Is The Mac Coming Back?

Posted on Nov 8, 2012 by Alex Fice

If you’ve had enough of waiting for a MAC PRO delivery there are now very good alternatives.

How long will you wait for your new MAC PRO workstation? Apple are obviously in no hurry to  update their pro product and have already missed the latest round of Intel chips, the E5 Xeon Series. All this inactivity poses the question – Are Apple moving away from the pro?

If you’re a video professional and a Mac user do you feel a little let down by Apple of late? There was the exit of XSan the server product, the re-invention of Final Cut Pro as a videography tool for the common man and not the finely tuned editor for pros and now there is a gap in the Mac Pro computer line-up with the last significant upgrade of their superb tower workstations back in 2010. They have now missed the next generation of Intel chipset which are in the new HD Z820 and Dell T7600 workstations.

Apple as a company has a ‘no comment on future products’ standpoint and this excites us with the unknown possibilities but also frustrates us when we have to prepare our spending on information that isn’t accurate.

Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook has been quoted in returning an Email to a journalist as saying that 2013 will see an updating of the Mac Pro line with ‘Something special’. The Apple acolytes will greet this like white smoke from the Vatican but the rest of us are left wondering what that ‘something special’ will be.

FCP X is still a product that hasn’t enamoured itself to editors. Earlier this year Unit Media who a few years ago made a big splash by committing to FCP and Apple products throughout their post house, announced that they were investing heavily in AVID’s Media Composer.

Owner Adam Luckwell commented on the addition of Avid editing, “The investment in Avid Media Composer was primarily a commercial decision to satisfy a demand driven by agency clients, and we’re already beginning to see a noticeable difference in the type of work we’re attracting. Avid is the professional industry standard editing tool. Clients expect the ultimate quality when they come into a high-end facility, and with Avid we can now deliver.” Avid made much of the way an Apple flagship post house had bought in to their premium editor after them initially lauding the Apple connection, with this kind of order and their recent conversion discount that encouraged editors to convert to Media Composer from Final Cut Pro Avid are feeling good about themselves.

But Adam Luckwell admits that the Avid purchases weren’t an Apple rejection, “The original company which was Unit Post Production, as opposed to Unit Media in its current form, started almost exclusively with Final Cut editing. Essentially that company was closed down. Unit Media was consequently opened as an amalgam of three companies. The company called The Cut does all our editing and although Final Cut Pro is great more and more of our clients requested using Avid Media Composer. The reason we didn’t update from FCP 7 to X was because we felt that the X was a piece of software that was aimed much more at the consumer market and I think that is a general consensus anyway.

“Although, there are some functions in there that are handy like the ability to upload directly to YouTube. Take that to its logical conclusion and you could be uploading to Channel 4 to their spec. But we felt that FCP7 had a lot of functionality left in that X didn’t have. It was also a decision driven by the clients – requests for FCP 7 loads, requests for X not so many. Having said that one of our client insists on FCP X so we have to offer that as well.

“We didn’t move away from Apple, we still have 30 licenses for FCP and you can edit on it across the entire facility. We added Avid in to the nine cut rooms that we have. So the client will be presented on walking in to the room with the choice. So it’s not so much a move away from Apple as offering a broader service due to client demand.”

But the new Unit also offer CG and have dozens of Mac Pros, “We have 11 stations in the design department and of course all the edit stations are Macs. The Flames run on PCs, the Smokes run on Macs. About six months ago we bought 17 ‘Z’ Stations from HP for our CG side, Nuke, Maya, XSI. The designers have a tendency to want to work on Mac and the CG boys have a tendency to work on PC.

“I’m not that worried that Apple haven’t updated their Mac Pros. It’s a decision that is made when we have to re-equip the stations. I don’t have a requirement to update anything just at the moment. If I did all the research now that would be wasted come the time to upgrade. Ultimately my head of engineering will make the choice to the budget I give him.”

But if Apple don’t want the pro market and the guess is that they don’t because of the low returns, who does want it. Anna Watson from HP and Dell reseller Elmtec knows that Dell are heavily targeting the media and entertainment market. “With their new T7600 product Dell you’ve got dual processors so you have maximum power, you can put dual high end graphics to help with GPU computing. In a very similar way you’ve got that with the HP Z820 because they already have those relationships with companies like Avid and VizRT. But Dell have never really pushed themselves in to that area but now they have a really good offering they’re interested in getting a foothold. They’ve improved their product offering a million percent, it’s now on a competitive level with its peers.”

 The HP Z820 dual-socket Intel E5-2665 Xeon loaded PC - a classic video spec would be: • Dual E5-2665/8 Core/2.4GHz with 20MB cache • Intel C602 chipset • 16GB quad-channel RAM (16 DIMM slots total, four used in this config) • NVIDIA Quadro 4000 2GB (one dual-link DVI, two DisplayPort output) • 500GB – Windows 7 Professional • Dual-layer DVD-RW. The HP Z820 dual-socket Intel E5-2665 Xeon loaded PC – a classic video spec would be: • Dual E5-2665/8 Core/2.4GHz with 20MB cache • Intel C602 chipset • 16GB quad-channel RAM (16 DIMM slots total, four used in this config) • NVIDIA Quadro 4000 2GB (one dual-link DVI, two DisplayPort output) • 500GB – Windows 7 Professional • Dual-layer DVD-RW.

Post houses either buy their HPs, Apples or Dells direct from the manufacturer or buy through resellers who are supplied by highly focussed distributors like UK companies Jarvis Media or West Coast. Jarvis are big distributors of Avid software but don’t promote the Z820 HP workstation as that hasn’t been certified for use with that software yet, the Z800 and Z400 are still the machines they sell which could be seen to be comparable to the old Mac Pros.

When the certification comes through – which is hoped to be in the next six months – that might be the time that Avid users move away from Apple for a product that is faster and who’s support is based on next day delivery and run on the well received Windows 7 and 8 Pro.

You don’t have to dig too far in the post community to find anti-Apple feeling. Roy Trosh is the Technical Director of The Mill in London, “The workstations that we buy tend to be HP Z800s, Z820s that kind of thing as they are used to run Flame. Our fastest machines in the building are HP Z820s and we buy loads of those for our CGI and 3D departments.

“We do have a studio with Macs in as well but we have been worried about the future of the Mac for a couple of years now. Whilst it hasn’t been canned it hasn’t necessarily been developed either. For instance we’ve built a render farm for our Mac department in New York and we have bought a load of PC and Windows boxes for the render farm because we weren’t sure what was happening to the future of Mac Pros. Traditional we would have bought Mac for that purpose. The render farm will render Adobe stuff – After Effects that sort of thing.

“We buy Macs but we’re never quite sure what Apple’s plans are and whether they serious about this market. We’ve bought XSans in the past and then they dropped XSans, we set up an asset management environment for our studio based around Final Cut Studio and that was canned. In terms of workstations, every producer wants a nice shiny  Mac laptop and its HD Z820s for our faster Flame suites.

“Apple sets great store in saying that ‘You can take all of our products and put them on the table’ apart from the Mac Pro. They’re not going to be selling millions of Mac Pros to the general public, they make their money out of iPhones and iPods. That’s why we had little confidence that the Mac Pro had a future, the announcement was we’re not dropping it rather than we’re developing it. What could ‘something special’ mean? A faster Mac Mini with Thunderbolt connection on it? I/O wise that would be a pain in the arse to get all your peripherals all ‘Thunderbolted’ in to a box. It would make the installation really messy for a place like us. We would much rather have a single box where we could plug our video cables in like you can with a Flame really. For the high end we are buying HPs.”

Mark Wildig, CTO of Smoke & Mirrors also in London is more of a fan of Apple and hopes they come up something incredible. “Talking to one of the biggest suppliers of Macs in London I thought they might have a handle on it all and know something but they don’t have a clue. It’s a little bit upsetting for the whole industry really. We are all HP here apart from the Mac Pros, we have a massive investment for Smoke On Mac here, we must have something like 25 Smoke On Macs. All our retouching and reprint stuff we do on Mac so yes it’s quite interesting times.

“Smoke On Mac is a very good combination, it works very well. If AutoDesk came out with a reasonable solution on a PC box we’d have to think about it. The pricing of Smoke On Mac makes it very attractive since they bought it down from £10k to £3k, its pretty amazing value. That’s an interesting proposition for us opposed to Smoke, Flint and Flame on Linux boxes. AutoDesk perhaps need to re-think how they’re marketing this to us really.

“We’ve got quite a lot of new HD Z820s in our New York office and they’re lovely. Reliability has been amazing, every workstations we have in London, New York and Shanghai is HP apart from the Macs and we’re delighted with them, they’re absolutely amazing. We’ve had so few hardware failures. If you do get one you will get a new board next day. If I had my time again I’d love to go and work for them, they’re that good. We love them and don’t buy anything else.”

But to prove that there is still an affinity with Apple Mac Pros Mark wants ‘something special’ from Cupertino. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to get the fattest, biggest computer that money could buy. In a way I think they see our industry as really annoying, they sell millions of iPhones and everybody says it’s the best thing since sliced bread and they build a new Mac Pro and everybody moans that it need more of this and that to a market that buys only tens of thousands. It possibly isn’t really worth the numbers to them.”

But the idea of a new box full of processing instead of a single traditional tower did interest Mark, “That would be amazing wouldn’t it? You could do monitors off it and storage. We would need software vendors to support and stuff like that but what a way forward. You could buy the top of the range iMac and just accelerate it with many of these boxes daisy chained as you need it. What a fantastic model that would be.”

That is the problem for the professional, while liking the products and liking to keep their Mac operators happy, computers buying decisions have to be made. Mark even joked about buying a load of Mac Pros and moth balling them to keep his huge investment running.

When the inevitable Apple Mac Pro announcement is made next year video professionals will love it and admire it but by then will they be using something else and wish that Apple had told them it was coming.


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