Apple’s newest Mac Pro breaks speed barriers with Nehalem

Every time it updates its professional-level workstation, Apple brands the new Mac Pro as “the fastest Mac ever.” It’s an interesting dilemma for the company, because the boast — albeit true — is both exciting and humdrum. Wouldn’t it bum you out if the latest top-of-the-line Mac weren’t also the fastest?

Don’t worry. The latest update for the Mac Pro pretty much lives up to expectations. In some ways, the basic quad-core 2.66-GHz Mac Pro that Apple sent over for review screamed. But it falls short of last year’s version when it comes to great expectations of across-the-board performance leaps.

With this iteration, the Mac Pro takes a significant step forward by moving to Intel’s new Nehalem processor, leaving behind the previous model’s Harpertown and Penryn chips. (Yes, they’re all officially Intel Xeon processors, but Intel’s nomenclature is so arcane that it’s better to go by those code names to keep the models straight.)

For $2,499, the entry-level Mac Pro offers a quad-core 2.66-GHz processor, 3GB of DDR3 EEC memory, a 640GB hard drive, an 18x double-layer SuperDrive, and an Nvidia GeForce GT120 video card. For $800 more, you get two 2.26-GHz quad-core processors (for a total of eight cores) and 6GB of RAM. It’s a hefty price bump, mostly for the additional CPU; Intel’s newest processors still command a premium cost. There are also a variety of CPU options: Moving to a 2.93-GHz single quad-core Xeon adds $500 to the price of the base model — or you can get two of them for $2,600 extra in the top model.

Apple’s new Mac Pro sports the same as before. It’s shown with Apple’s 24-in. LED display.

If those prices seem high for a personal computer, they are. Granted, these Mac Pros approach performance numbers previously seen in Unix workstations costing in the five figures. And they offer Apple’s traditional build quality, not to mention the vertical integration of hardware and software that can avoid driver updates and conflicts. But price does focus attention on value and on whether those Apple advantages are worth the cost.

Various commodity PC makers are starting to roll out their own Nehalem offerings at much lower prices. Lenovo, for instance, has put out workstations with Nehalem-based Xeons; its single-CPU, quad-core S20 starts at $1,070, with the eight-core, dual-CPU going for $1,550. Of course, these are bare-bones prices, with the features and expandability that are already built into the Mac Pros sure to cost extra elsewhere. But the ability to order a bare-bones model is something that has always been attractive to businesses. So tote up the balance sheet if you’re comparing this workhorse with others.

Nehalem, yes, but lower clock speeds

Don’t be misled by the lower clock speeds of the new Mac Pros compared with their predecessors, which offered CPUs ranging from 2.8 GHz to 3.2 GHz. Those processors had two dies and shared cache memory, while the new 64-bit, 45nm Nehalem processors are designed purely as quad-core chips. The single-die/four-core Nehalem has 256KB of dedicated Level 2 cache memory for each core, and 8MB of Level 3 cache for each processor. With multithread-aware applications, this more than makes up for any missing megahertz.

In addition, each Nehalem processor has an integrated memory controller, which obviates the need for a separate I/O chip; according to Apple, that gives the new Mac Pro much faster access to memory data, reducing latency by up to 40 per cent.

All of this allows for some interesting internal magic, complete with hot-rodding code names. Hyper-Threading manages two computing threads running simultaneously on a single core. Turbo Boost overclocks a single core and turns off the others when an application accesses only one core. The QuickPath Interconnect system ties together the hard drives, I/O and two processors (in the high-end model) much more efficiently than the previous model’s dual independent front-side buses.

About that video card…

The standard video card, the Nvidia GT 120 with 512MB of RAM, is a competent option for everyday work. According to Apple, it offers almost three times the graphics performance of the video card that came stock in last year’s model — the ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT. But for professionals and most other power users, the $200 cost of moving up to the ATI Radeon HD 4870, which also has 512MB of video RAM, is worth the money. Apple says the Radeon HD 4870 can offer up to twice the graphics processing speed of the GT 120. (Editor’s note: This review has been updated with corrected information about the stock video card used in the 2008 Mac Pro models.)

In a Call of Duty 4 time demo, our test machine delivered more than double the frame rate when moving from the GT 120 to the Radeon HD 4870. That matches the faster performance Apple touts on its Web site.

In other benchmarks, the review unit’s quad-core 2.66-GHz racked up a Geekbench 2.1 score of 8350, an Xbench score of 214, and a Cinebench R10 multicore score of 14857. These numbers place this model squarely in line with the previous generation running two 2.8-GHz CPUs. This year’s Mac Pro might not bury the older generation, which is selling at a discount now, but the Nehalem-based new Mac Pros look like they’ll grow the gap soon. More about that later.

32GB of RAM will cost you

Looking to add RAM? The more the better, of course. Mac OS X, even the relatively mature Leopard version, loves RAM. But maxing out the Mac Pro’s RAM (to 8GB on the quad-core model and 32GB on the octo-core) costs a premium if purchased through Apple. In the most extreme instance, 32GB of RAM configured from Apple costs $6,100, while the same RAM from a major Mac reseller is a third less.

Whatever amount you end up with, though, it’s best to configure it in sets of threes, rather than in pairs. Since there are three memory channels per Nehalem processor, this allows saturation of all three for the best performance.

As a longtime Mac user, I can tell you that even with the “base” quad-core model, the sum total of the parts works, and works well. Boot times are on the order of “glance out the window” quick, and I’ve yet to see a spinning beach ball — though I haven’t had time to put this Mac Pro through months of production-line work and application installs — the kind of general cruft build-up that can affect any computer.

I’m not a fan of a lot of the interface tweaks in Mac OS X 10.5, but overall, Apple has done a great job of further refining the OS so that it’s a great companion to the powerful hardware. And if for some reason you want or need to run Windows, the Mac Pro, like all Intel-based Macs, can use Boot Camp or maturing consumer virtualization software such as Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion.

The metal cheese-grater look remains

The Mac Pro is designed to be user-expandable.

The Mac Pro hasn’t had a significant exterior overhaul for a while — the new model’s “cheese grater” case looks almost indistinguishable from the Power Mac G5 that usually sits under my desk. A few changes to the available ports are the most obvious differences: On the front there are two USB ports versus one, two FireWire 800 versus one FireWire 400 and an extra slot for a second optical drive. Out back, there are three rather than two USB ports, two FireWire 800 — mine has one FireWire 400 and one FireWire 800 — and a second gigabit Ethernet port. That’s about all that separates them visually.

The internal hardware is arrayed in a similar way, though there was little to complain about in the first place. The Power Macs had an incredibly minimalist interior design, with most components cleanly arrayed with plenty of space around for airflow and fingers. The Mac Pro keeps the easy-access Serial ATA hard drive trays, allowing quick, cable-free configuration of up to four drives. (Apple also offers a $700 RAID card that allows you to set up a more secure, faster internal storage array.) Making things even easier is a new slide-out tray for the RAM and processors.

Since the Mac Pro is the only user-expandable Mac, you’d expect the options here to be good. They are, with four PCI Express 2.0 slots, two of which are x16 (one populated by the video card by default) and two x4. There may be more expandable monsters out there, but the Mac Pro offers a good trade-off between design and versatility.

As for the included low-profile keyboard, which follows the design lead of Apple’s laptops, and the Apple Mighty Mouse, neither would be my first choice. Not having some sort of adjustable tilt for the keyboard will require many people to muss up their design-conscious desk with a magazine or something else as a prop. And the mouse is just a mess: The shape doesn’t feel ergonomic, and it’s way too easy to hit the wrong button (and tricky to hit the right one). But many Mac users are no doubt fine with the keyboard and mouse; it’s a highly personal decision.

Also note that the Mac Pro does not ship with Wi-Fi capabilities by default. An internal AirPort Extreme card is a $50 option; most pros would rather take advantage of the high bandwidth and security of the Gigabit Ethernet ports. But it seems odd that this is the only Mac without wireless connectivity by default.

Greenpeace will be pleased

After Greenpeace pointedly hit Apple over environmental concerns in 2007, the company has made great strides toward eliminating toxins and maximizing recyclable materials in its hardware. (It also will take in defunct computers at Apple stores for recycling). Apple bills this as the “greenest Mac Pro ever” — though, of course, no splash of color defiles the cool aluminum casing.

As part of that boast, Apple claims that it has reduced idle power consumption by 15 per cent, met EnergyStar 4.0 and the upcoming 5.0 standards, eliminated the use of PVC and BFR, and considered recycling issues when designing its hardware. I can vouch that the Mac Pro is a lot quieter, whether at idle or under load, than a dual-G5 Power Mac, though video card fans can be a large part of the noise production.

I mentioned multithreaded applications earlier, and the new Mac Pros’ advantage in this arena will most likely become even more pronounced in the future, as Apple pushes the Grand Central technology slated to debut with Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. This not only makes the coming Mac OS X multicore-aware, but the technology includes tools for developers to add multicore threading to existing and future applications. In other words, the more cores you have, the more boost you’ll see in future OS X releases. This makes the $800 price for the dual-Xeon Mac Pro — which sports 16 cores! — the cost of future-proofing.

And while it’s too early to tell, the Radeon HD option might also add some future-proofing to your workstation investment (and at this price range, the Mac Pro is definitely more a workstation than a personal computer, and it’s certainly an investment). Another piece of tasty tech promised for Snow Leopard — OpenCL — is designed to allow applications to offload some general computing tasks from the CPU, no matter how many dozens of cores there are, to the GPU, which lies relatively idle for most tasks. This isn’t automatic, as developers would have to introduce this code into their applications. But even if this doesn’t pan out as planned, opting for the Radeon video card seems to be a worthwhile upgrade.

Final thoughts

The updated Mac Pro is an appropriate refresh ahead of the anticipated release of Snow Leopard. Both the hardware and software look familiar superficially but hold within them the promise of significant advances when they team up later this year.

Depending on what applications you rely on for work, your frequency of machine turnover, and what sort of deals you can find, the 2008 Mac Pros still offer a lot of value and power. A top-of-the-line ’08 will offer similar performance in most areas to the newer ones; they have more RAM capacity and a slower SuperDrive, but Apple is offering ATI Radeon HD 4870 kits for the 2008s.

Apple deserves some kudos for being perhaps the first computer manufacturer out of the gate with Nehalem-based workstations, but that may have come at the cost of, well, cost. As Intel amortizes its development costs, we may see price drops on the new Xeon line. But early adopters have always paid that kind of price to get the newest and shiniest. And the new Mac Pros are, indeed, “the fastest Macs ever.”

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications such as Salon, eWeek, MacWeek and The New York Times.

Source: Computerworld

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