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New Mac Pro — what is Apple smoking?

Smoking performance or smoking something else? We shall see!


I did not inhale like Michael or Bill

Today Apple announced the new Mac Pro, based on the Intel Xeon “Nehalem” processors, which promise higher performance at lower clock speeds.

With 16 virtual CPU cores on an 8-core system, processing power is theoretically high, but with many programs CPU cores are very poorly utilized, Photoshop being one of the most notable offenders.

See How to Select and Configure a Mac Pro for practical tips for getting high performance at reasonable cost.

I’ll be reviewing the new Mac Pro, but buying one and keeping it is quite another matter. Aside from the new processors and memory, they appear to offer next to nothing useful over the previous model—save a lot of money buying refurbished. Still, I am keeping an open mind until I test the new model.

Let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the new Nehalem Mac Pro.

The ugly

The entry-level quad-core 2.66GHz model has been crippled. It can’t be bought with more than 8GB memory, and it has only 4 memory slots. This is a very serious limitation, according to my Photoshop tests with large files, and it will only become more damaging as we see 64-bit programs emerge. Perhaps 4GB modules can actually be used (I’ll find out), but Apple is not offering them. The quad-core model is a poor investment when total system cost and expandability are concerned.

Pricing is truly ugly for the 8-core models"

2.26GHz: $3299
2.66GHz: $4699 17% faster at a 42% premium
2.93GHz: $5899 30% faster at a 80% premium

In this economy?!

Don’t even think about buying ultra-expensive Apple memory, go straight to OWC — you can get 16GB (8 X 2GB) for $300 at OWC. The 4GB modules will arrive soon too. And see All About Mac Pro Memory (describes previous generation model, but will be helpful in understanding a variety of issues).

The bad

The video card has been bastardized to use one Mini DisplayPort and one dual-link DVI port. I run two 30" monitors, and I need two dual-link DVI ports. That means spending $100 to hook up my 2nd monitor with the mini-DVI-to-DVI cable, not to mention more cable mess. More cost and more hassle is not progress. Since an extra video card is $150, one might as well get a second video card instead of the damned adapter cable for $100.

The memory is triple channel DDR3, achieving peak performance in multiples of 3 modules (hence the base config of 6X1GB in the 8-core). Did someone not do the math and realize that 8 is not a multiple of 3? What does that mean for the memory performance of those two extra modules? I’ll be testing that.

There are still only 4 internal hard drive bays. Users of HD video or mirrored arrays, etc would find 6 or 8 bays a huge plus. For that matter, the ability to run 2 or 3 SSD drives and 4 hard drives would be a big plus. One hopes that the new models have the same two extra SATA ports as found on the prior Mac Pro.

The good

Memory throughput is allegedly 2.4X faster. Certain programs might run a lot faster as a result, but most won’t. See Apple’s benchmarks.

The Nehalem processors are more efficient, but run at slower clock speeds, negating some of that gain. At $5899 for the 2.93GHz model vs $4099 for a refurbished previous generation 3.2GHz model, they had better be a lot faster. Be sure you understand your specific usage before buying, and also extra costs like memory.

Some specific programs will see large improvements, but Photoshop will see only a disappointing 20% gain for going from an 8-core 3.2GHz previous-gen Mac pro to an 8-core 2.93GHz Nehalem Mac Pro, which does not bode well for the 2.26GHz model.

Extrapolating those Apple tests, figure a 30% gain at the same clock rate, which means that a Nehalem 2.26GHz model is roughly equivalent to a 3GHz previous-generation model on many tasks. That’s assuming your task is purely CPU-bound, and not limited by disk or network speed.

The video card is faster, but so what? (Sorry gamers, I have real work to do). Video speed is outstanding already, and enabling OpenGL in Photoshop just makes the screen drawing speed awful and introduces more bugs than I’m willing to deal with. By the way, be very cautious of video card upgrades— some of them are noisier than the Mac Pro itself!

Related analysis: see Rob’s take at barefeats.com.


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