By Neil Bennett | on March 18, 2009
Price: 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.
The ‘Nehalem’ Mac Pro is also faster than recent Core i7 workstations -- 13 per cent faster than a model with a single 2.93GHz Core i7 940. However, many PC workstation system buiders are offering ‘enhanced’ -- ie overclocked, but with a full warranty -- Core i7 workstations, and one we tested recently was actually 7.5 per cent faster than this Mac Pro. This had a 2.66GHz Core i7 920 chip cranked up to 3.6GHz using a Domino ALC cooling system plus 12GB of RAM, though otherwise its specs were similar to our test Mac Pro. The shocking thing here is that that system cost £1,495 -- £680 less than the Mac Pro.
The three direct paths from the processors to the RAM offer the greatest performance when they are all used -- up to 25.6GBps -- and each supports one or two RAM modules. This means that most motherboards for Xeon chips have six or 12 RAM slots, with either three or a full six of these filled -- so the total amount of RAM will be based on multiples of three modules: so 768MB, 1.5GB, 3GB, 6GB, and so on -- which can seem odd when you’re used to multiples of two modules. 3GB is the bare minimum for a creative workstation -- 6GB being our recommended amount, and its worth investing in 12GB if you use After Effects or other compositing software.
Weirdly the ‘Nehalem’ Mac Pro has eight RAM slots, and sells RAM options offering four or eight memory modules. We’ll have to wait until we get our hands on a higher-end system to check if this reduces performance, as our test Mac Pro has six 1GB modules installed for a 6GB RAM total.
The ‘Nehalem’ platform is designed to support DDR3 memory running at 1,333MHz -- but Apple has plumped for 1,066MHz RAM. Unlike the RAM used in Core i7 systems, Apple’s RAM is ECC (Error Correcting Code) memory, which checks itself to avoid crashes and is very useful if you perform lengthy renders in motion graphics, VFX or 3D animation packages.
Photoshop is a very RAM hungry application, despite it being a 32-bit application that can access only 4GB of our Mac Pro’s 6GB of RAM -- 3GB for main app and 1GB for plug-ins. The new Mac Pro shot through our core Photoshop CS4 test, which applies 25 actions on a 500MB image -- including smart filters and 3D transformations. The ‘Nehalem’ Mac Pro took 16 minutes 26s to complete the test -- compared to 34mins 32s for the older base dual-chop model.
However, this is noticeably slower than Core i7 systems we’ve seen with separate media/scratch drives (our review Mac Pro has only a single 640GB drive). Running the Windows-only 64-bit version of Photoshop CS4 on those systems saw them complete the test up to 50 per cent faster than the new Mac Pro, though Photoshop 64-bit is hampered by many plug-ins not working with it.