Pros: Incredibly powerful for video and animation work. Flexible.
Cons: Very expensive. Daughterboard tricky to reseat.
As we discovered last month, Apple’s new 27-inch iMac offers everything many creatives need – from powerful performance to a great display. But this hasn’t left the Mac Pro redundant.
If you work with video, animation or motion graphics, there are still lots of reasons to invest in the Mac Pro. You can get twice the processing power, as two of the three Pro models have two multicore processors. You can install up to 32GB of RAM – though above 16GB you probably won’t see much benefit in your apps. You can also install up to four hard drives and put in a RAID card to ‘stripe’, or distribute, your files across multiple drives for maximum throughput.
The Mac Pro has PCI Express slots allowing you to add, say, USB 3.0 and eSATA boards to access fast storage systems (unlike with most PCs of this calibre, you don’t get these as standard). You can also add video capture, monitoring and acceleration boards such as AJA’s Kona or Blackmagic Design’s DeckLink – or two graphics cards for high-end 3D.
Playing with the big boys
To explore the potential of the Mac Pro, we got our hands on the most powerful model Apple could provide us. Our test machine has two six-core 2.93GHz Intel Xeon processors, 12GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon HD 5870 graphics card and two drives: a 512GB solid-state drive that the system and apps live on, and a 2TB media hard drive. The price tag is more Volkswagen Golf than computer – but if you need the power, it’s more than worth it.
The new daughter-board, which carries the processors and RAM, may allow the processors to be upgraded in future. (Photo by Paul Monckton).
Running the 3D rendering benchmark in Cinebench 11.5, which utilises the main processors alone, the Mac Pro achieved a score of 15.07. This is more than twice that of the top-of-the-line iMac, and 53 per cent better than the fastest single-chip PC we’ve ever seen (which had a Core i7 chip massively overclocked to 4.2GHz).
In Photoshop we saw as much of a performance boost over an iMac we tested as you’d expect from the difference in their installed memory (the iMac had 8GB). As both models had a solid-state drive and a hard drive, neither had a built-in advantage.
Launching from the solid-state drive, applications start up faster than you’ve ever seen from a hard drive. The combination of the two processors, lots of RAM and fast storage meant that the Mac Pro steamed through our After Effects test, applying effects and 3D motion graphics faster than any workstation we’ve seen.
One new innovation we liked is that in order to fit the two processors inside the casing, Apple has put them on a removable daughterboard that also carries the RAM. This raises the possibility of upgrading them in future – which hasn’t been possible in Mac Pros before – though replacing the board after removing it required so much force we thought we’d break it.
If you need a workstation this powerful – and can afford it – the Mac Pro is a winner.
Despite high-spec components, there are no USB 3.0 or eSATA ports. To get them, you’ll have to buy PCI expansion cards.