By Neil Bennett | on March 18, 2009
Price When Reviewed: 1685 . 2175
Pros: Excellent After Effects and Cinebench performance. Offers a huge amount more power for current Mac-based creatives. Great internal chassis design. First Xeon 5500 series workstation available.
Cons: ‘Enhanced’ Core i7 Windows workstations offer almost as much power for a much lower price. Mini DisplayPort output is currently irrelevant. No FireWire or eSATA ports. No 64-bit version of Photoshop for Mac OS X.
Apple's new Mac Pro represents a bit of a coup for the company. Apple got to announce a workstation based on Intel’s Xeon 3500 and 5500 chip lines before the processors were even launched. They’re formally announced towards the end of this month and this is when we expect other workstation vendors to debut their models based on the chips.
The 3500 and 5500 series are the first Xeons based on Intel’s ‘Nehalem’ architecture, which also underpins Intel’s Core i7 platform. It provides a ‘sit-up-and-take-notice’ boost in power compared to the previous generation of Mac Pros -- and with future software releases it should become even faster.
‘Nehalem’ represents one of the largest redesigns in the core architecture of how a PC's processor, RAM and other components communicate ever. Previously, each chip connected to the motherboard via a front-side bus (FSB) and all communication with RAM, graphics cards and drives went through here -- which could provide a bottleneck, reducing performance. ‘Nehalem’ replaces this with the much faster QuickPath Interconnect (QPI), and -- instead of routing access to RAM through this - adds three direct path between the processors and RAM through an on-board memory controller.
The Mac Pro is offered with a choice of one 2.66GHz or 2.93GHz Intel Core Xeon 3500 processor or two 2.26GHz, 2.66GHz or 2.93GHz chips. The review unit supplied to us by Apple has two 2.26GHz chips. All of the Xeon 3500 and 5500 series chips have four processor cores to massively boost the performance of multi-threaded applications (including most major creative tools).
We don’t yet know whether the 3500 chips are just a renamed version of the 5500 parts for single-chip systems – but the Core i7 range is split into standard models with a QPI speed of 4.8GTps, while the Extreme Editions increase this to 6.4GTps. This could be the a difference between the 3500 and 5500 series too. We’ll find out when Intel formally launches the chips towards the end of the month.
GTps stands for gigatransfers per second, which can't be directly compared to the MHz ratings of the old FSBs - but the hugely faster speed at which data can be transferred through the QPI compared to the FSB is easily apparent in testing.
‘Nehalem’ also sees the reintroduction of Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology, which runs two processes on each chip core, so Mac OS X thinks it has twice the number of cores it actually has -- which our tests have show give you up to a 10 per cent performance boost. Most mainstream creative tools don’t support more than eight processor cores currently – so if their developers add support in future updates or releases, the new Mac Pro will only get faster. The chips also have a Turbo Mode, which is designed to hike the power of single-threaded applications -- which will have no effect on multi-threaded creative packages, but will make your next ‘wind-down’ session on a high-spec run smoother.
Our Cinebench R10 rendering test puts the processors through their paces -- it doesn’t rely on RAM or disk performance at all. The 2.26GHz 8-Core Mac Pro attained a score of 19,689, which is 6.28x what a single processor core would create. This is 12 per cent faster than the previous base dual-chip Mac Pro, which had two 2.8GHz quad-core X5462 chips. At £1,445 plus VAT, that model was a lot less expensive -- but it had only 2GB of much slower RAM, which as you’ll see makes a huge difference in our other tests.