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Apple takes the new Mac Pro back to the future in a classic tower

The trash can is toast, PCIe slots are back, and even racks get some love.

James Martin/CNET
This story is part of WWDC 2021. All the latest coverage from Apple's annual developers conference.

For a company with such tremendous customer loyalty, Apple attracts fans who can also zero in on a handful of features or topics they are just not down with. For some it's the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro. For others, the butterfly keyboard in current Apple laptops. And for the community of pro-level creators, artists and developers, it's been the Mac Pro desktop and its six-year detour as a unique cylindrical compact mini-computer.

Instead, WWDC brought us an almost shockingly traditional desktop tower in the new Mac Pro. The venting may be different, as are the internal component options and the removable outer shell, but this is aesthetically more like the pre-trash-can Mac Pro than different. And, based on the temperature in the room at the WWDC keynote in San Jose, the assembled crowd of developers and other professionals couldn't be happier.

The idea for the new Mac Pro wasn't strictly a return to former glories. The company debated what its next Mac Pro should look like, or even if there should be a next Mac Pro, as the size of the market for a niche machine like that isn't huge.

What Apple ended up with is a desktop that is much more modular than most other desktops, with a whopping eight PCIe slots (the high-throughput slots used for graphics cards and other add-on cards), including four double-height slots, which are the type used by massive graphics cards. Or you could fill them with two of Apple's custom AMD Radeon Pro Vega II Duo MPX modules, which each take up two double slots worth of space inside the case.


Tim Cook and Jony Ive check out the new Mac Pro. 

James Martin/CNET

If you're looking for Nvidia GPUs, well, keep looking. While Apple has shipped products with Nvidia graphics in the past, the company says a deep level of collaborative engineering between AMD and Apple powers the current partnership, and that there's no quick fix for supporting Nvidia GPUs. If you really need to use Nvidia hardware on your Mac Pro, you can still run it via Boot Camp mode with Windows. 

Who moved my cheese

The most immediate reaction to the new Mac Pro design is that it looks like a... cheese grater. Twitter was immediately filled with comparison images of the front panel of the Mac Pro and various cheese-shredding implements.

The lattice-like panels on the front and back of the system are more than just visual. The carved openings keep the weight of the shell down, and more importantly help air move through the system. The lack of thermal headroom is what kept the cylinder Mac Pro from being able to evolve, and the new model's combination of massive fans, giant heat sinks and open-ended front and rear panels are a key engineering feature. The lattice idea actually predated this new Mac Pro design, a design innovation waiting for just the right product to come along.  It's also found in the new Pro Display XDR, which allows that $5,000 and up 32-inch monitor to maintain a 1,000-nit brightness indefinitely without overheating.

James Martin/CNET

Rack 'em up

The new tower version of the Mac Pro feels like it takes, or at least shares, a lot of ideas with high-end gaming desktops, with huge expandability, an easy-access chassis and plenty of cooling. But for the pro audience, the briefly seen rack-mounted model may even be more interesting.

It will offer the same configuration options, with only minor tweaks along the way. The main difference is that the similar-looking body is actually a completely separate enclosure, just in the kind of rack-friendly shape that music, video and 3D shops might need. Of course, in the rack model, you'll only get a minimal view of the new design, which is fine as rack systems aren't sold on their looks.

That might be for the best. Perhaps the era of ultra-modern, ultra-minimalist design fetishism is over. iPads and iPhones look largely the same year after year. MacBooks are mostly professional-looking silver machines, a far cry from the severe black or white polycarbonate shells or the translucent candy colors of older Apple computers. Instead, the physical body has been subsumed by the software and experiences that run on it.

Trash Can Redux: the 2013 Mac Pro

In the end, the now-retired black cylinder Mac Pro will go down in history as an inventive but ultimately misguided detour. In its place is a serious-looking machine for serious power users. It may not turn as many heads, but you can add or swap high-end GPUs, hard drives and other components at will, which is exactly the kind of inner beauty Pro-level shoppers have been hoping for. 

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