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Apple's high-end desktop is back from the dead

With a few updates and the promise of a total revamp in the future, Apple is reaching out to the pro audience again.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read
Apple Mac Pro

Apple has finally updated the specs of the 2013 Mac Pro model, shown here.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Until now, the Mac Pro desktop was the closest Apple had to a forgotten product. The cylindrical desktop tower, intended for a professional content creation audience, was introduced to much fanfare in 2013, but it's remained essentially unchanged ever since.

That's especially important because the 2013 "trash can" Mac Pro eschewed the more familiar PC tower design of its predecessor, which allowed for easy user-upgradable drive bays, memory and graphic cards. By contrast, the unique tubular design 2013 system meant only a handful of components could be updated later on, and even those were difficult to access.

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But Apple has finally given professional Mac users who've felt left out in the cold for the past many years reason for optimism. As part of a one-two punch of Pro-level update announcements, Apple this week updated the processors and RAM on the Mac Pro. The company also revealed -- in a rare bit peek behind its curtain of secrecy -- that an entirely new Mac Pro desktop design is in the works. That sounds like something close to the classic desktop tower Mac Pro, but that future system is still a ways off, coming at some unspecified time after 2017.

Apple Mac Pro (2013)

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Back when we reviewed the current Mac Pro shortly after it launched, the entry-level $2,999 model included a quad-core 3.7GHz Intel Xeon processor , 12GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and AMD D300 FirePro graphics.

Earlier this week, that $2,999 (£2,999, AU$4,899) base model was updated to include:

  • 3.5GHz 6-Core Intel Xeon E5 processor
  • 16GB 1,866MHz DDR3 ECC memory
  • Dual AMD FirePro D500
  • 256GB PCIe-based flash storage

The step-up version, for $1,000 more, now gets you an 8-core CPU and Dual AMD FirePro D700 video cards. Additional custom upgrade configurations are available on Apple's website.

Playing the waiting game

If you're still tempted by the current version of the Mac Pro, know that it's a very interesting desktop with some notable features and and an impressive aesthetic. But, it's also less flexible than what a design or creative pro might need. Stuck in its 2013 body, the current Mac Pro lacks support for Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C, for instance. On the other hand, it's a potentially good choice if you need desktop-level power in a very portable package for travel or on-location video editing work.

The biggest issue with the Mac Pro remains its non-standard motherboard and barely-upgradable components. When we reviewed the original model, we said:

"Components are built around something Apple calls a unified thermal core...Inside the Mac Pro is a triangular hunk of metal that acts a both a heat sink and the central structure the motherboard and components are attached to. The SSD is on one side, the GPU is on another, and RAM slots are on either side of the port panel. Those RAM slots are the most user-accessible component inside, although Apple says the SSD and graphics cards could be swapped out as well, but it certainly wouldn't be as easy as it is on a traditional desktop tower."

Apple Mac Pro (2013)

Inside the three-sided interior structure of the Mac Pro.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It was a far cry from the huge rectangular desktop designs seen elsewhere, including in previous Mac Pro desktops . In those, empty motherboard slots could be filled with extra components, especially graphics cards, and drive bays could be filled with massive amounts of post-purchase hard-drive storage. In contrast, the 2013 Mac Pro was built around a different concept.

"The idea being promulgated here is that your expandability should flow outward, not inward. If the lack of traditional internal expansion slots inside didn't clue you in to that, the six Thunderbolt 2 ports plus four USB 3.0 ports on the connections panel should. And, as Thunderbolt devices can chain themselves together, that's a total of 36 Thunderbolt/mini-DisplayPort devices one can hook up simultaneously."

All of those restrictions still apply to the 2017 version of the Mac Pro.

Power users who are willing to wait past 2017 for the redesigned Mac Pro will get a computer that Apple Senior VP Phil Schiller called "by definition, a modular system." Whether that's a return to the user-upgradable drives and components of the pre-2013 MacBook Pro or something that makes the updated model easier for Apple to upgrade year over year remains to be seen.

Either way, though, those same power users can take solace in the fact that the eventual Mac Pro update will also coincide with new Apple-branded pro displays. That will reverse Apple's 2016 exit from the monitor market, when it dumped its Thunderbolt Display.

New iMacs are coming, and soon

If you don't feel like waiting until sometime in 2018 or beyond for a new Mac desktop, the company has said updated iMac all-in-one desktops are also in the works, and are expected sometime this year. These already offer 5K screen options, but very limited CPU/GPU choices. A more Pro-friendly iMac could potentially improve on those and bridge the gap between more consumer-level Macs (and MacBook laptops ) and the very high-end, very expensive Mac Pro desktop.

After such a long delay, this week's long overdue spec bump may still be too little, too late for pro users who want a machine with today's cutting edge components. But Apple's unusual transparency about the shortfalls of the current design -- and its tantalizing hint at the product's future direction -- gives potential buyers a very clear roadmap on the path forward. Pro users can take the plunge on the existing spec-bumped model, wait into 2018 (or later) for the overhauled version or make other arrangements.

But now they can do so based on facts, not rumors.