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

Apple Mac Pro (Winter 2009)

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
9 min read

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.


Apple Mac Pro (Winter 2009)

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.

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.

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)

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

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple Mac Pro 2009

(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering Multiple CPUs  
Rendering Single CPU  
Apple Mac Pro 2009
Apple Mac Pro 2008 8GB
Apple Mac Pro 2008 4GB
Velocity Micro Edge Z55

We found a much better outlook for the new eight-core Mac Pro on programs that rely on the strength of the system as a whole, such as Apple's Final Cut Studio 2, and on our multitasking and Cinebench tests that split the work between multiple processing cores. Keep in mind that our comparison Mac Pros also have eight CPU cores, and a faster clock speed than the new model, but the new Mac Pro was able to overtake them on all of the above tests. The fact that our default $3,299 review unit outpaced the 8GB version of the old model, which would have cost $4,299 as tested, proves that not only is the new Mac Pro faster on these media rich programs than previous Mac Pros, it also provides more bang for your buck.

Call of Duty 4 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Apple Mac Pro 2009

The gaming prospects of our Mac Pro review unit are less exciting. Yes, the 512MB GeForce GT 120 card provides a marked improvement in 3D performance compared with the older Mac Pros. But our Call of Duty 4 time-demo tests ran at 1,680x1,050 and 4x anti-aliasing, both relatively forgiving settings, and the new Mac Pro was unable to hit an even 30 frames per second. Yes, you can purchase a faster 3D card from Apple, but you'd have to pay a minimum of $2,699 to upgrade even the less expensive four-core Mac Pro. If gaming on a Mac is your goal, you still have to pay a disproportionate amount compared with a Windows desktop with the same level of 3D performance. Alternatively, the default graphics card will certainly let you dabble in 3D games, although you're better off with lower resolutions and image quality settings, as well as less demanding titles.

As we've said, our performance results apply only to the new eight-core Mac Pro in its default configuration. Apple offers a 2.66GHz, 3GB four-core model beginning at $2,499, as well various CPU, memory, hard-drive, and other upgrades for our eight-core model. Our review unit will cost you $3,299. You can also buy a 2.93GHz, 32GB, 4TB hard-drive model with a RAID card, four 3D cards, and a second DVD burner for $14,249. Incidentally, in spite of what we said earlier about the new DDR3 RAM working fastest in groups of three memory sticks, Apple also offers 8GB, 16GB, and the aforementioned 32GB configuration in groups of four and eight sticks. Apple says it offers this option for customers who might care less about memory speed and more about the sheer amount of RAM.

Like Apple's new iMac, the Mac Pro also has an option for the numeric-keypad-free version of the Apple keyboard, although the default option gets you the standard full-size model. The Mac Pro also has no default wireless networking, not a must-have in a traditional desktop, but you can add an AirPort Extreme card for an extra $50. Other options include various mini DisplayPort adapters, as well as different Fiber Channel PCI Express cards and professional software packages.

In addition to the video ports mentioned earlier, the Mac Pro also gets you a handful of digital and analog audio jacks, as well as USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 ports on the front and back. We'd still rather see Apple adopt the external eSATA standard for even faster external-hard-drive transfers than FireWire 800.

Finally, our opinion of Apple's service and support policies remains the same throughout its entire desktop line. The one-year parts and labor warranty is standard across the desktop industry, and we find that reasonable enough. But the 90-day limit on phone support stings even on the lowly Mac Mini. Applying that same standard to expensive, professional-grade hardware like the Mac Pro is even harder to stomach. You can always look on Apple's support site, its user forum, or even drag your system in to an Apple Store, but otherwise if you want a longer term for phone-based assistance you need to purchase the AppleCare Protection Plan, which for $249 gets you three years of phone service and also three years of warranty coverage.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

Apple Mac Pro (Two 2.26GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon, Winter 2009)
Mac OS X 10.5.6; (2) 2.26GHz Intel Xeon 5500; 6GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 640GB 7,200 rpm hard drive; 512MB Nvidia GeForce GT 120 graphics card

Apple Mac Pro (4GB, 2008)
Mac OS X 10.5.6; (2) 2.8GHz Intel Xeon E5440; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 320GB 7,200 rpm hard drive; 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card

Apple Mac Pro (8GB, 2008)
Mac OS X 10.5.6; (2) 2.8GHz Intel Xeon E5440; 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 320GB 7,200 rpm hard drive; 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card

Velocity Micro Edge Z55
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 3.0GHz Intel Core i7-920 (overclocked); 6GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4870 graphics cards; 750GB 7,200 rpm Hitachi hard drive


Apple Mac Pro (Winter 2009)

Score Breakdown

Design 10Features 8Performance 8Support 5