Most of Apple’s product lines are severely overdue for a refresh. Apart from the recently refreshed MacBook, many of the company’s Mac products are well over a year old. The Mac Mini is nearly two, the high-end workstation Mac Pro is almost three, and the sole remaining non-Retina MacBook Pro is now more than four years old.
Writing for The Verge, Sam Byford recently argued that “Apple should stop selling four year-old computers.” He’s not wrong to note the 2012-era MacBook Pro is pretty long in the tooth with its 4GB of RAM and Ivy Bridge-based processor, or that Apple has neglected specific products, like the Mac Mini. I thought about writing a similar article last month, but with a specific focus on the Mac Pro. After digging around in Intel’s Ark (a tool that lets you compare the specifics of various Intel processors), I realized that while there are exceptions, Apple’s relatively lax refresh cycle is mostly driven by the low rate of improvements in PC hardware these days. Apple is just more honest about it.
Setting aside the non-Retina MacBook Pro from 2012, most of Apple’s laptops are running on Broadwell or Skylake (the 2016 MacBook). There’s a single SKU left over from Haswell at the $1,999 price point, but the laptop lineup is pretty new.
Byford is right when he calls out the nearly three-year gap between the Mac Pro’s debut and the present day, but he doesn’t specifically discuss just how little this has meant to the machine’s top end performance. The Mac Pro ships in two configurations we’ll address: An Ivy Bridge Xeon quad-core at 3.7GHz with 10MB L3 (E5-1620 v2) or a 2.7GHz 12-core IVB-EP CPU with 30MB L3 (E5-2697 v2). Let’s compare those with their counterparts today.
In the chart above, we’ve arranged each IVB chip on the left, followed by its modern counterpart. Intel doesn’t have a 12-core Broadwell chip in the 135W TDP bracket, only in 105W and 160W flavors. There are higher-core count systems with lower clock speeds, but our hypothetical test-case is a user who wants both high clocks and high core counts.
The first thing to note is how little Intel’s chip lineup has actually changed in the past three years. The modern E5-2687 v4 has a slightly higher base clock speed but a significantly higher TDP. Top frequency is identical between the two. Broadwell offers essentially no clock speed improvements over IVB-E at the quad-core level — in fact, the IVB-EP actually clocked higher than its counterpart. True, architectural improvements will compensate for some of this, but not by much — Haswell was roughly 8% faster than IVB-E, and Skylake hasn’t come to the E5 family yet. You’d get some uplift if your application supports and makes significant use of AVX2, but otherwise? There’s not a lot of upgrade to be had.
In short, there’s just not much reason to update the Mac Pro’s CPU — not until and unless Intel can field designs that truly merit it. While Apple will likely eventually refresh the Mac Pro, the only big winners will be Mac users who want to pack as many threads as possible into a single-socket system (Intel now offers Xeons with up to 22 cores in the E5 family).
GPUs are where the lengthy wait times in between refresh cycles really does bite customers. The current top-end Mac Pro fields a pair of D700 graphics cards based on AMD’s original GCN 1.0 architecture. AMD has built multiple cards that could’ve been used to upgrade these configurations, while the Polaris GPU inside the RX 480 would deliver better performance and more VRAM at a much lower TDP and price point.
The problem with criticizing Apple’s GPU performance is that Apple doesn’t care all that much about graphics, period. OS X continues to field a version of OpenGL that’s nearly six years old and Apple isn’t supporting Vulkan, instead choosing to field its own close-to-metal API, Metal. Apple isn’t exactly out of step with the rest of the industry; outside of boutique laptops, there just aren’t very many systems shipping with discrete GPUs any more — at least, not many below the $1,000 price point, and not with decent graphics hardware. If your workloads depend on GPUs and scale with graphics horsepower, you aren’t using Apple. (There are plenty of workloads that run better on GPUs than CPUs, but don’t actually scale all that well, which is why I make that distinction).
For a brief moment in 2013, with the launch of the Mac Pro, it looked like Apple might embrace OpenCL, GPGPU programming and offload, and put a new focus on integrating high-end GPUs into its various products. That moment has come and gone. While I do suspect we’ll see Apple hardware with refreshed graphics hardware, it’ll be the 14nm refresh cycle that drives it, not any particular interest in GPU computing or graphics as a whole.
I’m not an Apple apologist. I use an iPhone, granted, but I’m still back on the 5c and I plan to use it until the screen cracks or the battery dies. Posts like this inevitably ignite arguments over whether Apple devices are worth paying for, and whether a different manufacturer offers more value at a given price point. Spoiler alert: Oftentimes, they do, though you may have to do an infuriating amount of searching before finding a system you actually like.
It’s been a while since Apple updated its hardware, some of that hardware could be better than it is, and the net result would be systems that were at least a little sexier than they are today. But Apple has kept updating most of its laptop lines to take advantage of better battery life and performance improvements, while the performance of desktop CPUs has largely stagnated. Is it ignoring GPUs? Yes — but that’s completely par for Apple. The Mac Pro in 2013 was unusual precisely because it put GPU compute first and foremost. Apple’s decision to mostly ignore the segment afterwards might be unfortunate, but it’s scarcely surprising.
Apple has held off on making fundamental platform changes precisely because it’s been waiting for the underlying technology to advance enough to make the changes worthwhile. Given the frustration of sorting through hundreds of nearly identical laptops from multiple manufacturers every time a friend or family member asks for help choosing a laptop, I’m not sure I can blame them.