Back when Apple announced its first “Apple Silicon” Macs in June 2020, it promised that it would move the entire Mac lineup across to its own platform within two years. And away from the Intel CPUs that had been at the heart of Macs since 2006.
It has taken three years, but with today’s shift of the Mac Pro over to Apple Silicon, Intel is yesterday’s news. The key reason for their divorce? Apple leans heavily on the idea that its own processor technology is faster (an argument that’s hard to fight).
History repeats itself, it seems: back in 2006, Apple dropped PowerPC processors in favour of faster and cheaper Intel silicon. So, what does this mean for businesses? For upgrades, for Boot Camp?
Is the Mac Pro the right desktop for you?
The new Mac Pro uses the same design as Apple’s most recent generation of Intel Xeon-based desktops. Behind that familiar cheese-grater design, however, now lies an Apple M2 Ultra chip, up to 192GB of integrated memory and up to 8TB of storage.
Apple’s story here is one of speed. It claims up to 3x faster CPU performance than the fastest Intel-based Mac Pro, and up to 7x faster GPU performance. But read the small print: that GPU figure is based on the entry-level Intel Mac Pro, not the best you could buy. Still, faster is faster, and for businesses that need these kinds of workstations that speed can equate to serious long-term savings. Even if the Mac Pro line represents Apple’s most expensive computing systems.
Keeping the existing design isn’t just a question of Apple not having to retool a few Chinese factories to shave costs (although that certainly helps keep Apple’s shareholders happy). It also means that the Mac Pro keeps a degree of expansion, with six open PCIe Gen 4 slots for expansion cards.
That expansion marks it out against the other new M2 Ultra machine that Apple announced at WWDC 2023. The new Mac Studio also ships with Apple’s fastest silicon, but that’s a totally sealed unit, rather akin to what would happen if you fused a few Mac Minis to each other and somehow got that working.
So it’s all better and faster and nothing’s been lost?
Yes… and no.
There are some important business considerations if you already have Intel-based Mac Pro systems in your workflow.
While the Mac Pro retains a degree of its modular nature thanks to those PCIe slots, it’s still running Apple silicon. That means the CPU, GPU, RAM and storage all sit on one chip, a classic System on a Chip (SoC) design.
This has massive advantages in terms of overall data throughput. The channels that serve memory, graphics or any other function never have to travel off the chip for any given function. It’s one reason why the Apple Silicon Macs are faster than their Intel counterparts, where CPU, GPU, RAM and storage all (largely) sit as distinct computing units.
What that means is that the older Intel Mac Pro units could upgrade these parts, but largely the Mac Pro cannot. Technically you might be able to rig up some kind of external RAM module that the M2 Ultra Mac Pro could talk to, but it would be inherently slower than the internal memory. It would probably slow the system rather than speed it up. You could always add external storage drives for capacity, but again the need to travel to and from that central on-silicon storage introduces bottlenecks.
Apple’s solution to this is both brute force and lucrative. The new Mac Pros can take up to 192GB of memory, but only when you configure and buy them from Apple. Not afterwards, because that would basically need an entirely new Mac Pro. Apple historically charged a premium for RAM upgrades even when all you needed to do was slot them into place, and that’s still true when it’s baked into the silicon itself. The same is true for storage.
The final hardware consideration is the GPU. If the 60-core GPU in the baseline Mac Pro isn’t enough for your needs, there’s an even more impressive 76-core model. For a price.
There’s one other change to keep in mind, though it’s not exactly a new concern.
Boot Camp is no longer an option
Apple’s history with Intel allowed it to incorporate Boot Camp, software that made it possible for Macs to boot directly into Microsoft’s Windows operating system.
Plenty of businesses opted for Macs at that time precisely because of this fact. Combine Apple’s general global warranty for Macs with the wider availability of business applications on the Windows platform and you had quite the combination.
Boot Camp worked because the x86 platform for those Intel-based Macs was the same x86 platform that Windows knew well. Apple Silicon isn’t x86, and as such Boot Camp plain just doesn’t exist.
The solution is to use virtualisation platforms such as Parallels to run Windows in a sandboxed environment. This isn’t as elegant as Boot Camp, because some system resources will be used to run macOS in the background.
Virtualisation does have its own business advantages. Think sandboxed instances being easily replicated, and potential cost savings as licences aren’t tied to hardware. But those savings are likely to be wiped out by the cost of implementation, internal IT support and ongoing subscription costs per user for the virtualisation software.
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