Mac Pro (2013) full review

Split personality could aptly describe the Mac Pro, if one could ascribe a personality to a computer in the first place. That’s the visual impressions we get from two quite different computer workstations, packed into one shiny cylindrical sleeve.

The first aquaintance you’ll likely make of the new 2013 Apple Mac Pro is as a stout metallic drum, resembling blued steel and as serious as a Smith & Wesson six-shooter. That dark metallic finish is extremely reflective, letting it take on the appearance of its surroundings like a convex mirror. As you walk around, so its shape and lustre changes with everything it’s reflecting around you. But do note that unlike Apple’s publicity shots, this highly polished anodised aluminium is not so much black as a dark metallic grey, nearly blue colour.

Its other persona is even more serious. Slide the thumbcatch at the rear smoothly to the right, and the cover is armed and unlocked. You then gently raise the weighty cylinder outer to reveal the real ordinance inside.

Two over-riding impressions are created now – of an advanced communications satellite; or better yet, deep-space probe. With two stuffed electronic circuit boards on display and hints of plenty more precison components surface-mounted all over, this could be an aerospace-built payload designed for space launches.

The alternative explanation of all that 21st-century electronics comes straight from watching too many Hollywood thrillers – it’s a bomb, a miniature thermonuclear warhead that’s just ripe for defusing. We still can’t slide the outer cowl up from the main chassis without a voice in our head imploring us to cut the red, no, the blue wire...

When you do come to plug in the required display and power cables, and watch it boot up as a personal computer, it’s almost anti-climactic after the double-punch effect of the Mac’s exterior and interior industrial design. Wondering when the new Mac Pro will launch? Read our New Mac Pro 2015 release date rumours

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New Mac Pro build and design

The Mac Pro stands 251 mm tall. That’s little more than the height of an iPad. And with a diameter of 167 mm the 2013 Apple Mac Pro has similar proportions to a tin of baked beans, only around twice as high. A can of Pepsi may be more apposite, given the cylinder’s rounded ends.

At heart inside the Mac Pro is a central cooling core consisting of a finned triangular-section heatsink, with three facets that run the height of the casework – on two sides are high-power AMD FirePower professional graphics cards. The main logic board with CPU completes the third side, but is hidden from view by the port and connection panel.

Cooling is the challenge for any performance PC, and here Apple has taken the innovative step of discarding all cooling fans – except one, a large turbine-like finned rotor that sits at the top of the chassis (underneath the vents, below), drawing in air through a series of vents running the circumference of the base.

Not sure which Mac to buy? Read our Which Mac buyers guide

Cool air passes up the central heatsinked assembly and warm air drifts out through the chimney-like aperture at top. Thanks to the large size of that single fan, it can move plenty of air while still rotating relatively slowly. Compare this to the smaller high-revving fans that tend to populate a typical PC workstation. Slow rotation drops noise levels down to an unheard of minimum, the specifications citing just 12 dBA from the user’s position when idling.

In reality, that will be inaudible in anywhere but an acoustic anechoic chamber, unless you press your ear against the cowling. But as we discovered, that fan will ramp up when required – our first experience of hearing the fan was when applying a slew of software updates that strangely warmed the machine enough to raise noise to a quite noticeable 30 dBA or so. Most of the time though, even running various stressful benchmark tests, the Mac Pro was seen but not heard.

New Mac Pro specs

For central processing power the Mac Pro takes a new Intel Xeon E5 processor, available with a choice of four, six, eight or 12 cores. This chip is the workstation-class version of last year’s Intel Core-series Ivy Bridge processor, and is otherwise known as Ivy Bridge Extreme, refined and uprated for professional use.

The biggest material difference besides grading for performance will be the greater number of processing cores available. Consumer Intel chips usually top out at quad configuration but here the processor specialist will squeeze in up to three times as many physical cores.

Depending which configuration you select, the Mac Pro will be clocked anywhere between 3.7 GHz for the entry-level quad-core machine, down to 2.7 GHz per core for the 12-core version.

This 22nm-process silicon chip, like the consumer Core i7, can dynamically overclock to higher clock speed when demanded. The difference may be small though, just 200 MHz for the quad-core chip; but a greater delta for the slower-clocked chips with more cores. Crucially, every example supports Hyper-Threading, letting the OS and most software ‘see’ the processor with twice the number of physical cores.

For memory, the new Mac Pro takes fast 1,867MHz RAM, fault-tolerate error checking and correcting (ECC) memory we’d expect of a professional workstation. There are four slots available (below), pre-filled with a complement between 12 GB (3 x 4 GB) and 64 GB (4 x 16 GB), depending on selected configuration.

Why does the new Mac Pro have a single chip?

Unlike many modern desktop workstations, the 2013 Mac Pro is a single-socket design, good to run a solitary if amply multi-cored central processor; meanwhile the most powerful performance computers used as servers and workstations today are sometimes built around two or more discrete CPUs per motherboard. Apple’s design intent is obviously to keep size, power consumption and heat/noise to more tolerable levels by settling on a single-chip system.

But performance computing is no longer all about CPU cores and their gigahertz cycling speed. The graphics processor with its many, many cores running at not-much-slower speeds is now a computing tool to be reckoned with. Which explains Apple’s investment in the graphics capability of the Mac Pro with its two independent AMD FirePower D-series cards.

Through the recoding of key application software, some of the heavy lifting undertaken by the CPU can now be diverted to the GPU, and its massively parallel architecture is much more efficient at processing assorted productivity tasks. Graphics encoding and decoding, cryptographic routines and signal processing can all be handled extremely deftly by the right combination of hardware stream processors and a suitable API – Apple founded and is supporting perhaps the most important right now in OpenCL.

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