The new Mac Pro is an insanely powerful, expensive computer ($3,000 and up -- way up). It's designed for high-end tasks: video, photo and music editing, for example. Medical work. Scientific simulations. Designers who want to connect five or six screens.
And it has the most Applish design Apple has ever done. It's an out-there, controversial, very brave trashing of everything we ever knew about desktop computer shapes.
It's not beige. It's not plastic. It's not even rectangular. Instead, it's a small, silvery-black aluminum cylinder, about 10 inches tall and 6inches across, completely featureless except for a panel of connectors on the back.
Ask people what they think this futuristic-looking object is, and you'll hear a lot of "ashtray," "vase," "trash can" and "espresso machine." Occasionally: "the love child of Darth Vader and R2-D2."
In the typical obsessive Apple fashion, this computer doesn't even have a power brick; the power transformer is concealed inside for sleeker looks. All that snakes out to the wall outlet is a single black cord. (It's worth noting, too, that this computer is manufactured in the United States. No worries about Chinese sweatshops.)
With the slide of a lock switch on the back, you can lift the shell off of the Mac Pro, revealing the crazy sci-fi guts inside (and making it easy to install more memory).
The labels for the connectors glow white for a few seconds when you move the computer -- a lovely, helpful touch, especially in a dimly lit video-editing suite.
But come on: a cylinder! That's so Apple, isn't it? This is, after all, the company that made a transparent computer (the iMac), a computer with no keys (the iPad) and a phone with hardly any buttons.
Sometimes, Apple's radical designs come at the expense of usability. You know, like how the MacBook Air laptop is astonishingly thin -- but doesn't let you insert a DVD or swap batteries.
That, then, is the question on the Mac Pro: Is it so artsy that it's less useful?
In some ways, the compact, stunning cylinder is a huge improvement on the hulking, 20-inch-tall, 40-pound design of the previous Mac Pro model. The new one is desktoppable and one-hand carryable. And the cylindrical design creates an efficient chimney effect that keeps the circuitry cool but amazingly silent. (There's only one fan -- not eight, as in the old Mac Pro -- and you really have to strain to hear it.)
On the other hand, the whole point of the Mac Pro has always been expandability. The old Mac Pro's cavernous interior could accommodate added hard drives, optical drives, expansion cards and so on.
But in its embrace of the cylinder, Apple has turned its Pro computer inside out. There's no room for anything new inside. You can't insert a hard drive, a circuit board or a DVD burner.
You can add all of those components -- externally -- if they have Thunderbolt connectors. Those are tiny jacks, incredibly fast, wildly versatile; the Mac Pro has six of them. Unfortunately, there aren't many Thunderbolt gadgets yet. (This directory lists about 150 of them, in all the usual categories -- storage, video capture, chassis that can hold specialized cards, multichannel audio boxes and so on.)
So is that it, then? Apple expects you to buy the world's most breathtaking, compact workstation and then surround it with a tangle of mismatched, cluttery, external peripherals?
Apple says that misses the point. The world is changing, it says. The "everything crammed into one computer" model is going away. Nowadays, professional creative companies install centralized storage -- shared network hard drives tucked away in a server closet somewhere. That arrangement gets the bulk, heat and noise away from you, the creative genius.
Apple also points out that the old Mac Pro had room for four hard drives, two DVD drives and four expansion cards, but those were arbitrary numbers. It was far too much wasted capacity for some people, not enough for others (like video editors who need many terabytes of storage). In response, Apple designed the new Mac Pro to be only the brain, with all of its organs external, so that you can build precisely the system you need.
You might buy those arguments; you might not. And even if you agree with Apple's assertion that external expansion is the future, you might not like it. It might mean replacing a lot of gear you've already invested in, or finding adapters that accommodate their new, external status.
It all boils down to whether you need what the Mac Pro offers: ridiculous horsepower. You can read all about it here, but the point is that every wire, every circuit, every chip has been designed for speed. Intel's new Xeon processors. Up to 64 gigabytes of memory. Four USB 3.0 jacks. Two gigabit Ethernet jacks (you can connect to two office networks at once). An HDMI jack so you can connect a TV directly (a big deal for video editors).
No SD memory-card slot, though. No traditional spinning hard drive, either. Instead, the main "hard drive" is made of flash memory, of the sort inside MacBook Airs, tablets and phones. Saving files and opening them are ridiculously fast -- this flash drive is 10 times faster than most hard drives. But even if you max it out to 1 terabyte ($800 more), that's not much storage for video editors; again, external storage is going to be part of your future.
The Mac Pro's ace in the hole is two top-of-the-line graphics cards. In the olden days, these circuit boards were dedicated to the task of displaying images on your screens. Now, though, they're screamingly fast computers in their own right -- and the Mac Pro is designed to assign them some of the work the main processing chip would normally do. Many hands make light work, you know.
So it must come as a shock to learn that the Mac Pro isn't especially fast at many everyday tasks. Macworld's benchmark testing found that the new Mac Pro is actually slower than an ordinary iMac in iMovie, iTunes, Aperture, Parallels and the desktop.
Yet in tests of high-end, data-crunchy apps like Final Cut Pro X, Photoshop, iPhoto, HandBrake and Mathematica, the Mac Pro was faster than any Mac ever tested. These, of course, are precisely the kinds of programs that professionals use. For them, time is money, and the Mac Pro can save both.
In fact, the latest Final Cut version, 10.1, has been specially rejiggered to exploit the Mac Pro and its dual graphics cards. Apple says that it can manipulate and process 4K video -- a new standard of video with four times the picture resolution of HDTV -- fluidly and easily, without stuttering or lagging. I tried that, using a drive full of 4K video footage, and it turns out to be true. (A MacBook, on the other hand, can't handle that 4K footage without gasping.)
You'll be encouraged to buy a 4K TV in the next couple of years, but I'm not sold on it; when you sit at a normal viewing distance from your TV, the additional resolution is invisible to your eye. 4K may fizzle just the way 3D TV did.
But that's just it: The Mac Pro, in every possible way, is a bet on the future.
Apple watchers should be used to this routine: Apple predicts a change in the technological tide, builds computers accordingly and enrages the masses who'll have to adapt to (and pay for) the new ways of doing things. (See also: the time Apple eliminated dial-up modems, the time it killed off floppy drives and the time it eliminated DVD drives.)
But here's the really maddening part: Apple almost always turns out to be right.
True, maybe those tech trends come about, or at least get accelerated, because Apple throws its weight behind them.
To justify buying a Mac Pro, it helps to have a job that calls for the Mac Pro's kind of horsepower -- like 4K video editing. And to have software that exploits its multicore processor and those high-speed graphics processors. And to have add-ons with Thunderbolt connectors. And to work at a company that uses centralized storage.
Fortunately, all of that will start coming faster now. That is, the future imagined by the Mac Pro will arrive sooner because of the Mac Pro. In the end, the Mac Pro isn't just a shiny cylinder that's built for the future; it's also a nifty bit of self-fulfilling prophecy.