Wednesday, December 25, 2013

State of the Art: Review: Apple’s New Mac Pro Computer

Atop my desk sits a shiny (and I do mean shiny) new Mac Pro. It’s Apple’s top-of-the-line new desktop computer, aimed at, as the name implies, the creative professionals who have always relied on Macs for video, graphics, music and photo manipulation. It makes everything around it look vaguely slower. It also makes me want to increase my homeowner’s insurance, in case of a break-in. The Mac Pro is daring, extravagant and elite -- or maybe it’s just for the elite.

The design is obviously an indulgence. The Mac Pro is a charcoal gray cylinder that stands about 10 inches high and reflects back a distorted, slightly menacing view of the world. The outer layer of the tube is removable, displaying the Pro’s innards in a pleasing industrial array. A cutout at the top of the cylinder creates a lip that acts as a handle, and a visual effect sadly reminiscent of either a trash can or an ashtray.

Its affect is deeply futuristic: It looks like a device that might project a hologram, or generate its own singularity. Its blenderlike size makes it suitable for sitting atop a desk, particularly a lucite desk in an ultramodern sparse loft, or on black aluminum in an ultra-stylish ad agency, graphic design shop or documentary film studio.

Side note: Apple told me it considers the Mac Pro to be a “portable” desktop; many pro video and graphics editors prefer to travel with their editing rigs. As it happens, I got to test that claim: I picked up my review unit in New York and, later that afternoon, flew to San Francisco with it. Let’s just say that an 11 pound cylinder, handle or no, isn’t the most wieldy of travel companions.

The Mac Pro is extremely, ridiculously fast and powerful. The specifications are nearly mythical. The model Apple loaned me has an eight-core Intel processor; you can max out at 12. It has 64 gigabytes of extremely fast memory (most computers have four, eight, or maybe 16); two AMD graphics cards that purchased separately, cost $800 each; and a luxurious and fast one terabyte solid-state hard drive. As configured, and without a monitor or even a keyboard and mouse, which are not included, the Mac Pro sitting on my desk rings in at $8,099. Shipping is free.

Once it’s running, the Mac Pro is virtually silent, and only a ports panel that illuminates when you move the machine offers any sign of life.

Nevertheless, the power is evident. The Pro took just over an hour to convert 32 gigabytes of high-definition video into another video format -- a job that took over three hours on my quad-core Mac Mini. And although the task noticeably heated up the Mac Pro, its fan stayed quiet, and it didn’t seem perturbed. It’s clearly capable of much more than a mere multimedia professional can throw at it. But I had more in store.

The target market of professionals for the new Mac Pro has felt neglected in recent years. The last time they got a new Mac Pro desktop was 2010, with a minor speed bump in 2012. That year, Apple quietly killed the 17-inch MacBook Pro laptop, a favorite of creative pros who wanted an truly portable editing rig.

Meanwhile, Apple’s most recent edition of its Final Cut video editing software, Final Cut Pro X, disappointed many with missing features and a prettier, but dumber interface. Subsequent updates answered these sorts of complaints, and the software was just updated to support the new Mac Pro and, most important, ultra high-definition video manipulation.

Apple clearly hopes the new Mac Pro will both appease its creative base and lay claim to so-called 4K video editing just as it’s poised to become more mainstream. This video resolution has twice the vertical and horizontal resolution of high-definition video, for much more detailed picture quality. It’s the new darling of movie studios, graphic designers and ad agencies, and 4K (and even 5K, 6K and 8K) cameras are increasingly available to prosumers and even consumers. The land grab is on.

The Mac Pro offers, in theory, the graphics and processor power to make editing and rendering 4K video feasible -- although Apple doesn’t yet make a monitor capable of displaying 4K. It offers the Mac Pro on its own site alongside a Sharp monitor that costs $3,595.

I invited a friend who does freelance graphic design and video editing to come over with some 4K and 5K video he had shot. We imported the footage into Final Cut Pro X to test Apple’s claims of editing in real time, without long delays in rendering and processing video.

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