By Neil Bennett | on January 16, 2014
Price When Reviewed: £5,482.50 plus VAT (model reviewed) . £2,082.50 plus VAT (base model)
Pros: Powerful. Beautifully designed and engineered. Packed with cutting-edge technology.
Cons: Not for most photographers/graphic designers. Most editing and VFX tools will need major optimisation for the Mac Pro.
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Updated 7/2/14: we've added info on 4K monitors, 10-bit output and upgradeability after being briefed by Apple – plus disk benchmarks and graphs.
Like many of Apple’s products, the new Mac Pro 2013 is an incredible feat of product design and engineering. That so much power can sit inside such as small package is amazing; it’s truly tiny, much smaller than we first expected when Apple launched it back in May. It’s not going to be for everyone – some of you are going to wish that Apple had stuck with the old design – and many of us are going to have to wait for our software to be updated before we think about buying one, but we can’t help but be impressed.
I’ll come on to the benchmarks in a sec, but first let’s cover the design – as this may make as much difference to whether you’d seriously consider buying one. First off, the aesthetics are beautiful. From Apple’s marketing shots you might have thought it was black, but as you can see from our shoot, it’s more like the back of the ‘Space Gray’ iPhone 5s – and under bright lighting it offers soft, bright reflections of its environment. In the low-light of an edit suite, it fades to black – only mutedly reflecting points of light to remind you it’s there, like a well-behaved client.
The unmarked exterior – apart from the ports hidden round the back – is stylish in a sci-fi-from-a-decade ago kinda way (think AI or I Robot). Personally, I love the look, even though it collects fingerprints quicker than the combined teams of CSIs Vegas, Miami and New York.
The Mac Pro’s design is about much more than its aesthetics though. Apple has placed limitations on how you can configure it than mean that the Mac Pro can neither be accessible for most creatives nor a standalone powerhouse.
The capabilities of the Mac Pro only make sense if you have the performance needs and budget of a video editor, motion graphics or VFX artist working with 2K or 4K (or perhaps very high-sheen HD) – and use external storage and rendering. Unlike the original Mac Pro, this is not a workstation for the vast majority of graphic designers or photographers – which is a shame as many would like access to a screenless Mac that they could connect to a high-end monitor such as the NEC SpectraView Reference 242 we've used in these photos.
New Mac Pro benchmarks and specs
The Mac Pro uses a different core configuration to most high-end workstations aimed at creative pros; it has one chip and two graphics cards rather than two chips and one graphics card (or two graphics cards at the very high-end).
Unlike the Mac Pro’s main rivals – such as the Dell Precision T7610 and the HP Z820 – Apple’s professional workstation has only a single Intel Xeon E5 V2 processor (both Dell and HP have single-chip workstations, but both cost significantly less than the Mac Pro). The options for the Mac Pro are a 3.7GHz 4-core chip, a 3.5GHz 6-core, a 3.0GHz 8-core or a 2.7GHz 12-core (as we saw – twice – in the first E5 V2 machine we reviewed back in September, the Boston Venom 2401-7T)
Our review Mac Pro supplied to us by Apple features the 3GHz 8-core chip, assisted by 64GB of EEC RAM (the error-correcting RAM that offers more stability, especially for complex and long processing tasks). We tested the performance of the chip using both Cinebench R15 – which is based on Maxon’s Cinema 4D 3D modelling, animation and rendering suite – and the older version R11.5 of the same tool, as this was the current version when we reviewed the Venom. Cinebench’s rendering tests render a scene of moderate (R11.5) or high (R15) complexity, which only really use the computer’s CPU – so it’s a good measure of the performance of the chip/s.
In R15, the new Mac Pro obtained a score of 1,225 – between 40% and 45% faster than other single-core computers and workstations we’ve seen recently, including Apple’s own iMac (all of these featured 3.5GHz Intel Core i7 chips).
Apple Mac Pro 2012 vs Dell Precision T3610 vs Scan 3XS GW-H10: Cinebench R5 rendering test
In R11.5, the new Mac Pro’s 8-core chip delivered 13.69 (which is completely unrelated to the R15 score). The Boston Venom's dual 12-core chips allowed it to record a much faster score of 27.68 – 102% faster than the Mac Pro. We also dug out the results from the last Mac Pro we tested, back in 2012, which had two 2.4GHz 12-core Xeon chips. This got an R11.5 score of 8.23, which the new Mac Pro beat by 66%.
Apple Mac Pro 2012 vs Apple Mac Pro 2014 vs Boston Venom 2401-7T: Cinebench R11.5 rendering test
What we can take from here is that while the new Mac Pro is undoubtably powerful – especially if you’re currently using an iMac or old Mac Pro – it’s by no means the most powerful computer on the market in pure CPU terms. (If you want to see how this measures up against your current Mac or PC, you can download Cinebench R15 for free from Maxon’s website.)
Why does the Mac Pro have two graphics cards?
However, these days, CPU power is becoming less and less the most important factor when choosing a workstation. It’s common for studios to push final renders and encoding to servers (at a scale from large farms for big firm to freelancers with a single piece of rendering hardware that used to be their main workstation). Creative software developers are pushing an increasing number of intensive computing tasks to graphics cards – whether rendering 3D scenes, working out physics, applying filters to both stills and video, or encoding and decoding video (including just for playback). These use languages such as the Nvidia-card-specific CUDA and the more flexible OpenCL.
While Apple’s newly upgraded Final Cut Pro X 10.1 really taps the power of the Mac Pro’s GPUs, we’re still quite some way off seeing the majority of tasks in other common CG, post and VFX tools being pushed to graphics chips though – as upgrading applications to allow this require changes to the software that can be quite big jobs for the developers – and most main creative software applications still require a lot of CPU grunt. If Adobe, Autodesk, Avid, Maxon et al follow Apple’s lead here, you’ll see a Mac Pro’s performance rise as their apps develop – but until each confirm their plans it’s an if not a when.
The Mac Pro has two new AMD graphics cards: dual FirePro D700 with 6GB of graphics RAM each (above, with the hard-drive in front on the right) , dual FirePro D500 with 3GB each or dual FirePro D300 with 2GB each. The D700 appears to be equivalent to the top-of-the-range FirePro W9000 that’s been available for Windows workstations since the summer, and it’s different name is probably due to that Apple has integrated them into the design of the Mac Pro – these aren’t boards you can pop in and out as with a standard PC. They also have no direct outputs, you connect your monitor to one of the Mac Pro’s Thunderbolt ports, using an adapter if necessary.
The D500 and D300 don’t appear to have direct equivalents in AMD’s current graphics card range – but from the specs they look to be more the capable of delivering high levels of 3D and compute performance: the D300 offers 2 teraflops of power, with the D500 offering 2.2 teraflops. Each.
Our review unit has two D700s chips with 3.5 teraflops each, so we had high hopes for its power. However, in Cinebench R15’s real-time 3D test, the chips delivered a framerate of 87.74fps – which would be impressive for most computers, but is a lot lower than the 109.35fps framerate shown by a single Quadro K4000 in a Scan workstation we looked at earlier this year.
Cinebench R15 real-time 3D test: Apple Mac Pro vs Dell Precision T3610 vs Scan 3XS GW-HT10
The most likely explanation for this is that Cinema 4D is only using one of the graphics cards and will need to be updated before it can get the most from both cards. The same is likely true for the other big 3D suite on the Mac, Maya. We’ve contacted Maxon and Autodesk about this, and will update this review when they respond (which may not be until the New Year).
The choice of graphics cards also caused problems for our overall performance test. For this, our key test application is After Effects CC – as rendering a VFX project with HD video, 3D CG from Cinema 4D Lite (via the CineWave plugin), lights and cameras puts a big strain on all of the core components: CPU, RAM, graphics and storage. This test gives an unfair (but accurate) advantage to computers with Nvidia graphics cards as AE’s ray-traced renderer (which delivers the best results for 3D elements) is only accelerated by graphics card through CUDA. Those with AMD graphics are at an immediate disadvantage, as the ray-traced renderer has to join all of the other tasks being worked on by the GPU.
This meant that the Mac Pro took over four hours to render a scene that a top-spec MacBook Pro (with an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics chip) chomped through in just over an hour. The same scene without the Cinema 4D content took over an hour (versus just seven and a half minutes on the MacBook Pro).
Adobe says that it can't create a version of its ray-traced renderer that’s not tied to Nvidia hardware, as it's been created in scratch using CUDA. However, the company says that "the ray-traced 3D renderer has a rather limited feature set compared with the 3D capabilities of Cinema 4D (now included with After Effects), which does not depend on any specific GPU technology at all". Though as we mentioned, Cinema 4D is only tapping one of the cards.
Another key VFX tool that's dependent on CUDA is The Foundry Nuke – the GPU-accelerated Nuke X version of which can only tap Nvidia hardware due to using CUDA.
The Foundry has let us know that it's aware of the issue and its R&D team are looking into the issue, and it should have a full statement on its plans soon. We’ve asked Adobe about its plans too, and will update this review when we get a response.
Mac Pro storage options
One component that’s going to really accelerate video editing and VFX work on the Mac Pro is the use of PCI-e storage for its single internal drive (above, mounted to one of the graphics cards) – which is must faster than the SATA drives most workstations use. You have three options here: 256GB, 512TB or 1TB (which was in our review unit).
We tested the drive using the freely available AJA System Test and Blackmagic Design Disk Speed Test, which both tell us how fast the Mac Pro can access data that’s stored on its drive. Both were designed by their developers to check if storage is fast enough for editing particular video formats when used alongside their respective video capture products.
Benchmarking the Mac Pro's internal drive using a 16GB 4K file on AJA System Test saw an average write speed over 962MBps and the all-important read speed of 1118.5MBps (the read speed is most important as when you're editing your software is reading the video files its processing). This more than enough for 4K editing.
Blackmagic Disk Speed Test can only test with up to 2K footage, but provides a helpful tickbox to confirm your storage. It produced lower figures than AJA's test (a read of 869MBps and a write of 942MBps) – but if confirmed that the drive can handle even 12-bit 4:4:4 2K footage even
It’s unlikely you’d actually keep your projects on the Mac Pro's internal drive – you're more likely to use an external RAID. However, it still tells us how fast applications will launch and what performance boost the drive will give your applications accessing the files they create as they go, such as their caches.
The design of the Mac Pro essentially forces you to keep large projects you’re working on in external storage over Thunderbolt 2 or USB 3.0 (first-generation Thunderbolt and USB 2.0 are also supported, as is USB 1 in case you’ve somehow got one of those drives still around). This gives you access to both fast and inexpensive storage options – though external storage will cost more than internal drives.
The Mac Pro is the first workstation we’ve seen to offer PCI-e storage as standard, though you can add it to most modern workstations through add-in PCI-e storage boards such as the Fusion-io ioFX (which supports up to 1.6TB of storage per board, and you can install more than one). Thunderbolt 2 external storage is relatively rare – with only Promise having officially announced an external Thunderbolt 2 drive so far – though we’re expecting the likes of G-Technology and LaCie to make it more widespread soon.
As for its rivals, HP's line of pro workstations offers Thunderbolt 2 (through a PCI-e add-in board), but Dell doesn’t. Most more specialised system builders such as Boston will, again through add-in boards.
The Mac Pro’s lack of internal flexibility will divide users and there’s no correct overall judgement on this – whether it matters depends on your individual needs. I’d expect that an editor at a small post firm working with a lot of 4K footage would be better off with an HP Z series or Dell Precision stuffed with ioFX boards, while a VFX artist in a similar environment would be just fine with the Mac Pro and external or network storage. Larger firms with centralised storage and full-spec asset management systems probably won’t see the lack of expansive internal storage options as an issue – though their IT staff may have more of a problem with their inability to swap out components as needed.
New Mac Pro 4K output
The Mac Pro can support outputting to up to three 4K displays at once, though you may not want to. While one or two 4K reference monitors would be great for yourself – one monitor on your desk and a big 4K TV for clients to watch further away perhaps – you may not want use a 4K monitor for your computer's interface. The pixel density of 4K – even using Sharp's 32-inch PN-K321 monitor – makes the interfaces of the likes of Final Cut Pro X 10.1 too small to use. We've managed to trick the Mac Pro and a Dell UltraSharp UltraSharp 24 Ultra HD into behaving like a Retina Display, so the interface appears twice as large (and twice as sharp) – but this might not work for all applications. Instead, you might want to use a lower resolution display for your work – though hopefully Apple will formalise support for HiDPI output from the Mac Pro in a future update to OS X Mavericks.
For designers and photographers who care more about colour accuracy than resoution, unfortunately the Mac Pro isn't capable of 10-bit colour output over Thunderbolt – connecting to DisplayPort on a monitor such as the SpectraView – which will disappoint some. You can view 10-bit video on a broadcast-level reference monitor by connecting that monitor via HD-SDI to a capture box from the likes of AJA or Blackmagic.
What’s inside the new Mac Pro?
The internal layout of the Mac Pro is either a masterpiece of industrial design or a nightmare labyrinth that can’t be penetrated, depending if you’re an end user who never needs to change anything or an IT tech trying to repair it (or our photographer trying to shoot inside it).
While it first appeared that the only upgradeable – or user-serviceable – part in the new Mac Pro is the RAM (above), Apple has let us know that most of the components you – or your IT team – would want to swap out can indeed be replaced. The hard drive
Apple has made much of the Mac Pro being near silent – and it is. But it’s true merit is more about its quietness being delivered through some innovative engineering as it draws air through its central core, rather that it being quieter than rival systems. A well-configured workstation from Boston, Dell, Fujitsu-Siemans, HP, Lenovo or pretty much any other experienced vendor will offer the same lack of noise.
Mac Pro ports
The one break in the Mac Pro’s otherwise-seamless central column is the area at the back where the ports are. This lights up when you rotate the body – which could be useful in your darkened suite to quickly connect anything from a USB stick to a Blackmagic Cinema Camera (below, right) – though how far you can rotate it depends on the cables you’ve currently got plugged in, and the old fashioned way of having Thunderbolt and USB extension cables hanging off your desk way be easier (if uglier).
As well as letting you connect your storage, the six Thunderbolt 2 ports on the back of the new Mac Pro are also where you plug your monitor/s in – using adapters to output to Displayport or DVI. You can connect up to three 4K displays – Apple offers the £2,915 32-inch Sharp PN-K321 4K monitor through the Apple Store, but you could also plump for the more price-conscious Dell UltraSharp 24 UltraHD for £883 plus VAT or Dell’s £1,980 UltraSharp 32 UltraHD.
Alternatively you could plug-in up to six lower-resolution displays. There’s also an HDMI 1.4 port for connecting reference TVs and projectors. Rounding out the ports on the back at four USB 3.0, two gigabit ethernet, digital audio, headphones – while for wireless connections there are 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0 – though considering the file sizes of projects an average Mac Pro would work on it’s unlikely the former would get used, while Bluetooth would probably just be used for a wireless Magic Mouse.
Apple doesn’t ship a mouse or keyboard with the Mac Pro as standard, which might strike some people as odd – but it’s a good representation of the audience for the Mac Pro to let you either choose Apple’s own kit if you wish or get something more tailored to your needs and tools, such as an Editors Keys keyboard that's marked up for your NLE of choice (such as for Final Cut Pro X, below).
We’ll be updating this review as we do more testing, but the true test of the Mac Pro’s worth to you may be many months away – as updates to make the most of tools from Apple, Autodesk, Avid, The Foundry, Maxon et al may not appear as quickly as you hope. Editors using Final Cut Pro X will be all over this – but we’ll let you know when artists and editors using other tools should start to get excited.
All photography: Dominik Tomaszewski. Art direction Neil Bennett. Model: Denise Dye. © IDG UK.
Graphs: created in Infogr.am.