Has the Mac Pro Lived Up to Its Promise of Modularity?

The Mac Pro redesign of 2019 was one of the biggest overhauls of an Apple product since — well, ever. Nothing was left untouched, from the exterior design to the internal components. Yet nothing made Mac enthusiasts salivate more than Apple’s promise of extensive modularity.

Two years later, how well has that promise been realized? Looking at the selection of what Apple offers today, you won’t find much beyond the components and modules that were initially launched in 2019. On the surface, that calls into question how serious Apple has been about following through with its promise.

I spoke with a number of Mac Pro creatives who employ the $50,000 machine in their everyday professional work. Has it met their exceedingly high demands, or is its expandability far more limited than they had hoped?

Setting expectations

Apple Mac Pro at WWDC 2019

Before the Mac Pro even saw the light of day, Apple execs Craig Federighi, Phil Schiller, and John Ternus granted an interview with a number of journalists where they touted the modular nature of the upcoming machine. Of course, this being Apple, “modularity” was unlikely to mean a totally customizable system like a traditional PC. Still, it seemed to signal a notable departure from the company’s viselike grip on its products and what you’re permitted to do with them.

That set certain expectations among prospective Mac Pro users like John Traunwieser, a recording and mixing engineer at Oscar-nominated film composer John Powell’s studio. In many ways, he is the intended audience for the Mac Pro.

Traunwieser’s needs were very specific heading into the launch of the Mac Pro.

“The three biggest concerns for us were PCIe expansion, having a rack mount option, and a dual CPU option,” he explained. “Based on the 2013 design, I was thinking that PCIe wasn’t a concern for some users, so I thought there would be several pieces to the modularity. A CPU chassis (single or dual) with I/O options, then a separate attachable chassis for hot-swappable storage options, and a separate chassis for PCIe expandability options. That way, you can buy what you need in the moment or upgrade later.”

Obviously, his grand expectations for that amount of modularity never fully materialized. Traunwieser still seemed content with what was eventually announced though.

“In terms of modularity and expansion, the Mac Pro has been exactly what we expected.”

“When the final design was released,” he continued, “it didn’t quite turn out as the ultimate modular machine that I had envisioned, however it did satisfy most of what we wanted in a single chassis.”

Before the 2019 redesign, Traunwieser and his colleagues were still struggling along on 2012 Mac Pro machines, modifying them “to squeeze every last bit of performance that we needed from them,” as he put it. They managed to avoid being boxed into what Apple’s Craig Federighi termed the “thermal corner” of the 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro.

When it comes to the 2019 model, though, Traunwieser seemed much more satisfied. For musicians and audio engineers, though, many of the Mac Pro’s innovations around graphics go untapped. That’s where someone involved in the film industry brings a different perspective on the utility of the Mac Pro.

Steve Freebairn is a digital imaging technician and co-owner of Freehill Productions, which has worked on films in the Marvel franchise. For Freebairn, the finished product was closer to what he had always envisioned the Mac Pro to be.

“In terms of modularity and expansion, the Mac Pro has been exactly what we expected,” he explained. “We’ve all been building systems, testing equipment, and solving new challenges for years with computer equipment, so we’re intimately familiar with what was announced and how we would use it.”

Freebairn was convinced that the Mac Pro offers something no other computer can.

“We especially love that each additional MPX Module not only can add two GPUs for rendering files, it also adds two additional Thunderbolt 3 controllers for a total of four more ports,” he said. “Even the I/O card on the Mac Pro is replaceable for when faster connections are released. It has been so amazing to be able to throw jobs at the machine that bring other systems to a standstill while the Mac Pro has bandwidth to spare.”

It’s clear: The creative community was quite pleased with what Apple launched in 2019. But has the follow-up fulfilled the latent potential of a more expandable and modular Mac Pro?

What about the future?

The Mac Pro has a number of configurable options at checkout, while post-purchase expansion options are available on Apple’s online store and at third-party retailers. But compared to what was presented at the 2019 launch, there does not appear to have been a massive increase in the number of modular parts available. John Ternus, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, spoke of “quick, regular updates” to the machine, but has that truly been realized?

This concern in part prompted the creation of this article. But I wanted to know if this was just a misconception on my part. Did actual Mac Pro users feel the same way? Two years on, are there enough modular options? And what does the future hold?

Freebairn gave us an extensive list of expansion options that he would love to see in the future.

“An MPX Module from a certain Team Green would be amazing.”

“There are so many options for configuring the Mac Pro right now,” he said, “but there is always room for more. We’re hoping there is an even higher-end single and dual GPU option coming.”

Since the launch of the Mac Pro, processors and GPUs have continued to get faster and more capable. Being modular means allowing people to keep up with the latest and greatest silicon, but Apple has to be the arbiter of those upgrades.

“As new processors, GPUs, and other add-in cards get released, we’re hopeful that Apple will make these options available in the form of upgrades for the current system,” Freebairn said. “We aren’t looking for a new chassis design, but will always be interested in getting the very bleeding edge for the items on the inside of the system.”

Freebairn seemed hopeful that Apple would provide the upgrades he was looking for. But there are some places Apple won’t go, such as supporting Nvidia graphics.

“I may be shot for even suggesting it, but an MPX Module from a certain Team Green would be amazing,” Freebairn told me. “Thunderbolt 4 will be an obvious addition to future MPX cards and to an updated I/O card. If we want to get really crazy, one dream is to even have the option of paying for a new mainboard for PCIe 4/5 support.”

As Freebairn outlined before, the current Mac Pro is more than enough to meet his needs, and he emphasized that “even if none of these upgrades happens, the current Mac Pro will be in my arsenal for many years to come.” But his thoughts aptly demonstrate the constant need for upgrades in the pro world — and the need for the Mac Pro to keep up and evolve for its different users.

That is something Traunwieser also touched on.

“It is impossible to create a machine that is one size fits all in the creative industry. Everyone has their own niche and custom setups for their specific workflows.”

However, Traunwieser was also aware that it would be impossible for Apple to put out a device that was exactly what every creative pro needed. “It just so happens that film scoring and mixing requires an incredibly complex and sophisticated setup, so we always want more. The thing is that it’s not always practical for everyone else’s use, so it’s understandable that cuts need to be made in the R&D process … With audio, we aren’t concerned with graphics performance, so we aren’t taking up too much space with the higher performance cards. However, I can see video editors running out of space really quickly.”

Apple must continue to offer various expansion options in order to ensure this does not happen. There is no one-size-fits-all approach at the commanding heights of the creative economy, and without ongoing support, the Mac Pro could fall behind the needs of the industry.

The ball is in Apple’s court

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Apple has insisted that they listened to creative pros when they redesigned the Mac Pro. Traunwieser attested to this, saying Doug Brooks, Apple’s product manager of Mac hardware, met with him before the 2019 launch to listen to what he wanted from a top-spec Mac system. That approach has borne fruit in the form of the Mac Pro redesign, which is a much more expandable, flexible machine than the “trash can” Mac Pro from 2013 ever was.

But ultimately, when it comes to ensuring the Mac Pro’s continued success, the buck stops with Apple. For Freebairn, that means guarantees of support and future upgrade pathways. That’s important when you spend $50,000 on your computer.

Traunwieser felt the same way about Apple continuing support well into the future and shared some candid thoughts on the limitations of Thunderbolt, a mainstay of Apple’s modern Macs.

“With this kind of price point, the intention of the modularity was to have flexible expansion options with at least 10 years of operation. With technology constantly evolving, it is a constant struggle to keep track of compatibility and new connectivity.

Apple can’t afford to let another year or two go by without supplying the necessary upgrades.

“This was one of the critical reasons to bring back PCI slots. They have a much higher bandwidth than Thunderbolt ports, and new cards can be developed with new capabilities as the technology progresses. It also enables 3rd party companies to have a stable backbone to develop new products without worrying that the entire I/O structure will change from one year to the next. This greatly improves system stability across the board.”

According to these Mac Pro users we spoke to, Apple has done an excellent job in putting out a system that not only stands on its own feet from the get-go but also allows for plenty of customization as needs and workflows change.

But two years is a long time in the tech world — and even longer at the top end of it. Apple has gotten by with what it currently offers, but it can’t afford to let another year or two go by without supplying the necessary upgrades.

The time is quickly arriving when for Apple will need to seriously revisit the Mac Pro to ensure it still stands up as well as it did in 2019. Apple Silicon chips are coming to the Mac Pro at some point (with a colossal 32-core variant likely heading the Mac Pro’s way), but it will need more than that to keep it relevant for the next decade. Let’s hope Apple is on the case.

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