Professional designers, digital media hobbyists, and those simply into great design: meet your new lust object. Apple's new Mac Pro ($2,499 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. Home users might miss the Apple Remote that made the Mac Mini and the iMac so accessible as home-theater 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 the Mac OS. 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 matter how many LEDs Alienware puts on the outside of its cases or how well Velocity Micro routes its internal cables, 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 aluminum 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 more quickly 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 wowed people with its clean interior. The Mac Pro's internals are better because they're more than just clean--they introduce new ideas about how to best build a PC.
Our favorite 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 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. Hot-swapping is more a feature of a server anyway 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 beef 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 realize 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 stick in 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 real estate 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 $2,499 configuration, which is what 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 sticks. 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 casual home 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 Xeon chips are based on Intel's new Core architecture, the same design behind Intel's category-leading Core 2 Duo consumer chips. These new Xeons incorporate all of the power-efficiency and performance-enhancing capabilities of their consumer 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 in Apple's favor. We did the same comparison on our own and saw a $1,340 difference, so we wonder if Apple was being generous. The customization options between the two vary, though. Dell has more hard drive configuration options, including 10,000rpm drives, which Apple still doesn't offer (its customers want capacity more than speed, is what Apple told us). For professionals with the luxury to choose a platform, 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 a home user with an appetite for a powerful desktop such as the Mac Pro, 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 home-theater friendly as the Mac Mini and the iMac. There's no Bluetooth or AirPort wireless networking built in, although you can add them for $79. 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 rattle 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 $450. If you need more 3D processing power, your options are more limited. A 512MB ATI Radeon X1900 XT for a fair $350 gives you more single-card 3D power, not to mention the ability to run two 30-inch LCDs. A $1,650 512MB Nvidia Quadro 4500 card will let you do stereo 3D for seemingly real-world 3D visualization, 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 $200 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 right out of the gate 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 optimized for one operating system or another, depending on the OS for which the program was originally written, among other factors.
For example, on CNET Labs' 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, because it depends on which application you use.