In late 2013, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) updated the Mac Pro. The refreshed system offered substantial performance improvements over the prior-generation model as a result of much newer internals as well as a completely revamped and a novel industrial design.
Nearly two years after Apple introduced the "new" Mac Pro, the device has yet to be refreshed. That said, I believe that Apple will roll out updated Mac Pro systems with upgraded internals early next year.
Is Apple upgrading the Mac Pro on node shrinks?
The late 2013 Mac Pro uses Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) Xeon E5 v2 processor family, also known as Ivy Bridge-EP. When the current Mac Pro launched, these were Intel's most powerful workstation processors.
About a year later, Intel launched its Xeon E5 v3 processor family, known as Haswell-EP. These chips are built on the same 22-nanometer manufacturing technology that the Xeon E5 v2 chips are, but the chips include enhanced CPU cores and more of them.
Apple has not chosen to adopt these processors for its current Mac Pro products, which still ship with the older Xeon E5 v2 processors.
This leads me to believe that Apple plans to update its Mac Pro lineup whenever Intel moves to a new manufacturing technology ("ticks" in Intel's "tick-tock" cadence), skipping the architectural updates on a given manufacturing technology.
If true, this means a new Mac Pro is coming early next year
Intel is expected to launch its next-generation Xeon E5 v4 processors, also known as Broadwell-EP, in either the end of 2015 or early in 2016. I would expect that Apple will adopt these processors in a Mac Pro refresh shortly after they become widely available.
With a move to Broadwell-EP, Apple's Mac Pro looks set to receive a substantial performance boost. Such a boost should come from both a two-generation jump in the underling processor architecture as well as the increase in processor core counts that will surely come with Broadwell-EP relative to Ivy Bridge-EP.
The current Mac Pro can be configured to include processors starting with four CPU cores going all the way up to 12 CPU cores. Broadwell-EP is expected to come in configurations sporting up to 22 CPU cores, which opens the door for substantial processor improvements at all Mac Pro price points.
It's too early to say whether Apple will actually offer systems with up to 22 cores at the high end, but even an increase to, say, 18 cores for the top model would represent a major performance boost for the kinds of professional workloads that the Mac Pro is designed for.
In addition to a processor upgrade, I believe that a Mac Pro released early next year will feature newer graphics processors, should Advanced Micro Devices -- the current supplier of graphics processors into the Mac Pro -- release updated professional graphics processors.
What does this mean for Apple stock?
The Mac Pro is a relatively low-volume product for Apple, so any increase in demand as a result of a refreshed product probably won't have too much of an impact on the company's top and bottom lines.
Indeed, on Apple's January 2014 earnings call, CEO Tim Cook said that Apple was "happy to begin selling the all-new Mac Pro last month," but made no mention of the device on the following call, which I believe supports the notion that the Mac Pro simply isn't a material driver of the company's financial results.