Larry's Thoughts on the New MacPro

Posted on by Larry

First, let’s be clear: The new MacPro is not yet shipping. So, like a group of blind folks describing an elephant, we are getting a lot of different opinions on what this new animal is.

Second, the instant Apple revealed it at the WWDC last spring, I wanted one.

Third, buying new hardware is stressful and expensive; especially when it comes to hardware essential to our business.

So, the question I want to answer today is: Since I need to save my pennies to buy this, where do I get the best bang for the buck? And my answers are the same if I were working with Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere CC, or audio editing in ProTools or Audition.

If money means nothing to you, then buy the system with all the bells and whistles. Then, sit back and smirk while the rest of us hate you. For most of us, buying hardware is a trade-off between what we want and what we can afford. In other words, if finding the balance between the best performance at the best price is important to you, this article is for you.

BACKGROUND

Last week, Apple posted more details about the MacPro (including performance and tech specs): http://www.apple.com/mac-pro/

They also announced two configurations: a four-core CPU system starting at $2,999 and a six-core CPU system starting at $3,999. Within those two categories, Apple has not yet announced any other options or pricing. The MacPro is scheduled to ship in December. No date was announced.

Based on what we know, there are five areas we can spend money on with this unit:

So, given these choices, where should we spend our money?

WHERE’S THE BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK?

Surprisingly, it isn’t the CPU. Any CPU today can easily edit video – even high-resolution video. If you are editing single stream video, even high-resolution, the four-core system will be more than adequate. More cores will be helpful with multicam editing.

Because rendering and exporting is off-loaded to the GPU, a screamingly-fast CPU is not as important as it was in years past. Again, more cores and faster CPU speed is nice, but no longer essential. There are better places to put your money.

Specifically, the best place to spend your money is on the GPU. Get the fastest one you can afford, with as much VRAM as possible. Whether you are editing with Premiere Pro CC or Final Cut Pro X, both max out GPU performance.

RAM is user-upgradeable. This means that you can buy less than you might ultimately need, then upgrade as RAM prices come down and third-party vendors provide reliable upgrades. For me, I’d start with a minimum of 8 GB, then add RAM via third-parties.

NOTE: I don’t expect a lot of RAM options to be available at launch. It will probably take suppliers like Kingston – www.kingston.com – or Crucial – www.crucial.com – a while to ramp up to meet demand.

SECOND NOTE: I spoke with the folks at Kingston earlier today, who told me that, according to the specs of the MacPro: “It can take [RAM] up to 1866MHz in speed, and up to 16GB modules in each of the four slots.  We will have memory for this.  [Since] the product will be released in December we don’t have an ETA on our memory yet.”

STORAGE

The Mac Pro supports up to 1 TB of SSD (Solid State Drive) storage. First, you don’t need that much, and second, I’m not convinced SSDs are the way to go for media. Instead, an SSD drive is ideally suited for the boot drive. I have an SSD-enhanced iMac (a Fusion drive) that goes from powered off to fully operational in nine seconds. I expect the MacPro to be even faster.

SSD drives are ideal for files that are accessed over and over. This means that you get the best performance when accessing operating system and application files. This also means that you don’t need to get the biggest SSD; the OS and applications you get will never fill it.

Let me give you a specific example. On my current MacPro, my Application folder contains the entire Adobe CS6 and CC Suites, plus the entire Final Cut Studio (3) Suite, FCP X, and every plug-in and software gewgaw known to the mind of man. And the total Application folder takes only 42 GB to store.

In fact, everything on my boot drive – EVERYTHING – is only 220 GB. (And that includes a desktop folder that holds more files than I will ever admit to storing in public.) A boot drive of 250 GB is more than adequate for the OS and applications.

NOTE: There’s an axiom in the storage business that the faster a unit transfers data, the less data it can hold and the more it costs.

Rather than buy a large, internal SSD drive, I plan to spend a small fortune on a high-speed, fully-loaded Thunderbolt RAID 5 with a minimum of 8 drives. THAT provides all the storage and performance I need — even for editing 2K multicam clips containing up to 30 angles!

Think about it. Shoots are creating more and more media. My recent 13-episode 2 Reel Guys shoot geneerated 1.5 TB of data. There is no reason this should be stored on a boot drive. External media is plenty fast, holds a ton of media and can be easily transported from one place to another.

Spend your money on external storage, not the internal SSD drive.

A NOTE ON SPEED

Simply connecting a single hard drive to a computer via Thunderbolt does NOT mean you are getting Thunderbolt speeds. Just the opposite. As a rough measure, a spinning hard disk that is not enhanced with a small internal SSD booster, can read and write data about 120 MB/second, whether it is connected by USB 3 or Thunderbolt. (FireWire, by contrast, slows the drive down to about 80 MB/second.)

This means that in order to get the speed you expect from a Thunderbolt connection, you need to keep combining drives in a single unit (which is what a RAID is). To fully saturate (fill) a Thunderbolt 2 pipe, you would need a RAID containing about 20 drives!

A THOUGHT ON SLOTS

There’s been a lot of complaining about the lack of PCIe slots on the MacPro. I’m sympathetic, but, frankly, I’m not bothered by this.

Every significant vendor who supplies hardware to the Mac community is working on Thunderbolt devices. AJA, ATTO, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, Sonnet — all of them. Why? Because Thunderbolt devices are easier to install, configure, and, most importantly, support.

Plus, the new hardware data bus inside the Mac Pro is faster than the PCIe bus we’ve been using in current MacPros.

NOTE: For those with significant investments in PCIe cards, Sonnet has announced an expansion chassis that holds the cards and converts the interface into Thunderbolt 2.

For me, the simplicity of plugging in what I need and getting on with my work FAR outweighs the slight performance increase that might be obtained by custom-building a system. (Then, again, I’ve never been fascinated by doing my own home or car repairs. Others, though, find it fascinating. Each to his own.) I prefer getting work done to wasting time configuring; and Thunderbolt 2 is so blazingly fast, that I don’t expect to ever fully utilize it; even for high-resolution media.

SUMMARY

I plan to buy a new Mac Pro the week they ship, though probably not the first day. (As I’ve written before, I prefer to let someone else intercept the first arrows.)

I’ll spend more money on the GPU than the CPU. And I’m already looking for storage for this system. As we get closer, I’ll let you know what I decide to buy and how I configured it.

As always, I’m interested in your opinions.

Larry


12 Responses to Larry's Thoughts on the New MacPro

  1. Brooke says:

    Hi Larry,

    I can’t wait for the new Mac Pro. My current Mac Pro is feeling like it’s missed some real generational changes.

    While it feels fast for Autodesk Maya and FCPX, the limits on SSDs and no USB 3 or thunderbolt out of the box is a bit of a shame. I can’t even plug my iPhone headphones into it for the Mic on FaceTime or Skype.

    My new iMac at home however feels fresh, something Mac Pro users haven’t experienced for a long time.

    Thanks Larry for a insights as always.

    -Brooke
    atomos.com

  2. Thanks for this great article, Larry. This is exactly what’s been on my mind this week.

    The only place that my thoughts are differing from yours are on the CPU. As I’m a one-man-shop kind of business at the moment, not only do I work in FCP X, but I also do a lot of work in AE with a little bit in Cinema 4D. Unfortunately, from my understanding, those programs only have a bit to do with GPU acceleration and primarily render using the CPU/RAM. I wish I could bring myself to think that a 4-core system would be enough, but I just don’t think that’s the case. I’d be interested on your (or anyone’s) take on this issue. I’m thinking I probably should be aiming for an 8-core machine… unless I have to settle for a 6-core due to cost.

    • Larry says:

      Alan:

      My general feeling is that we will know more AFTER this ships. Unless you need this the day it releases, spending a couple weeks learning what’s good and what isn’t would be a wise investment of time.

      Larry

  3. Philippe says:

    thanks, good stuff as always.
    What are your thoughts on cache disk ? Would you buy a dedicated drive for it ? Like for exemple a 2 disks raid 0 enclosure ?

  4. Gary Bettan says:

    Nice article Larry. I’m going to throw in a tweak on your recommendation. Get more RAM. We recommend 3GB per core for 64bit video editing. So we will advise our customers to get 12GB or more.

    I’d like to hope that RAM will be cheaper down the road, but that doesn’t always hold true for Apple machines.

    Gary

  5. Jont says:

    i dont get it. Mac has always been a more reliable computer for as long as i have known. but that came at the cost of literally not being able to use it with anything outside of what mac let you. this has been remedied in the past couple of years so to speak. in that same time Dell has made major efforts to support their high end precision line. even when windoze fails. what has remained true is that your money is worth 1/4 what it would be with any other computer manufacturer. it just shocks me that an industry professional would even consider paying that premium. a four core computer that starts at $3k? is that some sort of joke? i heard that the max level mac is going to ring in at $14k. if thats true that same $14k could buy you a future proof work station and a decent USED CAR FOR YOUR KID!

    • Larry says:

      Jont:

      I would be VERY careful speculating on prices – Apple has NEVER sold a $14K computer, even including the Lisa. I see no reason they will do so now. Don’t assume – wait until we see what Apple announces.

      Larry

  6. Sean says:

    Apple also hasn’t offered video cards that are potentially in the $3K range before either. I think $14K might be a high estimate but not entirely outside the realm of possibility when you add two top end GPUs and load up some ram. Having said that, pricing for nMP seems to be in line with other high end workstations.

  7. Marcus Moore says:

    @ Jont.

    Dylan Reeve did a pretty good breakdown on his blog about how much it would cost you to build the base MacPro out of PC components.

    http://dylanreeve.com/computers/2013/building-the-mac-pro.html

    His final estimated price is not measurably cheaper than what Apple is asking, and Dylan had to make several compromises in his assessment.

    And your blanket statement about a quad-core machine costing 3K is way too simplistic. As Larry points out in his article, there are many people for whom GPU is the more important performance factor, and who might benefit from clock-speed over the number of cores. That quad-core Xeon clip is 3.7GHz. While the 12 core is only 2.7GHz. There are entirely valid reasons for many configs across a lot of different workflows.

  8. Shawn Wright says:

    Larry,

    Thanks so much for this insight. I am right there with you on this. I do not like shopping for tech stuff, rather I just ask someone I trust, like you and follow their sage advice.

    I know I am going to need a storage just like you described. Can you tell me what the top 2-3 you are considering so I can get a feel for price and start saving? Also when you do decide will you publish that in your newsletter which you e-mail me or should I subscribe to a certain thread or something? Thanks

  9. Terry S. says:

    Now this is getting rediculous! It’s now December 12, 2013, and still no release of the New Mac Pro. What’s holding things up? Apple’s got an industry in suspense here, and is taking just a little too-long to cut to the next scene!

    Oh well. My biggest concern is upgrades and customization at the initial start, they’ve developed an awesome system here, but I’m not sure if the industry is ready for it as far as products are concerned. One of those is Thunderbolt 2. It took forever for the storage industry to develop Thunderbolt 1 devices, and now with 2, it may take another couple years to catch up. OWC, who has created outstanding storage products for the post-production industry, still has yet to release a decent TB product line. I was hoping that they would be able to offer TB enclosure kits, so you could install your drive of choice, but no. Not yet so far.

    I agree that system storage does not need to be huge. 450-500GB should be more than enough. Me coming from the Motion Graphics Design side of Post-Production, will definitely be paying more focus on the CPU and GPU options along with RAM. I can see a $14,000-$20,000, total investment by the time I finish adding up for all the storage and internal upgrades needed. Not that I would be laying that much down right away due to my budget constraints at the moment. But I can see spending that much if I wanted the “ideal” setup for this system.

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