“Pro” Mac Hardware

There has been quite a bit of angst in the Mac community lately regarding Mac Hardware, particularly amongst “pro” users. Though there is no accepted definition of a “pro” user, I generally consider the pro user to be anyone who has a use case in which the processing power of the computer has a material impact on the amount of work they can get done. For example, people who can ship more work product because something renders in one hour instead of three, or compiles in 20 minutes instead of an hour.

This excludes the vast majority of users. For most people, speed is a nice feature that makes for  a better user experience. But if the sum total of time savings amounts to minutes per day, there isn’t really much of an actual productivity boost.

The Apple ecosystem has a lot of benefits. The build quality of their hardware is second to none. There is a historical advantage of software reliability and security as compared to Windows, though this gap has closed considerably in recent years. Apple has done a great job of cramming very good hardware specs into progressively thinner and lighter laptops. I still don’t understand why they apply this philosophy to desktops, though they look cool.

However, in pursuit of the continual shrinking and lightening of the product line, the gap between the specs available from Apple and the major PC vendors in the workstation category has finally reached the point where even Apple loyalists are taking notice. We’ll see what Apple releases over the next few months (and years), but as I write this, compared to the MacBook Pro, portable workstations from the major PC vendors can be configured with faster processors, four times as much system AND video RAM, as well as more (and upgradeable) storage. As compared to the Mac Pro, desktop workstations from the PC vendors can be configured with more than three times the number of processor cores, sixteen times as much RAM, and double the number of (more powerful and replaceable) video cards. Compare these specs to the iMac, and the gap is even larger.

These PC workstations will be big and ugly. The battery life of the portable models will probably suck, and getting these kinds of specs will cost a lot of money. These machines will also be upgraded by their vendors – every, single, year. For the non-pro users, annual spec bumps are really not that big of a deal, and even many design upgrades are more about fashion than anything else. For the pro users, Moore’s law has a serious impact on their bottom line. More powerful specs mean significantly more work can get done.

This highlights the risk that’s inherent with being loyal to a single hardware vendor. What happens when your vendor is no longer in addressing your particular needs? I have no doubt that Apple will continue to upgrade the MacBook Pro and the iMac, and they may even come up with a replacement for the Mac Pro. However, even if they do, it’s doubtful that the hardware will be as powerful as what could be purchased in the PC market, and extremely unlikely that the upgrades will happen with the clock-like regularity found in the PC market.

What I think is so frustrating for many pro users is that it would be relatively easy for Apple to profitably build true workstation class machines. Apply loyalists would be willing to pay a premium for hardware that would enable them to make more money. If you exclude size and weight as sacred design elements, development costs would likely drop considerably. Pro users would gladly pay extra for a MacBook Pro that was thicker and heavier than consumer models if it gave them lots of upgradeable RAM and storage, as well as a more useful array of ports. The same holds true for the Mac Pro. The “cheese grater” form factor would allow for specs generally on par with PC workstations and allow for annual incremental upgrades without major redesign work.

These machines would not sell nearly as well as mainstream models, but that’s not really the point. There will eventually be a trickle down effect if Apple loses the pro market. Apple certainly doesn’t owe it to any particular group of users to build machines that meet their particular needs. By the same token, users don’t owe their loyalty to any particular company either.

“Pro” Mac Hardware