Review: Apple's New Mac Pro Blows Away The Competition

Apple's latest desktop proves itself a winner in design, performance and flexibility.

November 13, 2006

8 Min Read
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After two weeks with one of the new Mac Pro desktops, I've got only one word: "Wow. The new Apple Mac Pro desktop is one of the best-designed, highly-performing desktops currently available at any price. Not only does it run Mac OS X and OS X applications at absolutely blazing speeds, but if you install Parallels Desktop for Mac (or Apple's Boot Camp), the Mac Pro makes a better Windows workstation than almost any other Windows desktop out there.

The attention to detail, as well as substantial improvement over the previous Power Mac G5, is obvious. Below the front-mounted power button and light are a complete set of I/O ports: two USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 400, one FireWire 800, and a headphone jack. This full set of front ports saves a great deal of time crawling around the back of the device. Two front panels allow the inclusion of dual optical drives, another key improvement.

On the back, three more USB 2.0 ports and an additional pair of FireWire ports (one 400, the other 800) are joined by S/PDIF optical digital audio in/out, and 1/8-inch line in/out ports. Two Ethernet ports can be used separately, but the Mac Pro also supports link aggregation and VLAN 802.1q tags (VLAN tags are used to allow 802.1q tunnelling and routing), allowing for a wide range of networking and networked storage options.

The case design is very similar to that of the previous Mac tower on the outside, but the differences inside are impressive. A single lever on the rear of the case allows the side panel to rotate up simply and quickly, giving easy access to up to four direct-attach internal drives, which slide into the side of the frame securely with almost no effort. A double-wide PCI Express slot for the graphics card keeps the other three full-size PCI Express slots free for other uses, and the system RAM is easily accessible via a pair of easily-removed riser cards.

The test machine came configured with top-of-the-line dual 3 GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon processors (the base configuration has a pair of 2.66 Ghz CPUs), 4 GB of 667 Mhz FB-DIMM RAM (expandable up to 16GB), and four 500GB SATA drives (maxing out the four drive bays), for a total of 2 Terabytes. The ATI Radeon X1900 XT graphics card that came with our Mac Pro is a solid performer. It's not quite as fast as the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500, which has the advantage of also being able to drive the 30-inch Apple Cinema HD display, but reasonably-priced and much more capable than the stock NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT. (The two Nvidia cards are the other two options for the Mac Pro.)

More Info On Apple's New Mac Pro

•  Windows On the Mac: Boot Camp Vs. Parallels Desktop for Mac

•  The Mac Pro In Detail: Image Gallery

Putting It To The Test
In testing the Mac Pro, I ran through a series of real-world tests and tasks, including digital video, audio, graphics, and DVD authoring products from Apple and Adobe, Microsoft office automation programs (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), and both cross-platform and single-platform benchmarks, such as Cinebench and XBench. Where possible, I initiated tests under both OS X and Windows XP SP2 using both the latest build of Parallels Desktop for Mac (Build 1970) and Apple's latest Boot Camp Beta (1.1.1). I also ran most tests, where possible, against my baseline reference platform, a 1Ghz G4 Powerbook with 1GB of RAM, upgraded with a Momentus 5400.2 120GB hard drive and a Pioneer DVR-K04L optical drive.

Raw power is what the Mac Pro is all about. Overall XBench numbers were roughly five times higher on the Mac Pro than the Powerbook reference platform (170.64 versus 35.70); that scale of differential is not unexpected, given the Mac Pro's two dual-core 3 Ghz processors, each with its own independent 1.33 Ghz frontside bus, ATI Radeon X1900 XT card loaded with 512MB of GDDR3 SSDRAM, 4 GB of fast system RAM, and up to four Serial ATA drives, each with its own 3Gb/s channel. Cinebench 9.5 figures were similarly impressive, many multiples above the reference platform.

Product Info

Mac ProApple Computer, Inc.Price: $2,499

In ripping and encoding audio data from a CD, the Mac Pro did only moderately better, at 3 minutes 55 seconds, than the Powerbook reference machine (4 minutes 35 seconds), but this anomalous result can likely be explained by a bottleneck created by the 32x CD read speed of the drives in both the Powerbook and the Mac Pro. More telling was the CPU-intensive task of re-encoding existing MP3 audio files to AAC, where the Mac Pro screamed along at roughly five times the speed of the reference platform, doing what the Powerbook took 6 minutes 17 seconds to do in a mere 1 minute, 5 seconds.

The office automation tasks again proved the worth of the Mac Pro. One test task, using Microsoft Word to load and scroll through a copy of Tolstoy's War And Peace, took 48 seconds to load and 1 minute 59 seconds to scroll on the Mac Pro, versus 1 minute 27 seconds and 2 minute 47 seconds on the reference platform. The same tasks under Windows using Parallels Workstation were, at 31 seconds and 1 minute 44 seconds, even faster, indicating likely performance gains when mainstays like the Microsoft Office suite are available in universal versions.

Slight Hit For Adobe
But while Apple's mix of Universal binary professional digital audio, video, graphics and authoring applications (Logic Pro, Soundtrack Pro, Final Cut Pro, and Aperture) run at warp speed on the Mac Pro, the many professionals now using Adobe software will have to make do with running under Rosetta until Adobe releases Universal binary versions of their products next spring.That said, while tests of Adobe's currently-shipping product versions reveal a significant performance hit for Rosetta, results certainly fall well within the usable range. For example, a series of Photoshop filters that processed in 11.5 seconds on the reference platform took half the time on the Mac Pro (6 seconds), while a second set took 5.5 seconds on the Mac Pro versus 15 seconds on the Powerbook. Much greater speeds can be expected when the Universal versions of the Adobe products appear, as suggested by the near-doubling of speeds (as compared to Rosetta) when using the Windows version of Photoshop to run the same tests natively on the Mac Pro via Apple's Boot Camp (3.3 seconds and 3 seconds, respectively).

My experience with using Boot Camp and the Mac Pro, along with the configuration of ATI Radeon X1900 graphics card and 23-inch Cinema Display, was the one major fly in the ointment. Due to apparent driver issues, installing Windows XP SP2 and using it proved to be a huge problem. Boot Camp is still beta software, and Apple has been releasing updates with some frequency -- but the new 1.1.2 version, released just as this review went to press, unfortunately does not seem to fix the issues I experienced.

One of the major drawbacks for this stellar desktop is price. Costs can accumulate quickly, especially when adding options and the very expensive FB-DIMM RAM. As a high-end workstation, the Mac Pro is very hard to beat, almost in a class of its own, but those looking for inexpensive generic employee workstations would best look elsewhere.

In addition, hardware RAID would be preferable to the software-based RAID options in the Mac Pro, though the familiar and easy-to-use software RAID setup allows for the usual range of mirrored and striped arrays, and is made much more flexible and has much greater capacity, due to the four internal drive bays.

The Mac Pro, however you look at it, is a very powerful, capable, expandable performer. Its dual OS X/Windows capability and adoption of a range of critical open standards make it worth consideration in any enterprise looking for the best possible machine for high-end use.

More Info On Apple's New Mac Pro

•  Windows On the Mac: Boot Camp Vs. Parallels Desktop for Mac

•  The Mac Pro In Detail: Image Gallery

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