Intel is about to launch its next line of Xeon processors for dual-chip workstations, which will almost certainly find their way into the next generation of Apple's Mac Pros. But how long will we have to wait?
Though they haven't been formally announced by Intel yet, the Xeon 5500 series should be with us later this month. Originally detailed in a product road map at Intel's IDF Fall conference late last year, the chips are now being be offered by online retailers in the US -- both as components for system builders and within pre-built workstations.
Major workstations vendors such as Dell and HP haven't announced workstations with Xeon 5500 series chips -- it's very unlikely they will until Intel's formal announcement. Based on previous launches though, the names and specs of new models will quickly follow Intel taking the wraps off its new chips -- sometimes at the same launch event, where Intel uses the workstations to show off the processors.
In the past, Apple has stayed away from such events, preferring its own launch at a later date. The current chips inside the Mac Pro -- the Xeon 5400 series -- were announced by Intel in November 2007. Apple's updated Mac Pro with a choice of 2.8GH, 3.0GHz and 3.2GHz 5400-series chips followed in January 2008.
It's hard to speculate when Mac Pros with Xeon 5500-series chips will appear, as the 5500 series sees a major architecture overhaul. Its changes are much more fundamental than the current 5400 series was over its predecessor, so will require more time for Apple to engineer this into the Mac Pro.
The Xeon 5500 series is based on the same 'Nehalem' architecture as the single-processor Core i7 chips launched last year, which replaces the standard front-side bus (FSB) connecting the processor to the motherboard with the QuickPath Interconnect. This, and the introduction of separate paths between the processors and the RAM through an integrated memory controller, are designed to reduce data bottlenecks and improve overall performance.
There are three channels between each processor and the RAM, so to obtain the best performance you'll see RAM offered in groups of three module rather than the usual two. So you'll be ordering 1.5GB, 3GB, 6GB, or 12GB instead of the usual 1GB, 2GB, 4GB or 8GB -- and seeing more of power boost than just from the extra RAM alone.
As with Core i7, the Xeon 5500 series sees the re-introduction of Intel's Hyper-Threading technology, which enables each chip core to handle two software processes at once -- boosting performance for multi-threaded applications. So instead of having access to eight cores on a dual-processor Mac Pro, Mac OS X will have access to 16. However, your software will have to be optimized for this -- as many professional creative tools don't support more than eight cores. Some tools are sold with a licence for a maximum of eight cores - so you may have to pay more to access the full 16. This happens more with CAD applications than those for design, post-production and entertainment-focussed 3D creation.
For single-process applications, the Xeon 5500 series includes Turbo Mode (also seen on the Core i7). This donates boosts the speed of single cores when the computer detects only one is being used heavily. This won't affect creative tools much, but will be of interest to those who also use their Mac Pros to play processor-intensive games such as FPSs.