World exclusive: Apple's 8-core Mac Pro review

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  • Price When Reviewed: 2262.98 . 2857.02 . 3605.95

  • Pros: Faster than other 8-core systems. Low price. Well-designed case.

  • Cons: Lack of pro-level 3D card options.

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Apple is a late entrant into the 8-core workstation market -- we reviewed the first model with two quad-core Xeons back in November -- but its new Mac Pro will be of great interest to pro creative working on high-end 3D and video projects.

Arriving with little fanfare -- it just popped up just before Easter on Apple's Web site as an option for buyers configuring the Mac Pro -- Apple's latest Mac bears two brand new, faster Xeon processors that aren't available anywhere else. It also ships at a cost much lower than equivalent Windows workstations -- though it's still too pricey for most designers, illustrators and motion graphics artists.

The new Xeon chips have four processor cores each with a clock speed of 3.0GHz, slightly faster than the 2.66GHz X5355 models used by all other eight-core Xeon-based systems we've seen. Intel hasn't released details of the name of the new chip -- Apple refers to all Xeon chips by speed not name -- or when it will available through other workstation vendors. Based on Intel's current naming conventions, the chip should be called the X5365 -- but that's just speculation on our part.

Compared to the Mac Pro we looked at in our group test in our December 2006 issue (#107) -- which had two 2.66GHz dual-core Xeon 5150 chips -- the performance boost provided by the quad-core chips in processor-intensive tasks such as rendering 3D scenes or video effects is obvious. In Cinebench 9.5, the benchmarking suite based on Maxon's Cinema 4D 9.5 3D animation application, the new Mac Pro attained a rendering score of 2,318 -- 4.74 times faster than using a single processor core. This is almost 68 per cent faster than the older dual dual-core Mac Pro.

The 8-core Mac Pro's score was also over 8 per cent faster than Armari's Magnetar QX, the first 8-core model we saw back in November.

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Our main other cross-platform creative application that we use for testing is Adobe After Effects, which hasnAdobe's Creative Suite 3 ships in late summer. It's therefore not surprising that rendering our 10-second multi-layered HD composition in After Effects 7 Professional was somewhat sloth-like compared to on the Magnetar QX -- 4 minutes 21 seconds against Armari's bang-on 3 minutes. On both machines, rendering was accelerated by GridIron Software's Nucleo plug-in, which optimizes AE's use of multi-core and multi-processor set-ups.

However, the 8-core Mac Pro rendered the scene over 5 times faster using Nucleo than without it -- and over 3 times faster than Mac Pro with two dual-core processors. When After Effects CS3 Professional ships -- which adds an Intel-native version and full built-in multi-core/processor support -- we full expect the 8-core Mac Pro to be an outstanding motion graphics and compositing workstation. And if you currently use Shake, Combustion or Media Composer, which are both already Intel-native, you won't have to wait.

 border=0 />Less impressive, though, is the 8-core Mac Pro

Given the choice, many 3D and compositing pros at this level would plump for nVidia FX 3500 over the FX 4500, as it offers a better balance of high-end (but not ultra high-end) performance and price -- creating a Mac Pro for 3D pros at around £3,000.

The other issue for 3D pros on the Mac is the lack of OS X versions of 3ds Max and Softimage|XSI. This isn't a problem if you're committed to Maya or LightWave -- though we're still waiting for the LightWave 9.2 update to make it Intel-native -- but it could be a pain if you or your studio decide to change suite. You could run Max or XSI in Windows XP using Apple's beta Boot Camp technology -- which now also supports Vista -- but we never recommend using beta software in a production environment unless you have to, and Autodesk and Avid probably wouldn't give you support if you did.

Photoshop til you drop

We ran our standard image processing test in both the non-Intel-native Photoshop CS2 and the beta of native Photoshop CS3 Extended, which applies a series of 20 filters, adjustments and transforms to a 200MB image. The CS3 beta wasn't available when we looked at the dual dual-core Mac Pro and the 8-core Magnetar QX, so we only have scores within CS2 for those models.

In Photoshop CS2, the 8-core Mac Pro took 2 minutes 20 seconds to complete the actions -- about half way between the 2 minutes 40 seconds taken by the dual dual-core Mac Pro and the 8-core Magnetar QX's 1 minute 55 seconds. However, it's likely that the 8-core Mac Pro outpaced the dual dual-core model due to our test model of the new Mac having 4GB of RAM, while the older unit we looked at late last year had 2GB. Photoshop's performance is largely RAM-based -- assisted by fast hard-disks -- but the core application can only access up to 3GB, though filters and plug-ins can access what's left.

By contrast, the 8-core Mac Pro completed the same actions in Photoshop CS3 in only 1 minutes and 26 seconds -- a massive improvement.

Quad-core chips aside, the only other new addition to the Mac Pro is the option of up to four 750GB hard drives, for a total of 3TB of 3Gbps Serial ATA storage -- up from 2TB (four 500GB drives) on older models.

Tidy up

The Mac Pro is still an impressive piece of kit though. Its air-conditioning unit-style industrial design is starting to date but it's quiet and easy to get inside and add or swap out components. The cable-free drive system -- where you can pull out and push in drive caddies -- is still innovative. The merits of the Mac OS X versus Windows is an article in itself, and largely it comes down to personal preference -- though it's a shame that we'll have wait until October to get full support for running Windows on a Mac Pro as this would make your preference irrelevant to whether you should buy a Mac Pro or not.

The main reason to buy the Mac Pro isn't its performance -- which though impressive is what you'd expect from an 8-core workstation with slightly faster chips than previous models, and it's unlikely to be long before we see 8-core workstations with the 3GHz chips from both big brands like Dell and HP and specialised vendors such as Armari and CAD2. The main reason is the price.

We specced up a similarly-configured Magnetar QX on Armari's Web site -- though we had to choose 2.66GHz Xeon chips and a newer Sapphire ATI Radeon X1950XTX graphics card -- and it costs £3,134 plus VAT: £278 more than our Mac Pro. Adding the Quadro FX 4500 to each configuration took the Magnetar QX's price to £4,036 plus VAT, £430 more than the equivalent Mac's £3,606. However, with the Magnetar you have the option to include the more modest FX 3500 board, reducing the price to £3,461 -- below the Mac's.

Against a Dell Precision 490, the Mac Pro was even more of a bargain. Dell doesn't offer gamer cards for its workstations, so we had to spec up a model to match our Mac Pro with the Quadro FX 4500 board -- as well as the 2.66GHz Xeon chips -- which came to £5,227 plus VAT, a whopping £1,622 more than the equivalent Mac.

Though out of reach of most traditional Mac-based creative professionals, if your work gives you the budget to spend more than £2,800 on a workstation, the 8-core Mac Pro is currently the best-priced option on the market.


Processor (supplied): 2x Intel Xeon 3.0GHz (quad core)*
Processor (max): 2x Intel Xeon 3.0GHz (quad core)*
RAM (supplied): 4GB
RAM (max): 16GB
Graphics card: ATI Radeon X1900 XT
RAM: 512MB
Connector: PCI Express
Hard drive type: Serial ATA 3Gbps
Size: 500GB
Speed: 7,200rpm
Removable media drives: Sony NEC Optiarc AD-7170A 18x dual-layer DVD±RW/RAM
Soundcard: on board
OS: Mac OS X 10.4
Keyboard: Apple Keyboard
Mouse: Apple Mighty Mouse

* Model number currently unavailable

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