TUAW has an article up today wondering if Thunderbolt might mean the end of the line for the Mac Pro in its current form:
The arrival of the Thunderbolt interface, Meta Media says, will allow Apple to return to its beloved sealed-box model of computer production with no user-serviceable parts inside, just like the original Macintosh. No expansion cards, no hard disk upgrades, just Thunderbolt (aka Light Peak) interfaces to connect … well, to connect anything you like really.
The comments to that article are full of opinions, as expected. As someone who uses a Mac Pro every day, I’ve thought about this off and on for the last year or so. Thunderbolt definitely changes the game, providing two 10Gbps channels on one cable.
The big differentiators for the Mac Pro today over the other models in Apple’s lineup are CPU, RAM capacity, display capabilities, and internal storage. CPU and RAM are both significant, but the lower end machines are making this up quickly – witness the impressive performance of the new Sandy Bridge-based Macbook Pros. A next-gen iMac could be quite impressive on these fronts if Apple chose to push the envelope.
As for internal storage, the MP has four internal drive bays for SATA drives; I have all four filled in mine. However, a Thunderbolt port with two 10Gbps channels for external drives would certainly suffice, even compared to a potential future MP with 6Gbps SATA…and for the folks who really need the I/O performance – folks editing HD video, say – Thunderbolt RAID systems could be a step up over what they can do now with 2/4 Gbps fiber adapters.
Multiple displays make up another area where the MP shines – it’s the only Mac where you can have more than two displays (not counting network- or USB-connected displays of dubious performance). I use three (with two video adapters), and I know folks with more. While I could get by with two large 27-30 inch displays myself, there are others who would not be so understanding. As I understand it, Thunderbolt supports one Display Port display at the end of the chain. Seems to me a future MP replacement would ideally need to support at least 4 2560×1600 displays to be accepted by the real power users, so Thunderbolt isn’t helping too much here…unless they built in more ports.
In any case, it appears to me that Thunderbolt definitely enables Apple to make some real changes to the MP line if they want to, specifically with respect to storage and other peripherals that have traditionally used PCI Express. They could either redesign and slim down the existing MP by getting rid of most of the internal drive bays and the space used by the PCIe slots, or potentially even drop the MP completely in favor of a “super-iMac”.
Time will tell.