Early last week, Apple CEO Steve Jobs officially took the wraps off of Apple's newest professional desktop machine, the Mac Pro. Better yet, it was available immediately -- without the usual weeks-long wait that sometimes plagues the release of new Macs.

Earlier this week, I got a chance to work with a Mac Pro for an hour or so to see how it stacks up against the now-discontinued Power Mac G5, as well as its PC rivals. The model offered by Apple for purposes of this quick review was the standard configuration, which has the stock 2.66GHz Xeon 5150 processors, 1GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, a single 16x SuperDrive and the nVidia GeForce 7300 GT graphics card with 256MB of video RAM - which costs a modest £1,445 plus VAT ($2,499 in the US).

Xeon inside

The dual-core, dual-processor, 64-bit machine is significantly quieter than Apple's previous top-of-the-line machine, the Power Mac G5 Quad, no doubt due to the lower power requirements and dramatically lower heat output from Intel's Xeon "Woodcrest" chips. While the Mac Pro's outer casing is not appreciably different from the Quad G5, the inside has been completely revamped. Since the heat output of the new system is so much lower than in the G5, the number of fans has been cut from nine to four, and the liquid cooling system is gone. That leaves much more room for computing components, and having fewer fans means less noise.

Yes, these machines are as silent as they are slick looking, and the internal components are also now much easier to self-service. The DVD drives (you can now have two) are in removable, sliding bays. The PCI expansion slots are easier to populate, with a single, captive thumbscrew holding the bar that maintains the card placement. In other words, there are no more screws to lose and no tools needed to add or remove cards. The PCI slots are all configurable as 1, 2, 4 or 8x slots, and the first slot is a double-wide to accommodate many of the newer graphics cards without blocking another slot.

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Additionally, the hard drive bays are lined up across the inside in a configuration similar to an XServe, where SATA drives easily slide out on a cable-free sled. Professional operations will really appreciate the fact that -- unlike the Xserve -- the Mac Pro drives can be upgraded by buying any SATA drive and putting four screws in the tray to hold it in place. Now, that

As for RAM, it now resides on a removable riser so a user can gently pull the whole assembly out, rest it on its attached rubber strips (no more worrying about static), and install new RAM without slicing fingers. Note: the RAM in the new Mac Pro is a special type called Fully Buffered DIMM (FB-DIMM) that was designed by Intel specifically to work with the Woodcrest processors. These RAM chips have a 256-bit-wide data path and onboard application-specific integrated circuits to ensure optimal integration. It also yields a stunning 21.3GB/sec of throughput to the processors. Each DIMM pair has a heat sink built into it to keep heat in check without adding fans or noise.

Aluminum outside

Looking at the outside of the Mac Pro it's obvious that this box was built with the professional user in mind. On the front of the machine are two USB and a FireWire 400 port, just like in the G5. But there is now a FireWire 800 port out front as well. This was installed to accommodate editing professionals whose clients often show up with external FireWire 800 drives. The total amount of internal storage can grow to as much as 2TB using four 500GB SATA drives that can be set up in a RAID 0 configuration for optimal speed.

On the back of the machine: another FireWire 400 port and a second FireWire 800 port, plus two built-in, independent Dual-Gigabit ethernet ports. Again, this was done with professional operations in mind so that one ethernet port can talk to the Xsan metadata controller and the second works with the data network. Of course, those not using Xsan can use the ports independently with two networks or bind them to give the machine a 2GB ethernet interface.

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Apple officials have been touting the price competitiveness of the Mac Pro and how for the first time in history a Mac is cheaper than the equivalent hardware on the PC side. "Professionals who are in the workstation market will find that the Mac Pro is priced $1,000 (around £530) less than a comparably configured Dell computer," said Tom Boger, Apple

That's not just hyperbole. The Mac Pro is cheaper than similarly outfitted hardware from Dell. And it makes one heck of a machine on which to run both Mac OS X and Windows XP. (Like Apple's other Intel-based machines, the Mac Pro does Windows.) The standard configuration, as I mentioned earlier, starts at £1,445 ($2,499); A Dell Precision 690 configured the same goes for $3,448 in the US (UK pricing wasn't available at time of writing). Of course, Dell gives all sorts of discounts depending on the day, time, and position of the moons around Saturn -- so your mileage may vary. But the standard pricing is what most people will be offered.

Note: Buyers can configure their Mac Pro in a lot of ways. Want more speed? Opt for the 3GHz "Woodcrest" processors and fork over another £460 ($800). Or if you want more green in your wallet, choose the 2.0 chips, and keep £170 ($300). There are similar options for hard drives, video cards and wireless networking. On these professional machines, Bluetooth and Airport are considered build-to-order options, since many professionals are on a wired network and have no need for those features.

The Mac Pro can hold and address up to 16GB of RAM, sport 2TB of internal hard disk drive storage, hold two SuperDrives (the second one will add £70 ($100) to the cost), and use two ATI Radeon X1900XT cards that can support four -- four! -- of Apple's 30-in. monitors. Now, that is one screamer of production machine.

Performance

Apple has posted Spec integer benchmarks for the new machine that show performance more than twice that of the Quad G5. While quantitative analysis is great, real-world, qualitative performance is what will matter to users and their clients. So, how did Apple's latest and greatest perform? In any application compiled for Universal binary -- meaning it runs natively on Intel chips -- the speed increase was dramatic. Noticeable. Just plain " Wow that is fast." Take your pick. Watching the same image of a Mini Cooper rendered with Luxology Modo on both a Quad G5 and the Mac Pro was an example of fast and faster. When the Mac Pro was done the Quad G5 was still chugging along, only about one-quarter of the way done.

For a creative professional using QuarkXPress, or Final Cut Pro, the speed increase will be instantly noticeable. For applications still running under Rosetta emulation, such as the Adobe Creative Suite, the Xeon Processors run fast enough to basically make the comparison a wash. In other words, the Mac Pro runs programs in emulation as fast as Quad G5 does natively.

Adobe has promised an upgraded Creative suite for February, and there is no reason not to use the application in Rosetta until then. Avid will release universal versions of its video editing software in December, as will its audio division Digidesign.

If you do any kind of professional creative work, you will want one of these.