New Apple Mac Pro packs a mighty punch

In front of me, two 30-in. Apple Cinema Displays glow softly at my desk. Beside me sits the fastest stock-configuration Macintosh that Apple Inc. has ever shipped: a superfast eight-core Mac Pro.

Inside the Mac — and on full display on those screens — is Mac OS X 10.5, better known as Leopard, Apple’s latest operating system. All around me is the work I’ve been putting off that is now getting done.

The latest update to Apple’s Mac Pro desktop line was unveiled early in January, just before this year’s Macworld Expo. The timing of the announcement raised a few questions — for example, if this was such an important release, why wasn’t it announced by CEO Steve Jobs himself at Macworld?

Macworld’s focus turned out to be Apple’s ultra-graceful MacBook Air, but one thing is certain: This Mac Pro packs a mighty punch in raw bandwidth and horsepower.

Pushing the Mac speed envelope

Although eight-core models were already available, they only came as a pricey special-order option. Now they’re pretty much the whole lineup: The entry-level model starts at US$2,799 for two quad-core chips.

From there, the price rises rather precipitously, hitting $4,399 for two 3.2-GHz quad-core chips. (If you wish, you can skimp and get a 2.8-GHz quad-core machine for $2,299, which is $500 less than the base price.)

Inside all of the new Mac Pro machines are Intel Xeon 5400-series processors, code-named Harpertown. My review unit is the eight-core 2.8-GHz model, stacked with 4GB of memory — double the standard configuration.

Each quad-core processor sports 6MB of Level 2 cache memory, so this particular Mac Pro has 12MB. The main logic board architecture also received an upgrade — it now sports high-bandwidth, dual independent 1,600-MHz front-side buses, allowing you to use up to 32GB of 800-MHz DDR2 ECC FB-DIMM memory.

Spending note: That amount of RAM will cost you more than the Mac Pro itself, even at third-party resellers. And if you buy it from Apple, the 32GB will set you back $9,100.

Inside the now-familiar aluminum case, the review unit came with two 1TB hard drives, filling up two drive bays and leaving another two open. The Mac Pro can hold as much as 4TB of internal storage.

Graphics sit on a double-wide 16-lane PCI Express 2.0 slot, which is large enough to hold even the biggest graphic cards without sacrificing the other three neighboring ports.

Of the four PCI Express slots available, two are x16 PCI Express 2.0 slots offering high-speed data transfers of 8GB/sec., and two are PCI Express x4 slots, which are more standard-issue fare.

The graphics card is nothing to sneeze at: an ATI Radeon HD 2600 with 256MB of GDDR3 dedicated video RAM capable of pushing enough power for two 2560-by-1600-pixel, 30-in. Cinema Displays.

The $1,799 displays themselves are gorgeous, displaying deep blacks and vibrant hues at a resolution sharp enough to show off Mac OS X Leopard’s amazingly detailed and fluid graphics while rendering even small text clearly.

Speaking of Leopard, the fastest hardware in the world isn’t going to help you much if the operating system controlling the computer isn’t up to the task. Here, Leopard excels.

Everything is snappy and instantaneous, and with this much screen real estate, I could even see logic behind the original implementation of Stacks, Apple’s new Dock feature. (Of course, not everyone uses two 30-in. displays.)

Leopard was designed for just this kind of machine because it takes advantage of multiple cores — which is the latest industry trend after years of pushing ever-higher processor frequencies. Leopard’s task scheduler is extremely efficient at allocating tasks among all of the Mac Pro’s cores.

This is a feature that actually extends throughout Apple’s product lines, because Leopard’s thread manager scales to match the hardware on which it’s running.

That yields more efficient distribution of threads, more cores being fed, less waiting for a task to complete and more efficient recovery in case of system hangs — all of it automatic and invisible to the user. All you see is pure on-screen snappiness.

After a month, I can say I’ve never had to wait less for any application to launch or process to complete.

This system is beyond the sum of its parts. It’s the technological equivalent of a well-played symphony: Each individual piece is solid in its own right, but everything is amplified once they’re put together in concert.

It’s a hard-knock life

Just how solid is the Mac Pro? After nearly a month of extensive testing, dragging it through Photoshop tests and Final Cut Pro editing, multiple iPhoto databases taking up dozens of gigabytes, and tons of video converting, not once did I have to restart this computer — a flawless uptime.

When time is money, uptime is mandatory. The combination of Mac Pro hardware, Leopard operating and the Mac apps screams efficiency.

I’ve been a big fan of the Mac Pro enclosure, which — while getting a little long in the tooth — continues to offer easy access to the technology innards. But I’m not sure about the cheese-grater grill look these days, especially in comparison with Apple’s other designs.

I understand the decision to keep the look during the company’s successful Intel transition two years ago, but it’s probably time the Mac Pro got a little sleeker, maybe with carrying handles that don’t cut so much into your hands when you pick up the unit.

And since this is a high-end machine geared to pros, the Mac Pro could use more connectivity, especially in terms of media card readers.

No doubt, when designing its hardware, Apple must balance ports and features against the needs and wants of their target audience. But I can’t imagine a better audience for media card readers.

Users who work with Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, Aperture, Maya, After Effects, DVD Studio Pro or any other high-end app are the same people who would probably find built-in media card slots for accessing video and digital photos convenient.

Doing so might upset Apple’s penchant for minimalism, but users would appreciate it.

Also, at a time when Apple is pushing wireless connectivity, the Mac Pro doesn’t come with Wi-Fi as part of its standard configuration. If you want to connect to a Wi-Fi network, you have to pony up another $50 for an 802.11n card.

I know that this machine’s main purpose is to move as much data as quickly as possible, so I’m not exactly surprised.

Connecting this machine to a gigabit network makes much more sense for transferring data than wireless, but considering the price of Mac Pro hardware, Wi-Fi should be a part of the deal, not an add-on.

Despite those admittedly nitpicky issues, the enclosure itself is a dream to work with. As I noted earlier, this particular Mac Pro came with two 1TB drives installed, leaving two of the four hard-drive bays inside free.

The bays resemble those in the Xserve, so adding or swapping drives is simple. Just pull out the drive cart, attach a hard drive to it with four screws, and slide the combo back into the machine — no messing with cables.

While not new to the Mac Pro line, it’s a setup that makes adding and moving storage media from one Mac Pro to another surprisingly quick.

I can think of more than a few graphics shops that could use that feature at crunch time, when transferring big projects via FireWire won’t cut it.

Similarly, swapping out the graphics card or accessing the PCI Express expansion slots is almost too easy, as if Apple removed half the fun of getting into computers.

Keeping with that trend, accessing the Mac Pro’s eight FB-DIMM slots, located on memory riser cards, is also very, very easy.

Speed sells

When a colleague of mine heard that I was testing this particular configuration, he posed a question: “Given the price difference, is it worth purchasing Apple’s Pro lines when the consumer lines seem plenty fast enough?”

I do a lot of digital video work, so I decided the best way to find out the answer was to actually try to get some work done. This included finishing up the video projects I’ve been putting off, converting digital video formats for files long ignored and encoding some video content to different formats.

From a cold boot, the Mac Pro needed just 40 seconds for the Dock to appear and the desktop to load. I started throwing processor-intensive video applications like Final Cut Pro, Handbrake and Visual Hub at it.

Throughout my tests, the Mac Pro was at least three times faster than the consumer models I compared it with, including a Core 2 Duo Mac mini with a 1.83-GHz processor and 1GB of RAM, and a Core 2 Duo MacBook with the 2-GHz chip and 1GB of RAM.

For instance, it took the Mac mini and the MacBook about three and a half hours to convert a 1-hour, 58-minute movie from a DVD to a high-bit-rate H.264 mpeg4 file; the same task took just over 45 minutes on the Mac Pro. In another test, it took 84 minutes and 40 seconds on the Mac mini to convert a 45-minute AVI file to an H.264 movie file; on the Mac Pro, the job took just 12 minutes.

Working with Final Cut Pro yielded similarly impressive results, with most jobs taking one-third the time needed on Apple’s consumer hardware.

In other words, when time is money, spending more on a Mac Pro can offer payback in myriad ways.

The Mac Pro is aimed first and foremost at professionals — although well-off speed demons will want it, too — and Apple’s latest revision to the lineup is more than worth the price of admission.

Given the plethora of build-to-order options Apple now offers, there’s a Mac Pro for just about any task. This is an amazing machine that is as fast as it is stable, offering pure brute force and processing power at a competitive price for what you get.

Michael DeAgonia is a computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macintoshes and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld , colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry and Apple. Currently, he is working as a Macintosh administrator at a large media company.

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