Apple Mac Pro NEHALEM 2009 (8-Core)

Apple Mac Pro NEHALEM 2009 (8-Core)

The Apple Mac Pro (8-Core) priced at $3,499, is an aluminum behemoth made for developers, musicians, artists and designers who depend on being able to turn around their projects before you can say "WYSIWIG."


It looks like a typical professional Mac, but the interior for the new 2009 model is totally updated. The system is built around a pair of 45nm Intel Xeon processors, bringing a total of eight cores to work on your project. Pricey? Yah. Impressive? Definitely. Is it for you? If you’re part of a select group, maybe. The Mac Pro (8-Core) comes in an aluminum chassis visually similar to the one we first saw in the Power Mac G5 in 2003. Granted, the Mac Pro has two optical drives while the Power Mac only has one, but the overall appearance is the same. It may even forestall upgrade jealousy (at least outwardly) among your fellow artists with lesser systems, since the eight-core Mac Pro under your desk looks just like their systems. The eight-core Mac Pro is eminently customizable when you order it through the Apple Store, and upgrades are a cinch with slide-out drive trays, tool-less PCIe-card installation, and a tray that pops out to let you install RAM and access the CPUs. It can all be accessed and serviced while the system is upright, a boon for your organization’s IT folks.

The newest Mac Pro has a pair of 45nm Nehalem-based Xeon 5500 processors with Hyper-Threading. These make the system capable of processing up to 16 streams of data simultaneously. The Mac Pro’s Xeon processors’ memory architecture is similar to that of Intel Core i7-powered systems, where the processors are connected directly to the memory instead of having to go through a front-side bus (FSB) controller first. Hence for tasks like video editing and running 3D-rendering software, which hit the processors and memory hard, the Mac Pro is one of the most powerful workstations out there. The system enlists speedy 1,066-MHz DDR3 memory with ECC (error correcting code). ECC RAM may be required if your projects mandate a minimum spec level for your workstation—for example, if safety is a critical factor, as when you’re running a CAD program to design an airplane—because it’s said to produce more reliable results.

Like all Macs, the Mac Pro (8-Core) has a one-year warranty with a measly 90-day tech phone support. You can extend both to three years with a $249 AppleCare extended warranty. You can also take your Mac Pro into an Apple Store for service during the one-year warranty period. All Macs are now RoHS compliant, EPEAT Gold certified, and Energy Star 5.0 pre-certified. The exterior is recyclable aluminum, and Apple has a good take-back program for recycling PCs when you buy a new Mac. Although the Mac Pro has all these certifications and good corporate oversight, it’s more of a power PC than a green PC. It uses 172 watts when idling and around 292W when running the CineBench test. On the other hand, it likely finishes CPU-intensive tasks faster than a less powerful machine, so it isn’t consuming power at a high rate for long.

The Mac Pro (8-Core) I reviewed is the base $3,299 eight-core model, and it features an Nvidia GT 120 graphics card. I had also requested an additional graphics card, the ATI Radeon HD 4870, which is available as a $200 upgrade, so I could test the system with each card separately and help users decide which was most suitable for them. It was easy to swap out one card for the other. The GT 120 is a mainstream workhorse graphics card, and you can configure a Mac Pro with up to four GT 120s, to support up to eight 30-inch monitors. Multiple GT 120 card configurations are designed for multi-monitor support; there are no SLI-like performance enhancements possible with this workstation (SLI and CrossFire configurations aren’t possible on this system.). By contrast, if you go with the ATI Radeon HD 4870 option, you’re limited to a single card.

Like all Macs, the Mac Pro is free of crapware. The only software you find on it is the OS and a few programs like iLife ’09. You can install Windows Vista or XP with Boot Camp, so I installed Vista Ultimate 64-bit for my Windows testing. The Mac Pros come with a 64-bit version of the Boot Camp software as part of OS 10.5. Boot Camp was easier to set up on this system than on the iMacs, where I had to install the drivers manually. (Official 64-bit Boot Camp support is only for Mac Pros at this point.) iLife ’09 is wonderful on the Mac Pro for casual multimedia work, as it is on the iMacs and Mac minis.

macpro-openThe Mac Pro is really designed to run professional apps like Photoshop CS4 and Apple’s Final Cut Studio 2 video-editing software. Benchmark tests like CineBench R10 simulate the graphics-rendering tasks done in Maxon’s Cinema 4D, which builds 3D models using only the power of the CPU and memory, as it works with code that doesn’t run on the GPU. I tested the system under both Mac OS X and Windows Vista 64-bit and was surprised to find that the system is at times a better performer under Windows. The Mac Pro finished the Photoshop CS4 test in 1:50 under Mac OS X but took only 1:17 to finish the same tasks under Windows. The performance difference is due to the fact that the Mac version of CS4 can directly address only 3.5GB of the system’s memory, while the Windows 64-bit version can access the full 6GB of memory. This can add up to a significant performance benefit.

The other programs I tested in Windows Vista included two 3D games (Crysis and World in Conflict), PCMark Vantage and 3DMark Vantage, and Windows Media Encoder (WME). The Mac Pro (8-Core) was able to complete the WME test in only 36 seconds, the same as the current multimedia Editors’ Choice, the Dell Studio XPS 435. The Mac Pro wasn’t able to complete the 3DMark Vantage test, likely due to an incompatibility once it hit the CPU-only part. I will continue to look at this problem, since the four-core version of the Mac Pro that I also just tested succeeded in completing 3DMark Vantage. (Check back soon for my review.)

The Mac Pro (8-Core) had decent, but not stellar, scores on our gamer benchmark tests. The system returned a 50-frame-per-second score on Crysis at 1,280-by-1,024 resolution. This is an okay score, playable if you’re not picky. The Crysis test at 1,920-by-1,200 was a slideshow-like 9 fps, but not many systems with single graphics cards can play Crysis at this resolution. The system’s World in Conflict (WiC) scores were better: a smooth 67 fps at 1,280-by-1,024 and a playable 32 fps at 1,920-by-1,200. It’s not a barn-burning gaming rig, but with the ATI Radeon card, the system is a decent 3D gamer.

The less-expensive standard Nvidia GeForce GT 120 card is strictly light duty: Only WiC at 1,280-by-1,024 was playable with a 32-fps score. Crysis at both resolutions and WiC at 1,920-by-1,200 were unplayable with the GT 120 card. The Dell Studio XPS 435 was faster on the WiC tests than the Mac Pro with the Radeon card, but only by a few fps at each resolution. The Dell’s Crysis scores were a little better as well: 60 fps on Crysis at 1,280-by-1,024 and a likewise unplayable 16 fps at 1,920-by-1,200 resolution. This is not surprising, since the Dell has a 1GB version of the same ATI Radeon HD 4870 graphics card.

So what audience is the Mac Pro (8-Core) suited for? Well, if you’re an entrenched Mac user in search of more power, getting this is a no-brainer. Requisition one with your boss’ approval now. If you’re a home user the picture gets murkier. If you run a video studio out of your house and you’re used to working with Apple’s Final Cut Studio, then it’s still a probable yes. However, if all you’re looking for is a fast multimedia PC, then think about the cheaper Mac Pro (4-Core), especially with the ATI Radeon HD 4870 graphics card option, which, although still in testing, is already looking like a better choice for visual artists and enthusiasts. Then there’s the Editors’ Choice Apple iMac (Nvidia GeForce 9400M) for about $1,500, if all you want are some Photoshop capabilities and a beautiful design. The iMac is a better, less expensive Mac OS-based choice for the multimedia enthusiast.

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