Mac Pro full review

For Apple, the release of the Mac Pro line of high-end desktop Macs marks the end of its transition to Intel processors. The whole range of Apple computers now runs on Intel processors, with largely favourable results (as long as you don’t mention Adobe in the same breath).

The Mac Pro excels at the tasks you’d expect for a system targeted at the high-end professional market: computation-intensive, heavily multithreaded tasks such as 3D rendering, scientific computing, and professional audio and video production. That makes these systems just about the best high-performance workstations money can buy – and potentially overkill for people who aren’t working in one of those fields.
But the Mac Pro also arrives in a world of software that’s still in flux. Graphics professionals who rely on Adobe’s Creative Suite won’t be able to run them natively on the Mac Pro until the spring of 2007, and most Mac software still isn’t able to take advantage of the four-processor cores that power these machines.

Going for pro
Although the Mac Pro doesn’t share the name of its predecessor, the Power Mac G5, it does share the same aluminium case. As with all other Intel upgrades to the Mac range, Apple has left the external design alone. However, the Intel upgrade has enabled Apple to address the G5’s greatest shortcomings. The Power Mac G5’s internal design was dictated by the need to cool the super-hot G5 processors. As a result, even though the G5’s internal volume was much larger than the Power Mac G4’s, it was a step back when it came to storage, offering space for only two drives. Thanks to the Mac Pro’s dramatically cooler Intel Xeon processors, Apple’s been able to reclaim space from the cooling system and contribute it towards internal storage.

The Mac Pro can hold four Serial ATA (SATA) drives, double the G5’s maximum of two. And it’s easy to install a new drive in a Mac Pro: just slide out an empty drive housing (the Mac Pro ships with four housings, even if you buy only one internal drive), attach a SATA drive to it with four included screws, and slide the drive back into the Mac Pro. The drives attach directly to the Mac Pro’s motherboard, so you don’t need to fiddle with cables – the housings are designed so the drives slide smoothly back into place.

The Mac Pro’s optical drive bay also has room for two full-size optical drives. Although this may seem a bit excessive, the dual drive bay makes sense when you consider that we’re on the cusp of a new generation of optical drives in the form of the high-capacity HD-DVD and Blu-ray formats. During the introduction of DVD burners, it was useful to have both a state-of-the art CD burner and a newfangled DVD drive, and we expect the same to hold true during the transition to these new optical formats. However, it’s disappointing that Apple has not been able to include a Blu-ray or HD-DVD option at the launch of the Mac Pro.

With the G5, Apple finally gave Mac users easy-to-access USB, FireWire, and headphone ports on the front of the case. Proving that there’s never enough of a good thing, the Mac Pro increases that number from two to four: there are now two USB 2.0 ports on the front, and one each of FireWire 400 and 800. There are three additional USB 2.0 ports on the back, giving the Mac Pro a total of five USB 2.0 and four FireWire ports. That cheer you hear is coming from all the Power Mac G5 users who are tired of plugging and unplugging (and most definitely not from the makers of USB hubs).

Invaders from Xeon
Of course, the Mac Pro’s most radical departure from its Power Mac G5 forebears is the chip that powers it. Each Mac Pro uses two dual-core Intel Xeon 5100 series processors, meaning that every Mac Pro has four processor cores. Whereas the Power Mac G5 offered a single quad-core configuration (two dual-core 2.5GHz G5 chips for £2,299), the Mac Pro line offers three models, featuring Xeon processors running at 2GHz, 2.66GHz, and 3GHz. To further improve speed processing, each Xeon chip also has 4MB of Level 2 cache.

When it comes to processors, using a lot of energy and generating heat go hand in hand – and these Xeons use less power and throw off less heat than the G5 chips. The Mac Pro has four fans (down from nine fans plus a liquid cooling system in the Power Mac G5), and they run much quieter than the fans on the G5. On the Power Mac G5, kicking a processor-intensive job into high gear (encoding a video, for example) would immediately result in an audible crank-up of the computer’s fans. The Mac Pro, in contrast, remains remarkably quiet even during heavy use. All the sounds we noticed emanating from the Mac Pro were from three SATA drives, not cooling fans.

When we used an ammeter to test the power usage of the 2.66GHz Mac Pro against the Power Mac G5 Quad, we found that the Mac Pro definitely used less energy. The G5 used 92 per cent more power when starting up, 88 per cent more when running an Unreal Tournament 2004 demo, 62 per cent more when idle, and 242 per cent more when sleeping.

And of course, the presence of Intel-based processors in the Mac Pro means that it can run Windows, too. Apple has updated Boot Camp to provide support for the Mac Pro. (At press time, Parallels Desktop doesn’t run on Mac Pros, but Parallels says it’s working on a fix.)

Juggling cores
When it comes to sheer speed, it’s easy to look at Macworld Lab’s test results and declare that the 3GHz Mac Pro is the fastest Mac of all time – it scored a record 313 on our Speedmark 4.5 test suite. But the Intel era of Mac computing has made making such declarations problematic at best.

First, there’s the issue of Rosetta performance. Software that hasn’t been recompiled to run natively on Intel-based Macs must run in Apple’s Rosetta code-translation layer, and everything slows down when Rosetta translates PowerPC commands into Intel equivalents. As a result, the Mac Pros are the first high-end Macs to run Adobe Photoshop slower than their predecessors – because Photoshop (and indeed, Adobe’s entire Creative Suite) currently must use Rosetta in order to run on Intel Macs. The standard 2.66GHz Mac Pro actually ran our suite of Photoshop tasks (see benchmark chart below) at almost exactly the same speed as a Power Mac G4 1.42GHz dual-processor system.

Professionals whose primary applications run natively on Intel Macs – QuarkXPress 7, Final Cut Studio, Shake 4, Cinema 4D XL, and the like – will find that even the 2.66GHz Mac Pro tops the previous Mac speed champ at every turn when running native software. But if the reason you buy a high-end professional Mac desktop is to run Adobe’s applications as fast as possible, there’s no point in buying a Mac Pro until Adobe’s Intel-native software arrives (expected to be in the first half of 2007).

The other issue that complicates matters of speed involves the use of multiple processor cores. Software must be written to explicitly take advantage of systems with multiple processors, processors with multiple cores, or – in the case of these systems and the Power Mac G5 Quad – both. Programs take advantage of multiple cores to varying degrees. Programs dedicated to 3D rendering, professional audio and video editing, and science and maths tend to use every last bit of processor power in every available core, while many other programs can use only a single core at a time. (We measured this effect on a dual-core iMac in our March 2006 issue.) If you rely on a program that’s not particularly efficient at using multiple cores, you’ll gain much less from the four cores that the Mac Pro provides. For example, when we used QuickTime Pro to convert a video for use on the iPod, it took advantage of only one processor core. Even Apple’s pro-level Compressor utility was inefficient while compressing video – during a Compressor job, at least half of the Mac Pro’s processor power remained idle.

It’s not the Mac Pro’s fault that there are relatively few programs that can take advantage of its massive processing power. But, as with the Power Mac G5 Quad, the advantage you get out of the Mac Pro will have a lot to do with how efficient your favourite software is at taking advantage of multiple processor cores. If you rely mostly on programs that aren’t efficient at using multiple processor cores, you’ll waste a large chunk of the Mac Pro’s processing potential.

Memorable memory
The Mac Pro’s RAM is unlike any other memory seen in the Mac market before. The modules are called Fully Buffered DIMMS (or FB-DIMMs), a format spearheaded by Intel that offers high memory performance at high prices. Each FB-DIMM has its own memory controller onboard, which generates extra heat. To dissipate that heat, each FB-DIMM in a Mac Pro comes with its own heat sink, making FB-DIMMs look unique. FB-DIMMs must be installed in pairs, and for the highest memory performance gains, a Mac Pro should have at least two pairs of FB-DIMMs installed.

FB-DIMMs are new technology and, as a result, shopping for FB-DIMMs will be difficult, at least in the near future. Apart from Apple, there are currently very few companies offering Mac Pro-compatible RAM modules. And the modules may be significantly more costly than other, more common RAM types, at least for a while. But here’s the good news: if you need huge amounts of RAM, the Mac Pro will accommodate; you can fill its eight RAM slots with as much as 16GB of RAM.

Installing RAM in the Mac Pro is much easier than on the Power Mac G5. The Mac Pro has two RAM carrier cards, each with four slots. To install RAM, you just slide the card out, place it on a table (the card has plastic feet on its back side), and insert your new FB-DIMMs. Then the carrier card slides back in, right into its slot on the Mac Pro motherboard.
With its combination of fast processors and a decent video card, the Mac Pro provided the highest game frame-rates of any stock Mac system we’ve tested. When powered by the standard nVidia GeForce 7300 GT card with 256MB of RAM – a card not generally appreciated by die-hard gamers – our Unreal Tournament 2004 test managed to outdo the G5 Quad by 64 per cent. We saw similar results for Doom 3 and Quake 4. We were unable to acquire the Mac Pro’s two other video card options (the ATI Radeon X1900 XT and the nVidia Quadro FX 4500) in time for this review.

The Mac Pro, like the Power Mac G5, uses PCI Express slots. But Apple has made a few improvements this time around. First, the bottom PCI slot is double-wide, since many high-performance video cards are, shall we say, a bit rotund. If you place a porky video card in a standard slot, it covers up the slot next to it. With the double-wide slot, there’s plenty of room. Interestingly, these slots can be individually configured for different maximum speeds. When you buy a card, you no longer need to figure out a strategy to optimally use all your slots. The first time you start up the Mac Pro after installing a card, a software assistant lets you configure your PCI slots, channelling speed to the right cards (and removing it from cards that don’t need as much bandwidth).

A million to one
For the past few years, Apple has offered several (usually three) configurations within the Power Mac line. The lowest-priced model tended to use technology held over from the previous generation of Power Macs, often with a slower system bus and lacking certain upgrade options. With the Mac Pro, Apple has done away with these distinctions: although there’s one Apple-designated standard configuration, you can customise every aspect of the Mac Pro regardless of the speed of the processors inside.

There are both good and bad points to this approach. Since so many Mac Pros are destined for very specific tasks, it’s fitting that they be completely customisable. And buyers who want only the lower-cost dual 2GHz processors won’t be stuck with last-generation technology. They will be free to outfit their system as they choose, and will still be able to take advantage of four processor cores. And, every Mac Pro can drive Apple’s mammoth 30-inch Cinema HD Display.

The entry price has gone up slightly as well. The last generation of Power Mac G5s included a £1,339 low-end model, but if you strip the Mac Pro down to bare bones from Apple’s online store, you still can’t buy one for less than about £1,439. Since wireless networking is not a standard part of the Mac Pro, unlike every other Mac sold today, that means you’ll need to spend £50 extra if you want to add AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth to any model, not just the stripped-down one.)

The Mac Pro gives professional Mac users more processor power, storage options, and external ports than the previous Power Mac line. It’s better value too: the base configuration Mac Pro, which runs at 2.66GHz, costs £600 less than the Power Mac G5 Quad did – yet the Mac Pro is generally faster than the G5 Quad. And the 3GHz Mac Pro blows past all previous Mac performance scores.

But these new systems aren’t for everyone. If you rely heavily on applications that don’t yet run natively on Intel Macs, the Mac Pro systems shouldn’t replace your Power Mac G5 just yet. And if the software you use isn’t efficient at using multiple processor cores, you won’t be able to take full advantage of the Mac Pro’s impressive processing power.

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