Mac Pro (2013) full review - Page 2

Debates of one- or two-socket systems become almost moot when you leverage the power of the GPU. What difference is it whether you have eight, 16 or 24 CPU cores, against two or three thousand stream processors simultaneously crunching the same numbers?

The hindrance to the golden general-purpose graphics processor (GPGPU) has been that recoding project for software, but pro and CAD developers especially are now providing real apps for power users to exploit.

We originally understood that the Mac Pro had one AMD graphics card reserved for display rendering, for one to three monitors, and the other set aside for compute tasks. But at a briefing at time of the Mac Pro’s actual launch in December 2013 we were shown a Final Cut Pro X setup that can make use of both cards for background video rendering, while still sparing enough horsepower to drive two Sharp 4K displays. That may be the exception for a while though, rather than the rule. For most current applications, GPGPU compute tasks are diverted and focused on one FirePro card.

The naked Mac Pro: the flash storage (the black block) sits over one of the two FirePro graphics cards.

As you may expect for a modern system built for speed, quiet operation and still with a strong eye on aesthetic impact, the Mac Pro has only solid-state flash for storage. And what an SSD it is too: like the last generation of MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro, it throws out the data-throttling SATA controller and puts fast flash chips more directly in touch with the PCIe bus. You can have either 256, 512 or 1000 GB of solid-state drive in the Mac Pro, an Apple proprietary card that resembles a long-form mSATA strip, and which piggybacks from one of the two AMD graphics cards.

Assorted I/O for the Mac Pro (above) runs to three Intel Thunderbolt controllers, providing six Thunderbolt 2 ports, and one HDMI 1.4 video port. There are four USB 3.0, while built-in audio connectivity comes in the form of two 3.5mm mini-jacks – one a combined stereo analogue line-out with Toslink digital audio output; the other a headset jack for earphones and a mic.

Helping keep down the cable count are the two latest wireless data standards: 802.11ac Wi-Fi with a three-antenna array for best throughput, and Bluetooth 4.0 with its low-power capability for new and upcoming LE peripherals.

New Mac Pro benchmarks

We ran our sliderule over a near-top example of the Mac Pro loaned to us by Apple. It was the eight-core model with Intel Xeon E5-1680 v2 running at 3.0 GHz, and maxed out with 64 GB of memory. This unit had twin AMD FirePower D700 graphics cards, each with 2,048 stream processors, 6 GB of GDDR5 memory and a 384-bit-wide memory bus. For internal storage, it was equipped with the largest 1TB PCIe-based SSD.

Storage is as good a place to start as any, and here the Mac Pro really showed the benefit of its PCIe 2.0-connected flash. Random reads from 4 to 1024 kB averaged 241 MB/s, while similar random writes soared to 441 MB/s. Those numbers indicated that for OS tasks like launching applications, saving and opening documents, its operation should feel exceptionally fast and fluid.

There may up to 1TB of on-board storage available; but after that, you’re reliant on external drives – potentially Thunderbolt-based since USB 3.0 will not deliver the throughput that some video professionals will demand. But if you do use on-board storage as scratch disk or storing work files, expect the fastest read/writes you’ll likely have seen so far in internal storage.

Sequential transfers of large files sped by the fastest though, averaging 1027 MB/s when writing and 1220 MB/s for reading, using data files 2 to 10 MB in size.

We don’t have a history of benchmarks from earlier Mac Pro models from the Macworld UK test lab, but can compare to recent MacBook Pro notebooks that have been packing some of the fastest Intel silicon available.

It’s perhaps a sign of how well mobile computing has caught up with desktop machines that we see some results from MacBook Pro models really start to encroach on PC territory. But remember: while a laptop can hit high speeds, especially briefly with the help of short-term Turbo overclocking, a desktop system should be capable of running at full pelt a long-day long without complaint.

The Mac Pro is an ideal workstation for video editors.

New Mac Pro Cinebench benchmarks

In Cinebench 11.5, the 3.0 GHz Mac Pro scored 1.55 points with a single core. Last year’s ‘best’ Retina MacBook Pro (2.6 GHz), with its same generation of Ivy Bridge processor, hit 1.45 points here. This year’s top MacBook model pipped that by one hundredth of a point, at 1.46 points, even though it was running a chip with baseline frequency lowered now to 2.3 GHz.

Multi-threading is the game, though, and with eight real cores driving 16 virtualised threads, the Mac Pro hit 13.69 points in multi mode, against 6.78 and 6.82 points for the respective finest notebooks of 2012 and 2013.

Step forward to the later Cinebench R15 test, and we saw the Mac Pro score 138 points single-cored, with Retina MacBooks at 127 and 126 points. All cores on-song, the numbers crept up to 609 and 623 points for the portables; and 1225 points to the workstation Mac.

The older Cinebench test showed little measurable difference in OpenGL rendering though. Where the two MacBooks could render at 35 and 45 fps, Mac Pro was disarmingly close to the latter’s nVidia 750M result at just 46 fps. Less anomalous was the Cinebench R15 comparison: 48 and 54 fps from the MacBook Pros; but 87 fps with an AMD D700 on the job.

It’s worth pointing out that Apple also has Boot Camp drivers available to facilitate installing Windows on the Mac Pro. Used thus, it should even be possible to engage a CrossFire mode to combine the two graphics cards for best graphics performance.

Geekbench 3 results showed the benefits of many cores focused on one task – ‘just’ 3628 points from a single core, rising to 26,086 in multi-core mode. For comparison, the best 2013 Retina MacBook (2.3 GHz) reaped 3461 points from its more efficient Haswell chip, but couldn’t keep up in multi mode, finishing with around half the point score of 13,571 points from its quad-core/octo-thread processor.

Should I buy a new Mac Pro?

Who is the Mac Pro for? It’s certainly not one for Windows enthusiasts who insist that Apple is ripping off its customers with over-priced, under-specified computing hardware. You could indeed cobble together a faster workstation machine for less money, we’re sure, but it will be a huge wheezing box of ugliness that’ll take over your desk; or more likely the void under it, where it’ll sit unloved collecting dust and boot prints.

For some professionals the new condensation of Apple workstation into a high-performance cola can will be mourned most by the loss of upgradeable components. And that’s chiefly on the PCI expansion and storage side – memory can still be swapped, and there’s even potential for adventurous souls to strip the Mac Pro down and swap out the CPU from its socket in the future. But built-in storage is entirely limited to what Apple sells you, until a third-party supplier reverse engineers the PCIe SSD connector; and graphics processors are certainly fixed in place as part of the machine’s very furniture.

Most expansion and upgrades must come purely in the form of external boxes and drives, connected through the machine’s array of Thunderbolt ports. That leaves the Mac Pro sitting pretty but you’ll need to prepare for a spaghetti junction of wiring out the back, feeding all your sighted or hidden peripherals.

[Read about the Mac Pro availability and UK pricing here]

All photography: Dominik Tomaszewski. Art direction: Neil Bennett.
Model: Denise Dye. © IDG UK.

Read: Mac Pro versus iMac

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