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New Mac Pro Models with Xeon E5?

Most professional users, myself included, have been frustrated with the lack of a Mac Pro model with any major updates since July 27, 2010. This is an unusual lag on Apple’s part with past updates being much more consistent. However, the horizon seems bright at last with hope for a new Mac Pro lineup. I think Apple’s hands have been tied which would make Intel the primary source of the delays.

Nehalem

If you look at Intel’s microarchitecture roadmap for Nehalem, you can see that Apple stayed with Intel on its Mac Pro lineup right through the fastest Westmere processors introduced in March 2010 with 95 watt TDP processors in dual processor models and 130 watt TDP processors in single processor systems. Intel introduced some tiny updates in February 2011 but these amounted to updates to only two processors that would potentially be appropriate for the Mac Pro lineup.

On April 5, 2011 Intel introduced its Xeon E7 line which was codenamed Westmere-EX which provided three ten core processors. Although I speculated at the time that Apple might utilize these processors, it would have been utterly foolish on Apple’s part if they had. The three Xeon E7 processors released were $2837, $3838, and $4398 per processor and would have driven the cost of the Mac Pro to far over $10K if any dual processor models were offered.

Sandy Bridge

Essentially Intel has left Apple high and dry from 2010 until now. At last, the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture is yielding some appropriate workstation chips in the form of the Xeon E5 processors and specifically the two series code-named Sandy Bridge-E and Sandy Bridge-EP. Apple finally has a number of options in Intel’s lineup.

I can say with almost completely certainty that if Apple builds a new Mac Pro lineup based on the Sandy Bridge-E and Sandy Bridge-EP processors that this lineup will use processors available in LGA 2011 configuration rather than the LGA 1155 or LGA 1356 sockets.

Single Processor Options

For single processor systems that leaves the Xeon E5 1620 (3.6GHz, 3.9GHz Turbo Boost), quad-core processor, and the Xeon E5 1650 (3.2GHz, 3.8GHz Turbo Boost) and 1660 (3.3GHz, 3.9GHz Turbo Boost), both six-core processors. These chips have the same 130 watt TDP that previous Mac Pro models with single processors utilized so this would require no major changes in terms of heat dissipation.

A very real possibility, and one I think that may be likely given the excellent performance of standard Sandy Bridge Core i5 and i7 processors, is that Apple will completely eliminate the single processor Mac Pro models and push those users toward the iMac 27-inch models.

Dual Processor Options

For dual processor systems we have a much broader range of potential options. I suspect that the lowest end chip that would make it into a dual processor Mac Pro would be the Xeon E5 2643 (3.3GHz) which is the lone quad-core, eight thread chip in the Xeon E5 lineup available in the LGA 2011 socket that is designed for a dual processor configuration. The E5 2643 does have a 130 watt TDP which is higher than the TDP offered on any dual processor Mac Pro models in the past. Perhaps Apple has redesigned its heat dissipation to accomodate the greater potential heat output.

Apple will be unlikely to want to further lower the advertised clock speeds on its top-of-the-line Mac Pro dual processor models and will most likely instead stick to Xeon E5 processors with higher clock speeds. I suspect a 130 watt TDP will be the limit though which precludes a couple of processors at 135 and 150 watt TDP.

My predication is that the Xeon E5 2667 (2.9GHz) will be the only six-core processor destined for dual processor Mac Pro models because it fits with the DDR3 1600MHz pattern of the Xeon E5 2643 and other eight-core Xeon E5 processors likely to land in a Mac Pro.

For eight-core processors in the Xeon E5 lineup, Apple has more options. While more options do exist, I think Apple will only choose one of the available eight-core processors which would be the Xeon E5 2680 (2.7GHz). The E5 2680 has the same 130 watt TDP of the other likely quad-core and six-core processors.

My Model Prediction

I think Apple will introduce a single Mac Pro that can be configured with either dual quad-core, six-core, or eight-core processors. These systems would be effectively eight-core, twelve-core, and sixteen-core systems respectively. The options will likely be dual Xeon E5 2643 (quad-core 3.3GHz), dual Xeon E5 2667 (six-core 2.9GHz), or Xeon dual E5 2680 (eight-core 2.7GHz). A redesigned case is likely but not essential. Certainly some cooling modifications would need to be made if the case closely resembles today’s case.

I think we will see a dedicated 2.5-inch SSD bay (possibly two) but maintain at least four 3.5-inch bays. All Serial ATA ports destined to be used by SSDs or hard drives should be 6Gb/s but this may not happen since the Intel X79 Express chipset once again only supports two 6Gb/s ports and four 3Gb/s ports. Apple could easily remedy this by using a Marvell or other additional controller on the board like many manufacturers have been doing with Z68 boards to add additional 6Gb/s Serial ATA ports.

Another potential possibility is that two SSD bays will be 6Gb/s while all four hard drives will be provided with a 3Gb/s Serial ATA port. This would preclude offering an optical drive without additional Serial ATA ports provided by another controller. Removal of the optical drive would not be a big surprise given Apple’s removal of the optical drive on the Mac mini, the absence on the MacBook Air, and the rumored removal on future MacBook Pro models.

If Apple does release a new Mac Pro, I would suspect that Apple will utilize AMD’s Radeon 7900 series of graphics cards code-named Southern Islands. I would say AMD Radeon 7770, 7870, and 7970 are likely model choices.

Rumors have been floating around that Apple will go back to NVIDIA. If Apple were to return to NVIDIA, it would be for the as-yet-unreleased GeForce 600 series code-named Kepler. Depending on Apple’s time table, I hesitate to think that Kepler graphics chips will be ready in time. Of course we could all be surprised and Apple could be Kepler’s first launch. Kepler is scheduled to be released in Q1 2012 although the quarter is fast drawing to a close.

Mac Pro Elimination

The other possibility that has been discussed is that the Mac Pro will not be upgraded at all and will be discontinued sometime soon. While this certainly could happen, I find it highly unlikely that Apple will maroon its pro users in such a drastic way. Apple has always appealed to power users and I suspect that Apple will want to maintain this niche which helps it move into more markets, including the business world.

The release of Final Cut Pro X, while viewed as a slap in the face to pro users, was actually more of a forward-looking move. Apple sees the future as online video rather than the old ruts that traditional editors are still stuck in. In the quest for innovation, some users are almost always left behind.

Release Date?

I have no more information than anyone else about when, or if, a Mac Pro lineup update will occur. I am almost certain that this update, if it does occur, will happen after the March 7 press event which is almost certainly to release an iPad 3 and possibly an Apple TV upgrade of some sort.

Since Ivy Bridge processors destined for all the other models in Apple’s Mac product lines seem to be most likely arriving in sufficient quantity in June or July, I suspect the Mac Pro announcement will happen before July. That leaves sometimes in April, May, or possibly June. I would say late May or early June is the most likely so as not to steal the thunder from other product launches.

That would allow the March launch of the iPad 3 to go untainted and potential launches of new MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iMac, and Mac mini models in the July and possibly early August timeframe in time for the return to school in the fall. Later in the year we will likely see the release of the iPhone 5 which is currently rumored to be sometime near October.

Will it happen? I have no idea, but I know many, many users who are hoping that Apple will release a new Mac Pro. We can only wait now and see what happens March 7 and after.

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