Mac Pro Afterburner: What it is and why you need it


Mac Pro Afterburner card

One of the pricy options for the new Mac Pro is Apple’s Afterburner card. It costs $2,000. You may be asking yourself, what is the Mac Pro Afterburner card? Do I need it? That depends entirely on how you’re using the Mac Pro.

Apple’s new Mac Pro is now available to order. The device starts at $5,999 but its price tag soars into the stratosphere with CPU, memory, storage and video card options – you can, in fact, spend ten times that if you fully rig one out. So do you need to make sure an Afterburner is on the order?

Afterburner eliminates the need for proxies

If you work in film or video and your goal is to eliminate proxy workflows, the answer is yes. You’ll make your money back quickly thanks to your improved productivity. You see, Afterburner is a special purpose-built accelerator card designed specifically for handling video content encoded using Apples ProRes and ProRes RAW codecs.

With Afterburner installed, the Mac Pro can simultaneously play back three streams of 8K video encoded using ProRes RAW. Up to 12 streams of 4K ProRes RAW video can be decoded in real time, as well.

Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) like the AMD Radeon and Pro Vega hardware available in the Mac Pro certain give it some graphics oomph. The difference between those and the Afterburner is its single purpose function. While GPUs provide good overall performance for graphics in general, the Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chip on the Afterburner card has been custom-programmed for the specific computational needs of decoding and encoding 4K and 8K video streams using ProRes and ProRes RAW.

Historically, film and video editors have relied on proxy workflows in order to get their work done. Rather than manipulate the original, highest-quality video source material, lightweight proxy files are used in their place. Once the editing is completed, the computer relinks to the original camera files for a final render. Unfortunately, proxy rendering can be a lot of trouble. There can be incompatibility with encoders and errors can be introduced resulting in laborious and long re-editing and re-rendering sessions.

Set Afterburner and forget it

The Afterburner card doesn’t have any sort of direct physical interface on its backplane to connect to display hardware or anything else. It’s simply a PCI Express-equipped board that goes into one of the eight compatible expansion slots in the massive Mac Pro. You can put it in any of the slots, though optimally it should be inserted in one of the 16x slots for best performance. Apple ships it pre-installed in Slot 5, on Mac Pros that are ordered with Afterburner from the factory.

If you buy a Mac Pro without an Afterburner card and decide later that you need one, Apple offers them as an accessory you can order online. It costs $2,000. Availability will be limited until Apple’s caught up with the initial demand of Mac Pros.

Once it’s installed, Afterburner will just work with apps that are designed to use the ProRes or ProRes RAW codecs.

Any questions?

If you’re working with video encoded using ProRes or ProRes RAW, the $2,000 Afterburner may be a good value to help you stay productive rather than having to manage ingest and export through a proxy workflow. But if you’re using your Mac Pro for purposes other than editing videos, the Afterburner card won’t do anything to improve your life.

Have any questions about Afterburner or other aspects of the Mac Pro? Fire them off in the comments.