Why the Mac Pro is perfect for Mac and iOS developers.

I love my Mac Pro. There I said it.

I’ve been a user of Apple’s pro desktop line since the PowerMac G3 (blue & white stripes) came out in 1999. It was the first Mac that I bought with money that I had “made” from Mac shareware sales.

Back in the late 90s, I had grown accustomed to working on Sun and Silicon Graphics Unix “workstations” at the Computer Science department at Lancaster University and the PowerMac to me felt like my “personal workstation”. There was something great about having “the best”; it made me feel all grown up.

Now the PowerMac G3 by today’s standards looks plain awful, but so does the transparent plastic iMac from which it borrowed much of its design. You could legitimately feel good about “thinking differently”, especially since Apple back then was part of the IT counter-culture.

The PowerMac G3 was quickly replaced by the G4 and G5 of which I owned quite a few due the more powerful PowerPC’s tendency to auto-combust at the drop of a hat. Back then there was a lot of PowerPC versus Intel mud-slinging going on and it was kind of fun trading floating point performance figures with my brainwashed PC-adoring friends.

That all changed when Apple ditched the “superior” PowerPC processors and migrated to Intel CPUs. Funnily enough, the renamed Mac Pro was a powerful machine and the Xeon processors just refused to blow up. I’ve owned a couple over the intervening years and I have lost only a single one to a lightning strike (no joke).

Ever since the stellar success of the iPod, Apple has morphed from being the “Mac company” to being the “iPod-company-that-also-makes-Macs”. The success of the iPhone and the iPad have further removed the Mac from the limelight and for a while one could have been forgiven for forgetting that Apple made computers at all.

For me as a Mac developer since 1993 and for many people like me, Apple will always remain the Mac company. We do love our Macs because we spend all day working on them. Big screens, powerful processors and gigabit ethernet cables may sound antiquated to all you iPhone-, iPad- and MacBook Air-touting hipsters but for us, the Mac is the hub of our professional lives.

That’s why people like Marco Arment and, dare I say it, myself are so attached to our Mac Pros. They just make our lives so much better.

Ask anybody who knows me: I’m not a patient man. I hate waiting around while Xcode is double broom-ing my project and while the antiquated little spinning disks are compiling, linking and starting my executables. Instant is quick enough. Anything else just breaks my flow.

Developing software is largely about keeping an awful lot of state in your head at the same time, while acting locally and thinking strategically. It’s hard. Real hard. A big screen, or better yet, two big screens really help you keep all this stuff organized.

The same goes for keyboards and other input devices. Most people are well served with a laptop keyboard or even a touch-screen keyboard. It’s fine for writing email.

Many developers, however, have taken the time to learn to touch-type. Some like myself have even learned the DVORAK layout in a quest for performance and a vain attempt at preventing RSI. The great thing about touch-typing is not that you can type quicker though, but that you can type without taking your eyes off the screen. In that way, you can keep all the stuff that you need spread out in front of you and let your thoughts just flow out of your finger tips.

Working on a laptop is pure torture once you have become used to a full workstation-style setup. The tiny screen means that all the information that you are used to surround yourself with is hidden from you. It feels like you see the world through a pin hole. The keyboard makes it hard to work comfortably because you are hunched over it all the time and the whole experience feels like you are trying to play a miniature guitar. The frets are too close together, your giant fingers keep muting the strings.. your music sucks.

The Mac Pro then is the developer’s tool of choice. It may not be mobile, but neither is the developer. Working in a busy coffee shop is great some of the time, but once you get into the zone, you don’t want to be disturbed. You probably don your sound-cancelling headphones and the only thing that the rest of the world can do for you now is to deliver an espresso once an hour (or more) and leave you alone.

The most important things for a developer’s machine then are the ability to connect multiple large displays, plug in a “regular” keyboard and mouse and provide as much raw power, storage and connectivity as it is possible to engineer at this point in time.

This is in stark contrast with the other group of people who love their Mac Pros: video professionals who need to have a lot of non-standard hardware: huge disks and the most powerful graphics cards available to mankind. While big disks are a plus for us developers too, we care more about how fast they are than on how many terabytes of storage they give us. I certainly wouldn’t trade my 512GB of SSD disk for 20 terabytes of spinning disk.

The new Mac Pro’s that Apple has teased at this year’s WWDC are a great fit for developers.

Video professionals will bemoan the lack of built-in storage bays and the inability to add bigger graphics cards may well be a deal breaker for many of them. For developers, however, those two things don’t really matter.

The new Mac Pros deliver in spades for developers where it matters:

  • Master-of-the-Universe Wow factor
  • Multiple 4K displays
  • Really fast storage
  • Superior CPU performance
  • Whisper quiet operation

Yes, the new Mac Pro looks the part. I have no doubt that setting up one of these machines in your office will give you a buzz and make you feel good about your choice of career. The aesthetics of the new Mac Pro are clearly designed to appeal to our demographic (young and not so young men who fancy a BMW M3) and even steadfastly anti-Apple developers have to admit that they just want one..

Any developer who has had the opportunity to work on one of the new Mac Book Pro Retina displays is impatiently waiting for Apple to finally bring the gorgeousness of those displays to larger screens. Right now, the price for 4K displays is so prohibitive that I can’t see this happening for a while yet and yet I think Apple has paved the way for just that.

One of the major technical challenges of making a full-size retina display is how can you manage to move that many pixels around? The new Mac Pro has double graphics cards as standard. A curious choice unless you’re planning on driving retina displays. Apple talked about “third party 4K displays” at WWDC but one would imagine that they must have such a display in the works themselves no matter how expensive it might be.

All PowerMacs and all Mac Pros so far have come in multi-processor configurations; Apple also made some single processor models but those were really more of an exception.

Yesterday, a benchmark appeared that showed a single processor Mac Pro and this caused quite a stir, because like me most people had assumed that the new Mac Pro would still have two processors.

Careful examination of the videos on Apple’s teaser website, however, seem to show room only for a single CPU and two graphic cards. A curious choice, until you start thinking a bit about it.

Xeon processors are really expensive easily costing $1000 and more per unit. If you put two in a box, you are in old Mac Pro territory before you even add anything else. Yet CPU performance for many tasks is becoming less and less important.

In typical development tasks, it is the hard disk that is the limiting factor. Apple have eschewed spinning disks altogether for the new Mac Pro. Again a strike against those poor video editors. It looked like a foregone conclusion that Apple would leverage its fusion drive technology to offer fast disk access coupled with huge storage capacity.

Again for developers, this hardly matters. What matters is that SSDs speed up build times in a way that a faster CPU just can’t manage. Still, two CPUs are faster than one. So why just one? I think there are two reasons: cost and fan noise.

Hands down the main reason why not every developer has a Mac Pro on the desk is the price. They are really expensive. Largely because the Xeon CPUs that they sport are such high margin processors. Fitting only a single processor drops the price of a Mac Pro by at least $1000. It also makes heat management so much easier..

Fan noise is another one of those things that many people don’t particularly care about. Alienware gaming PCs (and their laptops for that matter) can sound like leaf blowers and many Mac Pros in the past have had annoying fan noise. While fan noise really doesn’t matter all that much on a gaming machine where it gets drowned out by the sound of explosions, it does wear on you when you’re trying to do highly concentrated work. So developers such as myself do care.. as clearly does Jony Ive and Apple and in many ways the wind tunnel design of the new Mac Pro is its stand-out feature.

Many people are asking the obvious question: Why does it matter so much to Apple that it’s Mac Pro is so compact?

Mac Pros have always had handles. Yet they have rarely been moved, being far too heavy to ferry about easily, so we are quick to dismiss the presence of a handle as just a nice design touch. On top of that Apple’s obsession with built-height often takes on ridiculous proportions: A really thin iMac!?. Who cares!?

Yet, this time around I think the handle might be part of the equation. The new Mac Pro is actually portable if not exactly mobile.

I’m not alone amongst Indie developers to share my time between my home office and a co-working space or a dedicated office. Like many developers I’m trying to keep parity between my home and my work setup so that I can get straight on with work, no matter where I’m currently at.

I’m mostly using my retina MacBook Pro right now, but for all the reasons outlined above rather than working on it as a laptop, I plug it right into a dual monitor setup either at home or at the office. The fact that the MacBook Pro has its own screen and keyboard only comes in handy from time to time. Mostly it’s just a portable Mac and prevents me from having to break the bank by buying two powerful machines. The new Mac Pro is small and light enough to be comfortably transported from one place to another in the back of the car and once there it can be plugged into a Thunderbolt display in just the same way that my MacBook Pro can be. On top of that you don’t have to pay for the screen and the keyboard every time you upgrade it.

In other words, the new Mac Pro is pretty much perfect for Mac and iOS developers who want a lightning fast desktop machine, but don’t want to re-buy a screen every time. It’s more portable than an iMac and its air-tunnel design allows it to house much more powerful hardware than would be feasible in an iMac or Mac mini enclosure. On top of that, it may not be quite as expensive as previous models because it houses a single CPU. Whether the dual graphics cards setup really makes sense will only become clear once Apple unveils its first 4K display.

I can’t help thinking that Jony Ive designed this machine more for the participants of WWDC and the extended developer community, than for Apple’s traditional market of creative professionals.

The Mac Pro then won’t make many video editors very happy, but is a great machine for Mac and iOS developers and I suspect that is just as it was planned.