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Mac Planet: Mac pros want new Mac Pros

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Amid the speculations regularly indulged in at this time of year, we all hopefully proffer what we'd like to see, often having little idea of what's likely, what's possible or what Apple actually cares about.

New iMacs are on sale; even the 27-inch is now available here, albeit in limited numbers.

Most people seem pretty happy with the new MacBook Pros - I am. What a machine! The smaller MacBook Air is the perfect travelling companion, or just the ideal Mac for those who just value slimline in an attractive package. The mini - well, I don't hear much about them, but if you already have a USB keyboard and mouse (or wireless versions that work with Macs), plus a monitor, that's definitely the cheapest way to migrate to the Mac platform. I have recommended minis to several people.

The missing Mac, though, is still the Mac Pro, Apple's tower of power. Well, it was - now even the new MacBook Pro laptop gives the Pro a run for its money, speed-wise.

Where a tower excels is in being very expandable. Pop the side off the heavy duty aluminium case, slot in hard drives, RAM and video cards, close it, turn it on ...

But the basic specs are letting the Pro down. They have been updated - but that was a tickle, not the fundamental improvement they are crying out for.

It's what video and audio engineers and other power users are crying out for, too. Why slap more expensive stuff into a tower that's essentially three years old? They want new, and they want it now, although traditionally these big products get shown off at Apple's annual World Wide Developers' Conference, aka Dub Dub Dee Cee (WWDC), and that's not till mid year (usually June) in San Francisco.

The Mac Pro still looks pretty impressive on paper, but it has been neglected - there's even a Facebook page called MacProsPlease, set up by a freelance editor/animator to plea with Apple to address the issue.

Apple, this is visited by people who want to buy something from you. Get it? Feel free to add your plea.

In the style of the occasional terse missives Steve Jobs used to very occasionally fire back at surprised Apple users, Apple CEO Tim Cook promised new Mac Pros would be released in 2013 in a 2012 email: "Our Pro customers like you are really important to us. Although we didn't have a chance to talk about a new Mac Pro (at 2012's WWDC), don't worry as we're working on something really great for later next year."

"Really great" sounds really great, thanks Tim. Indeed, hidden files within a Boot Camp configuration file in a recent version of Mountain Lion appear to confirm a new generation of Mac Pro, mentioning a 'MacPro 6', a machine that doesn't currently exist, so hopefully that means it's already in testing.

The two versions of the current Mac Pro are a 3.2GHz, quad-core Intel Xeon chip and 6GB of RAM plus a one with two 2.4GHz, six-core Xeons and 12GB of RAM. Both sport 1TB hard drives and anaemic AMD Radeon HD 5770 graphics cards. They sell for NZ$2499 and NZ$3799. The CPUs are two-year-old Westmere-EP chips. Blah!

They have no Thunderbolt, no USB 3, and no SSD or Fusion Drives as base, although better drives and other options can be added as build-to-orders. There is no SATA III and RAM speed has been frozen - they are 'very 2010'. Somewhat derisively, the 'top-end graphics' option is two 2009 ATI Radeons you can buy elsewhere for a couple of hundred dollars each.

They don't cut it - professionals expect a lot more. Apple risks completely disenfranchising this market if it doesn't address the issue soon.

Intel has some new chips that would do Mac towers justice; for video, there are many options that definitively surpass what Mac Pros have available now.

As for storage, Fusion Drive is Apple's new data storage technology for desktops - it's in all the new iMacs. Fusion combines a hard drive with flash/SSD storage. The Mac operating system manages the contents of the combo drive so frequently-accessed files and applications are stored on the faster flash part, with infrequently used items left on the slower (but way cheaper) hard drive.

A new Pro will also (hopefully) include 802.11ac wireless, speeding up both throughput and coverage. But it might delete FireWire ports, still used by those in the video industries but no longer present in most other Macs. This would be as controversial as deleting the optical drives, but that's almost a cert - they're gone from all other Macs.

A new Pro would almost certainly have Thunderbolt and USB3 ports, although Thunderbolt is looking threatened right now with hardly anything available for it, even after all this time. The recent proclamation that USB 3 will double in speed soon, although requiring new controllers, adds to Thunderbolt foreboding. USB has far more adherents among peripheral makers: at the current Consumer Electronics Show a dearth of new (and awaited) Thunderbolt products disappointed Apple watchers.

The lack of Thunderbolt in the minor update to the Pro line last year really surprised people - it definitely would have kicked the market along, so perhaps that's to blame for the lack at CES. But it seems not to be supported on the CPUs.

Spec-wise, Thunderbolt certainly looks worthy: the peripheral-connection technology was developed by Intel in collaboration with Apple to combine video, data, audio and power in a single connection based on the PCI Express and DisplayPort architectures. It allows for high-speed and daisy-chaining connection of peripherals including hard drives, RAID arrays, video-capture solutions and network interfaces, and can transmit high-definition video using the DisplayPort protocol. Each Mac Thunderbolt port provides up to 10 Watts of power to connected peripherals, and up to 10 Gigabits per second data throughput, faster than current USB 3. A video editors dream, surely?

Apple has made some gains back with pro video editing - a recent update to Final Cut Pro X led to some praiseworthy speed increases and, gradually, missed features have been added back into the controversial suite. Logic, Apple's audio software for the professional market, has not had love for a long time, and that's another candidate for a WWDC release - and a good showcase for a new Pro's chops.

I eagerly await a new Mac Pro; I'm sure professional eagerness is that much keener.

- NZ Herald

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