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Mac Pro Customers, Desperate for a Refresh, Are Upgrading 6-Year-Old Hardware

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It’s not hard to see why some users would prefer to upgrade the old “cheese grater” Macs rather than buying a 2013 system, and there’s even a Danish vendor, Big Little Frank, dedicated to reselling machines built around the older CPU platform. There’s no doubt the classic Mac Pro tower can offer certain capabilities that the new iMac Pro and 2013 Mac Pro trash can both lack — like multiple internal drive bays, and the (unsupported) option to use modern GPUs in a multi-GPU configuration, as opposed to being limited to AMD’s ancient GCN 1.0 technology. If you know your workloads are entirely GPU-limited, it might be worth investing in a tower Mac Pro with a pair of modern graphics cards. But this is far from a sure thing and we’d generally recommend against it.

BigLittleFrank

Big Little Frank’s custom “cheese grater” Mac Pro

While it’s absolutely true that CPU performance improvements have slowed in recent years, 2011’s Sandy Bridge was a significant improvement over Westmere. The fastest CPU configuration officially supported by a 2012-era Mac Pro is a pair of Xeon X5690’s, a six-core chip with a 3.46GHz base and 3.73GHz turbo clock. As this comparison from Anandtech shows, SNB was ~15 percent faster than Westmere at the same clock speed. Even if we assume that Haswell and Skylake added just five percent on average on top of that, a modern Xeon CPU would still be 1.27x faster than Westmere, clock-for-clock.

That’s before we factor in any performance improvements from AVX, AVX2, or AVX-512 support. It also ignores the fact that modern CPUs offer substantially more cores. A 12-core Mac Pro is still respectable, but a modern dual-socket workstation system could contain as many as 56 CPU cores in a top-end configuration.

Here’s how the Xeon X5690 (2012 Mac Pro), Xeon E5-2697 v2 (2013 Mac Pro) and a Xeon Gold 6146 compare against each other. These are the top-end chips you can buy for their respective platforms and the highest-end 12-core CPU Intel currently sells:

Xeon-Comparison

There’s no universe in which even a pair of X5690’s are competition for a modern Xeon. Even at equivalent core count, the modern CPU has a significant efficiency advantage and more clock headroom, to say nothing of maximum memory bandwidth (the 6146 supports six memory channels, compared to four on Westmere and Ivy Bridge).

Then there are the features and support you aren’t getting, from Thunderbolt to USB 3.1. Some of these can be added via aftermarket cards or Hackintosh configurations. But professionals that want an out-of-the-box solution that ‘just works’ are going to be stuck paying a company like Big Little Frank to perform the integration themselves.

The existence of companies like BLF and the hunger for a new Mac Pro solution are a symptom of how badly Apple screwed up with the 2013 Mac Pro. The company failed to pivot to a GPU-centric ecosystem. It didn’t even bother to deliver upgrades for its own “cutting-edge” form factor. But while we sympathize with professional Macintosh users who want the company to offer an official solution to their woes, we can’t really recommend an alternative that’s so firmly anchored to out-of-date hardware and the platform limitations, increased power consumption, and lack of official support that comes along with it. The idea of buying a “new” Mac tower in a six-year-old form factor may appeal, but Mac professionals will be better served by waiting or buying a PC than buying into an obsolete system design.

Top image credit: Uadro/Wikimedia Commons

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Inside JD.com, the giant Chinese firm that could eat Amazon alive

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Pujiang Pu is a smiley, medium-built man in his mid-forties with stylish glasses, a bling gold watch, and a red JD lanyard around his neck. Along with many of the 150,000 employees of JD.com – a city-size e-commerce store sometimes referred to as the Amazon of China – he lives in a free dorm near one of the company’s 500 gigantic warehouses. The warehouse I visit is in Jiading, 30km north-west of Shanghai’s city centre. Hundreds of people work here, and at 100,000 square metres in size it sits on a JD complex so big it would take at least 45 minutes to walk from one end to the other.

I am allowed here as part of a rare, highly supervised press visit, and warehouse manager Pu is our tour guide. I am not shown everything, but enough to impress – or, as some analysts believe, to show that JD is a kind of company Amazon ultimately wants to become.

JD wasn’t always that big. It started out as a small brick and mortar store in Beijing, founded in 1998 by Richard Liu. Then in 2004, Liu moved it online and JD.com, short for Jingdong, was born. Fast-forward to today, and the firm is worth more than $55 billion. In February, logistics magazine DC Velocity called it “the biggest company you may not know all that much about”. Not for much longer though – JD is so growing so fast at home in China and expanding so rapidly into other markets such as Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam and most recently Europe, that even the most devout Amazonians will soon sit up and notice.

The main reason Pu stays in a dorm on site, and away from his family, is to ensure he can meet key performance indicators set by the firm. Sometimes, especially during JD.com’s annual shopping event, he has to work late into the night.

But the future of these dorms is uncertain. Many traditional warehouse jobs like stacking shelves and packing boxes at JD are likely to go to robots in the coming years, as the company starts to automate everything that can sensibly be automated. The tech giant is now busy retraining some staff to take on new roles that machines can’t yet do. Pu’s warehouses have some of the firm’s most advanced robotics – and he gets really excited talking about the autonomous forklift trucks and delivery drones.

These drones have been in the news a lot lately. Remember when Amazon’s boss Jeff Bezos made claims that his firm would soon drop parcels off at your doorstep? Well, that was in 2013 – and, some small-scale trials aside, it’s still not happening. But it’s very much happening at JD – since March 2016, its drones have been delivering products across China, having clocked over 300,000 minutes of flight time. “Today we have over 200 people working on our drone programme,” says Zheng Cui, director of the firm’s drone R&D centre in Xi’an.

The drones come in various shapes and sizes, but the quickest ones can fly up to 100km/h and have a range of 100km. So far though, the furthest delivery has been 15km and that drone flew much slower than 100km/h – but you have to start somewhere. What the drones can’t do yet, JD does with its 65,000 van drivers and couriers.

The drone efforts haven’t gone unnoticed though, and other companies are keen to replicate JD’s air delivery success. Cui says more and more firms are getting in touch to buy their drones. “We’ve just got an order for 1,000 at the beginning of this year,” he adds.

Those drones are still fairly small, but JD is busy developing larger ones that can carry up to five tonnes. “They’ll transfer inventory from one warehouse to another,” says Cui. “Within three years we’re looking at having a couple of thousand,” he says – and they will take off right from existing small airports near the company’s warehouses.

It’s not just the drones that make the Chinese behemoth different from Western e-commerce stores, though. Robots at JD are everywhere. In the warehouse I visit, machines stack tens of thousands of products on 24-metre-high shelves. Over the road from where I am, another fully automated warehouse can pack and ship 200,000 products a day. Robots are not alone yet, though: the fully automated warehouse has four human helpers.

Automation, growth, scale – the mega but still relatively unknown giant seems unlikely to slow down. Its revenues are growing 40 per cent a year, up to $55.7 billion in 2017. The company’s spokespeople tell us proudly the firm is the third largest “internet company” in the world by revenue after Google and Amazon, but ahead of companies like Facebook, eBay and Alibaba, its biggest rival.

It has major backers such as Tencent — the largest internet company in China by market cap and the owner of WeChat. Other investors are Walmart, which has a ten per cent stake, and even Google, which last month announced it was investing $550 million into JD to help it expand further outside China.

And the e-commerce giant is busy doing just that. In January, it opened its first European office, in Paris. It now aims to open another one in Milan, and is actively partnering with Spanish and other European brands – especially luxury ones. In 2017, Chinese made up 32 per cent of the worldwide luxury market.

JD’s response: last October, it launched Toplife, a platform for luxury buyers that can benefit from same-day deliveries and premium services, such as ultra-clean and secure warehouses with special air filters. Over just a few months, Toplife has already signed up 20 brands, including Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen. Amazon beware.

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LG G7 ThinQ Is Now Available In the US for $750

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LG waited longer than normal to announce its big 2018 flagship phone, but it finally took the wraps off the LG G7 ThinQ a few weeks ago. Today, the phone is available for purchase on most US carriers. While LG has had trouble competing with the likes of Samsung, it’s still targeting the same premium space. Although, it’s got an iPhone-style screen notch now. That’s what consumers want, right?

The LG G7 ThinQ is the epitome of all things 2018 in smartphone design. It has a glass back, dual cameras, and a display notch that isn’t done particularly well. The missing bit of screen provides a place for the camera, earpiece, and some other sensors. It does seem a little excessively large for how compact these components are, though. In addition, the G7 has a “chin” at the bottom with a larger bezel than the top and bottom. This asymmetric look isn’t as striking as the iPhone X it imitates. The 6.1-inch 1440p display is also an OLED, which lacks the vibrancy of modern OLED panels.

Inside, this phone has all the current flagship hardware you’d expect with a Snapdragon 845, 64GB of storage, and 4GB of RAM. Unlike many other current smartphones, the company has opted to keep the headphone jack for the G7 ThinQ. LG also touts the G7’s unique speaker design that uses the entire chassis as a resonator to boost sound output.

You may be wondering about the name — specifically the “ThinQ” bit. Well, that’s LG’s expanded brand for all its AI technologies. What that means for the G7 is that there’s an AI mode in the camera that looks for objects it can identify and offers possible filters. It’s not very accurate or useful, but LG didn’t even develop any AI software or hardware for this phone. It just licensed a machine vision library from a third-party.

The LG G7 ThinQ is available from all major carriers in the US except AT&T. Apparently, AT&T chose to sell the LG V35 instead of the G7. This marks the third variant of the V30 that LG has sold since it debuted last year. At other carriers, the G7 ThinQ will run you $750, give or take a few dollars. Carriers offer payment plans to split the cost over two years. It will launch on Google’s Project Fi soon, as well. If you don’t want to go through carriers, the phone is also available from Amazon.

 

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