Why Apple Hardware Is Redonkulously Over-Powered

macpro

Apple is increasingly shipping hardware products with specific features that are crazy overkill — far more power than is necessary or even usable.

Here’s why I think that when it comes to some technology features, too much is just right.

The most surprising feature of the iPhone 5S is its 64-bit A7 processor, the only smartphone to have a 64-bit chip of any kind. Let’s face it: A 64-bit processor is overkill for a smartphone.

One advantage of a chip like that is that it can use 4 GB of RAM, which is already way more than the iPhone 5s comes with (1 GB) or, for that matter, more than any smartphone comes with, to the best of my knowledge. There are almost no 64-bit, third-party apps available.

The Mac Pro is more computer than just about anybody needs — certainly more than the vast majority of the people who buy one need. It’s twice as fast as the old version, and features the ability to push more graphics out to more displays than any but a tiny minority of users will ever even attempt. For example, it can drive six 27-inch displays. More impressively, it can power three 4K screens simultaneously.

Benchmark numbers mean nothing to most users. One measure of Mac Pro’s overkill power is the price, which everyone is zeroing in on as an outrageous excess and an example of Apple gouging. However, Futurelooks’ Editor-In-Chief Stephen Fung speced out a $9,599 Mac Pro, then calculated what it would cost to build a comparably powered PC from parts available online. The price came out to $11,530.54.

So in PC terms, assuming a strong correlation between performance and price, the Mac Pro dream system is equivalent to an $11,500 Windows PC (actually, more if you add Windows…). That’s more power than just about anybody needs.

And finally, rumors suggest that Apple is testing or planning a 12.9-inch iPad with touch screen that’s “almost ultra high-definition (UHD).”

A 4K or near-4K screen on a 12.9-inch tablet would be conspicuously excessive, wouldn’t it? Come to think of it, isn’t a 12.9-inch iPad a bit much as well?

Why is Apple on such a power trip? Why sell hardware products with processing capabilities and specs that almost nobody needs, and that many can’t even take advantage of?

Why Too Much Is Just Right

The cynical, anti-Apple view about all this is that Apple sells grossly overpowered machines as a marketing gimmick. They just want to throw numbers around as part of their pitch to differentiate their products from the rest.

Another negative view is that while some Apple’s products are over-powered, others are under-powered. Handy examples include the iPhone’s tiny screen, or the fact that the iPad Air has only 1 GB of RAM.

I think Apple’s hardware overkill be madness, yet there is method in it.

The best example from the past I can think of was the premature introduction of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) into the iPhone 4s, a product introduced in October 2011 when no other phone supported BLE and, more importantly, almost no connectable products existed.

Why add a connectivity feature when there’s nothing to connect with? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to wait until the iPhone 5, or even the iPhone 5s or 5c?

Launching hardware too advanced for anybody to use has three huge benefits:

1. Strongly set direction and encourage third-party support. It takes a village to raise a platform. By building BLE into the iPhone 4s (and every other subsequent phone, tablet and laptop), Apple very clearly made the world safe for BLE devices and support. Likewise for other extreme hardware features. Apple tells software developers and hardware makers: This is happening. Get busy and support this a.s.a.p.

2. Future-proofing. Apple is often accused of making “disposable” devices, and some of those criticisms are valid. But if we’re going to slam Apple for making devices with user non-removable batteries and put together with glue, rather than screws, we also need to give Apple credit for future proofing products when they do so. Over-specing the hardware is one way to future-proof. If you buy a Mac Pro for example, you’re probably set for a decade (especially given the fact that Mac Pro is CPU-upgradable). Advanced features extend the amount of time until you’ll feel the need to buy a replacement.

3. Laying the groundwork for broader future initiatives. Most importantly, overkill Apple hardware is always part of a larger strategy. For example, as we learned about Apple’s “indoor GPS” initiative, called iBeacon, it quickly became clear that any Apple device supporting BLE can function not only as a receiver, but as a beacon! Because Apple had been seeding the planet with BLE devices for more than two years, the hardware for Apple’s iBeacon system has already been deployed at scale. Instead of doing what companies normally do, which is to say that “we’ve got this amazing new system that will be wonderful once the necessary hardware eventually becomes mainstream,” Apple says: “We’ve got this amazing new system that’s wonderful NOW, because the necessary hardware is already mainstream.” The same goes for 64-bit phones, outrageously over-powered desktops and ridiculously high-resolution iPads.

Apple’s hardware overkill looks pointless at first but brilliant in hindsight. What’s too much today is just right tomorrow.

I only wish other companies did more of this, too.

  • jeffythequick

    Mike, on the “I wish other companies would do that” front, I don’t think, in the PC world, they can. Given the cutthroat world the PC lives in, and the myriad configurations available (infinite, or close to), price/power is the name of the game. If someone sold a $11,000 PC, it would be amazing, but short lived.

    The Mac ecosphere does support this type of innovation, since who is the competition? Dynamac? Power Computing? Not since 1997. The nice thing about this is that Apple can put out a nice computer, and it is the pinnacle of Mac computing, until next year (or the year after), when it is still a strong machine.

    For other companies to do this, they have to be vertically integrated, as Apple is. The only companies that can do that at the moment are Google and Microsoft. Google is trying with the ChromeBooks at the low end, and Microsoft is trying at the middle with the Surface.

  • OneHungLow

    I talked to a buddy of mine that works in the video editing world as well as working at an Apple Store. I asked his opinion about this very subject and his response was, these systems are very much designed for 4K video, animation, etc. etc. and since Apple might have to wait until 2015 or so to spit out a replacement unit for the next release, those systems are designed to be able to do whatever the users needs now and in the foreseeable future. I am actually considering buying a MacPro for my next unit that will replace my i5 Late 2012 iMac as my all purpose unit. Why? Because it might be overkill now, but I just might not have to replace my unit for a longer period of time. Apple has competition in the desktop world and they have only a few models whereas the PC industry has literally thousands of different models and millions of options/configuration since every Tom, Dick, and Harry spits out cases, mother boards, GPU cards, SSD, HDD, etc. etc. and it’s kind of a nightmare to sift through. I think if the Pro Crowd wants a 4K system, Apple has to put something out that is going to turn heads and be able to handle everything people can throw at it.

    I’m noticing that the PC companies have been putting underpowered systems they sell for less money than Apple because that’s the only thing they seem to sell and it shows in their profits.

    64 bit smartphones and iPads was inevitable. They did it first because they eventually HAVE to go 64 bit, if they didn’t do it first, and Android/Windows phones did, then Apple wouldn’t be seen as the technology leader, which they have to maintain that image. Plus, if they become 100% 64 bit for their iOS devices, then the developers will adopt 64 bit and then it makes Apple’s life much easier for the development software. Apple wants to be 64 bit completely and they are about 2 years away from becoming 100% 64 bit products they sell. The sooner they can do it, the sooner the users can move forward.

    I think the area that Apple has been lax in is the middle level Prosumer Workstation. The MacMini is too underpowered (and hasn’t been updated) to be a Prosumer Workstation, so Apple has sold the iMac and MacBookPro Retina for that market, but I think Apple needs to release a medium priced box that’s smack dab in the middle between the MacPro and the MacMini. I think it should be around $1500 for the entry level product and go to $3000 or $3500 for a fully blown version.

    My idea would be to use TB2 (obviously), the faster SSD that is used in the MacPro, but use i7 processors, only go to 32GB of RAM instead of 64, and only have 1 decent GPU instead of two. I think it’s possible to offer an i7, with 8GB RAM, 256GB of fast SSD, TB2, HDMI, USB 3.0 for about $1500 to $1700 and then the full blown model with 32GB of RAM, 1TB fast SSD, an upgraded GPU with 4GB of GDDR5, etc. for $3K to maybe $3.5K, but have maybe 4 TB2 ports, and 4USB 3.0 ports, HDMI. I think the Prosumers want a headless box to pick and choose which monitors they want to use instead of the iMac.

    I’m sure we’ll see something to replace the MacMini, which makes great all purpose entry systems, audio media servers, and small business servers, but they do need to be upgraded. I’m wondering if their form factor will change as new guts require more cooling than what they can do with the MacMini’s current case design.

  • peto7532159

    “One advantage of a chip like that is that it can use 4 GB of RAM, which is already way more than the iPhone 5s comes with (1 GB)…”
    actually, Apple’s A7 chip is based on Cortex-A12 that can take up to 1TB of RAM
    http://www.arm.com/products/processors/cortex-a/cortex-a12-processor.php

  • OneHungLow

    Mike, on the “I wish other companies would do that” front, I don’t think, in the PC world, they can. Given the cutthroat world the PC lives in, and the myriad configurations available (infinite, or close to), price/power is the name of the game. If someone sold a $11,000 PC, it would be amazing, but short lived.

    The Mac ecosphere does support this type of innovation, since who is the competition? Dynamac? Power Computing? Not since 1997. The nice thing about this is that Apple can put out a nice computer, and it is the pinnacle of Mac computing, until next year (or the year after), when it is still a strong machine.

    For other companies to do this, they have to be vertically integrated, as Apple is. The only companies that can do that at the moment are Google and Microsoft. Google is trying with the ChromeBooks at the low end, and Microsoft is trying at the middle with the Surface.

    HP has a Dual Processor model using the same 12 core processors that starts at $10,000. While I doubt they are flying off the shelves, HP has released their raft of Workstations and they just build them to sell the base model real cheap, but by the time you configure them to equal what Apple provides, the price is STILL around the same amount or more. I think the three sided heat sink changed the configurations and the way Apple does things so drastically, they probably had not many options since they don’t want to have to make water cooled units with enough fans and heat dissipating to become a space heater AND computer in one box. A lot of Pros are using SANS, NAS storage instead of internal, so I think Apple just decided to spit out a computer that even the DIYers will have a tough time emulating a similar system in the same price category. Actually, that $11K that people threw around isn’t that close to the MacPro, I think the $14K that another article mentioned, might actually be closer to reality. Some of these so-called configurations weren’t actual machines that have been built and tested side by side.

  • dscar

    This was a great artical well written

  • Paul Burt

    I think the area that Apple has been lax in is the middle level Prosumer Workstation. The MacMini is too underpowered (and hasn’t been updated) to be a Prosumer Workstation, so Apple has sold the iMac and MacBookPro Retina for that market, but I think Apple needs to release a medium priced box that’s smack dab in the middle between the MacPro and the MacMini. I think it should be around $1500 for the entry level product and go to $3000 or $3500 for a fully blown version.

    People have been saying this for years. As you mention, this is what the iMac and MBP are for. The market is served just fine by both of those. Apple has no interest in adding another computer to its lineup.

    I’m sure we’ll see something to replace the MacMini, which makes great all purpose entry systems, audio media servers, and small business servers, but they do need to be upgraded. I’m wondering if their form factor will change as new guts require more cooling than what they can do with the MacMini’s current case design.

    The Mac Mini isn’t going anywhere; it’s a great little machine. I have a friend that does video editing whose 2006 Mac Pro died and he replaced it with a 2012 Mac Mini that is leagues better for what he does, at a fraction of the cost of a Mac Pro. The form factor isn’t changing because Haswell will do just fine with the space inside the current chassis. There hasn’t been a heat crisis with the current design and there won’t be until we see a massive jump in output (and performance) of Intel’s processors, which likely won’t be for a couple more generations.

  • technochick

    Once again Mike shows that he’s missed it.
    The Mac Pro isn’t overpowered at all. It is powered for a particular audience. And it isn’t most people. This machine was designed for PROS. They need much more power than the average user and got it

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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