At Apple’s annual World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) earlier this week, the company announced its forthcoming modular Mac Pro, and its impressive accessory, the Pro Display XDR reference-class monitor. I watched the big keynote on Monday, and if the crowd winced when the Mac Pro’s starting price of $5,999 was revealed, you couldn’t tell. The auditorium full of developers maybe shifted in their seats a bit when they were told that the Pro Display would cost $4,999, but in the end they understood that a monitor with its specs is a game-changer for pros, because it goes toe-to-toe with the $40,000 (that’s right: forty-thousand dollars) displays Hollywood studios rely on.
But there were unhappy gasps when they heard that the XDR’s optional stand — and it is admittedly an impressive bit of engineering — would retail for $999. Sitting here at home, even I gasped a bit. The whole thing was just so much that it got Engadget’s Devindra Hardawar to opine that a “$999 monitor stand is everything wrong with Apple today.”
Au contraire, a $999 monitor stand is everything right with Apple today. And no, I’m not being facetious, or day-drinking any more than I usually might.
With its industrial-ugly purity of form, its over-engineered ergonomic perfection, (jeez, I’m sounding like a Jony Ive promotional clip) and its indefensible price tag, this stand represents Apple’s re-commitment to the actual professional user community which the company has all-but-ignored in recent years. And it doesn’t just sit there and hold your monitor for you. The pro stand attaches to the XDR monitor without screws, but with the simple click of some magnets. From there, the stand makes the giant screen infinitely adjustable (and rotatable) with the gentle push of one finger, yet won’t budge when you don’t want it too. It’s a real piece of work.
Here’s the thing. The new Mac Pro and XDR monitor aren’t for you. They aren’t for me. They likely aren’t for anyone you know, and maybe not for anyone the people you know, know. They’re for video/audio/design professionals for whom a $50,000 (or more) workstation setup is a just a typical cost of operations.
What’s been wrong with Apple in recent years is that they’ve been slapping the Pro moniker on prosumer-level computers. Even the MacBook Pro laptop lineup fails as pro machines, since Apple decided to go for a needlessly thin body at the cost of a truly reliable keyboard. It’s been years since Apple really tended to the needs of the video/audio/design professionals who kept the Mac alive in the ’90s, back when hardly anyone else was buying. This new Mac Pro, this XDR display, and yes even this ridiculously priced stand, represent Apple’s attempt to get back in their good graces.
The people who are angry about Apple’s return to Pro form are the prosumers (like myself), who want a Pro-branded Apple rig, but don’t want to pay actual (small-p) pro prices. And I get that. I’ve owned two Mac Pros over the last decade, a 2009 Nehalem-class “cheese grater” tower, and the controversial “trash can” design from 2013. While expensive, both were priced ($2,499, $2,999 respectively for bare-bottom configs) in the realm of mere mortals who were willing to save up a bit — and delivered performance commensurate with their price tags.
But the last truly professional Mac desktop was the Westmere-powered beast from 2012. The 2013 Mac Pro, as much as I liked mine, was really a prosumer device. Those actual professional users rightly bristled at its lack of expandability, and Apple’s hopes for its all-new design were quickly crushed. The self-inflicted wound was so deep that two years ago Apple did something I can’t recall ever happening before: It issued a mea culpa to its pro user base, and promised an all-new Mac Pro years in advance, which they also promised would be a truly professional, modular, expandable machine. The company went so far as to bring some pro customers on as employees to help with the new Pro’s design.
And, boy, did they deliver. As tech analyst Ben Thompson wrote on Tuesday, “It was fun seeing what Apple came up with in its attempt to build the most powerful Mac ever, in the same way it is fun to read about supercars.”
Full pricing won’t be revealed until this autumn, but you can bet that it’s going to priced like the supercar of workstations. I’ve seen estimates bandied about the tech-o-sphere that the starting price of $5,999 will balloon up to $25,000 or even $40,000 for a fully specced-out rig. “Would you like to buy a smaller Mercedes sedan, or a computer?” Before you gasp again, that top-end machine will be pretty much a Pixar animation studio in a box. Top specs include:
• A beastly 28-core/56-thread Xeon CPU
• HD Hardware video transcoding and disk encryption courtesy of Apple’s custom T2 chip
• 1.5 terabytes (yes, terabytes) of the fastest RAM craploads of money can buy
• 4 terabytes of the fastest SSD another crapload of money can buy
• Two Radeon Pro Vega II Duo GPUs (that’s four GPUs total) providing up to 14 teraflops of compute performance, with 32GB of memory, and 1TB per second of memory bandwidth
• An Apple Afterburner transcode card for editing 8K video streams straight out of the camera, in realtime, eliminating time-consuming and error-prone proxy workflows
• The ability to run three 8K streams of RAW video in realtime
• And run three of those 6K XDR monitors at once, or even more 4K monitors
There are even more-technical details, like Apple’s new custom PCIe connectors to make everything work even faster, but we’re already too deep into MEGO territory to bother.
As I said earlier, this machine is not for you or for me. I’d wager that many of my readers don’t even know what many of those specs are, and won’t ever need to know, either.
You know what Mac is right for prosumers? The once-maligned Mac mini, redesigned in 2018. I replaced my $3,999 Mac Pro with a $1,499 upgraded Mac mini and a $400 external GPU… and my Blu-Ray transcode times dropped from about three hours per 90-minute movie down to about 15 minutes. That’s a huge gain and a huge savings. I sold the Mac Pro on eBay for almost exactly what I had to shell out for the new setup.
What I didn’t get for my money was a Mac with a Pro label on it and a sexy-looking case to show off on my desktop, but that’s a compromise I can live with. And once they get over their disappointment, so can most of the WWDC attendees.
As the cost for prosumer-level performance has dropped in half in recent years, the cost for truly professional-level performance hasn’t much budged. Hollywood editors used to spend tens of thousands of dollars on the best gear, and they’ll continue to do so. Working on the bleeding edge ain’t cheap.
The prosumer in me is, in a way, just as disappointed as those folks at the WWDC who’d been hoping to buy tomorrow’s Mac Pro at yesterday’s prices. What we’ll settle for is getting prosumer performance at what used to be consumer prices.
As for that optional $999 stand, those who actually need it won’t ask the price — and can afford not to. Besides, it’s nice to see Apple finally put the Pro back in Mac Pro, even if there will never be another one on my desktop.
UPDATE: After publishing this piece, I gave less thought to Apple’s attempt to appeal again to the pro market, and more on that $999 stand itself.
The XDR monitor is going to be a low-volume seller, and most of the pros who buy it for their studios will attach one (or more likely, two or three) to their existing VESA stands. So even at half the price, the XDR stand is going to be an extremely low-volume item.
Accounting for design costs, tooling, high-end materials, and manufacturing, and then taking in just how niche its appeal is…
…it wouldn’t surprise me if even at the outrageous price of $999 it has a lower markup than Apple usually enjoys on its hardware.
Still, a grand for a freakin’ monitor stand is absolutely gasp-worthy.