Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Apple's new iMacs and Mac Pros need better I/O

There have been a lot of negative comments in the media production community about Apple's new Mac Pro tower computers and iMacs. The new models are faster and have better graphics than the models they replaced, but they have the same I/O capabilities, and in the case of the Mac Pro, the same number of slots as the old models.

Many observers were looking for Apple to introduce USB 3.0 interfaces or the 1.6/3.2 Gbps FireWire standard, and were disappointed. I suspect that one big reason why Apple didn't implement USB 3.0 is that Intel is moving very slowly to support the new standard. Intel's motherboard chip sets, which are by far the most popular, still don't include USB 3.0 support, although USB 3.0 cards can be added. Yesterday, Intel announced that it had completed development of all the components necessary to implement 50 Gbps transfers over a single fiber-optic link. Intel calls this technology the Silicon Photonics Link (SPL,) and expects to have it available commercially within five years. This looks like the latest version of Light Peak, which was reportedly developed by Intel at Apple's request.

My suspicion is that SPL is what Apple is really waiting for. With SPL, Apple could attach many high-speed devices that currently need different interfaces, such as disk arrays, displays and audio/video capture devices, using a single interface. Apple doesn't want to encourage adoption of slower interfaces that it will replace in a few years' time with SPL. However, the problem is timing. If SPL is two years out, Apple might be able to hold out, but if it's really five years away, they can't wait that long for a faster interface. I don't believe that S1600/S3200 FireWire is an option; Apple has wanted to drop its FireWire interfaces for years and has kept them only because of strong pressure from the user community.

There's another issue, and it concerns how the iMacs and Mac Pros coexist in Apple's product line. The new iMacs, which come standard with Core i3 or i5 CPUs and can be ordered with i7 CPUs, are fast enough for most media production tasks, but they're crippled by slow I/O. For example, there are very few ways to get high-speed video into or our of an iMac; MacBook Pros have better I/O options because they support Expresscards, while iMac users are limited to USB 2.0 and FireWire.

An iMac or MacBook Pro with a couple of USB 3.0 interfaces, or in the future, a SPL interface, would make the Mac Pro obsolete except for highly specialized applications. Once Apple's notebook and desktop computers have extremely fast I/O, they will be able to do perhaps 95% of what a Mac Pro can do. I think that one big reason why the Mac Pro hasn't had the massive redesign that it's needed for a few years is that Apple sees it as eventually going away.

The viability of Apple's desktop and tower computers for high-end media creation depends in large part on how Apple solves its I/O issues. It can't wait five years for SPL; it's got to come up with something much sooner than that.
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