Professional designers, digital media hobbyists and those simply into great design: meet your new lust object. Apple's new Mac Pro (£1,699 for the base model) is a winner on multiple levels. From the outside, it looks great -- far more put together than any Windows-based box. Inside, it boasts powerful specs, including two dual-core Intel Xeon processors, for a total of four processing cores. And to top it off, it's a great value.
The only thing that's missing, if anything, is a practical reason for a casual user to justify the purchase; there's more computer here than you'll need for day-to-day tasks. Some users might miss the Apple Remote that made the Mac Mini and the iMac so accessible as Media Center PCs, and as always, Apple's high-end desktop is not intended for the gaming crowd.
Photoshop performance also lags behind that of comparable Windows-based PCs because Adobe still hasn't released an Intel-friendly version for Mac OS X. Those few issues shouldn't surprise anyone, however, and on balance, the Mac Pro more than makes up for them. If you need a fast computer for digital media creation, the Mac Pro should be your first stop.
No Windows-based PC can compare to the sheer economy and innovation involved in the design of the Apple Mac Pro. The exterior is largely unchanged from that of the Power Mac G5, maintaining the same 'cheese grater' appearance on the front and rear panels and the same brushed aluminium on the sides, the top and the bottom. Key differences on the Mac Pro's front panel include an added optical-drive slot, an extra USB 2.0 port and a FireWire 800 jack. The latter particularly benefits designers who move their work between machines via external hard drives, since the faster, easy-to-access FireWire 800 input can transmit data quicker than USB 2.0 or standard FireWire 400.
The back panel of the Mac Pro also has a different layout than that of the Power Mac G5, but the changes are more a function of the internal design, which is one of the most exciting things about this system. The Power Mac G5 impressed people with its clean interior. The Mac Pro's internals are better because they're not simply clean -- they introduce new ideas about how to best build a PC.
Our favourite feature of the Mac Pro is the hard drive design. Too often, we see hard drives that block expansion bays, are hard to remove or whose power and data cables dangle around the inside of a system like a cheap party banner. Instead, Apple has mounted the hard drives in a row directly under the optical drive cage and the power supply.
Each drive attaches to a numbered bracket (Apple calls them 'sleds') that slides into an outward-facing bay. The brackets lock into place when you lift the side-panel-removal tab on the rear of the Mac Pro, and the numbers on each bracket tell you what bay the attached drive belongs to. The number system prevents mixing up your boot drives with your data storage drives, but perhaps the best part of this design is that you don't have to deal with any cables: Apple has mounted all of the necessary connections directly in line with each hard drive bay and out of the way of the rest of the system.
The connections line up perfectly with the hard drives and their brackets, and drives require little-to-no force to remove and reinstall. The only caveat is that the drives aren't hot-swappable, meaning you can't take them out and put them back in when the Mac Pro is powered on. However, hot-swapping is more a feature of a server, and not something we'd expect from a high-end desktop or most workstations.
The Mac Pro also has a new mechanism for adding and removing system memory. Instead of requiring you to reach into the system and wade through overhanging cables to get to the memory slots, the Mac Pro has two removable circuit boards, each of which features four memory slots. These cards fit a little more snugly than the hard drive brackets, but they require only about as much pressure to reseat as a typical PC expansion card. This system eliminates the need to lay the Mac Pro down on its side to swap memory in and out, which is useful because you don't always have that much work space available, particularly with a system of this size.
We have a minor niggle with the removable memory trays, in that they make the problem of installing the memory in the correct order a little more complicated. Put your sticks in the wrong slots, and you'll throttle your memory bandwidth. The Mac Pro's side panel has a diagram that attempts to explain the proper order to use, but the instructions could be a little more intuitive. We'd also wager that it won't occur to many users to realise that the order makes a difference.
For further expansion, the Mac Pro comes with four x16 PCI Express slots. The advantage here is that the x16 slots can accommodate all types of PCI Express cards -- x16, x4 and x1. This doesn't mean that you can double up on 3D graphics power the way Nvidia's SLI and ATI's CrossFire technologies allow on high-end gaming boxes, but what you can do is install four graphics cards and output to up to eight different displays. That capability could be of benefit to designers, desktop publishers, people in the finance industry and anyone else who wants more screen space than a single display affords.
The optical drive cage is a removable box in the upper-left corner of the system into which you can fit up to two optical drives. Unlike with the hard drives, you still need to wrangle with cables, but with the cage in place they're kept away from the rest of the system.
As for the CPUs, Apple has mounted a metal casing over them that's not easy to remove. This doesn't invite making your own processor upgrades, but the team at PowerMax showed that the processor casing can be removed, proving that DIY CPU upgrades are a possibility.
Like Apple's Power Macs before it, the Mac Pro is clearly aimed at professionals. Its default £1,699 configuration that we tested features some average components, including a single 250GB hard drive, a lone SuperDrive 16x DVD burner, and a budget-level 256MB GeForce 7300 GT graphics card. Where it'll start impressing you is with its two 2.66GHz Intel Xeon processors and 1GB of high-end system memory by way of two 512MB 667MHz DDR2 ECC SDRAM modules. ECC, or error-correcting code, is a feature of server-class memory designed to ensure stability. It makes plenty of sense to include ECC memory in a professional-level desktop, but it's overkill for everyday use or even for gamers.
Like the Power Mac G5 Quad it replaces, the Mac Pro comes with two dual-core CPUs, effectively giving it four independent processing threads. You can see the benefits of four threads in our performance section. What matters more in our features discussion is the type of chips it uses. The server-class Xeon chips are based on Intel's new Core architecture, the same design behind Intel's category-leading Core 2 Duo desktop chips. These new Xeons incorporate all of the power-efficiency and performance-enhancing capabilities of their desktop counterparts. That means that not only is the Mac Pro fast, it's also efficient. Yes, it has a massive heat sink, but it also has but four system fans; the PowerPC G5 Quad had nine.
Apple made a big deal about the Mac Pro's value proposition when the system was introduced at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference in early August. A slide at the show compared the baseline Mac Pro to a Dell Precision 690 workstation with a similar configuration, and the price difference was more than $1,000 (£528) in Apple's favour. We did the same comparison on our own and saw a $1,340 (£704) difference, so we wonder if Apple was being generous. The customisation options between the two vary, though. Dell has more hard drive configuration options, including 10,000rpm drives, which Apple still doesn't offer (the company said that its customers want capacity more than speed). For professionals with the luxury to choose, it's hard to make a blanket statement about which is the superior platform for value and flexibility, because the configuration options and specific professional needs vary widely. But starting from the baseline specs, at least, it appears that the Mac Pro's initial offer is a much better deal.
If you're thinking of using the Mac Pro for pleasure as well as work, you should consider a couple of things. We probably don't need to underline the fact that Macs aren't good for gaming, but what we find interesting is that Apple hasn't made the Mac Pro as Media Center-friendly as the Mac Mini and the iMac. There's no Bluetooth or AirPort wireless networking built in, although you can add them for £50. Nor is there an option at all for the Apple Remote to run Apple's Front Row software. We don't expect that the lack of a remote will trouble professional users, but the Power Macs had a history of crossing over into consumer-level territory, and the omission of a remote from the Mac Pro (admittedly, not as intuitive a platform for the remote) seems to isolate it further from the casual buyer.
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