Apple’s Power Mac Mini

By Grant Jacobs 08/01/2014 1

That’s what I’m thinking about Apple’s new Mac Pro. I’m also a bit curious about their RAM strategy.

Like the Mac Mini, expansion is largely external. Also like the Mac Mini, the unit is tiny.

(Artist: Dan Frakes
(Photo credits: Dan Frakes)

The new Mac Pro, the black cylinder to the left of the large case of the older model in the photograph above, have one multi-core Xeon processor and two (not one) graphics cards. A feature is the triangular arrangement of the internal boards, with cooling from middle running up through the machine.

The available RAM is less than in previous Mac Pros, with Apple having reduced the number of RAM sockets (DIMM dockets) from eight to four. Currently the maximum RAM capacity is 64Gb.

Despite people talking about the RAM being user-upgradable, it seems to me that Apple has arranged the initial configurations in a way that will encourage people to buy what think they’ll need from them at the onset.

Here are the options Apple are offering:


The base models have 12Gb or 16Gb – using 3 or all 4 of the available DIMM slots. The only option to upgrade without replacing existing RAM is upgrading 12Gb to 16Gb. For all other RAM upgrades you’ll have to remove and replace the RAM you purchased initially.

Contrast that with, say, Dell who allow you to configure the RAM as suits. You can, for example, ask that a single 16Gb card being installed in the first DIMM slot leaving the rest empty, rather than fill all DIMM slots with 4Gb cards. You’re then open to add (not replace) more RAM later into the empty sockets. You can’t do this with Apple’s RAM options.[1]

I imagine that most people who realise they’ll be replacing RAM if they upgrade later are likely to then wonder if it’s worth picking up cheaper options later. I’m betting most people will buy all of what they think they need at the onset; these configurations encourage that.

Also reduced compared to previous Mac Pros is the one CPU compared to two. In a real sense this is a shift, with the ‘lost’ CPU replaced with the additional graphics card. The new Mac Pro has two (very capable) graphics cards. The second will be expected to be used as an additional CPU via GPGPU programming, general purpose computing on graphics processing units (GPUs). OpenCL, which Apple supports, can allow programmers to access GPUs as additional CPUs. One catch is that the main potential speed gain, compared to the previous Mac Pros, will likely prove to mostly been for those programs that have been (re)written to make use of the GPU(s) via OpenCL. (It ought to also do better at I/O.)

Despite that in principle the SSD and even CPU are potentially upgradeable, I doubt many will tackle this. This leads me to think of the machine as a ‘closed boxed’ design, a power version of the Mac Mini.


Until I get back into the swing of regular blogging, I’ll be writing a few opinion or rumination pieces. Easier!

At least one company is already advertising a means to turn old Mac Pro cases into expansion cases, accessing hard drives, DVD writers and PCIe cards in the old cases via Thunderbolt 2 cables.

I’m not in the market for one of these machines. (At the moment, anyway.) So what computer am I in the market for? My project mix biological questions (e.g. epigenetics, gene regulation and the 3-D structure of genomes) and algorithms to work on these. One class of algorithms I am interest in enable storing large datasets in RAM, allowing, for example, fast processing of genome data.[2] There is a niche here: computers with (very) large amounts of RAM can offer faster processing via enabling data structures that store big data sets ‘intelligently’. If you like, smart programming winning over blindly throwing hardware at a problem. (Although, to be fair, there’s this throwing a lot of RAM at the problem!) For this I’m less interested in the speed of the CPU per se and more concerned about the amount of RAM. I am hoping to explore if older servers might be re-purposed, especially as they typically offer more DIMM slots (and often more CPU sockets for that matter). It isn’t as simple as that, unfortunately, as it depends on the type of RAM cards supported and their availability. Just to be clear, this is to be a Linux machine based on, say, an HP workstation/server. (Quite likely it’ll simply prove difficult as I no longer follow hardware in the way I did when I was younger and computers were simpler!)

1. I realise there can be performance-related options with different RAM configurations, but I believe that’s usually in either multiple-CPU systems or for systems with very large amounts of RAM. I’m assuming (bad thing to do…) that this isn’t likely to be the case for this machine.

2. In particular, suffix trees and suffix arrays.

[Updated, mainly to add the post category and tags.]

Other articles on Code for life:

Something sassy

Reading winmail.dat files sent to Apple Mac users

Mac OS X dreams (from 2010)

Skim – free PDF viewer and annotator for Mac OS

Consumer brain-computer interface

Sinclair ZX envy

Retrospective–The mythology of bioinformatics

One Response to “Apple’s Power Mac Mini”

  • There’s a good, long, review by Dave Girard at ArsTechnica. He favours it, of course, and puts a lot of emphasis on the GPUs.

    He raises concern over OpenCL support from Apple, but you’d hope that’s a no-brainer as clearly this machine has OpenCL as one of it’s targets. You hope. There’s further criticism in his conclusion, mainly focused around the GPUs and the CPU/GPU balance.

    It’s good see to there is already cheaper RAM upgrade alternatives that Apple’s offering, but you still have to junk the RAM the machine came with as I note and owing to the configurations offered, you might find it hard to sell the original RAM to a Mac Pro owner (basically, the only Mac Pro owners that could make use of it would be those with a 3x4Gb configuration adding one of your three RAM cards).

    He makes brief mention of the dual-to-single CPU downgrade and no mention at all (that I could see on a quick read) of the 8-to-4 DIMM slot downgrade, or mention of those that might want more RAM.

    Ah, well…