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Sneak Peek: 2013 Mac Pro

A Detailed Look at the WWDC Sneak Peek

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Sneak Peek: 2013 Mac Pro

Rear panel of the 2013 Mac Pro

Courtesy of Apple

On Monday, June 10, 2013, Apple gave us a sneak peek at a brand new Mac Pro. This new Mac Pro represents quite a change, and signifies a new direction for the Mac Pro line. It may even point the way for future PC designs.

Gone is the old cheese grater tower case, which was large enough to provide ample room for a contingent of drives, memory, expansion cards, and graphics horsepower. In its place is a strikingly small cylindrical case, with no drive bays and no user expandable options beyond 4 memory slots and a mini PCIe slot for an SSD blade. The new design raises a lot of questions.

Let's start by looking at the specifications provided by Apple, and then speculate about what they tell us about the 2013 Mac Pro.

Processor: Intel Xeon E5 series. Specific details, such as speed, number of processors, and number of cores, are unknown, however, Apple did say that a 12-core configuration will be available. The Intel processor family that meets the Mac Pro's specifications is the Xeon E5-26xx V2 Ivy Bridge-EP. Industry analysts believe that Intel will release a 12-core Xeon E5-26xx V2 in the third quarter of this year, which dovetails nicely with Apple's "later in the fall" release estimate for the 2013 Mac Pro.

Memory: There will be 4 RAM slots, each connected to an independent memory channel. The memory will use DDR3 ECC (Error Correcting Code) RAM running at 1866 MHz. Memory bandwidth could reach up to 60 GB/s, roughly twice the performance of current Mac Pros. Memory will be user upgradeable, and should not require upgrading in pairs.

Graphics: The Mac Pro will be outfitted with two AMD FirePro GPUs. I haven't been able to find out which FirePro chips will be used. The only thing we know for sure is that there will be options for how much dedicated graphics RAM is installed, which leads me to believe there will be more than one version of the FirePro GPU available.

Storage: All drive bays and optical bays are gone. In their place is a single mini PCIe slot for an SSD blade. Apple's specifications list the maximum speed of the SSD as 1,250 MB/s, but they don't provide the size of the SSD or other performance information. I expect multiple SSD options to be available. It's likely that Apple won't consider the SSD a user serviceable part.

Expansion: Aside from the memory, all expansion is expected to come from the USB 3 and Thunderbolt 2 ports. If you have specific PCIe cards that you need for work, you'll have to invest in an external PCIe expansion enclosure that uses Thunderbolt 2 to connect to the Mac Pro. Storage needs will also have to be addressed with external devices.

Design: Inside the 2013 Mac Pro's compact cylinder are three large aluminum heat sinks that make up a triangular core that Apple calls the Unified Thermal Core. Attached to one of the heat sinks are the CPU card that contains the Intel processor, 4 memory slots, and all system I/O (input/output). The remaining two heat sinks each house a graphics card, one of which is outfitted with the mini PCIe slot for the SSD.

What isn't visible in the images supplied by Apple and others is a fourth card that must be circular in shape and housed in the bottom of the Mac Pro case. This fourth card must contain the PCIe 3 bus that the three large cards plug into, as well as the power supply that the cards require.

The AC power connector and all ports are housed on the rear of the case. In a nice touch, the I/O panel illuminates when you rotate the case to access the ports.

The Unified Thermal Core provides a natural convection-based cooling system. Cool air is drawn in from the bottom of the case and exits from the top center of the cylinder. There is also a large squirrel cage-style fan integrated into the top of the cylinder to assist in cooling. The fan will probably be variable speed, and should be very quiet due to its large surface area, which allows it to run at a slow speed.

Price: Apple hasn't provided any clues, however, the use of dual GPUs means the price may make some potential buyers faint. There's no option for a model with a single GPU to cushion the shock.

This Mac Pro is targeted specifically at individuals who need high-performance graphics, such as video, animation, and some high-end photography. While it will no doubt be impressive in performance, its likely cost may limit it to a niche market.

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