If we called the previous Mac Pros the trash can and the cheese grater, I'm calling this thing the Thicc Mini.
The Futurama episode A Clockwork Origin features a scene where a "creationist" orangutan asks for a mysterious missing link between two species, only to be disproven, and to repeat the same question with the link between the newly revealed species and one of the previous species.
This is roughly what being a Mac prosumer is like.
Two decades ago, there existed iMacs – all-in-ones with good but not great performance – and PowerMacs – with great performance and expandability for roughly $1500 and up. Aside from a pricing hike as the PowerMacs took on first IBM's heftier PowerPC G5 chips and then Intel's server platform Xeon chips, this lasted until the aforementioned "trash can" Mac Pro, which showed that Apple could innovate themselves into an overly specific and restrictive corner. When they extricated themselves out of it, it was with first an iMac Pro model at $4999 with Xeon W chips and then a new "y'all want a cheese grater? here's a cheese grater" Mac Pro, also with Xeon W chips, starting at $5999.
Ever since the PowerMac started drifting upwards, and to a lesser degree before it did, people have clamored for a mythical xMac model, which would have some limited expandability but also be a competent workstation. This was also driven by fear of the product line being usurped by the all-in-one design philosophy powering not just every laptop, but the iMac as well, which aside from the entry-level Mac mini was the only affordable desktop.
So here comes the Mac Studio, with either an M1 Max or M1 Ultra SoC and a more approachable price tag than the Mac Pro, alongside the return of the Studio Display, enough to toss the geriatric (CPU-wise) Intel iMac 27" model out of the product line. Done deal; let's go home. Right?
Not so fast. The Studio Display looks like a good, well-built product, but comparing to products that Apple has itself been selling for years, it's not that impressive. It's a display for the people who would have liked to have an Apple Silicon iMac 27", but it's not impressive and ground-breaking as displays go, and the relatively low refresh rate and brightness in a display that, unlike the Pro Display XDR which is positioned as an everyday reference monitor, competes with displays that have both high refresh rates and HDR capability. But, luckily, you can pick whatever display you'd like.
As for the Mac Studio, it's ostensibly in the classic PowerMac range of around $2000. But it's not expandable in the slightest. If you want to have a decent amount of internal storage, more unified memory or the M1 Ultra, prices quickly race skyward. Or you have to expand with external accessories rather than additional components, which is always more expensive.
So, it's good news that a developer can get a good Mac workstation desktop without having to pay for a screen you're not going to use, for a roughly comparable price as what we have been clamoring for, and without totally giving up on decent I/O connectivity.
But: you get a computer that's done when you unpack it; a PowerMac G4 Cube, except even less expandable. It would be lovely to be able to add additional internal storage — even if Apple hates the form factor, even just having M.2 NVMe drives would go a long way. It would also be good to be able to add some form of additional memory or cards. The idea of the xMac certainly involved more additional expandability. Not to mention that the inability to connect a high refresh rate display limits future proofing even more.
Going from xMac to X factor, we have the last piece of the puzzle, the upcoming Apple Silicon Mac Pro, the presumptive star of this year's WWDC keynote. Given the accuracy of Mark Gurman's reporting on the M1 series of chips, this would be the final, "Jade 4C-Die", M1 Extreme, or whichever is more than Ultra, which is already more "max" than "Max". It would be four M1 Max dies with interconnects, scaled up another doubling (although maybe not in every dimension and every sense). This would give 128 to 256 GB of unified memory, and if Apple chooses to use the same marketing tack for it as for the MacBook Pro and Mac Studio, it would go hard on how completely untenable it would be to get that amount of GPU memory, which is true.
What's left to answer is: will that angle be enough for them to forgo additional PCIe slot expansion, and to avoid additional, DIMM-based module RAM? The M1 Extreme would not fit in the Mac Studio's thermal envelope, so there would need to be a new enclosure and probably a new industrial design either way. But if it's not notably different from the Mac Studio in character, what would make it more than just a "Mac Studio Pro"?
Here are my guesses, based on the Mac Studio, based on steps and investments Apple has taken in both hardware and software in the past few years:
- M1 Ultra or M1 Extreme (possibly a low-end model with M1 Max).
- A handful of PCIe slots.
- Some way of facilitating extra storage that is possibly as ham-handed as the current Mac Pro storage enclosures, but that also allows NVMe SSDs. (The current enclosures only fit hard drives in various configurations, and that feels very out of tune with the focus on high performance not just on the Mac Pro but on the upper models of the M1.)
- Additional memory in a way that we haven't seen before, quite possibly a conceptual mix between CXL and the UltraFusion chip interconnect that forgoes having DIMMs as we know them – or just additional chip models with even more memory than 256 GB.
- The MPX module is unclear and could go either way. It is an extension of the PCIe slot to facilitate more power, and seems wasteful and short-sighted to have been invented only for one generation of product and a handful of modules ever, but then again, it has basically mostly been used for GPUs, and additional GPUs are more doubtful (and are still not supported in external enclosures).
No matter how this all shakes out, there's basically no chance that the Mac Pro is going to be significantly cheaper than the current Mac Pro model - maybe if there's a low-end M1 Max model and the form factor embraces expandability, so that it is significantly different from the Mac Studio M1 Ultra model that it will cost about the same as.
So, lest we forget the point: the xMac does not appear likely to be incarnated any time soon, and the PowerMac, in the sense of a reasonably inexpensive (read: not $4999) workstation with moderate internal modularity, is not due to be reincarnated either by the Mac Studio or the Mac Pro. The virtues of such machines are apparently not compatible with the virtues of the new Apple Silicon, the point of which is chiefly how the one thing with the really quite many transistors can do all these things without needing any other things. As neat as those chips are, they do not fully make up for what was once there and now does not exist any longer.