Home > Features > Product Review: Apple Mac Pro 64-bit Workstation

It seems unbelievable, but only 210 days after announcing the decision to move to Intel chips, Apple completed the transition of its entire line to the new platform. The machine that marked the completion of that transition was the Mac Pro.

The Mac Pro is Apple's replacement for its flagship Power Mac range, which was powered by IBM's G5 processors. The top model in that previous range was the four-way G5 Quad Power Mac, running at 2.5 GHz, so the world of the Apple watchers was rife with speculation about just what exactly Cupertino would come up with to replace it. I think it's fair to say that we were all pleasantly surprised when Apple announced that all machines in the new line-up would sport two dual-core processors, for a total of four processors per machine.

Out of the Box

We took delivery of a 2.0 Ghz system -- the logic being that the $300 saving here (over the standard 2.66 GHz configuration) could be put toward the better ATi X1900 video card. But more on that later.

The fundamental difference with this machine is, of course, the new Xeon 5100 processors. These are dual-core designs, meaning that they have two processor cores per chip. Apple shoehorns two of these into the Mac Pro for a total of four processor cores per machine. Each processor has 4MB of shared cache (you can feel your renders speeding up already, can't you?) and each one sits on a rapid 1333 MHz independent frontside bus -- combining for a maximum system processor bandwidth of 21.3 GB/s. (see image 01)

Interestingly, the processors are socketed, meaning that they can be swapped out for faster models at a later date -- something that Apple has been loath to allow in recent years. Indeed there are reports of 3.0 GHz processors being dropped in and working with no re-configuration. Not a cost-effective option at the moment, but it does mean that practices will be able to wring a good few more years from their machines.

01 - New Mac Pros - feature four processor cores (2-per Xeon 5100 series chip) and four independent hard drive bays on metal drive sleds. Click for larger image.

Ostensibly the same machine from the outside -- sharing the same refined aluminum skin -- inside the Mac Pro has been completely redesigned to address the gripes of G5 owners...primarily about storage space and noise. The key factor in Apple being able to address these concerns was the adoption of the Xeon processor. Since these chips are built on a 65nm process (as opposed to the 90nm process of the G5) this, along with the new 'Core' microarchitecture, makes these chips run particularly cool. This has allowed Apple to dispense with the massive heat sinks and the liquid cooling systems and devote more of the internal space to the user's needs.

The hard drive bays are a case in point: four of them are arranged across the length of the case, and each one contains a metal drive 'sled'. Each of these slides out, and a stock hard drive can be simply screwed in. As a nice design touch the screws are captive -- no more scrabbling about in the case if you lose one. The drive / sled combo then simply slots back in, and mates with data and power sockets on the motherboard -- no need to fiddle about with ribbon cables. There is now also space for two optical drives at the front of the machine, housed in an easy-to-remove metal cowl.

02 - Mac Pro Internals - installation of additional Fully-Buffered 667Mhz RAM. Click for larger image.

RAM installation receives similar attention to detail: the eight RAM slots (for a maximum 16GB) are on two riser cards that simply pull out for installation of the new 667 MHz FB-DIMMs (that's Fully-Buffered). This new RAM type is one of the more controversial design decisions in the new Mac Pro -- a decision forced upon Apple by the fact that the new Xeon processors won't work with the older, less-expensive DDR-2 memory. At the moment there's no getting away from the fact that FB-DIMMs are costly -- around twice the price of the older memory if you buy on the open market: considerably more if you buy from Apple.

We were able to source a further 2 gigabytes at a fairly-reasonable $387 from Data Memory Technology (www.datamem.com) to add to our built-to-order 2 gigabyte system (the Mac Pro comes with 1GB standard). However, after-market RAM tends not to meet Apple's strict thermal guidelines (although we've had no problems at all with ours). Apple's own RAM is fitted with enormous heat sinks, due to the presence of a heat-dissipating IC on the new RAM sticks, necessary to elevate them to fully buffered status. Installation was a cinch, helped by the laser-etched instructions on the inside of the Mac Pro's door. And we recommend that you take Apple's advice and lay the machine on its side for the re-installation of the RAM riser cards -- it makes things significantly easier.

Next: Speed Impressions, Rendering and AutoCAD


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Home > Features > Product Review: Apple Mac Pro 64-Workstation




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