Apple’s Mac Pro, wheels are optional


Apple’s new Mac Pro is a utilitarian workhorse.  Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of design here, but it is a beast.  It reminds many of the G5 incarnation of the Mac Pro i.e. the cheese grater, and has no visible DNA in common with the current Mac Pro.

Apple moved from the shiny ultra-sleek to a steel frame that holds electronics.  That said the airflow “holes” in the front and back of the casing are pretty neat.  In the end, they, including those on the back panel of the new monitor, are very industrial; suggesting kit for a large-scale manufacturing process more than computing.  But, that is the point.  The Mac Pro is targeted at the “Pro” crowd.  It will be used in an industrial, studio setting as opposed to being on a user’s lap at an airport gate.  Heck, one can even buy optional wheels, again a very utilitarian feature.

But, what about semiconductors?  Did any of Apple’s semiconductor designs find their way into the Mac Pro?  The answer is yes.  Apple’s T2 is there.  It is Apple’s “catch-all” IC that looks after many security and behind-the-scenes processes.  The T2 is included in all new Macs, so it was fully expected to be in the Mac Pro.

The second bit of design is in the new, optional “Afterburner” card for video editing.   The discussion of this card starts at around the 1hr. 26 min. point in the Keynote.  It is described as a custom HW accelerator that uses an FPGA.  It is claimed to be capable of processing 6 billion pixels per second.  The silicon is not Apple’s but the design is.

A Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) might be considered as a raw bit of logic circuitry.  It has a large number of basic logic circuit elements that are not wired into a particular circuit at the time of fabrication.  The customer creates the circuit by making the desired connections between the bits of logic.  FPGAs are often used in low volume applications where it is not feasible to produce one’s own ICs.   FPGAs can also be wired into large parallel compute engines i.e. perfect for manipulating images or video.

What does this mean for the Afterburner and its FPGA?  The FPGA would most certainly implement an Apple-designed circuit.  Similar functionality is performed by the T2 in other parts of the Mac line.  However, the T2 would not have the power needed for the Afterburner.  Putting these two bits together one could hypothesize that the FPGA is wired as a large parallel array of “T2” encode engines.  Whatever the exact nature of the circuit is Apple has used hardware accelerators in the A-series SoCs for many years.  So, they would have a good idea of how to design one.   

Overall, Apple stuck to the anticipated names and solutions for the compute and graphics horsepower.  However, Apple continues to access it own semiconductor design capabilities to bring specific functionalities to its products; wheels or no wheels.