Apple Mac Pro (Winter 2009) review: Apple Mac Pro (Winter 2009)

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MSRP: $2,499.00

The Good Best-in-class desktop design; interior makes upgrades and parts replacement simple; strong performance on HD video and 3D rendering thanks to new Intel CPU and faster RAM

The Bad Relatively slow performance on programs such as Photoshop that rely on single-core CPU speed; we wish it had eSATA instead of FireWire 800 for external hard-drive connections.

The Bottom Line Apple's new eight-core Mac Pro demonstrates marked improvements over the older model in high-intensity digital media and multitasking scenarios. We also love the design tweaks that improve on Apple's already industry-leading sensibilities. Any Apple-bound design professional would welcome this new tool in his or her arsenal.

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8.1 Overall
  • Design 10
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Support 5

In addition to revamping its iMac and Mac Mini desktops in the beginning of March, Apple also updated its highest end professional-level Mac Pros. Available as before in four- and eight-core configurations, the newest Mac Pros have a number of new technologies and design features, including Intel's latest Xeon CPUs. For the most part, the upgrade resulted in performance gains over the previous generation of Mac Pros, despite the fact that our baseline, $3,299 eight-core review unit has a significantly slower processor clock speed. The design tweaks in the new systems also further distance Apple from even the most image-conscious of its Windows-based competitors. Heavy Photoshop users may wish for a faster CPU clock, but anyone engaged in professional digital media production work or other tasks that take advantage of the Mac Pro's full system power will enjoy noticeable performance benefits on top of best-in-class design.

At least on the outside, the Mac Pro looks very similar to previous models. Your taste may vary, but we still find the sculpted brushed-aluminum chassis one of the most attractive desktop designs out there. Apple has added few external features to the new Mac Pro. The only major difference is a pair of new video ports on the Nvidia GeForce GT 120 graphics card. Instead of a pair of standard DVI ports as in the past, the new card now includes dual-link DVI and mini DisplayPort outputs. As before, you can add up to three more graphics cards to the Mac Pro for additional display support. Keep in mind that adding those cards will not get you increased 3D graphics performance via Nvidia's SLI or ATI's Crossfire multi-GPU technologies.

The Mac Pro features four easy-to-remove hard-drive brackets.

Inside the Mac Pro, Apple highlights the benefits of building products within its own hardware and software ecosystem. The interior is segmented into distinct zones for the various hardware components. The optical drives and power supply are concealed behind pull-out metal drawers, and below sits the familiar row of four removable hard-drive trays. Apple has preserved the cable-free hard-drive interface we came to love in the older Mac Pro here in the new model, and indeed we've seen numerous Windows vendors imitate this design in the two years since its debut.

In addition, the expansion card slots, and the CPUs and memory have also received improved design elements. Rather than relying on the various annoying retainer tabs common to PCI Express graphics slots on PC motherboards, Apple uses a single metal rod that spans across all four expansion slots to hold its cards in place. It's a simple solution to a problem you will only encounter when you add or remove an expansion card, but given the price of the Mac Pro especially, we appreciate that the rod mechanism makes card upgrades that much easier.

You can slide the CPUs and memory out of the Mac Pro completely, thanks to its clever tray design.

For the CPUs and memory, if you'll recall the older Mac Pro, you'll remember its memory attached to a unique removable tray that fit into the motherboard like one large expansion card. Apple has taken that concept a step further in this new system, and now you can remove the entire CPU and memory portion of the motherboard via a simple tray design. As with the expansion card rod, this removable tray really only benefits those who will make frequent upgrades or repairs to the Mac Pro. And while you likely pay a premium for it, we don't blame Apple for flexing its design muscle and providing its customers with the sense that the Mac Pro is as much a unique design object as a productivity tool. With Windows PC makers largely reliant on industry standards for motherboards and other components, few, if any, of Apple's competitors are as well-positioned to make such dramatic innovations to their own desktops.

  Apple Mac Pro (2009) Apple Mac Pro (2008)
Price $3,299 $4,299
CPU (2) 2.26GHz Intel Xeon 5500 (2) 2.8GHz Intel Xeon 5440
Memory 6GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Graphics 512MB Nvidia GeForce GT 120 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT
Hard drives 640GB, 7,200rpm 320GB, 7,200rpm
Optical drive dual-layer DVD burner dual-layer DVD burner
Networking Gigabit Ethernet Gigabit Ethernet
Operating system Apple Mac OS X 10.5.6 Apple Mac OS X 10.5.6

The physical changes to the Mac Pro out of the way, we can now focus on the technology updates. From the last model, Apple has updated the Mac Pro's CPU, memory, and graphics card. As with the older Mac Pro, the new model comes in either single-chip quad-core or dual-chip eight-core configurations, but Apple has now upgraded to Intel's Xeon 5500 chips, based on the Nehalem core shared by Intel's Core i7 consumer desktop chips.

With Nehalem comes a few technology upgrades, specifically support for DDR3 memory and the return of Hyper-Threading Technology from the days of Intel's Pentium 4 chips. Hyper-Threading can simulate more processing threads on the CPU, for up to 16 threads in total on our eight-core Mac Pro. Aside from the processing and memory, Apple has also added a 512MB Nvidia GeForce GT 120 graphics card to the new Mac Pro's baseline spec, which amounts to a faster GPU and twice the graphics memory as the older ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT default card. You also get a 640GB hard drive this time around, double the previous model's standard option.

Before we get into our performance tests we should point out that our primary comparison for our eight-core default spec Mac Pro is the eight-core model from the previous generation. Because the new model's triple-channel memory needs to work in groups of three to take advantage of its full 1,066MHz bandwidth, we kept our review unit with its default 6GB of DDR3 RAM. The older model, on the other hand, uses dual-channel DDR2 memory, and so it works fastest in multiples of two. Thus, we tested the older system with 4GB and 8GB to account for both higher and lower memory allotments in relation to the new 6GB system. Interestingly, we saw little difference between our 4GB and 8GB test results, but since we have the scores, we might as well share what we found.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple Mac Pro 2009

Adobe Photoshop CS4 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple Mac Pro 2009

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple Mac Pro 2009

First, it's important to note that the new CPUs' core 2.26GHz clock speed is significantly slower than the pair of 2.8GHz chips in the older model. This does not mean that the new Mac Pro is slow across the board, because remember it still has faster memory and a whole new CPU architecture with a more efficient cache structure. But what it does mean is that for applications that rely heavily on single-core processing speed, such as Photoshop, our review unit actually lagged behind both the older model (in 4GB and 8GB configurations), and less expensive Windows desktop from Velocity Micro. We should add that the less expensive four-core version of the new Mac Pro has a single 2.66Ghz quad-core chip, which could close the performance gap on these kinds of tests.

Apple Final Cut Studio 2 (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
QuickTime encoding with blur  
Log and transfer  
Apple Mac Pro 2009

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