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Apple Mac Pro second generation (2013), the day desktop computer changed shape

Apple Mac Pro second generation 02

Mac Pro 2, top view; photo courtesy of Apple inc.

Apple Mac Pro second generation (2013), the day desktop computer changed shape

Have you ever wondered why so many desktop personal computers are shaped as a massive rectangular box ? The reason, along with a certain lack of creativity by those who design them, is mostly technical.

Why so many computers are shaped like a rectangular box?

Since the late Seventies, a typical PC is composed of an ensemble of flat, rectangular components: a relatively large motherboard into which a series of smaller boards, also flat and rectangular are vertically plugged  – video cards, network controllers, cards with various types of communication ports, sound cards, and so on -, plus a series of other boxes of various sizes, such as disk drives and power supply units.

The most natural shape for an enclosure into which all that stuff fits better is obviously a rectangular box. Furthermore, such box should be large enough to accommodate all the above mentioned parts, and still leave enough room to properly ventilate and cool the machine.
Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that the English word case originates from the Latin word capsa which indicates a (usually wooden) box; and, if we look, for example, at the good old Apple I, we realize why this term has been quite appropriate.

Apple I computer

An Apple I (1976) and its wooden case; photo: Ed Uthman

Trying something different: the Power Mac G4 Cube

Nevertheless, no rule dictates that a computer can’t have any shape different from that of a box, as long as you have some kind of control on its hardware components shape and size.
Furthermore, a box certainly isn’t the best form factor when ventilation is taken into account, since it doesn’t facilitate convective air flow inside the case; that’s why most PCs need one or more cooling fans.

Apple tried indeed some innovative designs in the late 1990s, such as the Power Mac G4 Cube which was still a box but fanless, tiny, and square.
Yet, the machine was a commercial flop, mostly due to an high price, problems with its acrylic plastic enclosure, and lack of expandability (something most users considered really important, then).

Yet, the concept behind the Cube (partly derived from that of Job’s NeXTcube) was really novel and courageous: to create a professional computer which didn’t resemble a typical PC and which, at the same time, was a more simple and rational design, especially when compared to the huge full-tower graphic workstations of the time.

Apple resuscitated that concept 13 years later, with the second generation of Mac Pro.

Apple Power Mac G4 Cube 2

Advertise of new Apple products for year 2000, including the Power Mac G4 Cube; image courtesy of apple Inc.

NeXTcube

The NeXTcube (1988)

The design of the Mac Pro 2

Designed by a team led by Matt Casebolt (now at Tesla Motors), the Mac Pro 2 inherits indeed many elements from the Power Mac Cube, yet it take them to an unprecedented level. All the machine’s hardware is packed into a cylindrical case, 6.6 inches across and 9.9 inches high, weighting 11 pounds.
Compared to its predecessor, the Mac Pro 2, whose shape and size vaguely resembles those of a wine bottle cooler, is incredibly smaller (about one eight in volume) and utterly different in appearance.

Mac Pro first and second generation size comparison

A comparison between the first (2006) and the second (2013) generations of Mac Pro

The computer is built around a central triangular core which is actually an aluminum heat sink equipped with a single fan which creates a constant air flow entering the machine from its bottom and expelled at its top. All the electronic components are arranged around the core and enclosed by a polished aluminum cylinder.

This unconventional design was made possible by a substantial redesign of the computer hardware, in which a series of small electronic cards is aligned in a triangular prismatic configuration. The machine has neither a magnetic hard disk, replaced by a flash storage unit, nor an optical drive.
Overall, the computer hardware isn’t so unusual; the machine is based on a classic Intel-based architecture, though with the usual Apple proprietary customization.

Apple Mac Pro second generation 03

Apple Mac Pro 2, exterior view and “x-ray” view showing how the electronics fits into the cylindrical  container; images Apple Inc. / Inexhibit

Cray 2

A remote ancestor? The Cray-2 supercomputer (1985)

Mac Pro second generation patent scheme

Image from the U.S. Patent application by Apple illustrating different parts of the Mac Pro

Apple Mac Pro second generation 01

Images courtesy of Apple Inc.

 

Apple Mac Pro second generation heat sink

Apple Mac Pro second generation teardown

View of the triangular core and a Mac Pro teardown; photos: iFixit (https://www.ifixit.com)

The manufacturing process

The Mac Pro 2 is produced in an highly-automated factory in Texas. The interesting manufacturing process of computer is well documented in a video released by Apple which shows how, starting from an aluminum ingot, a precise sequence of operations leads to the final object. Let’s see them in detail (all images courtesy of Apple Inc.).

1 – a cylindrical aluminum ingot is positioned into an hydraulic press die for deep drawing stamping

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 01

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 02

2- the formed piece is removed from the press to undergo a second extrusion forming phase which shapes it to its approximate final size and dimension

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 03

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 04

3 – a CNC refines the external surface of the cylinder which will become the enclosure

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 05

4 – through an automated process, the surface is mirror-polished, and then anodized

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 06

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 07

5 – meanwhile, the surface of the extruded triangular aluminum core is refined by a robotic blast system

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 08

6 – the computer is fitted with all electronic parts by a human-operated assembling line

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 09

Apple Mac Pro manufacturing 10

The Mac Pro isn’t a computer for everyone. It is a powerful (and expensive) machine clearly aimed to creative professionals in fields such as graphic design, video editing, and 3D modeling. Consequently, its design, similarly to what Apple did with the iPhone, is that of a somewhat “exclusive” object; this helps explain its unorthodox shape, clearly intended to be iconic, and the adoption of high-end materials and manufacturing processes.

Seminal design or dead-end?

Although I deem it somewhat over-engineered, the Mac Pro second generation has been a very interesting and rather visionary attempt to innovate the classic desktop computer shape and, at some extent, its very concept as well.

Does size matter?
Yet, it seems that the rush to create computers, and consumer electronic devices in general, “as miniaturized as possible” has come to a stop, at least for now. I don’t know exactly why, but my suspect is that also a psychological component is part of the equation; if someone spends $3,000 for a high-end desktop computer he possibly don’t want it to be too small. We are all more or less accustomed that bigger things cost more than smaller ones, after all. In that sense, Steve Jobs was wrong thinking that people would have bought the G4 Cube because is was tiny. Of course, the Mac Mini is even more tiny, yet it is also the cheapest Mac one can buy; not a coincidence, perhaps.

Will the Mac Pro 2 prove to be a seminal design or a dead end? That’s a difficult question. People is generally accustomed to very traditional designs of desktop PCs and often do not react well to innovative ones. Furthermore, even if not as much as once was, expandability is still an appreciated feature. That possibly explains why an obsolete concept such as that a PC should look like a rectangular box is still alive. As a matter of fact, most Mac users don’t seem to appreciate the Mac Pro 2 much (the machine has been popularly nicknamed “trashcan Mac”).

Yet, customers seem to do not have the same conservative attitude towards tablet PCs or smartphones. Apple itself demonstrated that alternative designs for desktop computers are possible and commercially successful, for example with the various generations of iMac, and the Mac Mini.

My personal opinion is that the future fate of innovative designs such as the Mac Pro much depends on that of desktop computers in general.
The extinction of desktops PCs – in turn replaced by laptops, tablets, cloud-based thin clients, and so on – has been prematurely announced many times in the last years.
If desktop PCs will still exist twenty years from now, and I would bet on it, then there would be (and possibly there must be) room for innovating their design beyond the forms we are accustomed today.

Further reading
A very interesting Mac Pro 2 “teardown” article is available at
https://www.ifixit.com/Teardown/Mac+Pro+Late+2013+Teardown/20778
For a detailed explanation of the Mac Pro 2 manufacturing process see http://atomicdelights.com/blog/how-apple-makes-the-mac-pro
specs and the cited video are available at: http://www.apple.com/mac-pro/video/

Mac Pro advertisement

A Mac Pro second generation advertisement. I guess it remembers you something, if you are passionate about cinema like me…



History of computer design: the most innovative and unconventional PCs ever made

History of computer design: the most innovative and unconventional PCs ever made

History of computer design: the most innovative and unconventional PCs ever made


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