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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

WWDC 2019 notes: Sidecar, Catalyst, Mac Pro, and Pro Display XDR

Mac Pro

A few Mac tidbits I picked up at the McEnery Convention Center on Monday after the WWDC Keynote….

macOS Catalina: Sidecar and Catalyst

When Apple showed off Sidecar, the new feature that lets you connect an iPad and use it as either an additional monitor or a mirror of your Mac’s display, it was easy to conclude that Apple was utterly replicating the features of Luna Display, a popular hardware/software combination that does much the same. (Disclaimer: Luna Display sometimes sponsors my podcasts.)

People talk a lot about Sherlocking—the act of Apple building an OS feature that duplicates the features of a third-party app—but in practice it rarely happens. When Apple builds an OS feature, it’s always trying to get the most return on its investment by building features that appeal to the widest possible set of users. That generally leaves space—sometimes a lot of space—at the edges for third-party apps to exploit.

Turns out this is basically true with Luna Display and similar apps. While Luna Display was initially conceived as more or less what Sidecar does—let Mac users see their content on an iPad display and use the Apple Pencil to draw and otherwise interact with Mac content—it has come to be embraced as a tool to let iPad users control a Mac on the local network.

Well, guess what. You can’t initiate a Sidecar session from an iPad—it’s a Mac feature that is initiated from a Mac. Which means that everyone who has extolled the virtues of using Luna Display with a headless Mac mini won’t see that feature replaced by Sidecar.

In addition, Sidecar is basically a Continuity feature of macOS, meaning that it uses both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to sense the nearby presence of the device—and setting a fairly strict range. You can’t use Sidecar beyond about 10 meters from the host Mac. (Luna Display will work anywhere on your Wi-Fi network.)

This is not to say that there aren’t some real advantages to Sidecar. The big one is that it’s free with the OS, of course, but Apple has built in a bunch of other nice features. At the bottom of the iPad display, Sidecar displays a virtual Touch Bar, and on the side there are a bunch of modifier key shortcuts and an undo button. There’s also an option to bring up the on-screen keyboard, which Luna Display lacks.

Another clever feature: you can set Markup, Apple’s utility to mark up screenshots, to automatically open in Sidecar. This really speeds up the workflow of marking up documents via Apple Pencil.

Moving beyond Sidecar, I got a chance to look at some new macOS Catalina apps, including Music, Podcasts, and TV. I’m excited by the fact that the TV app will actually display 4K HDR video on the iMac and iMac Pro—Apple’s competitors won’t stream 4K content to iMacs, presumably out of piracy fears.

The Podcasts app will, as shown in the keynote, let you search for content inside of podcasts. According to Apple, the company is indexing the text contents of podcasts, starting with the most popular ones. (I didn’t get a chance to try this feature out, so I wonder how large the search-engine corpus is right now—and how big it will be this fall when the product goes public.)

Google announced a similar feature earlier this year, and it’s a great opportunity to increase the discoverability of podcasts. Imagine a world where there was no Google search. That’s been the podcast world up until now—if it’s said in a podcast and not listed in show notes, it basically can’t be found. That’s not great, and Apple intends to fix that.

The Music app is basically iTunes—but with a design update that puts Apple Music at the fore. You can still see your entire music library, of course, and even buy music on the iTunes Store if you want to. As someone who uses iTunes with Apple Music every day, I’m okay with this change. And if you click on the Songs view in the Library section of the sidebar, you will get your classic iTunes song list back, like it never left.

Finally, a couple of notes about Catalyst, the new method of bringing iOS apps to the Mac. The Podcasts app on macOS Catalina is based on Catalyst, while the Music and TV apps aren’t, and you just can’t tell. All three apps have similar design approaches, and I don’t think you could pick the Catalyst version out of a line-up. That’s an encouraging sign for people who are concerned that these Catalyst apps are going to be bad and ruin the Mac.

Developers who have been serious about making their iOS apps work well on the iPad will reap the benefits when it comes to Catalyst. Basically, the better the iPad app, the better the Mac app. This has some fun ramifications, because it implies that Catalyst may actually prompt developers to put more work into the iPad versions of their apps, too. iPad and Mac users can all benefit from that.

Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR

I got to touch a Mac Pro. Got my fingerprints right on the stainless steel handle. An Apple representative had to take out a cloth and wipe those fingerprints off so that it could be returned to a pristine condition.

On Friday on the Six Colors Subscriber Podcast, I predicted that Apple would return to the “cheese grater” design introduced with the Power Mac G5 in 2003, and I am happy to say that I got that right. It just made sense—there’s no reason to be cute about this, you want to build a tower with great airflow and space for lots of expansion stuff, and that’s what Apple did. Sometimes the old ways are best.

That said, it’s important to remember that the Mac Pro resides in a rarefied space that is for the highest of high-end Mac users. Back in the day pro Macs were for everyone, but for years as the iMac and MacBook Pro became more powerful, the Mac Pro became more of an ultra-high-end device, with a price tag to match. That hasn’t changed. This isn’t a hobbyist system, and people who are angry that it isn’t are missing the point. This is a system for people who demand the very highest performance possible and won’t think twice about dropping $10,000 for the privilege.

The Mac Pro is overengineered in the best sense of the word. It’s got headroom—something the trash-can Mac Pro lacked—in that Apple has engineered this thing to provide more power, more ventilation, pretty much more of everything than the current contents can even use. This means it’s built for the long haul, so it can handle future updates without needing another redesign.

The stainless steel spaceframe at the core of the Mac Pro looks like something out of an equipment rack, or maybe something from IKEA. The removable aluminum shell lifts off when you pop up a handle on the top. The entire thing is accessible from all angles.

Apple’s building a bunch of modules for the Mac Pro, of course, but those are standard PCI slots that any old card should be able to go in. The MPX system, which lets Apple piggyback a bunch of extra stuff on to the PCI slot via a neighboring slot, will apparently not be limited to Apple products—I saw a four-drive RAID MPX module from Promise, for example. Promise is also apparently going to make a two-disk product, so if you want to put enormous spinning hard drives into the Mac Pro, Apple will let you—but it isn’t going to sell those to you itself.

If the Mac Pro is probably not for you, the Pro Display XDR is almost certainly not for you. If you think a $5,000 monitor—$6,000 with stand!—is ridiculously overpriced, well, you’re right in one way, and wrong in another. Most people do not need a 6K Retina display with 10-bit color and a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. It’s overkill for almost everyone.

However, there is a class of users that is currently buying an Eizo monitor for $5,000 to get professional-class image quality, and Apple’s display is so much better that it’s not even close. There are also people who buy Sony reference monitors that cost more than $40,000—and Apple’s display is basically a match for them in terms of quality. By these standards, the Pro Display XDR is either a breakthrough in terms of quality or a staggering breakthrough in terms of price.

So it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Apple has unabashedly built this display for the highest of the high-end users, and for them, it will be a great deal. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if Apple also made a nice 5K monitor in the vein of the iMac Pro, that could be attached to a Mac Pro, MacBook Pro, or Mac mini? I know a lot of people who would prefer to buy an Apple monitor—but maybe not this particular one.

Anyway, for $5,000 you don’t get a webcam, but Logitech is going to make a 4K webcam module that’s matched to the Pro Display XDR and sits on top of it. The monitor has a fan, but Apple says it runs at less than 7 decibels and is therefore inaudible. That $999 stand lets you rotate the display into portrait orientation, but you can also adjust the height up and down by 120mm (a little less than five inches) and tilt it in a 30 degree range, from -5 degrees to 25 degrees.

Who can afford a $6,000 computer and a $5,000 monitor? Almost nobody, but that’s the truth of the Mac Pro right now—it’s a product that’s for almost nobody. You know that saying, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it?” That’s the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR in a stainless steel, aluminum-sheathed nutshell.

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