Archive for July, 2010


Just another day in a 40′ screen DI


Look, cameras again!

I bet this post doesn’t get 10,000 hits!


The state of Apple’s professional line

Today, 512 days after the last update, Apple introduced the new lineup of speed-bumped Mac Pros and further established their abandonment of the professional community.

Now, I don’t say this to be inflammatory – far from it.  As a professional user in the truest sense, I eat, sleep and breathe things like this.  I work in an industry that simply requires the use of a Mac… no ifs, ands or buts.  No Windows, no Linux, no hackintoshes, no excuses.  To the millions that love their Macs, it’s an enviable position to be in.  But to those who have walked this path before, it’s a lonely existence.  The reason for this is simple:

With the 2010 Mac Pro update, Apple has literally created a machine for nobody.

Let me explain.  In order to get a true understanding of the current Mac Pro lineup, we have to go on a trip down memory lane.

Ever since the discontinuation of the Power Macintosh 9600 in 1997  [and Workgroup Server 9650 in early 1998], Apple’s professional desktop lineup has filled a space immediately above their consumer machines.  While many still look back on the immense expansion [six PCI slots!] of the pre-G3-era computers with fondness, what they often forget is that those machines tipped the scale at $4,700 [and $6,900 for the server!] when they first shipped.  They were extreme performance machines with fitting prices.

But since Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the professional line rapidly shifted from the stratosphere to the attainable.  For years, there were three price points to Apple’s professional desktop lineup: $1,999, $2,499 and $2,999.  The low-end model was a logical step over the highest-end consumer machine [the iMac] and each price point got you a logical increase in performance.

After the introduction of the Power Mac G3, performance increased rapidly until it hit a clock speed road block in 1999.  For MacWorld after MacWorld, we stood by and watched countless Photoshop bake-offs between a 500MHz Mac and an umpteen GHz PC.  It was in this curious era until they broke down the barrier in 2001 that Apple [almost begrudgingly] changed their strategy from speed increase to feature increase.  As new generations of processors [still trapped at <500MHz speeds] surfaced, the Power Mac would grow with faster graphics, faster system controllers, faster networking, faster system busses and improved I/O.  While these machines never reached the expandability of the Power Macintosh line, they grew in performance and usefulness while maintaining their position one notch above the iMac.

Apple again hit a similar roadblock with the G5, never reaching the 3.0GHz that Motorola promised Apple [and us!] in 2003.  With that said, the immense performance increase that the G5 afforded was worth it – at least in the early days.  A minor $300 price bump to the professional lineup in this era was offset by the killer performance you’d gain… 3.0GHz or not.

In the Intel era, the concept of clock speeds are almost lost.  It’s 2010 and we’ve still barely cracked the 3.0GHz barrier.  It turns out that the snake oil some thought we were being sold in the 500MHz roadblock era was actually true!  It’s architecture that trumps clock speed.

Since the Intel transition, Apple has usually positioned themselves as the star child of Intel’s processor lineup.  Every time Intel had something new to show, Apple would be the first to have it, contractually blocking others out for weeks or months before the processors were widely available.

Now before I go any further, I want to draw a selfish distinction.  For the sake of argument, there are two types of users of Apple’s professional lineup.

First, there are the users that I will shamelessly lump into “Group A”.  These users – call them prosumers, high-end consumers, casual professionals or rich people – demand more from their machines than they can get out of the consumer models.  The reasons are plentiful.  Maybe they wanted a bigger screen on their laptop than they could get in the consumer lineup.  Maybe they needed some expandability.  Maybe they knock around in Photoshop every now and again and needed better I/O and storage options.  Hell, maybe they just like aluminum.  Whatever the reason, this group of users fit into the slot directly above the iMac [and iBook/MacBook] perfectly.  Jumping from a $1,500 iMac to a $2,000+ PowerMac was attainable and justifiable.

Then, there are the rest of us.  We demand the most from our machines.  We make a living off of our machines and the work that they help us accomplish.  We stuff our Macs to the brim with PCI cards, RAM and storage.  We move hundreds of terabytes of data, render for hours and know what it really means to push a machine to the limit.  Maybe it’s video, maybe it’s photography, maybe it’s server administration… hell, maybe it’s something i’ve never heard of.  Either way, it’s about the performance and there is no second place.  Group B.

The thing that frightens me about Apple’s professional lineup is that over the past few years, they’ve seemingly abandoned Group B.  Just take a look at Apple’s current offerings.

The MacBook Pro briefly glimmered as an awesome professional laptop when it peaked in 2008.  It had a user-replaceable battery, user-replaceable hard drive, an ExpressCard slot and a matte screen.  Apple had finally answered our calls that they’d seemingly been ignoring since the ’90s.

Take a look at the same lineup today.  Apple dropped the replaceable battery, dropped the user-upgradeable hard drive, started charging for matte screens and replaced the immensely useful ExpressCard slot with a consumer-oriented SD card slot.  Hell, the entry-level MacBook Pro dropped below $2,000 to make it appeal to consumers more.

The reasons for Apple’s decision are obvious – many consumers want a bigger screen and don’t need all of the performance.  I’m sure that most of the MacBook Pros Apple was selling were going directly to owners who don’t even understand what an ExpressCard slot is or why they’d need it.  But their point-and-shoot camera [and their entry-level DSLR] has an SD card and boy it’d be convenient to just stick it in the computer.  Since most people don’t take their laptops beyond the kitchen table or the local Starbucks, saving weight on an internal battery makes sense.  Replaceable hard drives?  It’s not even on their radar.

To save the professional users, Apple kept the ExpressCard slot in the 17″ model.  Unfortunately, the 17″ model has the same graphics performance as the 15″ model, but it’s driving more pixels resulting in lower per-pixel performance.  The system architecture is still based around one USB 2.0 bus and one FireWire bus, resulting in limited I/O performance.  One hopes that Apple will upgrade the ExpressCard slot to the 2.0 specification later this year, but with only one machine sporting the slot, I’m not holding my breath.

With these decisions, Apple has turned the MacBook Pro lineup into a high-end consumer line… the perfect computer for Group A users.

Before turning the spotlight back on the Mac Pro, I want to look at a few other professional Apple products… perhaps the most important being QuickTime.  When Apple introduced Mac OS X 10.6, they cleaned up a lot of things.  Perhaps the most useful change to professionals [other than the generally increased performance, naturally] was the system-wide change from 1.8 gamma to 2.2 gamma.  Rather than commenting on how overdue this change was, I’ll simply nod and accept it.

But look at what happened to QuickTime in the process.  With a rewrite of the Mac OS as a whole, I expected Apple to clean up all the messes that QuickTime had been creating over the past seven versions.  QuickTime is indispensable, yes, but it’s also been plagued with prevalent gamma issues and inconsistencies for years.  Those in the professional video community have found workarounds, but it was only logical that Apple clean up this mess while they were cleaning up the rest of the OS.

Unfortunately, Apple introduced QuickTime X – a disappointing step backwards from QuickTime 7.  Gone are the features of QuickTime Pro, gone is codec support for so many video formats, gone are dozens of useful display options and gone is the ability to overcome the limitations of QuickTime’s gamma issues.  Apple didn’t fix the gamma issue, they simply removed the ability to work around it.  The only positive feature I can find in the application is the inclusion of fullscreen playback in the free player.

Naturally, one can still find QuickTime 7 in their utilities folder, much in the way that Apple had to keep iMovie HD around after iMovie ’08 removed most of its useful features.

Take a look at Apple’s other professional offerings.  FInal Cut Pro hasn’t seen an update in just over a year and lacks basic functionality like 64-bit optimization and true multiprocessor support.  Unfortunately – at its most basic level – Final Cut Pro is still a single-processor application.

Apple’s Logic Pro has seen similarly limited support over the past few years.  It wasn’t until January of this year that Apple updated Logic Pro to support 64-bit.  Even with this update, the program still feels trapped in an era between PowerPC and Intel processors.

Looking back at the Mac Pro, Apple has found themselves in a market that they are seemingly unwilling or unable to support.

When the Nehalem Mac Pro was introduced in early 2009, Apple was the first major computer manufacturer to have access to the new processors.  Even after other companies picked up the processors, Apple had created a genuinely competitive machine.  You could price out an identical system from almost any other PC manufacturer and end up with a similar [or higher!] price than Apple’s lineup.  Credit where credit is due, this is a habit that Apple has stuck to with the Mac Pro lineup for several generations.

The problem is that Apple is no longer in their own sandbox.  When Apple switched over to using Intel processors, they opened themselves up to direct and undeniable competition.  When Apple was on their 6-month product update cycle back in the PowerPC days, there was no competition.  Sure, the PC world would’ve updated a few times since Apple’s last offering… but Apple’s last offering was still the fastest PowerPC system you could get.

Since Apple had moved into the x86 wild, their price/performance superiority with new product launches would dwindle quickly.  While the 2009 Mac Pro may have been a terrific value on the day of its introduction, the PC world would drop prices and add performance consistently month after month for the entire life of the tower.  When a six-month product update cycle felt lengthy, a 14+ month product cycle is an eternity.  As of yesterday, Apple’s top-of-the-line Mac Pro still cost the same that it did at the time of its introduction… when an identically configured PC was available for pennies.

In this new world, Apple hasn’t reacted by updating their professional products more aggressively or striving to increase performance or drop prices – they’ve seemingly done the opposite.  Leaving your most competitive performance systems to rot for almost a year and a half is an insult to those that rely on them.

Even accepting that, Apple’s current product introduction is already four months behind the curve.  Instead of leading the way by being the first to use a new processor from Intel, Apple missed the target and is introducing machines that are essentially already outdated from a price/performance perspective.

With all of that in mind, why is the 2010 Mac Pro a machine for nobody?

The reason is simple – it’s why we went on that trip through history.

When Apple switched from the Power Macintosh 9600 to the PowerMac G3, they dropped a lot of things.  They halved the number of PCI slots and limited the upgradability of the machine, but they dropped a huge amount off the price to justify it.  Existing in that $2,000 – $3,000 range was what made the PowerMac work.  It may not have had all of the features that professional users had come to expect, but the price/performance ratio was vastly increased.

If you look at today’s lineup, Apple has introduced a machine priced like the Power Macintosh 9600 but outfitted like the PowerMac G3.  It is priced out of the range of Group A, but lacks the performance and upgradability required by Group B.  In many ways, it goes against everything Apple taught us during those countless Photoshop bake-offs and system controller comparisons.  Apple has done what they always told us was bad – they’ve bolted a crazy fast processor to a system that’s just not up to the task.  It’s a twin-turbo V12 Yugo.

Like the ExpressCard 34 slot in the MacBook Pro, I’m sure Apple would tell you that only an infinitesimal percentage of users ever take advantage of all the Mac Pro has to offer.  I’m sure very few users fill up their PCI slots, max out their RAM and run their towers into the ground.  If the machines were priced like the MacBook Pro, it’s a valid argument.  But at $5,000, the machine is no longer in the price range of a Group A user.  In my mind, that argument just doesn’t apply here.

Furthermore, as the computing world moves forward to newer and faster standards, even a mid-range professional users has requirements that stress the lower-end [and more reasonably priced] Mac Pro models.

The Mac Pro only has one FireWire bus, but inexplicably sports 4 ports.  Adding another bus will fill up a PCI slot.  The Mac Pro has no eSATA support [and the extra SATA ports on the motherboard are presumably still not hot-swappable], so that fills up another PCI slot.  USB 3.0 may still be in its infancy, but adding it to the machine when it’s ready is going to fill up another slot.

So the simple act of bringing the motherboard’s I/O up to what is normal in 2010 fills the system’s PCI slots.

But what about the more advanced users?  If one needs to add a SAS card or RAID card, they’re out of space.  If they need to add industry- or application-specific PCI cards [think HD-SDI input/output, video professionals], they’re out of space.  What if that user wants to mount their professional system in a rack mount to fit with the rest of their gear?  No such luck, unfortunately – at least not unless they want to saw off the handles to make the computer fit.

In short, the system architecture of the Mac Pro just isn’t up to what true professional users need in 2010.  It may have the bleeding-edge processors [introduced several months ago] but it lacks the back-end support to make it all useful.  We’re still limited to 40 PCI lanes across 4 slots.  There’s still no SAS backplane.  There is still one FireWire bus.  There is no USB 3.0.  There is no BluRay.  The machine will not fit in a rack mount.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I don’t mean to be inflammatory.  I’m just crestfallen – like I’ve been abandoned by the company that used to love me and my brethren.

For years, Apple was the best at this sort of thing.  If you worked in graphics, you used a Mac.  If you worked in video or film, you used a Mac.  If you worked in music, you used a Mac.  It was the way of the creative professional.

As a consumer entering the Apple Store, you knew that Apple had both ends of the spectrum covered.  They made the easiest computers for consumers to use but they also made the fastest and most powerful computers for creative professionals.  Even if you were there to buy an iBook, it sure was nice to look through to the next section of the store and see the computer that composted Lord of The Rings using Apple’s own Shake!  It was the halo effect, even in the days before the iPod.

Apple’s consumer offerings have been spectacular over the past few years.  They’ve introduced such fantastic products that most people can find themselves right at home on one of Apple’s computers.  But in this shift towards the consumer, Apple has left the professional behind.

If you look at the dollars and cents, I’m sure it’s the logical decision.  As with the deletion of the ExpressCard slot from the MacBook Pro, Apple has shifted their efforts towards the greater volume and louder customer base.  Why sell one Mac Pro when you can sell 5 iMacs and 30 iPhones?  It makes sense on paper.

But that’s the wrong way to look at the professional line.  It shouldn’t be a line of computers that your mother might buy.  It’s the line of computers that creative professionals buy.  We shoot your movies, we make your music, we edit your TV shows and print your magazines.  It’s about creation, not consumption.

Ask Subaru to put their figures on the table and I guarantee you that their World Rally Championship involvement doesn’t make them a cent.  But when a 16-year-old kid sees a $300,000 WRX rip through the dirt sideways at 100MPH, he knows what car he’s going to save for.

Ask Ford or Chevy the same of NASCAR and you’ll get a similar answer.  Or ask Audi about Le Mans.  To the companies that sign the checks, it’s not about the money that they spend, it’s about the loyalty and excitement it creates.  If Apple has decided to price the Mac Pro out of the reach of the consumer, they need to give it the beans that their own racing team requires.

So when the machines ship in August, will I buy them?  Of course.  Because I have to.  I do this for a living and if my machines aren’t up to the task, someone else’s are.  But for every $5,000 Mac Pro I buy I’m going to spend another few thousand on a PCI expansion chassis and a few thousand after that on SATA cards, SAS cards, FireWire cards, USB 3.0 cards and BluRay burners.  Somehow this will all get wedged into 40 PCI lanes.  And every time there’s a software update, I’ll have to shake the whole machine down again to keep driver incompatibility from ruining stability.  It’s the nature of the beast.

As far as I can tell, Apple still hasn’t made a decision.  They haven’t figured out whether to abandon their professional users or support them.  The 2010 Mac Pro is a middle ground machine… it’s caught in the ether.

I can only hope that Apple hears the cries of their professional users and builds systems to support the industry that they created.  They have to make a decision one way or the other, because right now they have nothing.  I just hope that they don’t make their decision based on sales figures… because I can already tell you how they’re going to look.

They’ve reset the clock with this introduction, but they haven’t solved the problem.  I just hope we don’t have to wait another 512 days to see what’s next.

~Brook Willard


Not yet…

Still working, just can’t post stuff yet. More posts will return soon…



Can’t name the show yet.


That’s a wrap!


Supercombat 4G