Mac Pro full review

Apple’s Mac Pro, the company’s “fastest Mac ever”, has been beefed up not only with faster, more efficient processors running at up to 3.2GHz, but also with a broad range of under-the-hood improvements designed to provide the eight cores in those processors with plenty of data to chew on.

The new Mac Pros are truly wonderful machines – and they’re more cost-effective for professional content creators than anything else on the market.
According to our Speedmark benchmark test, the new eight-core 3.2HGHz model is the fastest Mac we’ve tested yet, while the performance of the new eight-core 2.8GHz model is similar to the much more expensive previous-generation eight-core 3GHz Mac Pro.

The base model is a great base upon which to build a truly fearsome-fast machine. It’s ideal for multimedia pros – videographers, photographers, or audio pros.

Better performance

Successful computer design is all about balance. Memory must be able to keep up with processors, storage must rapidly fulfil data requests, and expansion slots must swiftly supply displays and drives with pixels and bits. The new Mac Pro sports enhancements in all of these areas. However, to reap the benefit of the storage improvements, it’ll cost you extra for an optional RAID card (£510) and speedy SAS (serial-attached SCSI) drives – £510 for one additional 300GB 15,000rpm drive. But the extra cost may be worth it, depending on your needs.

Each of the two Intel Xeon Harpertown processors available in the 8-core iterations carries four processing cores, hence the 8-core claim. The Harpertown architecture is essentially the same as that of the previous Mac Pro’s Cloverton processors. However,
they benefit from a few key improvements.

For example, in addition to their improved 45-nanometer efficiency, their on-chip caches have been boosted to 12MB per each quad-core processor, allowing for near-instantaneous access to a larger amount of frequently used data. They also benefit from a new set of instructions called SSE4, which can improve everything from video encoding to gaming to database searching.

The processors also talk to the rest of the Mac Pro more quickly – according to Apple, its memory throughput is more than one-and-a-half times as fast
as the earlier Mac Pro line.

Performance kick

In our Speedmark benchmark tests, the new 2.8GHz Mac Pro scored 22 per cent higher than the older 2.66GHz Mac Pro. In certain tests – Cinema 4D and Compressor – the new 2.8GHz showed an even more impressive performance advantage, with the new model completing those tests about 75 per cent faster than the old model.
Comparing the new 8-core 2.8GHz Mac Pro results to last years top-end 8-core 3GHz Mac Pro, the new model is faster in half of the tests. The older 3GHz Mac Pro had a marginally higher Speedmark score (317 versus 314) than the new 2.8GHz model. A 3GHz version of the new Harpertown processor is still available as a £500 build-to-order option, but while the 3GHz was the top of the line last year, the new batch of Mac Pros now offers, for an additional £1,009, dual 3.2GHz processors.

In our tests, we found the new 3.2GHz Mac Pro to be nearly 9 per cent faster than the 2.8GHZ 8-core Mac Pro, and 4.6 per cent faster than the new 3GHz system
in Speedmark, our overall performance benchmark.

The 3.2GHz model was 16 per cent and 13 per cent faster than those two systems in our Cinema 4D render test – currently the best, pure processing test we have.
Other results show the 3.2GHz system to be faster than those systems in just about every app, including 3D game frame rate tests and Finder tasks. The exceptions: a couple of tests (HandBrake and Compressor) where the 2.8GHz model inexplicably took first prize.

In comparing the new top-of-the-line build-to-order Mac Pro with last year’s fastest model, a 3GHz, eight-core system, the new 3.2GHz model was 8 per cent faster at Speedmark, 9 per cent faster in our Photoshop test suite, and 13 per cent faster at Cinema 4D.

The one test where the older 3GHz machine bested the newer model was in the Quake average frame rate tests – in fact, even the Power Mac G5 turned in a better score on this test than the new Mac Pros. Their lower scores could be due to a lack of graphics driver optimization, but the ATI Radeon HD 2600XT does represent the low end of the graphics cards offered for these new Mac Pros. We’ve seen improvement in the past after subsequent OS X updates. We’ll be sure to retest these systems again when the next updates arrive.

The new eight-core 3GHz system’s Speedmark score was about 4 per cent higher than the new eight-core 2.8GHz model – it was 13 per cent faster in the Compressor test, 18 per cent faster in the Photoshop test, and 3 per cent faster than the old 3GHz model.

The new four-core 2.8GHz model was about 6 per cent slower than the new eight-core 2.8GHz in Speedmark, and though these two machines performed almost on par in certain tests, the results for Cinema 4D and Compressor were 63 per cent slower and 33 per
cent slower respectively for the four-core machine.

Perhaps one reason why the muscular eight cores of Mac Pro did not perform as well as the specifications suggest was the pokey single 320GB hard drive and a paltry 2GB of RAM available as standard. For example, even when performing various combinations of intensive operations such as encoding a DV file using Compressor 3, and running a processor-pounding set of Photoshop CS3 Actions, Activity Monitor indicated that the Mac Pro’s processors were using – at best – only about 60 per cent of their full power. It seems that the single drive and meagre RAM just couldn’t feed them data fast enough. This makes sense, but isn’t the whole story.

Cinema 4D, part of our Speedmark testing suite, is engineered to use multicore machines efficiently. Thus, our video test with this software facilitated peak processor performance – more than 90 per cent of capacity. Most applications – even Apple’s own Final Cut Pro (in its default configuration) – do not have such efficient multicore capabilities. In order to achieve peak performance in all eight processors with Final Cut, we had to enable its companion Qmaster software.

In default mode, without Qmaster, the processors were indeed operating at about 60 per cent of their capability. This tells us that despite the hardware’s inherent power, how well your applications can take advantage of multiple cores will play a big part in determining how well your Mac Pro performs. In some instances, a single quad core 2.8GHz Mac Pro might do the job you want just as well as a new eight-core model.

Improved slots

The new Mac Pro’s faster system controller connects to the unit’s new – and faster – PCI Express 2.0 expansion slots. Not only do they provide double the throughput of the original PCI Express, they also offer better control over the devices you’ll pop into those slots. The Mac Pro has a total of four PCI Express slots. The top two are plain PCI Express, the bottom two are the more-robust PCI Express 2.0. Unlike the earlier Mac Pros, in which you could have only one 16-lane card and had to use the Expansion Slot Utility to choose that lucky slot, this new configuration provides full 16-lane support in both bottom slots; both upper slots support four-lane cards.
Into the bottom slot – which is double-wide, should you choose to fill it with an exceptionally chubby video card – goes your choice of an ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT 256MB (base model), NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT 512MB (a £130 premium), or NVIDIA Quadro FX 5600 1.5GB (a whopping £1,799 extra). Each of these cards has two dual-link DVI ports to support two 30in Apple Cinema Displays. The Radeon and GeForce cards also use what’s called a unified shader model, which allows developers to more easily make games and 3D apps perform better.

The Radeon HD 2600 XT is a decent card, but if you’re into gaming or 3D modelling, or if you use Aperture, consider the GeForce 8800 GT – Aperture is smart enough to let that card’s GPU help push pixels onto your display, and more apps are sure to follow.

Macworld’s buying advice
If you simply want the fastest Mac you’ve ever used, the base-model Mac Pro 8-Core 2.8GHz won’t disappoint. If you’re a content-creating professional who needs your video, audio, and or imaging workstation to fulfil its true potential, you may also opt to spend the extra cash to upgrade your new Mac Pro’s processor speed, storage and RAM. If, however, you don’t need the maximum Mac, stick to an iMac – they’re more than powerful enough for the rest of us.

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