We mentioned the Mac Pro's multi-display capabilities earlier, and Apple makes this easy by selling four GeForce 7300 GT cards for only £300. If you need more 3D processing power, your options are more limited. A 512MB ATI Radeon X1900 XT for a fair £240 gives you more single-card 3D power, not to mention the ability to run two 30-inch LCDs. A £1,120 512MB Nvidia Quadro 4500 card will let you do stereo 3D for seemingly real-world 3D visualisation, which is useful in medical and other applications. We can't help but notice, though, that the Dell Precision 690 has a much wider workstation-class 3D-card selection (the Quadro 4500 card is cheaper, too). True, the Quadro 4500 is the top-of-the-line card, so Apple has the high-end covered, but for scalability, Dell offers more workstation cards, from entry level to the high end and all points in between.
We'll admit up front that our performance results for the Mac Pro don't paint the complete picture for readers with a professional level of interest. For one, our comparison system is an Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800-based test bed. We're working with Dell to obtain a comparable Precision 690, which we'll test as soon as we can get one in. We do think that we've covered some broad, general-usage scenarios, though, and in comparing the Mac Pro to a typical high-end Windows-based desktop, we hope to illustrate what the performance differences look like for the more casual users who might be tempted by the Mac Pro's considerable visual charms.
What we found interesting is what many workstation users know already. Performance comparisons between pro-level systems that use different operating systems are best made based on the application level, and not from the overall results of a system. The reason is that applications are often optimised for one operating system or another, depending on the OS for which the program was originally written, among other factors.
For example, on our iTunes and QuickTime tests, the Mac Pro won, but Apple wrote both programs, and they originally came out for the Mac OS. But on our DivX video-encoding test, the Windows-based test bed won. The DivX video codec has only recently been out for the Mac OS, but it's been available for Windows for years. We think these tests have value, because they tell you how these popular applications will run on the various platforms. But we can't say that our Mac Pro is unequivocally better at video encoding than the Windows test bed -- it depends on which application you use.
As usual with the Intel-based Macs, Photoshop is a controversial test to run because Adobe hasn't converted the current version of Photoshop to run natively on Intel CPUs. This means it runs in Apple's Rosetta emulation mode and, as such, will be slow. It's valid because if you want to run Photoshop on an Intel-based Mac, that's what you have to deal with (Boot Camp aside) until Adobe comes out with an Intel-native Mac OS Creative Suite (due sometime next year). We didn't expect the Mac Pro to excel on this test, but to its credit it did better than we thought -- it trailed the Windows test bed by only 45 seconds.
We think the most telling test in this suite is CineBench, which lets us test each system's video-rendering capability with one CPU thread, as well as with multiple, simultaneous CPU threads. On the single-threaded test, the Mac Pro won by a decent margin. But on the multiple CPUs test, the Mac Pro dominated, nearly tripling our Windows test bed's score. On the one hand, that's not a surprise, you'd expect a PC that supports up four concurrent threads to be faster than a PC that supports only two on a test that puts all available CPU cores to work. But what's important is that you can't currently buy a Core 2 Duo-based Windows PC that has four CPU cores. So this test lets us show that, all other things being equal, for programs that truly take advantage of multithreaded CPUs, the Mac Pro should give you a leg up over any of today's desktop PCs.
Our Quake 4 test is not exactly apples-to-apples because our Windows test bed used a GeForce 7600 GT 3D card, which has faster clock speeds than the Mac Pro's GeForce 7300 GT. We don't feel that bad about the disparity, though, because the next step up from Apple is a £240 ATI Radeon X1900 XT card. So unless you're serious about Mac gaming, the 7300 GT is it for the Mac Pro on the lower end of the 3D scale, while your Windows 3D graphics card options are wide open. That said, Quake 4 on the Mac Pro is perfectly playable, even at the more demanding 1,600x1,200-resolution setting, where it clocked 31.6fps. We maintain that the Mac is not a good gaming platform, but the Mac Pro has so much raw CPU power that it can give you a nice boost.
Apple's service and support is still weak, especially for a high-end system such as the Mac Pro. The default plan gets you a year of hardware parts-and-labour coverage but only 90 days of phone support. For an additional £199, you can bump both the warranty and the phone support to three years via the AppleCare Protection Plan. Apple's forums continue to provide a wealth of product help, and Apple's own support page also has a decent amount of information.
Additional editing by Kate Macefield