderate.

              So while history is never a reliable predictor of the future, it is useful to illustrate likely patterns and trends … my personal guess is that TB won’t get to within 10% or so of current alternatives (mostly USB3) until probably sometime around 2018.

              If you believe it is giong to be dramatically sooner, that’s your opinion … but I’ll make you a ‘friendly wager’ offer: provide us with the date when you’ll sell me a brand new WD 2 x 3TB Thunderbolt array for $300. This product sells for $600 today (IIRC, LaCie), whereas the $300 is what a pair of WD Reds retail for today. Overall, this illustrates that the current “Tax” for a TB enclosure is around $300, and since history does tell us to reasonably expect that 3TB drives will continue to come down in price, that’s where you’ll have budget for including the cheap TB enclosure that you’re effectively promising. Deal? BTW, please consider making your date in time for Christmas 2014, as I expect that I’ll need to add another 6TB of storage by then.

              -hh

    1. I predict you’ll be eating those words. Modular expansion is surely the way to go, and the way if the future. You won’t have a stack of messy drives on your desk, you’ll have a nice thunderbolt chassis or NAS, with its own power supply and ability to connect it to a different machine or easily carry it somewhere else when necessary. It’s safer, more flexible, and more convenient to upgrade.

      1. Let’s say all of this expandability is possible. Let’s also say for argument sake that all PCIe cards and drives (and whatever else) can be accommodated externally, neatly and without speed loss.
        What are all these specialty, third party expansion units going to cost? Just put the name “Thunderbolt” on anything and the cost goes up exponentially.
        You know Apple is not going to drop the price on the new MacPro. Include all the other 3rd party add-ons, and we’re going to have a system considerably more expensive than the last one.

        1. Are TB only usable by one machine at a time? If you can share them, then the extra cost can be spread over more than one Mac. I suspect that the extra cost associated with TB will be a growing pain that will lessen as more people use it and competition drives prices down.

        2. The total cost of ownership could be lower in many situations. Just a Mac Pro is cheaper, as a workstation when there’s no need for optical drives, disk bays, or PCIe cards. Distributed computing would also be cheaper – when all you need are multiple Mac Pros for their CPU’s. Users with many different types of PCIe cards could even save money because of the convenience of multiple computers sharing PCIe cards in a thunderbolt chassis.

      1. Unfortunately, you have it slightly backwards – the higher end (“Pro”) operator does usually opt for better drives – but he’s also buying MORE of them. As such, he’s not hit with a one time “TB Tax” of $200, but instead is bled with a recurring tax on every drive purchased going forward. Sure, there will be some work-arounds, such as a Voyager running on its eSATA port to a TB adaptor … But don’t forget to pay the TB cable tax too…

        -hh

    2. Pro’s (vs prosumers) have to charge handily for their time (for numerous reasons) and so need professional grade devices not “affordable” devices. (for a “pro” performance, reliability, and pipeline are far more important than “getting them cheap”) Add to that, that most pro’s use a central storage (SAN) for assets.
      I actually like the modular approach, IMHO it makes more sense for pro’s and prosumers alike; -Configurable without waste for the one man shop cutting wedding videos out of his house, all the way up to a large production post/edit/compositing facility.

    3. I guess many users like you will move on and adopt external storage as indeed they should.

      Why?

      Firstly, with 20Gbits coming, you can truly saturate a TB RAID array with an internal eSATA interface: if a drive has a sustained transfer rate of around 150MB/s (1200Mb/s), your 3Gb/s eSATA interface is going to be a choke point. Whereas the ability to throw 20 Gb/s lets you saturate 8 drives in a RAID6 configuration, which is about 22TB as a single LUN which you can then partition into multiple volumes.

      Also, you haven’t considered what would happen in a catastrophic failure of your Mac or if it’s stolen; most thieves wouldn’t bother following a 3m TB cable to the peripheral – they’ll pull everything out and make a quick getaway with the Mac.

      If you are using RAID and your Mac blows up, that internal RAID array is probably going to be useless – speaking as someone who has had to help data centres recover from internal RAID card failures, you are far better served by a proper unit with redundant or active/active failover.

    4. I doubt you’ve every seen a professional video editor. Pros don’t use internal storage. Every video guy I know has tons of external drives because its much faster to swap drives then it is to copy a 100g project file. And USB 3 cases are cheap and faster than most spinning drive can transfer anyway.

  2. Not if you’re an iMovie Pro user. If you’re a Final Cut professional user, sure internal storage is a must. But Apple has taken the route of dumbing down its hardware and candy store iOS, so that’s really nothing new.

    And so, the dumbing down of Apple begins – form trumps function.

    1. It’s actually the opposite. Do you think super computers and severs have all their storage internal? Of course not. Everything is modular. Racks of processors, racks of storage, racks of interface.

      1. Too true! I remember visiting Boeing Computer Services in the 80s: they had an entire floor that was DASD, another for tape drives, another forthright mainframes.

      2. True, true. Fact is, external has been the standard for most computers throughout the history of computing. Only the PC has required internal expansion of most everything and that has been an issue. How many people have looked for the computer with the right case to fit their junk rather than the one with the best central core.

        This machine looks to be an insane work horse. If they are able to price it right, it will be amazing. I do hope that third party companies do it right, using stackable, black, 6.5″ cylinders for their casings complete with good cable management.

    2. I’m not sure that I agree. Internal storage takes up space, and is not as fast if its on a hard drive as flash. Your main use of storage is for assets such as video and audio, which if TB is fast enough to manage them over an external expansion, then I’m not sure why you can claim that it is a “must”.

  3. One way to look at it is you won’t be paying for internal expansion you don’t need.

    If you need eight external Thunderbolt boxes, great – go buy them. If you’re just using Xcode, you’re not paying for empty PCI slots on the MLB. Hopefully, that will be reflected in the price.

    One concern is that those FireGL cards are clearly custom-made; that will probably raise the cost.

  4. “Who’s to say Apple or third parties won’t have stackable 6.6-inch diameter “expansion discs” that offer external drives, etc. that match and fit right underneath your Mac Pro and provide neat cord management solutions as well?”
    Took the words right out of my mouth basically. Why not design an external case that is stackable to go under the Mac Pro. Messy? I don’t think so. The Mac Pro is so small that it’s own foot print is tiny comparable to anything on the market with that kind of power.

  5. Looks like this is a reflection of doing a “box” that reflects how most users use their MacPros. Seems like a logical move to simplify, lower power use and leave the extras to the smaller % of users who need them.

    People who want to push the limits get external HDs, NAS, USB docks and other devices, so these power users already rely on external devices.

    For people who “want it all”, there is always a Dell.

  6. It’s a very risky move for the professional community that require function over fashion. The fact that everything in this machine is going to be BTO and only able to upgrade with apple parts ( more than likely ) is going to piss people off…

    The form factor and the expansion I would imagine should help the price of this monster, but I have a feeling it’s going to be very expensive right out of the box, not cool…

    This is a very strange place to be… Apple is already in deep shit with the pros for not having upgrades… Ya it’s 2x faster than the current mac pro… It better be after the shitty upgrade they gave it!

    I’m crossing my fingers that this thing isn’t the 20th anniversary mac or the toaster.

    1. These are the kinds of comments that frustrate me. Just because the Mac Pro has a radical new physical redesign, it does not mean that Apple chose this form over function. If anything, it’s precisely the opposite. The shape of this machine was born as an ingenious solution to the oldest problem with powerful workstations – heat management.

      Additionally, the pervious design of the Mac Pro (and really all desktop computers for that matter) saw it’s expandability options limited by what the internals could directly support. This is no longer the case. With Thunderbolt 2.0 having speeds that leave the legacy SATA bus in the dust, expanding externally for the first time becomes a feasible reality, and it means we are no longer limited to 4 SATA connections, and 4 PCI Slots. Indeed, you could have entire raids or SANS running at speeds faster than fiber for less outlay, you could have a box with 8 GPU’s attached as well for those using apps and render engines that would benefit from that sort of thing. The bottom line is, Apple has stopped dictating limits of expandability to its pro users with this new machine, and have instead offered us the most customizable Mac in history.

      Finally – how in the world did you arrive at the conclusion that the external expandability peripherals would be limited to offerings from Apple? Sure, Apple will have some things, but if you think that 3rd parties aren’t going to get involved and have offerings of their own tells me you simply have not been paying attention.

    2. THIS is really the point.

      Expansion may not be as fast as it could be with a PCIe card cage not being able to run faster than a single 4x PCIe interface.But most hard drives and other “external” devices are unlikely to surpass TB 2.

      The issue is NOT being able to upgrade it.

      In the current Mac Pro you’re stuck with an old processor. Buy a current Mac Pro and you don’t get the current generation processor. You don’t even get the prior generation processor. You get a two generation old processor. Without *A LOT* of work you cannot upgrade the processor. You’re stuck.

      Contrast that with the video card(s) (or compute cards if you’re a hard core OpenCL user). You can buy a Titan card today — the single, fastest, single GPU card on the market today and get it to work in the current Mac Pro. If you’re into number crunching, that upgrade from Apple’s 5870 to a Titan is a huge jump. The thing is, you CAN do it without a lot of pain. That’s very different than the CPU situation.

      Now with the new Mac Pros both the CPU and the GPUs are custom to the new enclosure. The video cards are not standard PCIe cards. They are going to be made only for Apple (possibly with an extremely small gray market). When the next generation GPUs hit the street will Apple offer a reasonably priced upgrade? Based upon history the answer to that is not only “No.” but more likely “HELL NO!”

      And the chance of AMD or Nvidia making a custom card as an aftermarket upgrade for this new Mac Pro? About as good as winning a $500+ million lottery and the trifecta at Churchill Downs on the same day.

      1. You make some good points; I should point out that though the throughput won’t hit the speed of the new models OWC does have CPU upgrades that will give you that 2nd processor or more cores for specific apps. They work well, no issues, have for quite some time. Incremental, sure. They and Sonnet also have the Thunderbolt-connected chassis to connect to a large pool of data.

  7. This is all fine and good, but there’s another major market Apple is missing: science & industry. In the real world, there are tens of thousands of companies who need other kinds of expansion besides hard disks and monitors. There are data acquisition cards, controllers of electronic equipment, industrial process and control systems. These all usually have some kind of PCI card stuck in their computers (just look at the non-video/hard disk expansion market for PCs).

    Of course, ideally, all these things will be connectible via Thunderbolt, but Apple is passing on a huge market and I never understood why they’re leaving this money on the table.

    There’s no such thing as an “embedded Mac” like there is embedded Windows. These are the true trucks of computing and I wish Apple would enter this market…

    1. Good analogy… The old Mac pro was a gigantic 4×4 pickup, and you could outfit and configure the bed in a lot of ways, or haul sizeable equipment in it.

      The new Mac Pro is a much smaller 4×4 with a more powerful engine, but you can’t fit as much into/onto the bed, and you need a separate trailer to haul the same-sized equipment as before.

      1. If it’s a pickup then it’s a little monster truck with a gigantic trailer hitch that you can connect or disconnect anything you what at any time. You’re not stuck dragging that giant old 4×4 every time you go to lunch.

    2. That’s the beauty of this new Mac Pro. If you need PCI expansion, get a Thunderbolt PCI expansion enclosure. Almost anything can be made to connect the thunderbolt IO bus.

      1. Yes, but what if I want to embed a Mac into my ATM or medical device? What if I want more power than a Mac mini and anyway don’t want to buy the housing etc? What I do? I use Windows. 🙁

      2. Many PCIe cards can be connected with a Thunderbolt device like the OWC Helios.

        The included eSATA ports for fast external drives is fast enough even for many of the pros

        Evevn the

        1. Sure – you can spend $630 on a Helios PLUS a $50 cable in order to gain less than a TB of additional storage — prices go up from there.

          With the current Mac Pro, one buys a ~$100 hard drive and slides it in the drawer.

          Tell me again, which is the more user-friendly design?

          1. Exactly right, but it depends on *which* Mac Pro (or computer) truly suits your needs and your workflow, not just one workstation. Lots you can do with the 2010-2012 models. A single 1.0 TB drive ($100) might not be enough. There o comparison in read/write speeds between that $100 drive and a dual SSD in the Helios, again, if that’s what you need.

            Meanwhile, a Helios works with with almost all other current model Macs as well, and not just for data storage.

            1. As of this time next year, it appears “which” Mac Pro is correct for users will not be an option, as Apple presumably will only offer black cylinders. So any current Pro user will have no choice in the matter. To graduate to the most powerful machine, one will also have to retire or re-integrate his legacy hard drives with some 3rd party solution which, I predict, will neither be as simple as internal expansion, nor as cost effective. Time will tell.

              Don’t get me wrong, the new Mac Pro will be a must-have. The problem is that Apple flipped the switch from ZERO Thunderbolts & USB3 support on the Mac Pro to a situation where Thunderbolt drives are almost a MUST have, and the peripheral manufacturers simply don’t offer any cost effective solutions. One does not need lightning fast read-write speeds for archived files, folks.

            2. True, we’ve been channeled to Thunderbolt. Because of that it’s a long window of time before a fully functional new Mac Pro is feasible, or available. The current models will be discontinued, sure, but why not act when they are still available for at least 3 months, likely more. Though they are not a fit for all, the vast majority can outfit the current models to fit their workflow, whether it’s the archives or the throughout as the focus of the equation. The current models will last for years for the majority of pro users, which is a wide range of users.

    3. It may feel like a sizable market to us tech geeks who use these things in industry but the reality is that this is a very small market compared to the consumer market. The $$$ they’re leaving on the table are not terribly significant to their bottom line.

      Apple’s main reason for remaining in this market is because they want to be seen as industry leaders who know how to design and manufacture high performance equipment. That public impression can translate into increased sales of their mainstream consumer devices.

  8. Exactly MDN, I envision a doughnut shaped expansion unit that will stack underneath the Mac Pro providing access to a variety of purpose built utilities. All the cabling could be channelled through the centre of the doughnut.
    In its simplest form, the doughnut could act as a spool for all manners of cables. On the basis that the majority of cables do not exceed a diameter of 5 mm, A 10 cm high doughnut could contain 6 lockable spring loaded cables who’s length would only be limited by the diameter of the doughnut. Unlock a cable and the spring automatically rewinds the cable back into the doughnut.
    In answer to the question, Yes, Internal expandability does matter to professionals just as external always has.

  9. Storage is relatively slow, so even if users are 1) inconvenienced and 2) pay more for external TB housing, it’s still an option, even for PCIe flash storage.

    But as I’ve written before, one area that’s really crippled by externalization is video cards. Even medium-range GPUs have data transfer rates that far exceed the 20 Gb/s-per-channel of TB2.

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