The Brilliant Insanity Behind The New Mac Pro's Design

The last we heard of the Power Mac G4 Cube — a computer everyone loved, but no one could quite figure out — was in a press release from 2001. Twelve years later, we've finally met its beautiful, brilliant, and not altogether sane successor.

Back in July of 2001, the future of the Cube wasn't entirely clear. In a press release, Apple's reps explained their reasoning:

“Apple® today announced that it will suspend production of the Power Mac™ G4 Cube indefinitely. The company said there is a small chance it will reintroduce an upgraded model of the unique computer in the future, but that there are no plans to do so at this time.

‘Cube owners love their Cubes, but most customers decided to buy our powerful Power Mac G4 minitowers instead,’ said Philip Schiller, Apple’s vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing.”

And with that, Apple killed one of the most innovative personal computers it had ever produced. Placed between Apple’s entry-level iMac and high-end Power Mac, the Cube was too expensive for consumers and not expandable enough for pros. Still, everyone loved it because it was, for lack of a better description, awesome. And so, for the last twelve years, we hung onto that “small chance" that Apple would reintroduce the Cube, hoping that someday, the product’s concept would finally make sense.

That day came yesterday.

The Concept

Last week, I wrote about the future of the Mac Pro, a time-tested machine that had slowly become the most anachronistic product from Apple’s hardware offerings. As I saw it, the company had four options: kill the Mac Pro, give the current Mac Pro case a spec bump, evolve the design, or completely change the game.

Apple obviously went with the fourth option. It’s important to consider it they would choose this path over the others. Successful revolutions of product archetypes occur when a team realises that an underlying technology has advanced or been replaced. This is what happened with the iPhone. Every mobile phone company in the world had touchscreen designs they never released; Apple, though, was the first to realise that touch screens had caught up in usability and manufacturability. In cases like this, it pays to be the first to discover and take advantage of the opportunity. Usually, it puts you years ahead of the competition, which is stuck making products the old way.

Conversely, sometimes the archetype is too advanced for the underlying technology. For example, Alan Kay came up with the idea for a thin device with a keyboard that could be carried around like a book back in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until the 90s that computing technology could even approach what he had in mind, and it wasn’t until the 2010s that the tablet truly came of age. You can’t force an idea if the tech isn’t there to support it.

The concept of the new Mac Pro is very similar to that of the old Cube: A powerhouse PC that is very small and externally upgradable. That concept was not viable in 2000, when all we had for I/O was FireWire 400 and USB 1.1. Fast forward to 2013, and the technology has caught up to the archetype. We now have Thunderbolt 2, 802.11ac, and USB 3, not to mention cloud storage options. The expandability limitations are gone.

Put simply, we’ve come to a tipping point where the internals of a tower PC limit upgradability more than the externals do. There will be users who will miss optical media and PCI card slots — just like there were users who missed SCSI and floppy drives — but the vast majority of what gets added on to a pro computer today is done externally.

The Design

Let me just say this about the Mac Pro: this type of design can only be produced by a company that is first, truly led by its industrial design team, and second, completely nuts. No sane engineer would ever let this leave the design stage because it goes against everything you’re supposed to do with electronics. You’re supposed to arrange boards parallel to each other to maximise space efficiency. You’re supposed to have I/O ports that attach to the board in parallel, not perpendicularly. You’re supposed to end up with something that is roughly the shape of a box, because that's the easiest and most efficient way to manufacture a device.

To get a design that looks like this on the outside, you have to start with the inside. Like the Cube, the new Mac Pro is designed around a thermal core that pulls air from the bottom to the top of the machine. Unlike the Cube, which relied on convection cooling alone, the Pro has a fan located at the top of the machine to accelerate the air moving through it. Apple is using some of the same tricks it first used on the Retina MacBook Pro to ensure the fan runs as quietly as possible with a specially designed blade.

The triangular thermal core is a single piece of extruded aluminium that has been machined, and anodised black to act as a large heat sink. Extruding aluminium is a lot like using the old Play-Doh Extruder, except you’re using aluminium instead of Play-Doh. Large, solid billets of aluminium are heated in an oven and then forced through a small die. That triangular-shaped core comes out of the extruder as one large tube. Here's a video demonstrating the process:

After the tube is cooled, it gets cut into shorter sections and then goes through a series of secondary machining operations, creating mounting fixtures that allow other parts to attach directly to the core. Herein lies the beauty of the thermal core design. Not only does it act as a cooling chamber, it also provides the underlying structure for the entire device. Every component attaches directly to the core — boards, fan, the base, and even the outer housing. It’s an extension of Apple’s "unibody" philosophy: Several parts are replaced by one well-designed part. This allows Apple to reduce complexity and invest money in making the remaining parts much higher quality.

The outer housing is made through a process called impact extrusion, shown in the video above. This process is commonly used to make products like Sigg water bottles. A solid puck of aluminium, called a slug, is loaded into the machine and then punched into shape in one quick motion. After this step, the part goes through a series of secondary operations that cut the holes for the I/O and add the now-trademark Apple polished chamfer. The part is then polished and anodized black, creating a mirrored black finish.

Here again, Apple took the hard way out. A typical sandblasted finish — like you would see on the back of the iPhone 5 — hides imperfections in the surface. Polishing makes imperfections more pronounced. Basically, Apple needs to get the housing absolutely perfect before it gets polished.

Small Details That Caught My Eye

  • The location of power button could be problematic. Maybe people will be more likely to leave their Mac Pros on their desks now that they are so tiny, but no one will be able to hide them under a desk because the power button is hidden amongst the back ports. Of course, why would you want to hide something that looks this good, but it’s still a pain in the butt. Another point — because the housing is polished, you’re going to leave a ton of fingerprints on the case when you hunt around for the power. A possible solution: What if the top of thermal core, inside the outer housing where I think the antennas are located, was one large power button? It would be hidden from view and would be a cool way to interact with the machine.

  • Black. Everything — the board, the aluminium inner structure, the fasteners — is jet black. It looks sinister. In a good way.

  • Backlit ports. The ports on the back are backlit when you turn the machine around to plug in a new device. Of course they do.

  • Polished chamfer. The detail that was first seen on the iPhone 5 and then propagated over to the iPod line and iPad mini shows up here as well. This is typically an expensive process, but Apple gets away with it because of economies of scale. A classic Ive and Cook mindmeld. If you use an expensive process on your entire product line over the course of millions of products, you’re going to dramatically lower its cost. Aesthetically, I like it much more on the Mac Pro than I do on Apple’s other products. On the Pro it’s a nice detail that makes you want to peer into the core of the beast. On products like the iPhone 5, I think it’s a bit too distracting.

  • Antennas. After trying to figure out how Apple was sending Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals through the all metal casing, I think I found an the answer. The antennas seem to be located at the very top of the Mac Pro, just inside the opening to the thermal core. It’s likely that the domed part that covers the fan’s motor is a material that allows signals to pass through it. Possibly glass or plastic.

  • Assembled in the US. To get this designation, you have to meaningfully modify the components to get the product to its finished state. You can’t just ship a product to the US, put it in a box and slap a “Assembled in USA” sticker on it. If I had to guess, most of the electronics were made overseas, while the housing, assembly of the product, and packaging were made in the US. Good for Apple for taking another step down this route.

  • Beyond the desktop. Can you imagine how cool server farms of these things are going to look? If I had to design a data centre I would, without a doubt, arrange Mac Pros like the pod towers from The Matrix.

It’s hard not to gush about the Mac Pro. The conceptual thinking behind the device is equalled by its design execution. If the final product Apple releases later this year matches the promise made yesterday, this is as close to perfect as you can make a pro desktop computer in 2013.

Looking at this machine, you can understand the 8 Mile, “Lose Yourself” moment Phil Schiller had on stage yesterday. “Can’t innovate anymore my arse,” he said, literally losing himself in the moment and looking to pick a fight. If you go back and listen to his introduction you can practically hear the adrenaline rushing through his voice as he shoved the question of Apple losing its touch back in the face of its critics. This machine has swagger — and apparently, Apple still does too.


Comments

    "Apple killed one of the most innovative personal computers it had ever produced. Placed between Apple’s entry-level iMac and high-end Power Mac, the Cube was too expensive for consumers and not expandable enough for pros. Still, everyone loved it because it was, for lack of a better description, awesome."

    This has got to be a wind-up, surely? The Cube was without doubt one of the most seriously flawed computing devices ever to hit the market. I remember going into a NextByte store in Haymarket to have a look at it but I couldn't have a play because someone had forgotten to turn it off the previous evening and it had overheated, stubbornly refusing to switch back on. I know a few who bought them and all had the same overheating problem when trying to use it for anything more taxing than writing emails.

    And that's as far as I got with this article, no point in reading any further.

      The best part was right near the end.

      Making a server farm/datacentre with them.

      Wait, what?

      TL:DR "I once saw a broken computer".

      " but the vast majority of what gets added on to a pro computer today is done externally." - This made me laugh.

    The location of power button could be problematic. Maybe people will be more likely to leave their Mac Pros on their desks now that they are so tiny, but no one will be able to hide them under a desk because the power button is hidden amongst the back ports.

    Doesn't Apple have the power button on their keyboards any more? Like they had when the original iMac came out back in 99... That was a brilliant idea.

      I use a magic mouse and keyboard plugged into a macbook which is docked to a screen. Any button I press wakes up the computer. No reason why a desktop could not behave in this way. Turning off a computer fully, is for many people, an outdated idea.

        Thats because the computer is on standby not turned off correct?

      I can't even see the power switch on my iMac since it's on the rear, but I know where it is, just like you'll know where the power button is here once you've pressed it a couple of times.

    I do like the Apple ethos of appearance, simplicity, and consumer relatability but I don't understand why items like these aren't viewed entirely as luxury items like Ferraris or Rolls-Royce, not a commonplace replacement. Just saying

      True luxury products are a very different thing. For luxury items impractical expense and rarity is at the core. Apple products aren't truly overpriced and they certainly aren't rare. These are standardised, consumer products.

    The new Mac Pro is a perfect example for the reason I still love Apple. Sure they might take their time to jump on board with new tech (4G, USB 3.0, etc.) but when they do, they do it right.

    It's not about putting the cheapest or most feature packed product out there, it's about re-inventing the wheel. A cylindrical computer is completely nuts, but Apple remains one of the few companies that dares to innovate and redefine notions on how tech is supposed to be. I'm willing to bet that in a few months, HP or Dell or some other company will put a faster processor or a bigger GPU on the same/similar shell and then claim to be better than Apple at what they do.

    Apple started the tablet revolution, when most competitors were adamant that the technology to make a cost effective tablet wasn't quite within reach yet. They started the ultrabook trend at a time when under-powered netbooks were the the only option when it came to portability.

    It's a little sad to see people hating on a company that probably served as an inspiration to the device they are using to read this very article.

      Good point but I would be hesitant about being so romantic about the organization - they are not the only OEM being bold noir are they the only ones 'doing it right' in regards to adopting new tech.

      They make very well designed products for a premium consumer price point, that is their market, other organizations cater to different demographics and thus can cut corners to maximize profitability while maintain their customer base and satisfaction.

      The only thing wrong with Apple is that every time they advertise, introduce, or even roll out a software update they try and sell it as the next evolution of the wheel or some sort of miracle that will change everyone's lives forever...design is derivative and so is innovation, good marketing but it would be nice for the organization to show a little humility to go with its plummeting share prices.

        I completely agree with you. I can't wait for Google Glass to come out, or for Leap Motion devices to start shipping. These products are redefining tech in their own way, and no doubt Apple may even incorporate these into their own products some day.

        My comment was in no way intended to be a 'fan boy' comment. The only iDevice I have at the moment is an iPhone. But as a tech lover (and a guy working in marketing), I strongly believe credit should be given where due. It just irks me when people make Apple out to be the villian that is anti-tech and anti-innovation, shoving outdated products down customer throats while charging a premium price.

        Their marketing is no short of brilliant, but no amount of brilliant marketing will help them push a shit product nowadays- the XBone being a prime example where customers smelled out the bullcrap in an instant. Apple products do well simply because their design and functionality surpasses the competition's.

        And as for the share prices, I think that was the biggest overvaluation to begin with, based purely on speculation ;)

          I agree with everything - well put. And I didn't mean to imply fanboyism :)

          and as a marketing professional I have to agree - they do kick a** at selling a product (unlike Microsoft, lets not even get started on the Xbone haha).

      Yeh, good luck using Apple's version of Samba. What a joke.

        I hope you got down-voted not for what you said but the way you said it. Apples version of Samba is somewhat lacking.

      haha..I'm reading this on a Thinkpad, a computer line that has remained more or less unchanged and superior since 1992, the days when Apple was struggling with relevance and looming bankruptcy.

      And I would argue that the ThinkPad X line, starting in 2000, was the true predecessor to the 'ultrabook' trend; I do pretty heavy computing on my linux X61 attached to a large monitor, but it's small enough I don't notice it in my bag.

      Last edited 12/06/13 11:26 pm

    So being made in the US is a feature now?

      I still think it to be this way :)
      Designed in California, Parts imported from China, Assembled in California :P

    It's a good device (this year), but those soldered on graphics cards... gunna need 1-2 years between refreshes. Forget this 3 year for a 'pro' product nonsense.

    That and the looks for what is, at the end of the day, meant to just process data. Forget tower aesthetics and their crazy markup.

      I don't disagree that the primary purpose of a computer is to compute, but you seemingly just want rectangular, beige boxes? That's alright for you, but it does not suit everyone else.

        1) PC cases haven't come predominantly in beige for more than a decade now. Get a new punchline.
        2) Apple already created a case that was not a boring beige box and combined good upgradeability with ease of use - the old Mac Pro. The new design junks that, and replaces it with a strategy of planned obsolescence in what is purportedly a workstation-grade product. The insanity part is right.

    The location of power button could be problematic. Maybe people will be more likely to leave their Mac Pros on their desks now that they are so tiny, but no one will be able to hide them under a desk because the power button is hidden amongst the back ports.

    Who says that where the ports are is supposed to be the back? Looking at the images, that's where the Apple logo is, and logos are supposed to be displayed (from the manufacturer's point of view). I think that maybe the ports are actually on the front, which makes a lot more sense as some USB peripherals get plugged in and unplugged all the time.

    Of course, I could be wrong, as Apple do have a history of putting the power button on the back of the machine where you can't easily find it.

      Except the power socket is a the base of the I/O panel. Do you really want a big chunky power cord snaking out towards you from the base of this thing?

      Do you think the power cord really needs to swivel with the rest of the interface ports at the back? Surely they could have included this in the base that stays stationary.

        They certainly could have, and arguably should have given they went to the trouble of making the thing on a swivelling base.

    This is what Darth Vader's computer would look like. I just hope the prices are reasonable, especially with the necessity of an external HDD/RAID for storage.

      He better make sure the exhuast above the "thermal core" is well protected.

        Well, I mean, I mean, can't we board it up or, you know, put some plywood over it or something?

    It's beautiful & brilliant.
    But as my co-worker pointed out: it looks like a bin; a shiny high quality bin. Hope no one will dump there empty soda cans on it :)

    Why is it that whenever people talk about Apple products, they always talk about how beautiful it is and how clever the design is but never talk about what it actually does?

      Guess they just assumed since you're the kind of person that's reading an article on gizmodo you probably have some idea what people might use powerful desktop computers for..

      I would say that the majority of mac users are very much form over function. Has always been like that.

      /queue the screams of mac users that think there is any difference between a mac and a "pc" hardware wise.

      Why do people talk about how beautiful the latest htc or samsung behemoth is, despite the fact it's just a bit of an upgrade?

    Looks like a D-Link router.

    http://www.dlink.com.au/products/?pid=1004

    Quote: "Unlike the Cube, which relied on convection cooling alone" ... which it could because it didnt have processors or memory that pumped out 100's of watts of heat..

    Quote: "the Pro has a fan located at the top of the machine to accelerate the air moving through it"
    High density electronics of this heat output will require an awful lot of cooling.. and if that fan fails the processors will burn out :-)

    At least I'll be able to replace my office heating systems if i was stupid enough to upgrade my existing MacPro's, but will be a bummer with the extra aircon running costs!

      "High density electronics of this heat output will require an awful lot of cooling.. and if that fan fails the processors will burn out"
      Because, y'know, the likelihood of that happening is so incredibly high. Part of designing a computer is making sure the fan cools it efficiently, no computer manufacturer would let a computer go to market with an ineffective cooling system, especially not Apple. Being a cynic doesn't make you cool, it makes you an ass.

        Part of designing a computer is making sure the fan cools it efficiently, no computer manufacturer would let a computer go to market with an ineffective cooling system, especially not Apple.

        aherm.... - Apple have a history of overheating products, from the G4 Cube mentioned in the above article, Time Capsules that melt (which I have seen personally), MacBooks burning people, it goes on.

        And It's not just Apple. The original PentiumD's all go completely thermal after a few years, Netgear released a bunch of routers a few years ago that you had to stand up vertically or they would never cool properly...

        It happens all the time.

        That said, the above article is such an Apple-can-do-no-wrong love fest it is painful. The way it praises the Cube, an item that shows up on many "WORST OF" lists for numerous reasons, most notably for OVERHEATING, set the tone up beautifully.

        Have you ever touched the back of an imac after about 20 minutes of it doing anything remotely complex? Those things get HOT! Had one overheat and melt a harddrive. New/annoying kid who started and thought he knew everything burnt his hand on it (that was pretty funny).

        > no computer manufacturer would let a computer go to market with an ineffective cooling system, especially not Apple

        lol, no facts for this guy.

    Planned Obsolescence at its finest here... can't upgrade or expand within the things. Whole reason to have a "pro" pc is so you don't have to have all the random tech outside the box.... should all fit IN the box... think usb clutter and external dvd, harddrives, and random things you'd attach to pci port all sitting on your desk and connected via ill-conceived thunderbolt ports... which btw is brand new so might as well throw out all the perfectly good usb 2.0 versions of the same external devices !?

    Anyway, like the design for say an htpc, or a mini-itx style gaming rig.... for a "pro" pc no thank you i'd rather put all the parts of my pc inside my pc.

    As an avid PC lover who ditched his iPhone in favour of an android phone...

    That is one sexy as fuck computer and I wish to christ I could get a pc that looked like that with all the innards my PC has now...

    Well done Apple! Well done!

    Last edited 12/06/13 11:21 pm

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now