During 2014, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) refreshed almost every one of its key product lines. Stealing the show, of course, were the company's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which are widely expected to drive strong growth in the coming quarters. The company also refreshed its iPad Air and iPad mini product families, and even slightly improved its iMac and MacBook Air/Pro offerings with slightly faster chips.
Although it is well known that Apple has neglected the iPod Touch (in my view, to the detriment of the iOS ecosystem), the company also seemed to completely ignore another product category during the year.
Mac Pro, anybody?
In late 2013, Apple rolled out its next-generation Mac Pro computer. The machine was powerful, compact, and received praise from Ars Technica for its performance, form factor, and noise and power consumption. It was not a perfect machine, but Ars Technica's David Girard put it nicely: "It's a machine the company could be proud of at any point in its history."
The computer, even in its current form, remains a modern, powerful machine, but a number of new component releases would have made for a solid 2014 Mac Pro update. Let's look at some of them.
The latest processors
The current Mac Pro is based around Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) Xeon E5 v2 processors. The Mac Pro can be configured from a four-core Xeon E5 all the way through a 12-core model. If Apple were to adopt the next-generation Xeon E5 v3 processor, it could then offer the same core configurations and better performance, and it could offer even higher-end models with even higher core counts.
Indeed, Xeon E5 v3 comes in configurations from four cores all the way up to 18 cores (although for cost reasons I would expect Apple to offer only up to 14 core configurations). On a per-core basis, the Xeon E5 v3 chips are faster than the E5 v2 chips, and Apple could obviously charge even more for higher core count configurations.
These new processors launched in the third quarter of 2014, so Apple certainly could have adopted them.
A richer platform
Alongside the new Xeon E5 v3 processors comes a new Intel chipset platform, known as the C612 chipset, which is a noticeable upgrade from the C602J chipset that iFixit found in its teardown of the 2013 Mac Pro. A comparison of these two chipsets, courtesy of Intel's comparison tool, can be found here.
In a nutshell, the new platform -- in addition to support for a family of faster CPUs -- offers native USB 3.0 (which is handled by a separate chip on the current Mac Pro), more native Serial ATA 6.0Gb/s ports (although this might not be a big deal given Apple's use of PCIe storage), and lower power consumption.
The dual AMD (NASDAQ:AMD) FirePro D700 graphics found inside the Mac Pro are solid performers, but, according to AnandTech, these are effectively workstation-oriented variants of AMD's 2012 Radeon 7970. AMD launched workstation variants of its improved "Hawaii" GPUs in 2014. The GPUs have been sold primarily as add-in boards for traditional desktops, but there's no reason AMD could not bring that same chip to the Mac Pro to improve performance.
What will Apple do next?
At this point, I believe Apple's schedule for upgrading the Mac Pro is dependent on Intel's release schedule for its next-generation server processors. According to VR-Zone, Intel plans to launch the Broadwell-E consumer product in early 2016, which might suggest an early 2016 rollout of the Xeon E5 v4.
If Intel issues out the new Xeon E5s in early 2016, then Apple might update the Mac Pro to the Xeon E5 v3 in first-quarter 2015 and then offer a "drop-in" upgrade to the E5 v4 chips in first-quarter 2016. If Intel cans the Xeon E5 v4 chips based on Broadwell and skips straight to Skylake Xeon, then Apple might want to wait on that, as the new platform, coupled with significant performance improvement, might be worth the wait.
Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.