I consult for many small to mid sized post houses and I don’t like to specify an Apple Mac Pro for the most demanding post applications. I’m often asked why.
First a disclaimer, I’m not talking about the needs of the average individual editor or colorist here who is working with a single system, or those who are not working at the very edge of the performance envelope with heavy camera RAW or uncompressed media and GPU intensive operations.
For many, a Mac Pro is perfectly suited to the demands and needs of HD and moderate 4K work.
However the following is exactly my advise for post houses large or small with multiple critical systems on high bandwidth direct attached or shared storage that are pushing the limits. That means high res RAW or uncompressed high res material, real-time 4K playback (driving 4K monitoring) with noise reduction, optical flow, heavy high res compositing. Any systems that are considered a mission critical part of a post pipeline.
Most of you using and loving your Mac Pro that are tempted to grill me now, this is not aimed at you.
This is aimed at those of you who have experienced the effects of GPU errors caused by overheating, specifically of the Dual D700 equipped systems, and the rendering artifacts that a malfunctioning GPU causes. Some of you will know exactly what I’m talking about. If you load up 4K CinemaDNG RAW in DaVinci Resolve on a dual D700 Mac Pro with some temporal noise reduction, within 20 minutes you’ll have cooked your system.
I’ve seen this and had to deal with it over and over again in commercial situations.
My reasoning goes beyond just this one specific case where the Mac Pro fails under stress, as this issue will hopefully be resolved, and maybe it has been already. It’s more than that, it’s a bigger question of control, upgradability and expansion. It’s about the suitability of a specific tool as a solution to extreme, high demand applications that it may not be well suited for.
This is my professional opinion only, you don’t have to agree with me at all.
First I’ll ask one simple question. Who is in control of your post pipeline?
There’s only one correct answer to this question.
You need to be in full control of your post pipeline… every piece of hardware and software.
This is a problem for Apple because Apple don’t trust you, and you actually have very little control over Apple hardware. For many more mundane purposes this never poses a real problem, in the consumer realm it’s arguably the cornerstone of Apple’s reputation for reliability and quality. Apple protects their consumer end-user experience more than anything else and retaining control is the best way they have to ensure consistency, performance and manage their reputation and brand.
Just as I started writing this post, I came across an article titled Don’t Be Apple, published today on Tech Crunch in which Columnist Jon Evans states of Apple:
So why do I think they represent so much of what’s wrong with the tech world?
It’s because they have, I think, an almost Shakespearean tragic flaw: their obsession with centralized corporate control of the devices they sell. Apple sells fantastic hardware, and excellent software … and tries to maintain an iron-fisted grip on both, throughout their lifespan.Jon Evans
When it comes to troubleshooting the kind of workflow problems typical of the complex hardware and software environments found in video post production, Apple takes away most of your toolkit and simply leaves you without any options.
A Short Shelf Life
Even the top spec Mac Pro will age relatively quickly, and as with all Apple products they are designed to be replaced. If you love and use an iPhone as I do, I’m sure you’ve noticed how it slows down after about two years worth of iOS and app updates.
This is not necessarily a problem for tasks that are well within the performance and abilities of the system. You will be able to happily run FCP or Adobe Creative Suite on the same Mac Pro for many years to come.
It is however a problem when the system is being used at its limits regularly.
Would you buy a car with no access to the engine bay? Apple’s shift to the cylinder, or “trashcan” is essentially intended to lock you out of your own system. You’ll be able to perform the allowed updates over time, add RAM and replace storage but that’s about the extent of it.
Limited PCIe Expansion
The last point I want to bring up is usually what seals the deal for most against the Mac Pro for high end post production applications.
Apple doesn’t allow you to upgrade, or add additional GPU’s to the system.
Thunderbolt is awesome, and is one of the most important technologies to impact our field in recent years. A Thunderbolt to PCIe expansion chassis will allow you to add any number of additional I/O devices such as fibre channel or 10GbE HBA’s, and even a Red Rocket but it does not yet provide enough bandwidth for Apple to support external GPU’s.
This may well become possible with Thunderbolt 3, but this is not yet a reality for the current generation of Apple systems.
I love Apple, this is not essentially an anti-Apple rant, it’s just the honest reality. I have no problem at all employing Apple products in less demanding post production roles. The new 5K iMac for one is a really impressive machine for its size, price and of course its display, and in i7 configuration makes a fantastic editing and even HD finishing platform when used within reasonable limits.
The Mac Pro does have many many applications, but for the reasons I’ve outlined I argue that an equal or higher specified HP Z840 workstation (or similar) provides far more opportunity for expansion, and a number of much better possible GPU configurations than the maximum dual D700 of the Mac.
Most of all, choosing a non-Apple platform for the most demanding functions in your post pipeline gives you total control where you need it the most, especially when paired with Linux.
The systems you need to push the hardest are usually at the most critical points, and you need to ask yourself if you trust the Apple Genius bar with your most critical systems?