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This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2013-04-01 at 12:04 a.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/13667
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Mac Pro Replaced by Mac Prime

by Joe Kissell

As Tim Cook foreshadowed [1] last year, Apple has released the long-awaited successor to the Mac Pro. Apple’s new high-end desktop Mac sports not only a radically different design but a new name, too: Mac Prime. The name derives from the surprising fact that every Mac Prime model uses a prime number of processor cores rather than the usual multiples of two. The Mac Prime can be configured with 5 to 17 cores (whereas Mac Pro models were most recently available with 4, 6, or 12 cores). It is also, as widely rumored, the first Mac model to be built entirely in the United States, with assembly taking place at a new Apple factory near Portland, Oregon.

Apple’s Web site claims that the Mac Prime’s power comes from an advanced technique called “fractal processing,” developed jointly with Intel. Fractal processing enables a much higher number of calculations per core, per second, than can be achieved with conventional processor architecture — even when factoring in existing techniques such as Turbo Boost (which increases clock speed while reducing the number of active cores) and Hyper-Threading (which doubles the number of virtual cores). For example, a 5-core Xeon fractal processor reportedly yields greater effective performance than a standard 6-core Xeon processor running at the same clock speed. According to Apple, this technique requires that the number of cores per processor, as well as the computer’s total number of cores, be prime.

The number of processor cores isn’t the only “prime” thing about the Mac Prime. Apple has chosen, presumably for marketing reasons, to make almost every specification a prime number — the amount of RAM, number of ports and expansion slots, and so on. Even the case has a prime number of sides: seven instead of the usual six (the effect is subtle, but the back of the case consists of two vertical panels joined at a slight angle).

About that case: while sticking with its trademark brushed aluminum, Apple seems to have taken frequent requests for a “mini tower” design to heart — at least to the extent possible while maintaining reasonable expandability. The Mac Prime is reportedly 31 percent smaller than the Mac Pro it replaces. That space savings comes from eliminating the two built-in optical drive bays (external USB SuperDrives are, however, supported) and reducing the number of hard drive bays and PCI Express slots from four of each to three of each. Photos on Apple’s Web site illustrate how the design maintains the Mac Pro’s modularity and easy access to internal components.

Although some Mac Pro users are sure to be miffed at the reduced internal expansion options, Apple has arguably increased overall expandability by focusing on external ports. The Mac Prime offers an unprecedented seven Thunderbolt ports — three on the front and four on the back — which directly support external storage, displays, and other peripherals. (Thunderbolt adapters are widely available for connecting to FireWire 800, gigabit Ethernet, eSATA, Fibre Channel, PCIe, ExpressCard/34, and other common device types.) In addition, in place of the Mac Pro’s five USB 2.0 ports, the Mac Prime offers seven USB 3.0 ports — four on the front and three on the back. As on the Mac Pro, the Mac Prime has a front-panel headphone jack, plus optical digital audio input and output ports and stereo line-level input and output jacks. Support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth also appear to be unchanged from the Mac Pro. But the Mac Prime has no independent FireWire, Ethernet, or video ports (all of which Apple now apparently considers redundant, thanks to Thunderbolt).

The Mac Prime comes in two standard configurations, each with various build-to-order options. The base model includes a 5-core Xeon “Westmere” processor running at 4.21 GHz for $2,399, with an optional upgrade to a 7-core processor running at 4.43 GHz ($500 extra). This single-processor configuration comes standard with 11 GB of RAM, expandable to 67 GB. The high-end model costs $4,099 and features an 11-core processor plus a dual-core processor (13 total cores) running at 2.9 GHz. Build-to-order options offer 17 cores (11 + 3 + 3) running at either 3.1 GHz (for an extra $1,200) or 3.3 GHz (for an extra $2,400). The high-end Mac Prime ships with 17 GB of RAM standard, expandable to 127 GB.

Both Mac Prime models come with a 2 TB, 7207-rpm hard drive standard. Build-to-order storage options include (for each of the Mac Prime’s three drive bays) a 3 TB, 7200-rpm hard drive, a 2 TB or 3 TB Fusion drive, or a 1 TB (1031 GB) SSD. They include an ATI Radeon HD 7963 graphics card (upgradeable to two HD 7963 cards or one 7993 card), each of which supports up to three displays with resolutions up to 7681 by 4801 (considerably higher than anything currently on the market, suggesting that Apple might be working on something like a 30-inch Retina display).

Security Editor Rich Mogull shared a true Easter egg with us from his pre-release look at the new Mac Prime. If you type “Steve Jobs lives!” into any Cocoa-based app with text input (TextEdit, Pages, etc.), the Mac Prime will play a special video made by Jobs before his death. It’s stored in the Mac Prime ROMs, so this won’t work anywhere else (as far as we know).

All Mac Prime configurations are available today.

[1]: http://appleinsider.com/articles/12/06/12/tim_cook_confirms_updated_mac_pro_coming_in_2013