Yesterday in the edit suite I was cutting together a profile piece about a video game design company based out of Boston.  As I scanned through the footage shot late last week, something struck me: everyone- the designers, programmers, animators- were using iMacs.  Just a few years ago, a shop like that one would have been all Mac Pro based.

What does the Mac Pro give us that’s simply impossible on any other Apple computer?

Speed is a big factor, but that gap is closing fast.  Check out these stats from barefeats.com.  They summarize their charts with this:

The gap has definitely closed between the ‘mid range’ Mac Pro versus the ‘high-end’ iMac and MacBook Pro when it comes to pro apps — thanks to quad-core i7 “Sandy Bridge” processors with hyperthreading and turbo-boost. The gap varies depending on the app and the specific function within the app. And if you are comparing a new ‘high-end’ iMac or Macbook Pro to a 2006-2008 Mac Pro, you will be impressed.

Expandability is another Mac Pro exclusive.  Since the latest Pro was released in 2010, Apple has been rolling Thunderbolt technology into practically the rest of the Mac line (I think the MacBook Air is the only other holdout).  Thunderbolt is basically PCI Express combined with the Mini Display port.  Much of the functionality you gain from the internal PCI slots in the Mac Pro can be replicated with new devices that utilize that port.  I use a PCI card for fibre channel connectivity to an Xsan volume, but now there’s a Thunderbolt box for that.  My editing Mac also has an HD/SDI capture card from Blackmagic, but now there’s this from the same company.

Given Apple’s recent changes in the professional content creation market, there has clearly been a plan in place for quite some time to simplify and drop the technology that they don’t see having a long-term future.  In Apple’s eyes, Final Cut Pro 7 is the culmination of 12+ years of code on top of code, feature on top of feature, all on top of a foundation that was originally written for Mac OS 9 and Windows (FCP began life at Macromedia being cross platform).  Their Final Cut Server application never caught on, and it was clunky in its implementation with FCP.  Apple moved away from optical discs (and never embraced Blu-Ray) so DVD Studio Pro got the axe.  The list goes on.

If the Mac Pro lives on I think we’ll see steady maintenance but no radical new design.  There’s no reason that Apple can’t keep the Mac Pro at the high end with one or two models that contain the fastest processors and two Thunderbolt ports.  Even though the iMac gets close, last year’s Pro still bests the newest model in every test.

It is a pivotal moment for Mac users at the high end of the spectrum.  For an editor like myself, everything is in flux: FCP X isn’t ready, Avid just opened up their software to work with third party capture hardware, and Adobe just grabbed up Wes Plate (the founder of a company called Automatic Duck that made amazing translation tools for FCP, After Effects, and Avid).  The next year will be very interesting, and the future of the Mac Pro is at center stage for a lot of us.  Stay tuned.

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