'Nehalem' Xeon chips in Apple Mac Pro gives a peek at next-gen Windows workstations

The launch of the Apple's new Mac Pro sees the debut of Intel's 'Nehalem' Xeon 3500 and 5500 processors, which will be of interest to Windows-using creatives as they're likely to be in the next generation of PC workstations, such as DellHP's xw lines.

'Nehalem' is the architecture behind Intel's Core i7 platform, as well as the Xeon 3500 and 5500. 'Nehalem' ditches the traditional front-side bus link between the chip and the motherboard, and places the memory controller and system I/O on the same unit as the CPU. This allows much faster movement of data between the chip and memory, and between the chip and the graphics card (via direct connections to the PCI Express interface).

The chip’s memory controller has three separate channels for data throughput, so for best performance you should use only three of the motherboard’s four memory slot – which is why the Mac Pro's standard configurations offer the strange-seeming 3GB and 6GB of RAM. The architecture also doesn’t limit you to using memory modules in pairs – which is a big change.

The 'Nehalem' architecture also reintroduces Hyper-Threading (aka SMT), which uses some nifty tricks to make each core appear as two to the Windows to crank every last bit of power from them. Hyper-Threading was retired when quad-core chips were first introduced – it seemed redundant – but with many creative applications capable of tapping to eight cores, its reintroduction seems timely.

Hyper-Threading added a performance boost to the Core i7-driven Armari Magentar QS+ we reviewed late last year, but that had four cores made to appear to be eight. Support within creative applications for more than eight cores is limited, so you may not see any benefit from doubling up eight into 16.

The chips also feature Turbo Mode, which boosts the speed of individual cores when the computer detects that only one or two are being used – which is largely irrelevant to high-end creatives, but will make your next Far Cry 2 session run better.

Intel isn't officially announcing the Xeon 3500 and 5500 processors til the end of the month, so expect more details then -- along with announcements of Windows-based workstations using the chips.

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