How upgradable is the new Mac Pro?

Apple has dropped its classic box design for the new Mac Pro, but what does this change do to the upgradability that many pro consumers require?

Topher Kessler MacFixIt Editor
Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.
Topher Kessler
3 min read
Mac Pro

In a move similar to its release of the PowerMac G4 Cube, Apple has issued a radical new design for its upcoming replacement for its Mac Pro systems. While unique and attractive, one of the key features for the Mac Pro has been expandability so professional users can customize its hardware to meet their needs, so where does this new system's design leave us?

In order to fit the components of the system into its radical shape, Apple has had to make some changes to the system. For one, its video cards will no longer be off-the-shelf units that can be swapped out and replaced. While they're still PCI Express-based cards, they require a unique design to fit in the system and properly marry its components to the triangular unified thermal core at the center of the new Mac Pro.

Mac Pro unified thermal core
To attach components to its unified thermal core, the video cards and other system boards follow unique designs, making them more difficult if not impossible to replace or upgrade. Apple

In addition to limited video card options, the new Mac Pro also will have some limitations with internal hard drive upgrades. While the system will be entirely Flash-based and therefore fast, as is the case with the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display, Apple is using an alternative daughter card design for the system's flash drive. This means that you will not be able to get a 2.5-inch drive from OCZ, OWC, Intel, or other manufacturers and plop it in the system. While third-party replacements and upgrades may become available, as with the current MacBook Pro and MacBook Air they will likely be limited and few in number.

However, the RAM on the new systems will be upgradable. Apple has stuck with the traditional RAM slots, and provides four slots for adding more RAM modules to the system. Apple so far has not given any specifications on the provided RAM in the systems, but in its Core Technologies Overview it mentions that the kernel in OS X Mavericks supports addressing up to 128GB of RAM.

Memory expansion in the new Mac Pro
Mac Pro memory expansion offers four slots for upgrades. Apple

Overall, these details and the design of the new Mac Pro very clearly point out that besides RAM, expandability is intended to be done through one route: Thunderbolt.

Unlike any Mac before it, the new Mac Pro will offer over three times the number of Thunderbolt connections, giving access to next-generation Thunderbolt 2 that runs at 20Gb/sec, and is managed by three independent controllers. This impressive number of ports should offer the connectivity that most people will need, through external PCI Express enclosures that can host external video cards as well as specialized equipment, and RAID arrays for high-throughput data storage.

In addition to Thunderbolt, Apple offers four USB 3.0 ports on the Mac Pro, though with Thunderbolt you should be able to add a massive collection of USB, FireWire, audio, Ethernet, and practically any other I/O technology to the system. Manufacturers like Belkin, Matrox, and Sonnet all have a number of Thunderbolt-based expansion accessories for use with current Mac systems, which will no doubt find a place with the new Mac Pro.

Overall, while the system may at first glance appear limited, its massive reliance on Thunderbolt makes it the exact opposite. The only drawback to this is the reliance on external devices for expandability and the added expense that comes along with it (though Apple has yet to announce pricing options for the new systems). There are a number of third-party solutions available that provide these options, but perhaps to help out Apple will come up with some of its own.

Questions? Comments? Have a fix? Post them below or e-mail us!
Be sure to check us out on Twitter and the CNET Mac forums.