Exclusive: iOS 16.4 code references new ‘compute module’ device — Mac Pro, Reality Pro, or something else?

We’re still waiting on the Mac Pro, but two things are a must if it’s going to live up to the high expectations set by its predecessors: (1) It must be the most powerful Mac, and (2) it must be the most customizable Mac. 9to5mac has found a new “ComputeModule” device class in Apple’s iOS 16.4 developer disk image in the Xcode 16.4 beta release last week, and it could be the missing piece to Apple’s modular Mac Pro plans… or it could be a processor box for the Apple Reality Pro headset, or perhaps even a Raspberry Pi-like device. Let’s take a closer look.

What we know for sure

Three things are for certain: (1) The Compute Module exists, (2) the Compute Module is a brand new device class that runs iOS or a variant thereof, and finally, (3) Apple has at least two separate Compute Modules that are far along in development — ComputeModule13,1 and ComputeModule13,3. If whatever these devices prove to be are destined for Apple customers, it’s likely that we’ll see them arrive before the end of 2023.

What we’d like it to mean: a Mac Pro solution

At WWDC2020, Apple announced its plans to transition its Mac lineup, then exclusively powered by Intel processors, to Apple Silicon. That plan has slowly but surely come to fruition, with every Mac, outside of the Mac Pro, now sporting Apple-designed chips inside. Despite the Mac Pro being a bit more than fashionably late to the party, the development of Apple’s halo machine marches on.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman noted that the updated Mac Pro with Apple Silicon would arrive with the same external case used in the machine’s 2019 redesign. As you’ve seen from our coverage of the 2019 Mac Pro, the case is cavernous, and with Apple Silicon traditionally requiring a smaller overall footprint, there will be plenty of excess room in the case for additional components.

The inside of the 2019 Mac Pro chassis.
There’s lots of space inside the Mac Pro chassis.

Users should expect traditional internal upgrade components such as hard drives, SSDs, I/O cards, networking cards, etc., but questions still remain about key areas like external graphics. The ability to add GPUs from the likes of AMD and NVIDIA (when using Boot Camp) was one of the biggest selling points of the Mac Pro, but Apple Silicon is incompatible with third-party GPUs.

Two potential answers for Mac Pro expandability

A Compute Module, therefore, could be the answer for future graphics expandability. Instead of a traditional GPU, when it’s time to upgrade, users could install a new Compute Module, or whatever Apple’s crack marketing team decides to name it, inside the modular Mac Pro. These modules could be exclusively tied to graphics performance…

…or they could be the entire system on a package in an easily-swappable modular interface. When Apple reveals the M3 Ultra several years from now, instead of purchasing a brand new Mac Pro, might the user buy a new M3 Ultra Compute Module instead? Customers could then swap out the old module for the new one and instantly have access to the latest and greatest performance.

Apple reportedly scrapped the idea of a so-called M2 Extreme chip, which would combine two of the Ultra chips together for one massive wafer with 48 CPU cores and 152 GPU cores. Perhaps the Mac Pro could support multiple Compute Modules, similar to how the Intel version supports two MPX GPU modules bonded together via its Infinity Fabric Link technology.

There’s also Swift Distributed Actors, introduced last year, which can make it easier for Apple to provide APIs that developers could use to leverage computing on other devices. Swift Distributed Actors affords peer-to-peer communication with another process, whether on the same computer or on a separate “computer,” e.g., Compute Module running a variant of iOS.

It could also be a processor box for Apple Reality Pro

The upcoming Apple Reality Pro headset, now delayed until WWDC2023, will feature cutting-edge technology like ultrahigh-resolution displays and advanced hand and eye tracking, and feature more than a dozen cameras and sensors in the headset chassis. The headset will also reportedly be powered by the Apple M2 chip. Might Apple Reality Pro require a separate Compute Module that provides the necessary muscle to drive it?

Least exciting… a Raspberry-Pi like device

Top comment by BarelyLucid

Liked by 1 people

ComputeModule could look a lot like a NUC compute element. Which is basically a whole computer (CPU, RAM, SSD) that plugs into one PCIe slot on a case mounted riser board and a GPU plugs into the second PCIe slot on the riser board.

An Apple version would likely have the ability to plug in multiple compute modules, aka connect multiple M2 ultra SOCs together. Each module could have upgradable storage, but RAM would still likely be fixed.

This is how I’ve thought Apple could differentiate the Mac Pro from the Mac Studio for a while now. Will be interesting to see what this is referring to.

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It’s the least exciting prospect, but Raspberry Pi already sells a product called Compute Module geared toward embedded applications. The ComputeModule references could also be a reference to Apple testing iOS by running it on a similar device.

9to5Mac’s Take

Here at 9to5mac, we’d love for the Compute Module to be a reference to swappable “brains” for the upcoming Mac Pro refresh. Unlike Apple’s other computers, the Mac Pro’s very existence is built around expandability, and having the ability to swap out modules for more powerful ones would be a huge win for Mac Pro customers.

Beyond just swapping out the main Compute Module, the possibility of adding a second Compute Module for even more power sounds highly useful for professional workflows. For example, imagine a Mac Pro with an M2 Ultra Compute Module installed from the factory, and then having the ability to open the case and add a second M2 Ultra Compute Module for even more parallel computing capabilities. Or how about the ability to offload work, such as an 8K timeline render, to one compute module while using the other to finish color grading another project? The possibilities, should Apple decide to head in this direction, are exciting.

With that said, it’s entirely possible that these could be references to an Apple Reality Pro-related product – or something else entirely different. What do you think? Sound off in the comments below.

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Jeff produces videos, walkthroughs, how-tos, written tutorials and reviews. He takes pride in being able to explain things in a simple, clear and concise manner.