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Hands on: Apple's Mac Pro is the fastest Mac ever

But all that speed doesn't come cheap, so make sure your apps can take advantage of the hardware before buying

March 5, 2014 06:33 AM ET

Computerworld - Until mid-2013, the future of Apple's Mac Pro seemed to be in doubt. Despite upgrades to numerous other models, the Mac Pro saw few changes for several years, leaving anxious Mac users in fear that Apple's flagship desktop computer would die entirely and prompting them to launch petitions seeking more information about Apple's plans. That prompted Apple CEO Tim Cook to break from long-standing company tradition and essentially confirm that Apple engineers were indeed working on an update to the Mac Pro.

Confirmation about the new Mac Pro came at the 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), when Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, previewed Apple's new Pro desktop, announcing it would ship late in the year and showing off a radical new design in a dramatic movie trailer. Gone was the old aluminum Mac Pro, to be replaced by a sleek, dark gray cylindrical computer. "Can't innovate, my ass," Schiller pointedly said at WWDC, in rebuttal to jibes that Apple innovation was adrift.

Mac Pro assembly
Apple's new Mac Pro continues to be in short supply. (Image: Apple.)

The new Mac Pro finally arrived in mid-December, though demand quickly outstripped supply. While a limited number of Mac Pros did indeed ship, many buyers found their orders delayed into April. They're still waiting.

Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on a Mac Pro for a few weeks so I could put it through its paces and find out whether it was worth the wait.

The entry-level Mac Pro

Starting at $2,999, and featuring build-to-order configurations that can reach nearly $10,000, the Mac Pro clearly isn't within the budget of most buyers. Then again, it wasn't designed with the average consumer in mind; it was designed specifically for those who need workstation-class performance.

Just 9.9 in. high, 6.6 in. wide, and weighing 11 lb., the Mac Pro features components intended for moving massive amounts of data while forgoing internal expansion for a much smaller footprint. The entire machine is designed around a unified thermal core: a triangular-shaped heat sink makes up the main structure of the system, channeling heat away from the components and out of the Mac Pro through the use of a single fan near the top of the machine. The fan pulls air from the bottom of the unit, around the components, and out through the top. It's an impressive engineering design.

The entry-level model has a 3.7GHz quad-core Intel Xeon E5 processor, featuring Turbo-Boost technology that can push each core to 3.9GHz when needed. The processor also sports 10MB of L3 cache for improved performance.

If a quad-core Xeon isn't enough power for you, Apple offers built-to-order options including a 3.5GHz six-core chip with 12MB of L3 cache for $500 more; a 3.0GHz eight-core chip with 25MB of L3 cache for $2,000 over the base price; and a 2.7GHz 12-core option with 30MB of L3 cache for $3,500 above the entry-level price. The four-, six- and eight-core Xeon E5s feature Turbo Boost of up to 3.9GHz; the 12-core configuration has a maximum Turbo Boost speed of 3.5GHz per core.

The entry-level machine starts with 12GB of 1866HMz DDR3 ECC memory, but $400 more will get you 32GB of RAM -- and for $1,200 you can bump the total RAM to 64GB.

Mac Pro box
The Mac Pro comes in a box that's almost as stylish as the computer. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

High-power graphics

The Mac Pro also comes with two AMD FirePro D300 GPUs, each with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM and 1280 stream processors on a 256-bit-wide memory bus that features 160GBps of memory bandwidth. The GPUs can take advantage of technologies built into OS X -- and third-party apps that take advantage of these technologies -- to quickly process data in concert with the CPU through an x16 PCI Express gen 3 connection. (One of the main design decisions Apple engineers focused on when building the Mac Pro was to make sure that bottlenecks weren't an issue; the GPUs would be bottlenecked without that high-speed PCI connection.)

The entry-level card boasts performance that tops out at 2 teraflops. There are, of course, options for better graphics cards. An extra $400 gets you dual AMD FirePro D500 series cards, which feature 3GB of GDDR5 VRAM and 1526 stream processors per card on a 384-bit memory bus with 240GBps memory bandwidth. And for $1,000, you can get dual AMD FirePro D700 cards, each with 6GB of GDDR VRAM, 2048 stream processors, 384-bit memory bus and 264GBps of memory bandwidth. The upgrades max out their performance at 2.2 teraflops and 3.5 teraflops, respectively.



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