The recent word from The Inquirer that Apple may be hoarding all of Intel's new 45nm Penryn processors -- and possibly paying for the privilege -- has prompted a lot of speculation about the future of Apple's Mac Pro desktop lineup. Apple's professional machines, which now use Intel Xeon Cloverton chips topping out at 3 GHz, are called workstations by Apple and offer quad- and eight-core configurations. They're fast, and they sport professional prices to match, with top-of-the-line eight-core units starting at US$3,997.
The latest generation of Mac Pros, although radically restyled on the inside when Apple jumped to Intel chips in 2006, look pretty much the same on the outside as they did when they sported PowerPC chips. But the expected move to Penryn -- at or before the next Macworld show in January -- could mean the first major change in Mac Pro design in years.
Penryn is Intel's first chip under 45nm (compared with the 65nm processors now used) and offers a faster front-side bus, larger Level 2 caches, better energy efficiency and a new instruction set (SSE4) aimed at boosting media, gaming and graphics uses.
As important for Mac fans, the new chip architecture allows some new possibilities in case design -- namely because the motherboard and cooling system could take up less space. The new chips could also mean the incorporation of new technologies such as scalable-link interface (SCLI -- used for linking two or more video cards) and a faster front-side bus.
With that in mind, let's go through some of the things Mac users -- especially this Mac user -- would like to see in the next Mac Pro:
1. A new enclosure. Rumors abound that the now-familiar all-aluminum Mac Pro box -- brought over part and parcel from the original Power Mac G5 -- will finally be shrinking. Of course, I still expect Apple to house all of the latest goodies, so whatever Apple comes up with isn't going to rival the Mac Mini for portability either.
I'm looking for more audio/USB/Firewire ports up front, with space for four 3.5-in. internal drive slots and two 5.25-in. optical drives -- which are now offered on the current crop of Mac Pros. An easier-to-open case more like that found way back on the Power Mac G4 desktops would certainly be appreciated by systems administrators, along with a reduced weight and better handles for lugging around.
2. A Blu-ray option, not just for movie editing but also for storing 50GB of data on a single disc -- perfect for sending off major quantities of files (high-definition movies, anyone?) to a client or user. Although I never thought I'd say it, DVDs -- even double-sided ones that can hold up to 8GB of information -- are too small. It's time for Apple to get on board with the next level of optical drives.
As for using a Blu-ray drive for movies, the digital rights management associated with them might be too much to ask for. But they'd look pretty darn nice on Apple's 30-in. Cinema Display, now, wouldn't they?
3. Cooler but quieter systems. Those fans on current Mac Pros can sometimes be loud and annoying. Liquid-cooled enclosures, while more expensive, are a much more elegant solution. Heck, Apple even used that with late-generation Power Mac G5s, although there were some reports of leaks.
If Apple doesn't want to go back to that option, then it should turn the whole case into a heat sink. Whether it's on purpose or not, my MacBook Pro sometimes feels like one well-designed heat sink.
4. Less energy use. I love power, but I also love clean air and Middle East peace and all of that, so Apple, while you're at it, cut down our energy usage! It's nice not to have the lights dim when I turn on the computer. This should be doable, and former Vice President Al Gore, who's on your board of directors, will no doubt approve.
5. Penryn. I know what The Inquirer reported, and yes, it makes perfect sense that you'd want to offer the latest and greatest from Intel to your top-end customers. What better way to run cool and cut power consumption than with a 45nm Penryn chip? These babies are fast and efficient. The first widely distributed 45nm processors, nothing comes close to them in terms of speed per watt -- the main reason Apple moved to Intel in the first place.
And let's get there sooner rather than later. The Mac Pro has been out since August 2006, with only the addition of faster chips in April to update the line.
6. eSATA external storage. Firewire 800, first introduced in 2003, just doesn't do it anymore for high-speed external storage and is beginning to become outdated. I need more options. 3Gb eSATA is coming out of the woodwork now as the new standard for super-high-speed drives, even as external drives and arrays that use it are coming down in price dramatically. Fiber is nice, too, but overkill for workstations. USB3 fiber isn't ready yet; eSATA is.
7. Strong video support: HDMI out. How about letting users present stuff on an HDTV without having to use an adapter? This feature would cost very little, but the coolness factor would be huge, right Steve? Besides, HDMI is already available on Apple TV, so we know it can be done.
In fact, while I'm wishing, why not add two HDMI out ports? Running two hi-def TVs from a Mac Pro over HDMI would be absurdly cool. This, of course, could be part of an extremely high-end video card option. I know Apple likes to have options when it comes to processors. Well, users like options when it comes to video cards. Some of us want a solid video card, others want the absolute fastest thing money can buy. I happen to want both.
8. 10GB Ethernet. If not now, when? If not Apple, who? 10GB Ethernet cards are coming down in price by around $100 a pop -- and they're even cheaper when integrated on the motherboard. The prices for switches that utilize them are also coming down. Maybe Apple doesn't have to put them on all new Mac Pro models, but wouldn't they be perfectly appropriate for top-of-the-line HD video rigs? How about Xgrid? The speed certainly helps.
Now, I know the question will arise: Who needs 10GB Ethernet? Something along those same lines was asked five years ago when Apple released the G4 models with 1GB Ethernet. Time flies.
9. Hardware RAID standard. A few months ago, Apple introduced a $1,000 add-on card that turns mild-mannered SATA ports on the Mac Pro into a hard-core RAID configuration. Now, it's time to build it in.
And with the ZFS file system expected to be part of the upcoming Leopard OS, RAID configurations should work even better. (ZFS, if you aren't familiar with it, offers a whole new way to handle storage, allowing large capacity, storage pooling, fast data snapshots and copy-on-write.)
10. Affordability. I'm not talking $399.99 Dell affordable, but drop the barrier to entry a bit. Perhaps you can offer something under $2,000 at the low end. No doubt, some additional PC gamers and tinkerers will come into the Apple fold if you have the fastest processor and a solid video card.
Oh, just one more thing: Let's not wait for Macworld San Francisco to get the next Mac Pro on store shelves. The holidays are coming, and I know of at least one computer geek who'd like to see something like this wrapped up with a bow on top.
Seth Weintraub is a global IT management consultant specializing in the technology needs of creative organizations, including The Paris Times, Omnicom and WPP Group. He has set up and managed cross-platform networks on four continents and is an expert in Active Directory/Open Directory PC and Macintosh integration.