Hands on: The new Mac Pro is 'one screamer'

It's what every creative production professional will want

Early last week, Apple Computer inc. CEO Steve Jobs officially took the wraps off of Apple's newest professional desktop machine, the Mac Pro. Better yet, it was available immediately -- without the usual weeks-long wait that sometimes plagues the release of new Macs.

Earlier this week, I got a chance to work with a Mac Pro for an hour or so to see how it stacks up against the now-discontinued Power Mac G5. The model offered by Apple for purposes of this quick review was the standard configuration, which has the stock 2.66-GHz Xeon processors, 1GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, a single 16x SuperDrive and the Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT graphics card with 256MB of video RAM.


Xeon inside

The dual-core, dual-processor, 64-bit machine is significantly quieter than Apple's previous top-of-the-line machine, the Power Mac G5 Quad, no doubt due to the lower power requirements and dramatically lower heat output from Intel Corp.'s Xeon "Woodcrest" chips. While the Mac Pro's outer casing is not appreciably different from the Quad G5, the inside has been completely revamped. Since the heat output of the new system is so much lower than in the G5, the number of fans has been cut from nine to four, and the liquid cooling system is gone. That leaves much more room for computing components, and having fewer fans means less noise.

Yes, these machines are as silent as they are slick looking, and the internal components are also now much easier to self-service. The DVD drives (you can now have two) are in removable, sliding bays. The PCI expansion slots are easier to populate, with a single, captive thumbscrew holding the bar that maintains the card placement. In other words, there are no more screws to lose and no tools needed to add or remove cards. The PCI slots are all configurable as 1, 2, 4 or 8x slots, and the first slot is a double-wide to accommodate many of the newer graphics cards without blocking another slot.

Additionally, the hard drive bays are lined up across the inside in a configuration similar to an XServe, where SATA drives easily slide out on a cable-free sled. Professional operations will really appreciate the fact that -- unlike the Xserve -- the Mac Pro drives can be upgraded by buying any SATA drive and putting 4 screws in the tray to hold it in place. Now, that's easy.

As for RAM, it now resides on a removable riser so a user can gently pull the whole assembly out, rest it on its attached rubber strips (no more worrying about static), and install new RAM without slicing fingers. Note: the RAM in the new Mac Pro is a special type called Fully Buffered DIMM (FB-DIMM) that was designed by Intel specifically to work with the Woodcrest processors. These RAM chips have a 256-bit-wide data path and onboard application-specific integrated circuits to ensure optimal integration. It also yields a stunning 21.3GB/sec of throughput to the processors. Each DIMM pair has a heat sink built into it to keep heat in check without adding fans or noise.

Aluminum outside

Looking at the outside of the Mac Pro it's obvious that this box was built with the professional user in mind. On the front of the machine are two USB and one FireWire 400 port -- as well as a new FireWire 800 port. This was installed to accommodate editing professionals whose clients often show up with external FireWire 800 drives. The total amount of internal storage can grow to as much as 2TB using four 500GB SATA drives that can be set up in a RAID-0 configuration for optimal speed. On the back of the machine: another FireWire 400 port and a second FireWire 800 port, plus two built-in, independent Dual-Gigabit Ethernet ports. Again, this was done with professional operations in mind so that one Ethernet port can talk to the Xsan metadata controller and the second works with the data network. Of course, those not using Xsan can use the ports independently with two networks or bind them to give the machine a 2GB Ethernet interface.

Configurations 'r us

Apple officials have been touting the price competitiveness of the Mac Pro and how for the first time in history a Mac is cheaper than the equivalent hardware on the PC side. "Professionals who are in the workstation market will find that the Mac Pro is priced $1,000 less than a comparably configured Dell computer," said Tom Boger, Apple's senior director of worldwide product marketing.

That's not just hyperbole. The Mac Pro is cheaper than similarly outfitted hardware from Dell inc. And it makes one heck of a machine on which to run both Mac OS X and Windows XP. (Like Apple's other Intel-based machines, the Mac Pro does Windows.) The standard configuration, as I mentioned earlier, starts at $2,499; A Dell Precision 690 configured the same goes for $3,448. Of course, Dell gives all sorts of discounts depending on the day, time, and position of the moons around Saturn -- so your mileage may vary. But the standard pricing is what most people will be offered.

Note: Buyers can configure their Mac Pro in a lot of ways. Want more speed? Opt for the 3-GHz Woodcrest processors and fork over another $800. Or if you want more green in your wallet, choose the 2.0 chips, and keep $300. There are similar options for hard drives, video cards and wireless networking. On these professional machines, Bluetooth and Airport are considered build-to-order options, since many professionals are on a wired network and have no need for those features.

The Mac Pro can hold and address up to 16GB of RAM, sport 2TB of internal hard disk drive storage, hold two SuperDrives (the second one will add $100 to the cost), and use two ATI Radeon X1900XT cards that can support four -- four! -- of Apple's 30-in. monitors. Now, that is one screamer of production machine.


Apple has posted Spec integer benchmarks for the new machine that show performance more than twice that of the Quad G5. While quantitative analysis is great, real-world, qualitative performance is what will matter to users and their clients. So, how did Apple's latest and greatest perform? In any application compiled for Universal binary -- meaning it runs natively on Intel chips -- the speed increase was dramatic. Noticeable. Just plain " Wow that is fast." Take your pick. Watching a 6MB image of a Mini Cooper -- the file had 1.54 million polygons, and 1.28 million vertices -- rendered with Luxology Modo on both a Quad G5 and the Mac Pro was an example of fast and faster. When the Mac Pro was done the Quad G5 was still chugging along, only about one-quarter of the way done with the file.

For a creative professional using QuarkXPress, or Final Cut Pro, the speed increase will be instantly noticeable. For applications still running under Rosetta translation, such as the Adobe Creative Suite, the Xeon Processors run fast enough to basically make the comparison a wash. In other words, the Mac Pro runs programs in Rosetta as fast as Quad G5 does natively.

Adobe has promised an upgraded Creative suite for February, and there is no reason not to use the application in Rosetta until then. Audio professionals should note that Digidesign released a universal version of Pro-Tools HD in May and expects to release an updated version next month. And for the video side of the house, its AVID products are due around the same time as Universal Apps. Video pros should also note that Telestream recently released Flip4Mac, its .wmv Quicktime plug-in as a Universal binary, so exporting cross platform formats is now a breeze.

Conclusion: What 'Pro' means

I've spent some time thinking about the "Pro" in Mac Pro. Maybe it stands for professional, maybe it stands for production. Or maybe it is an acronym for Please, Really, Oh My!, as in: " Would you like to try this computer?"

... Please.

"It is $1,000 cheaper than a comparable Dell."


"Try your favorite Mac OS X Intel-compiled application."

Oh My....that's fast!

in other words, if you do media production, scientific computing or another other processor-intensive work, believe me -- you want one of these!

Did I miss something? Do you have feedback? Send your questions, comments and curses to y.kossovsky@ieee.org.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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