I’ve owned a Mac Pro, almost since they were first released. I got by with a Mac Pro 1,1 from circa 2006 until just after founding this website, back in 2011 (actually I technically owned two of them, as the first one was stolen shortly after I bought it). Shortly after, I sold that (it held its value staggeringly well) and put the money from that towards an Apple-refurbished June 2010 (this was at the time when no-one was sure if Apple was going to be discontinuing the Mac Pro line entirely or not).
The Mac Pro has been my gaming rig of choice for the past 6 years (I do also own a console and a couple of handhelds, but those don’t get as much of my attention), and that includes gaming on OS X (of course) and Windows. With the release of the new Retina iMac, as well as my continued disappointment in the inability to switch out graphics cards on the 2013 Mac Pro models (swanky as they otherwise may be), I’ve been doing the unthinkable and considering selling my beloved Mac Pro and embracing the iMac.
I was all for getting a Retina-enabled iMac, at least until I saw there were no Nvidia-based configurations for it (ATI drivers are just awful in Windows, which seems like an odd thing to consider when buying a Mac, but there you go), and the graphics chip it does have seems woefully underpowered for the job. So that idea was iced, at least until:
@ctrlcmdesc ? There are still the older ones.
— Ian Pickert (@ipickert55) October 18, 2014
An excellent point, and one which I hadn’t considered. The specs of the newer, non-Retina iMacs put my four-year-old Mac Pro to shame, even in the graphics department, which boasts a GTX 780M (4GB), which actually benchmarks higher than my current GTX 670 (in spite of the M suffix), and even that runs well enough that I’ve had no real desire to change it. Factor in thunderbolt, USB3 (although I did install a card into my Mac Pro to give me USB3), webcam, 802.11ac, bluetooth 4.0, speakers, and a 27-inch LED/IPS display and… yeah, I can barely make a case for holding on to the Mac Pro.
But before I go down that road, I wanted to properly eulogise the wonderful object that is the 5,1 Mac Pro.
The pre-2013 Mac Pros represent a wonderful time in Apple’s history. They were positioning themselves at the forefront of high-end tech, with Hollywood buying them up wholesale to make special effects-laden movies, hardcore developers buying them in droves for high-performance development. It went horribly wrong for Apple’s presence in Hollywood once Final Cut Pro X was released (and similarly Soundtrack Pro and Shake got canned); within the space of a year it seemed no-one in the film industry would consider buying a Mac for post-production work. They still bought Macs, of course, as producers love their MacBooks, and there’s still Avid for Mac-based editors, but without the software everyone was just starting to evangelise, this became a strict preference rather than a bonafide need. So it didn’t come as much of a surprise that the uptake of Mac Pros became the first casualty. The existing Mac Pro hardware was good enough to run the previous generation of Final Cut Studio and with every software of note running on both Mac and Windows, Mac Pro aficionados decided it wasn’t strictly a good idea to be so locked in to Apple-based solutions, when who knows what they might do in the future (case in point, photographers). And so the high-performance hardware became less desirable.
Still it served its purpose as a gaming rig extremely well. All the benefits of a customisable PC (provided you could get drivers for any hardware you put in, through official channels or other means), with the Mac OS and Apple’s trademark design.
What was particularly interesting to me though was that, as this was the only hardware product Apple were making that was designed to be taken apart, it was chock-full of smart little design touches, proving once again that Apple really have a knack for designing things that are more usable than anyone else. I mean, look Dell, HP, Lenovo, they’ve been building PCs for decades. Yet none of them thought to allow components to be swapped out without requiring any tools. The Mac Pro– you flick a switch on the back and the entire side of the case comes off. From there you can slide out the RAM boards or swap out PCI cards– another area where Apple demonstrated their ability to actually question whether the status quo was right and then installing a sliding clamp to hold cards in place, whilst every other computer on the planet required a screwdriver and a steady hand (and the sufferance of dropping those tiny screws down the side of the case).
This same level of consideration was found throughout the interior, with disk drives attached to a- get this- removable sled, meaning you could do the fiddly part of the process (bolting the drives on) from the comfort of a desk as opposed to fumbling around in the machine’s innards (it wasn’t future-proof though, this being 2010, apparently no-one at Apple foresaw there would be a need to install 2.5″ disks at some point, once SSDs were to become affordable, desirable, and unavailable in the 3.5″ form factor). And I can’t begin to tell you how quiet that thing is, especially when compared to more generic PCs.
As for the visual design, it’s one of the Apple products that has aged well. It’s both elegant and utilitarian, with carrying handles built into the design (as was the case with the G5 predecessors), just the right shade of grey aluminium, and the characteristic mesh down the front. Even the power light looks great, a tiny bright white dot. Compare that with the latest generation Mac Pros, which look more like spare parts for high-performance sports cars, and I’d go as far as saying the previous generation actually looks better. Bigger, sure, louder, ok, but fitting perfectly under the desk rather than on top of it, with cables hidden away rather than on show.
That’s not to say it was perfect. The DVD “Superdrive” was notoriously unreliable for one thing, with even my limited use of it causing the thing to stop being able to read discs at all (I replaced Superdrives no less than three times over the lifetime of a single Mac Pro, at which point I decided I’d just make do with an external USB one). Then there was the lack of internal power- you could plug in one extra PCI-E card that required power, but even then you’d have to order a cable separately. Any more than that and you’d be faced with installing a separate power supply unit, and possibly asking yourself if it was worth the hassle.
All told, I’ve had a Mac Pro for 8 years. I’m eager to find out now if the iMac can serve me that well.
(image courtesy applewallpapers.net)