This week’s Apple World Wide Developers Conference delivered one likely Hollywood blockbuster amid more than two hours of announcements about new features, privacy initiatives, operating systems and more. That blockbuster was the long-awaited update to its highest-end computer, the Mac Pro, said Grant Petty, founder and CEO of Blackmagicdesign, which makes video and audio hardware and publishes do-everything production software DaVinci Resolve.
“They’ve basically done everything (the high-end users) wanted, and possibly more,” Petty said. “Movies look like (they do) because (creators) keep adding effects until the machines max out. So, when you get more power, you can do more stuff.”
Based on that, Hollywood should be able to do a lot more “stuff.” Top-end specifications on the new machine are eye-popping, and so is the all-in price, around $35,000. The base machine will cost $5,999, though it’s a good bet that few in its target market will settle for that configuration unless they plan to load a machine up with all the add-ons they already have.
These high-end customers must edit gigantic files of ultra-high-resolution video, perform processor-intensive visual effects and color correction, or edit audio or musical compositions with dozens or even hundreds of tracks. Creators of virtual reality and immersive entertainment experiences also must wrestle with giant files, and need machines that can move that information around in liquid enough fashion to keep up with their creativity.
Those high-end users have been griping for years about Apple’s inability to update its last Mac Pro design, which debuted in 2013 at a base price of $8,100. Though stylish, compact and decidedly different looking, the last Mac Pro had no room for significant upgrades, an important consideration for high-end users who routinely swap in newer graphics cards, faster memory or bigger storage.
The new machine has a beefy 1.4-kilowatt power supply, stainless-steel racks and easy-to-remove cover for easy upgrade access, and three heavy-duty fans and a blower to keep it all cool. The insides also include some pretty eye-popping capabilities too, with a new Afterburner graphics-processing unit among options.
As a result, Apple VP of hardware engineering John Ternus said during Monday’s debut that high-end video editing will get a lot easier.
Instead of having to convert video shot in 8K-resolution ProRes Raw format to a less-demanding but less accurate “proxy” version for editing, companies will be able to work directly with the original native-format video. Current computer systems struggle to handle even a single 8K-resolution video stream, but Ternus said the new machine can handle three 8K streams at once, or up to 12 streams in 4K resolution.
“This is groundbreaking performance and means we can finally say goodbye to proxy workflows,” Ternus said.
And it will make life a lot easier for software makers too. Developers such as Adobe, Pixar, Unreal, Unity, Autodesk, Serif, and Avid as well as Blackmagic are among the major players providing updated tools for the new machine, Apple said.
“Blackmagic is seeing some amazing performance gains,” Ternus said. “With the Afterburner card doing the heavy lifting of decoding video, they can tap into the CPU and GPU to add (visual effects) and coloring on native 8K content. This is a workflow that’s never been possible before the new Mac Pro.”
To take advantage of what Apple has created, Blackmagic had to implement ways to take advantage of the Mac Pro’s use of multiple graphics processing units on a single card.
“It was something we had to implement,” Petty said “It’s providing a huge improvement,” in part because Apple’s new architecture avoids the relatively time-consuming process of sending information back and forth onto the main processor.
“The way the GPUs communicate, they have an extremely fast bus,” Petty said. “The GPUs talk to each other and don’t need to go down to the computer.”
The new machine is long overdue. In the six years since the last Mac Pro debuted, Apple did little other than a modest bump in specifications, finally promising in 2017 to come up with something new and cool. That something arrived publicly on Monday, with the potential to reshape how Hollywood companies create movies and TV shows.
“Now you’re doing complicated visual effects, and you don’t need to use a render farm,” Petty said. “Creativity is like that. Sometimes you don’t know what the end of the sentence is. That’s why this is really exciting. We don’t know how it’s going to end up. Here’s all sorts of things that are opened up.”
Apple also debuted the 6K-resolution, $4,999 Pro Display XDR, its first Apple-brand display in years. A separate $999 monitor stand set off plenty of Internet criticism for its price. But Apple maintains that the competition here is also at the very peak of the market. Ternus said the display’s main competitors are reference monitors from makers such as Sony, at prices as high as $43,000. Most of those don’t come with stands either.
Petty called the Pro Display XDR “quite an achievement. This was exciting, because it’s a whole new level of display. But for our customers, I’m just happy that stuff is out there.”
Having more powerful machines like the Mac Pro will enable Blackmagic to do more too, Petty said.
The company gives away its do-everything software, Davinci Resolve, an industry standard for color correction and grading of video. Since acquiring Davinci, Blackmagic has added major other functions, including video editing, visual effects and audio post-production. The company makes its money mostly from dozens of kinds of video- and audio-production devices, including professional video cameras, sound-editing boards, switchers, monitoring equipment and more.
Petty, who’s based in Australia, attended the Apple developer conference in San Jose, and used the visit to also check on his company’s Bay Area operations. It was his first chance to see the final Mac Pro product.
“It was good to see it,” Petty said. “We hadn’t seen the unit. We worked with circuit boards and the guys on the technical side. But we hadn’t seen the industrial design. You know what Apple’s like. They’re super secret.”
As for those with more modest budgets but a serious jones for some of the power of the new Mac Pro, Blackmagic sells relatively inexpensive external GPUs that it designed with Apple and released over the past six months. The eGPUs are designed to provide owners of Mac laptops a big graphics boost for a modest additional cost.
The eGPU Pro costs $1,199, plugs into your Mac’s USB-C port, and has a Radeon RX Vega 56 graphics card built in. That very fast card gives a 13-inch MacBook Pro laptop a speed boost of as much as 22 times when doing certain graphics-intensive visual effects in Davinci Resolve, Blackmagic claims.
The nearly-silent tower also functions as a hub for numerous external devices, including separate connectors for a 4K and a 5K screen, two extremely fast Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, and four USB-A ports.
The company touts the eGPUs as useful not only for much faster content creation, but also for playing high-end video games or using virtual-reality headgear. For someone cutting industrial videos or YouTube projects, for instance, it can be a useful improvement in editing time for a modest additional cost, without requiring a new and more expensive computer.
I’ve been testing the Pro recently (a non-Pro version retails for $699, has a slower Radeon Pro 580 graphics card, and doesn’t have the 5K monitor port), and have been generally pleased with its dirt-simple setup and operation.
Even on my more powerful 15.6-inch MacBook Pro (with a Radeon Pro 560X graphics card), the eGPU makes a notable speed difference when editing video, audio or even large still images in RAW format. That usefulness will only increase as more programs are updated to take advantage (Serif’s terrific Affinity Photo and Designer programs added eGPU support this week, for instance).
The hub functions are unexpectedly valuable too. You can plug in external hard drives, displays, and other peripherals needed to pound out a major creative project, then click a menu bar icon to disconnect the eGPU, unplug from the USB-C cable, and head out with your laptop in hand.
It’s not a new Mac Pro, but for mere mortals without the high-end needs or equipment budgets of Hollywood’s creative class, it’s a superb and low-stress step in the right direction.