Can Thunderbolt 3 make the Mac Pro & PC form factor obsolete?

The MacBook Pro has fully embraced Thunderbolt 3, which supports a massive 5 gigabytes / second of data throughput.
With the forthcoming external GPU’s it would be relatively easy for Apple to support any GPU on the market by using external enclosures. Assuming this gets implemented the future is looking bright. The internal SSD’s on the 2016 MacBook Pro’s are already up there with the industry-best with read speeds of nearly 3 gigabytes / second, but considering the Thunderbolt 3 spec allows for data transfer of 5 gigabytes / second it probably won’t be long before we start seeing external storage which exceeds the speed of the internal drive, especially considering that multiple disks could use RAID to achieve that. We’ll see a similar situation with new GPU’s as they are released in the future.

With the bandwidth that Thunderbolt 3 affords it’s time to reconsider what form a personal computer should take. There is no significant advantage to having a large metal box to contain your PC components if you can have all of the same power by plugging a cable into your laptop to connect it to series of Thunderbolt 3 devices on your desk.
Imagine you have a desk, and on it:
• A large external display
• A RAID configuration of drives for large storage & high performance
• An external GPU
If these are all Thunderbolt 3 powered then the only thing this system is lacking is for you to plug your MacBook Pro into it. You can think of the whole setup as a sprawling inside-out computer. A box could indeed be designed to house these components if desired. The distinction is that it’s a network on your desk composed of standardized and fully optional components. This would be excellent for upgradability and compatibility with other hardware, and even other operating systems. The ability to disconnect the centre of the system and use it as a laptop is a bonus for people with desktop needs.

What do Mac Pro users need that cannot be provided using external Thunderbolt 3 components?

• RAM:
It’s limited to 16 GB for reasons which I previously wrote about in depth, and which Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller responded to in the same article. However it appears that later this year there may be a 32 GB MBP model released due to the LPDDR4 RAM specification getting finalized, which will make 32GB & up practical.

• CPU:
Granted, this may be a complaint for some users who do heavy video processing using some tools.

What do Mac Pro users need that can be provided using external Thunderbolt 3 components?

• GPU:
This could be great. Besides potentially supporting things like the latest Nvidia 1080, if external GPU manufacturers decide to support it there is no limit on how much GPU processing power they could provide, all the way up to multiple chained up GPU’s in one enclosure, or even daisy-chained GPU enclosures.

• Storage:
External drives have been hampered by the slow speed of USB-3 cables for too long now. Thunderbolt 3 finally brings us to the moment where USB 3 is no longer the bottleneck. We will be seeing huge data transfer speeds in storage which will be enough to satisfy anyone.

• Future tech:
If this standard is widely embraced it makes the future of standardized components looks very interesting. Take the Tensor Processing Unit for example (a chip designed by google specifically for performing calculations for neural nets / AI quickly and with less power draw than a GPU, which is traditionally used). At present it is connected by a hard drive slot in a PC, but the point is is that something like this ever becomes a consumer product Thunderbolt 3 would be a suitable connection interface for it, so it could be compatible with any laptop which uses one. If we were still using USB 3 this would be unlikely to be a suitable connection for it, and if that were the case it could only be used inside a PC – making the MacBook Pro future proof.

It’s not hard to envision other products that could be made with this bandwidth. How about a Thunderbolt 3 connection leading to a DIMM (RAM module), for some ultra fast ephemeral storage? If you were to use it for swap file storage it’d effectively become a kind of RAM upgrade to your system that you can plug in at will (it would run nowhere near actual RAM stick speeds, but it’d still be a lot faster than using swap space on the internal SSD). The same goes for 3D XPoint (which is a distinct possibility given that it’s partially created by Intel, who have a finger in that pie as well as Thunderbolt 3).

If you’re still not convinced let me ask you one question: What is it that a Mac Pro can do that Thunderbolt 3 devices could not replace?

And what about the future?

It’s hard to overstate how hampered electronics in general have been by USB 3 and the lack of a universal connection standard for power and data for recent history. Its measly power delivery coupled with low data throughput has relegated it to a fraction of what it could be. Now that we finally have a standard interface which has good capacity the possibilities are endless.

So which is it? Apple abandoning the Mac, or a brilliant plan to embrace standardization and upgradability and shape the future of all electronics? Perhaps only time will tell, and it’s partially up to the industry as a whole to decide. But given the advantages of having the PC form factor instead be a series of Thunderbolt 3 connected components, maybe the time has come for the ancient form factor to evolve into something new and better.