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Who Kept Buying the Mac Pro Everyone Hated?

As the 2013 Mac Pro ages out and its long-awaited replacement enters the frame, the trash-can-era Mac Pro will probably be remembered by most professional users as a bad memory. But it won’t disappear completely.

by Ernie Smith
05 June 2019, 7:15am

Image: Apple

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

More than half a decade ago, one of Apple’s most controversial computers came to life, molded out of aluminum into a striking, hard-to-ignore cylindrical design.

“Can’t innovate no more, my ass,” Apple senior vice president of marketing Phil Schiller famously said as he was introducing the computer at the 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference. At the time, Schiller’s comment was seen as a bold return to the high-end market—think artists, videographers, developers, 3D renderers, and music producers—that had stood behind Apple during its fallow years but seemed to be getting ignored amid its growing phone and tablet markets.

But now we’re well into 2019, just about six years after Schiller made the comment, and long after the line had fallen into self-parody. For six years, we’ve been living with a device that its target audience seemingly couldn’t stand. Now those users are getting a machine that actually lives up to this line in the form of the 2019 Mac Pro, which is out this fall for an eye-watering starting price of $5,999, along with a 6K monitor that has a $4,999 starting price.

The 2013 Mac Pro was also seen as extremely expensive when it first came out at $4,000. (You can still buy one today, starting price $2,999, despite the WWDC announcement.)

But that machine came with so many perceived failings from an upgradability standpoint that it’s worth pondering what it represented about Apple. What was once seen as a symbol of Apple's continued dedication to its pro-user audience is now seen as a symbol of how much the company had abandoned them. This week’s WWDC announcement is an attempt to win those creatives back with a design (and upgradability approach) that evoked the good old days. You want pro hardware at a pro cost? You got it.

As for the trash can, these machines are still floating out there. They’ve been on the market for more than half a decade. Clearly, someone is buying them … right?

You wouldn’t think so if you read comments online. Generally, the party line about the 2013 Mac Pro, both from pro users and on Mac enthusiast websites, is that the machine is a failure. This has led to recommendations to stick with either the 2012 Mac Pro, with its roomy and upgradeable design that reminds many of a cheese grater; its 2009 counterpart, whose BIOS can be flashed to be roughly compatible with the 2012 model; or a Hackintosh, which allows the level of upgradability that the 2013 model replaced with a bunch of Thunderbolt 2 ports.

The 2013 Mac Pro has such a bad reputation that users have been willing to go with the prior iteration—a device that’s bigger than a breadbox and doesn’t even support USB 3.0 ports, let alone the USB-C ports that Apple has made a centerpiece of most of its Mac revisions since 2016. Ask the right folks, and you might hear stories of corporate or education buyers who waited to upgrade their workstations, saw the Schiller speech, and responded by buying as many “cheese grater” Macs as they could get their hands on, scared off by what they saw as a limited design and frustrated that Apple didn’t make it available in time to work within their yearly budget.

Those buyers have a point. Objectively, the machine was quickly outclassed by competitors. The 2013 Mac Pro's Achilles' heel was graphics capabilities, which predicted a future in which dual-GPU structures would become common. They didn’t. Instead, single GPUs just kept getting more powerful.

At first, the trash can received a positive response. An Apple Insider review from early 2014 explained its appeal like this: “Taken as a whole, the new Mac Pro's design is one of Apple's best case studies in form following function.” Other reviews from the period were glowing.

As the years moved on and the upgrades failed to surface, however, that reputation changed dramatically. Its dual-GPU structure quickly proved to be a bad bet and its “thermal corner” locked the company into a limited design that scared off enthusiasts and high-end business consumers alike. Those Thunderbolt 2 ports could not replace all the missing drive bays and PCI slots which, for all the size they added, prevented your desk from becoming a mess of cables, cords, and boxes.

But despite all the negative blowback about this machine, there is still a thriving market of people who buy the trash can Mac Pro in 2019. I found these people in the server room and in the used computer market.

Scaling the Mac Pro

There’s a pretty good chance that the 2013 Mac Pro might have remained a viable product thanks in no small part to a single company that has proven effective at converting the Mac to a server environment.

That company, MacStadium, has been buying Mac Pros at a scale that most people and many businesses couldn't fathom. And the reason has everything to do with the growth of Apple’s own app ecosystem.

Years ago, the cloud virtualization company had a business built around people who would rent out virtual access to a small number of machines, generally running the Mac Mini architecture. (Apple hasn’t sold a dedicated server product since the Xserve was discontinued in 2011, but the new Mac Pro will come in a rack-mountable variant.)

But when it started offering that service—generally intended for remote access needs—something surprising happened.

“We started with Mac Mini. Most of our customers would have one or two. And then we started getting phone calls from folks who would want 50,” Shawn Lankton, MacStadium’s Chief Revenue Officer, said in a phone interview. “And we said OK, this is a huge order for us. Years and years ago, we had employees driving around to all Apple stores in the Southeast to buy enough Minis to fill that order. And then they’d call back and they said, ‘Okay, now this is working great, we’d like 400.’”

It became clear that, despite not being designed for a server environment, there was demand for a company to sell virtualized Macs that can scale up in the same ways that Linux or Windows servers can. And in the years since, MacStadium has built much of its own architecture to maximize the reach of this gear, including patented server-centric mounting hardware.

And the 2013 Mac Pro, being far smaller than the computer it replaced and therefore easier to fit in a server rack, played into the interests of MacStadium and some of its big-name users, including the email firm Litmus and the software-testing platform Travis CI. Both of these companies make tools that require access to a lot of machines at once for testing purposes—Litmus for presenting examples of how an email message shows up in Mac-based web browsers or email clients, Travis CI for compilation needs. MacStadium’s tools allow these firms and others to access dozens or even hundreds of machines on demand, at scale.

The most surprising part about the Mac Pro in the server room? It’s actually an even better fit in server architectures than the Mac Mini was. The machine’s six Thunderbolt 2 ports, which workstation users came to dislike, proved the perfect vessel for combining hundreds of machines and running them at scale. The numerous IO ports, when used together, allow MacStadium to create a cluster of machines that can talk to one another and work in tandem.

MacStadium says it buys hundreds of Mac Pros a month, even in 2019 as the platform grows increasingly out of date. The demand among developers who have to compile a lot of code for their iOS apps is just that high.

“Long term, it didn’t work the way that Apple had hoped it would, that you could build around the Mac Pro,” MacStadium's vice president, Brian Stucki, said. “But what was interesting for us is that IO is what makes us possible … We use those ports in so many ways to really make this a data center.”

Certainly, MacStadium is more experimental than the average cloud server firm (last year, it started selling virtualized iMac Pros, despite the fact their high-quality screens are basically useless in that environment), but it’s clear when a fit is a fit.

The very things that made the 2013 Mac Pro a bad bet for its intended consumer base of workstation users—the decision to offload upgradability externally and the dead-end proprietary graphics setup—made it perfect for the server room, where these things were more important and less important, respectively. Heck, it even has hardware, including Xeon processors and ECC (error-correcting code) memory, more commonly used in server rooms than on desktops.

Really, the only thing that could make the Mac Pro better for MacStadium is if they were cheaper—as the firm generally buys its machines new, which means the company has a fairly close relationship with Apple.

“The sales department, of course, loves that we’re still buying so many hundreds of Mac Pros,” Lankton said.

That buying strategy is likely to continue. In response to the WWDC announcement, Lankton added that the company was excited to see a rack mount option in the 2019 update, and said the new machine likely will also be a good fit for MacStadium’s customers and high-end creatives, even if it’s overkill for individual developers, who he says might be better off with the Mac Mini.

“We’ll keep a close eye on Apple as we approach the ‘late fall’ release date; however, we’ve already had several customers voicing their interest in testing with the new machine ASAP,” he said in an email.

Of course, when it comes to the 2013 model, not everyone is buying these things new.

The Second-Hand Consumer

As any tech fan can tell you, often the biggest surprises can be uncovered on the used market.

And the 2013 Mac Pro is already showing signs that it could find a new role: That of a potential bargain, given its specs. On eBay, you can currently find a 6-core Mac Pro with Dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs selling for as low as $1,500—half the price it’s selling for on Apple’s own website, and $1,000 less than the same machine sells for refurbished.

And if you look long enough, you can find a 4-core model, which Apple stopped selling in 2017, for even less.

Last fall, Peter von Panda, a YouTuber who specializes in product reviews of offbeat items such as an electric chainsaw, an Eagle Scout folding knife, and a bluetooth karaoke speaker, figured this out on his own. He admits to being interested in technology, though perhaps not as familiar with the ins and outs of specs as someone who might build their own computer. His videos reflect the work of a guy with a diverse set of hobbies.

But last fall, he had something of a hit—because he touched a nerve among Mac fans by arguing that, for his needs, that a 2013 Mac Pro made more sense than a 2018 Mac Mini.

His case was built around a simple fact: When he went to Apple’s online store to buy the Mac Mini, he felt a severe sense of sticker shock from the $1,899 price tag of his preferred configuration and the steep cost of additional SSD storage.

“I was a bit shocked at how expensive it got,” he told Motherboard. “But what I was really shocked at was that I could not add some of the hardware features that were the things that I really wanted.”

His view on the issue was a bit controversial for a few reasons: The 4-core Xeon E5–1620 v2 on the low-end Mac Pro, which can technically be upgraded, is objectively less beefy than the Core i5–8500B sold in the Mac Mini he priced out. And the Mac Mini’s SSD is both speedier and more secure, thanks to the T2 chip.

Nonetheless, he wasn’t a fan of having to pull apart the entire machine to upgrade the RAM on the Mac Mini, and he felt external upgradability (think external GPUs) wasn’t going to be worth it. Plus, the graphics in the Mac Pro, despite their age, are still better than the integrated graphics of the Mac Mini.

Months later, he says he’s still pretty happy with his decision—noting his appreciation of its smaller footprint and aesthetic features. “There’s a lot of small luxuries on it that I wasn’t expecting that weren’t deal-makers for me,” he added.

(As a video guy, he does note that it’s only just fast enough to handle 4K video in 2019, and might not survive later video-quality upgrades.)

So, clearly, it works for Peter—but does it even make sense for anyone else? I asked Luke Miani, a YouTuber who specializes in finding deals on older, mostly Mac-based hardware (he recently bought a 2013 Mac Pro), to weigh in on the machine’s value. He was a bit more skeptical.

While Miani agrees the 2013 Mac Pro has some things going for it as an alternative to the 2018 Mac Mini, he notes that the trash can has limitations, and strategic buying (say, buying a minimally-specced i7 and expanding it via the machine’s Thunderbolt 3 ports) could help users maximize the Mac Mini’s value.

“I’m sure the new Mac Pro will have a market, but the 2013 at any price point has too many issues and competitors to overcome its benefits,” he explained. “Even at a lower price point, the Mac Pro will face competition from the Mac Mini and 5K iMac, both of which I think are a better value.”

He notes that the 2012 Mac Pro remains more upgradeable, while the sweet spot in the market, at least at the moment, is the 27-inch 5K iMac, which is well-specced, fairly upgradeable, and can be found for around $1,500.

Imagining the Future of the Past

Right now, it may not be a great value, but if the 2013 Mac Pro gains a secondary fan base after being taken off the market, it won’t be the first time that’s happened with an Apple machine.

Apple’s history is full of computers that failed in their original contexts but gained popularity for their hackability on the secondary market. Two particularly well-known examples of this involve the Color Classic, an incredibly cute but underpowered machine that was heavily modified by ’90s-era Mac fans to support higher-end components, and the G4 Cube, which saw a significant aftermarket of upgrades years after the device was famously removed from the market in 2001.

And certainly, the 2012 Mac Pro, which has maintained its value on the used market despite its age and outdated port selections, fits in that category.

There's reason to think that the 2013 Mac Pro could gain a second life among collectors: They’re relatively small, fairly beastly given the size (its highest-end supported processor, an Intel Xeon E5–2697 v2, has better multicore performance than the widely used i7–8700K, and the 8-core E5–2667 v2 performs respectably compared to the 8700K despite costing roughly half the price used), and there’s still plenty that can be upgraded in the machines if you’re willing to take the leap.

And since many of these machines were used in server environments, it’s likely that there’s going to be a flood of old trash can Macs on the used market in a few years as later machines outpace it—meaning its price tag could drop like a rock on eBay in a short amount of time.

There are other things that work in its favor as well: Mac Pros support the same kind of DDR3 ECC memory that was widely used in servers just a few years ago—which means that you can max out the RAM on the machine for as little as $200.

But the upgrade process won’t be easy. In 2014, the tech company Other World Computing released a video that described the process of upgrading the 2013 Mac Pro, which is shockingly complex, requiring multiple types of screwdrivers, the disassembly of numerous pieces of silicon, and a very specific set of instructions. Really, the most shocking part of the whole situation is the fact that the chip can be upgraded at all.

In a phone interview, OWC's head of product marketing, AJ Gerth, admitted that Apple’s moves away from upgradability have led to some changes in strategy, including the addition of products (such as external GPUs and enterprise storage solutions) whose value isn’t limited to the Mac market. “We embraced a lot of other areas before Apple moved to less upgradeable devices,” he said.

Gerth noted that many of his buyers are business customers, who have different needs from individual users. He doesn’t see the 2013 Mac Pros maintaining their value in the way the 2012 and earlier models did.

“I don’t think from an individual workstation standpoint, it will have longevity that the previous generation of Mac Pros had,” he said.

Expect Prices to Fall

Right now, it’s arguable that, even on the used market, the 2013 Mac Pro is severely overvalued, and a case-in-point can be found sitting under my own desk.

Recently, I bought an old Xeon workstation made by HP with the goal of, over time, maxing it out on the cheap. There are some hardware quirks, but because it’s a desktop based on server gear, it benefits from used-market arbitrage.

It doesn’t look as nice or have the same port selection, but it’s effectively the kind of machine Apple would have made had it stayed with the same general chassis tower approach that it used on the first-generation Mac Pro. It uses the same processor line as the 2013 Mac Pro, along with the same RAM. Both can be upgraded to levels comparable to high-end consumer PCs relatively inexpensively. Just as Apple's Craig Federighi compared the 2019 Mac Pro to a high-end HP workstation on stage this week, the Z420 is directly comparable to the 2013 Mac Mini. When this machine came out, it was within the ballpark of the 2013 Mac Pro’s current $2,999 price tag.

But old workstations like this simply do not maintain their value. I got mine for a steal at $50; they generally sell for $120 or so on eBay. Even with a few upgrades (including 64 gigs of RAM, a processor upgrade, and a graphics-card upgrade to a lower-end AMD Radeon RX 570, which outperforms the trash can’s FirePro graphics cards handily), the result is still hundreds cheaper than a used 2013 Mac Pro with otherwise comparable specs.

This isn’t a surprise if you’re at all familiar with how the used market works. But the 2013 Mac Pro, based on a vision of how professionals work and what businesses want that appears to have little real basis in reality, has remained more expensive than its peers because it hasn’t seen a single upgrade in years. It’s likely buoyed the prices of its predecessors, too.

Now, with a new generation of Mac Pros, as well as machines like iMacs and Mac Minis that hit different market segments that might not need such horsepower, there’s nothing there to help it keep its value, other than the Apple name and ecosystem. When the new model hits the Apple Store, as video production shops and server farms look for an upgrade, expect its price to fall—fast.

And if it does fall, expect these machines to find interest in markets that would have previously ignored them.

OWC’s Gerth suggested that it could make an impressive media server if its price fell far enough. And Miani, the used Mac enthusiast, admits that the system, for all its weaknesses, has a certain charm that could make it worth buying down the road. At the end of a recent YouTube video in which he said he planned to resell the machine, he really put its appeal best.

“In a couple of years, when these things become a lot less expensive, I’m going to buy one just because it’s such a beautiful piece of design,” he said.

Even with all its flaws, that beauty still stands out.