The new Mac Pro is a video editing monster, with specifications that have never been seen before, and all packed into a miniature cylinder. This is RedShark's definitive report on Apple's Fall event
By K. Stewart
After the iPhone 5S/C reveal, Apple’s ‘a lot more to cover’ event more than lived up to its billing with a shotgun blast of announcements. This was a 90 minute presentation run to a strict agenda to fit everything in with very little time for digression into the finer details of a massive array of updated and new products.
CEO Tim Cook started out with the usual facts and figures, but let’s pause here and jump ahead to what likely matters most to RedShark readers…
Mac Pro: the waiting is almost over.
After first hinting at a new Mac Pro in June 2012, then a sneak peak at year later at WWDC12, Apple finally confirmed pricing and ship dates. Shipping in December, prices start at $2,999 for the ‘Quad-Core, Dual GPU’ entry level model.
The entry-level machine features a 3.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon E5 processor, 12GB of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC memory, Dual AMD FirePro D300 GPUS with 2GB GDDR5 VRAM each and 256GB PCIe-based flash storage. The higher spec machine starts with a 3.5GHz 6-core Intel Xeon E5 processor, 16GB 1866MHz DDR3 ECC memory, Dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs with 3GB GDDR5 VRAM each and 256GB PCIe-based flash storage.
Both machines are of course highly configurable, the CPU can be specced out to 12-cores to provide up to twice the floating point performance of the old Mac Pro, while RAM can be upped to 64GB with 60Gb/s bandwidth - again twice the previous model. GPU performance is increasingly being called upon for video rendering applications and the new Mac Pro can be ordered with two AMD Pro GPUs maxed out with 6Gb VRAM each and up to 2,048 stream processors. That’s up to 7 teraflops of computing power.
In real-world terms, Apple claims that means ‘seamlessly edit full-resolution 4K video while simultaneously rendering effects in the background — and still have enough power to connect up to three high-resolution 4K displays’. The third display, by the way, comes via HDMI 1.4 for broadcast monitoring (surprisingly not HDMI 2.0, though).
It was notable how Tim Cook stressed Mac Pro was the most powerful Mac ever - there are, of course, some outrageous bespoke spec PCs around, such as those on the workbench at Sony’s Pinewood 4K facility, but worldwide marketing VP Phil Schiller was confident enough to insist “there’s never been a system that can do what the Mac Pro will be able to do for 4K video.”
Dean Devlin, producer of Independence Day, Patriot, is perhaps an unusual choice to evaluate an NLE system, but nevertheless he opined; “The Mac Pro makes real-time 4K video editing a reality. it’s more powerful than I ever imagined, and it will change the way I make movies.”
A new version of Final Cut Pro X designed to exploit the Mac Pro was used for Devlin’s evaluation, so it’ll be interesting to see more on this software as it emerges. Is it simply another point update of the existing FCPX or a new version requiring purchase? There simply wasn’t time for Apple to make this clear unfortunately.
Lucas Gilman, a National Geographic, Sports Illustrated photographer, got to play with a Mac Pro and a new version of Aperture; “The new Mac Pro cuts my editing time exponentially, giving me more time in the field shooting, which is where I need to be.”
Finally, Stuart Price, producer of Lady Gaga, Madonna, etc. commented that “The new Mac Pro is blazing fast and shockingly quiet. You have to not hear it believe it. This is the perfect computer for the recording studio.”
At idle, the Mac Pro is as quiet as a Mac mini which is pretty astonishing for anyone using the old model. The original Mac Pro was a massive housing for expansion cards with multiple fans, but the new machine has single fan at the centre of a thermal core and uses six Thunderbolt 2 expansion ports, plus 4 USB3 and two gigabit Ethernet ports to open up almost unlimited external expansion.
Wrapping up, Schiller stressed that bearing in mind the high speed memory and other components, the Mac Pro’s price is ‘super-impressive,’ which may be as to be expected given rumours of Apple feeling the same pressures as everyone else as the iPad and other tablets depress demand for conventional PCs.
The Mac Pro presentation closed with a video tour of the US factory where it’s made, a suitably futuristic facility to underline Apple’s commitment to apex level professional AV computing. Whether or not the Mac Pro can succeed in this market will depend on whether Apple’s own software is now fit for purpose after the near-disastrous launch of FCPX and whether third-party apps adapt to exploit its benefits.
OS X Mavericks
The OS shipping with the Mac Pro will be the tenth version of OS X and the first to follow the new California place names convention: Mavericks.
We expected a firm release date and a low price.
We got a surprise with Craig Federighi, Senior VP of Software Engineering, announcing Mavericks was available for immediate download at a very friendly price of free. The point was driven home by Federighi broadly grinning as a $199 copy of Windows 8 Pro burst into flames on a background slide.
And by free, it’s not just for those who’ve bought a recent machine or upgraded to Mountain Lion - it’s available to any machine that can run it.
At WWDC13, Mavericks got a lengthy introduction but this was just a whistle-stop tour of highlights.
Key technical innovations in Mavericks mean that simply installing it on a latest generation MacBook Air will immediately add an extra hour for surfing the web or 90 minutes of watching video. More advanced memory usage can 6Gb into 4Gb and slowdown should be virtually eliminated - it’s too early to properly judge this claim, but the initial feel of Mavericks is definitely faster than Mountain Lion.
Open CL has been optimised for the integrated graphics featured in most MacBooks, for example rather than a fixed 512MB allocated to graphics, the system can intelligently vary between as little as 12MB and up to a 1Gb. In practice, this can offer up to 1.8x improvement in graphics performance.
At an OS features level, Federighi drew attention to tagging, better support for multiple monitors (at last!) and the ability to respond to a notification within the alert. (The system also supports notifications from your favourite websites, pop-ups alerting you to significant changes.) There are also new apps, with iBooks and Maps finally making the leap from iOS to Mac OS, plus Keychain Synch enabling a sharing of passwords and credit card information between Mac and iOS devices to make web browsing and online shopping easier.
To illustrate how the benefits might play out, there was a Pages word processing/layout demo showing the easy interaction between iBooks and Pages. Most impressive was an Apple’s take on Google Now’s predictive intelligence. From a simple email, Federighi showed he could highlight text about a meet time to generate an calendar event, pull in directions from Maps, auto-populate a time allowance before the event showing travel time and then forward the route directions through to his iPhone.
Mavericks is much, much more than this and, visually, it loses some but not all of the skeumorphism banished from the radical iOS7 redesign. It’s not quite as fresh as iOS7, but professional users will doubtlessly appreciate the more cautious nature of progress while welcoming a host of significant (and free!) enhancements.
Retina MacBook Price Cuts
If your editing needs don’t quite justify a Mac Pro, then Phil Schiller had some options to share with his presentation on the MacBook line-up.
The recently updated MacBook Airs with all-day battery life got some time in the spotlight as the ‘best reviewed Macs ever’ with Schiller highlighting plenty of quotes to illustrate that what was once an underpowered, overpriced ultra-thin notebook is now a very formidable piece of kit.
The future, however, is Retina and shipping now are updated Haswell models with a couple hundred dollars lopped off the US prices. While the non-retina MacBook with HDD remains in the line-up at £1000, the Retina line-up now starts at just £1099 for the 2.4GHz 13-inch model with 4GB 1600MHz memory and 128GB PCIe-based flash storage, while the cheapest 15-inch model is £1669 for 8GB 1600MHz memory and 256GB PCIe-based flash storage.
As you’d expect, they’re slightly thinner, slightly lighter, while Haswell means better battery life - up to 9 hours. Integrated Iris graphics are up to 90% faster, flash-memory is up to 60% faster, wifi speed almost doubled and Thunderbolt 2 is twice as fast. Despite the focus on better integrated graphics, as before the 15-inch model includes an option for a discrete GeForce GT 750M GPU.
iLife, iWork & more
Eddy Cue, senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, came on stage to demo the expected refresh of Apple’s iLife and iWork apps for Mac and iOS. All of these apps were promoted as ‘free’ - albeit with the caveat that you need to buy a new Mac or iOS device. Given that Mac OS Pages, Numbers and Keynote are £13.99 each, that’s a significant incentive albeit to buy new hardware at the cost of muddying the ‘free’ message.
(On iOS, I found my previous purchases of the apps led to an automatic ‘free’ upgrade to the new apps for Pages, Numbers and Keynote. The new unified file format means sharing is requires all apps are upgraded, but updating Pages on Mac OS doesn’t overwrite the old version a piecemeal update is possible.)
Aside from freshening up the look and feel of these apps to match iOS7, one of the most significant advances was the unifying of the file format so no longer would you see warnings when moving from Mac to iOS that certain elements of a document would need to be downgraded.
In addition, Cue was happy to announce the addition of the feature most glaringly absent from their initial beta versions; collaboration.
Simply the funniest and most entertaining part of the entire presentation was Cue and a colleague working together on a poster for Cue’s new album. Swapping in out various embarrassing pictures of Cue, changing the wording, all helped illustrate how fun and easy it was for two people to simultaneously work on the same file in the (i)Cloud. The very serious point, however, is that Office-compatible apps and particularly sharing document is critical to modern business. Google has attacked Microsoft’s enterprise stronghold with Google Docs, challenging IT administrators with its ease of use - particularly for collaboration. Now Apple is moving into the same space with some great looking products at a magic price. Will they go viral in businesses? Time will tell.
In addition, we got to see GarageBand which has grown into the world’s most popular music creation app. On iOS devices, the new version will support 16 rather than 8 tracks, and 32 on 64bit iOS devices. To put this in perspective: many classic albums were apparently produced with 24 tracks. In addition, there’s a very cool new feature whereby your tracks can be enliven by virtual drummers, created with tracks from real session musicians and presented in a way by which you can easily alter their performances to suit how you wanted a track to be. Real drummers should feel very concerned - it was a very impressive demonstration!
iMovie on Mac and iOS is also updated, with picture-in-picture and iPhone 5S friendly slow-motion features highlighted, plus a ‘theatre’ area for your home movies designed to shared across all your devices - quite what that’ll do iCloud storage limits needs investigation! iPhoto on iOS is upgraded with Mac OS features such as photo book creation, plus it’s engineered to exploit 64bit CPUs where available.
Overall, Apple insisted the new apps were both easier to use and yet more powerful than the apps they replace. Given the considerable numbers of apps and their sophistication, it’s too early to say whether this is true but this article was written in the new Mac Pages which proved pleasant enough to work with in a clean, very Spartan interface!
Appending the ‘Air’ brand to the new iPad was about the main surprise in a presentation for a device whose iPad mini-influenced casings had been leaked for months. So, just for the record, iPad 5 features the A7 CPU that debuted with iPhone 5S, plus the M7 motion sensor and a radically slimmed down chassis for the familiar Retina 9.7-inch display. Performance is predictably pegged at twice that of the previous model with unchanged 10-hour battery life, principally due to the power efficiency of the A7.
This makes the iPad Air seem a bit boring, but in the tablet space the feel of the device matters even more than a laptop, let alone a desktop. After the original iPad and slimmer 2, Retina graphics forced a bulking out of the design for the 3 and 4. iPad 5 feels like a near perfect implementation of the standard 9.7-inch screen iPad design. The thick bezel which, from the start, helped disguise the huge battery is finally gone. The weight is now just 1lb. People who’d switched away from the iPad to the mini or a Nexus 7 may be tempted back to the new form factor and new purchasers may take it much more seriously than before with prices starting at £399 for 16Gb/Wifi-only.
All that said, Apple isn’t taking any chances. The iPad 2 is retained in the line-up at £329 to keep a low(ish) price option, while the iPad mini has clearly benefited from a huge engineering focus.
Pessimists had feared an iPad mini with Retina graphics couldn’t ship until 2014 and that its specs - essentially the same as the iPad 2 - couldn’t match the 5.
In fact, Apple has delivered an iPad mini with Retina graphics and the 64bit A7 CPU with M7 motion coprocessor for this holiday season with exactly the same dimensions as the original iPad mini, albeit a tiny bit heavier. The price has also gone up - starting at £319 for 16Gb rising to £659 for a 128Gb model with Cellular data. To avoid entirely losing the low end market, the original iPad mini is retained with a slightly lower price point of £249.
This was not a Steve Jobs’ style presentation delighting in ‘one more thing’, some unexpected innovation to transform a market. The sudden switch to ‘free’ across the software could’ve been turned into that kind of coup de theatre, but Tim Cook declined to make any such play. This was formidable in simply the scale of the execution. Back from the brink of near bankruptcy, Apple was for a long time an exceptionally lean operation - delivering the first iPhone pulled engineers from OS X and forced delays to the latter’s updates, while processor updates such as Haswell could lag many months behind the PC market - the old Mac Pro being the post child for this.
By contrast, this presentation felt like the full force of that imminent new space-ship like Apple HQ, a well staffed, well run operation delivering to a clear direction and plan. The Christmas season is when Apple sells most products, so the production line has been shifted to get everything refreshed to hit that deadline.
The most interesting proof point of this long term strategic approach is the pro line-up. Was the decision to radically rework Final Cut Pro, so intensely annoying FCP7 users, made as the first step in a strategy to deliver a robust NLE partner for the Mac Pro precisely timed to the moment when 4K started to become a practical reality? As Adobe makes its own bold move with the shift to subscription-based services, Apple is well placed to pick-up Premiere malcontents, particularly if third-party companies re-engineers their apps to exploit Mavericks and the Mac Pro architecture.
In the consumer space, the new iPads and the retention of the older models to cover more price-points look a formidable proposition for Christmas. Rumours of a Surface-type keyboard didn’t pan out, but the new iPad Air form factor is likely fixed for a few years now and third-parties will be quick to adapt with new peripherals. Apple itself now has a ‘free’-ish Office suite that runs across Mac, iOS and even PC (via browser) that has a single file structure and impressive collaboration features. By the time Microsoft finally delivers a touch-friendly Office for iPad next year, Apple is well positioned with its own proposition.
To go back to the start of the presentation, CEO Tim Cook inevitably played up the usual impressive stats, including the biggest ever iPhone launch (9 million sold in the first weekend), 200 million downloads for iOS 7, a million apps in the App Store, 60 billion downloads generating 13 billion dollars of revenue for developers. All of this underpinned his claim about Apple’s clear direction making the world’s best products and a jab at competitors who first chased the netbook market and were now busy trying to turn PCs into tablets ‘cough’ Microsoft Surface. On this evidence, Apple’s strategy is still paying off. Watching 4K being imported onto a Surface at Microsoft’s press conference was entertaining, 4K on a Mac Pro is an entirely different proposition…