Apple's Mac Pro (2014) reviewed: hugely impressive hardware

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Apple's Mac Pro (2014) reviewed: hugely impressive hardware
When Apple puts its mind to a task, it’s a safe bet that the end product will be something special – but the new Mac Pro is out of this world.
 
After years of research and design work at Apple’s labs, what has emerged is radically different from any desktop PC you’ve ever seen – a high-end workstation system, crammed with cutting-edge components, which looks more like a beautiful hi-tech bin than a computer.
 
In keeping with Apple’s wider design ethos, the Mac Pro is a minimalist affair. Its unusual cylindrical shape, finished in a dark, polished gunmetal grey, is blemished by not a single mark – not even an Apple logo – until you reach the “rear” of the device, where all the connections are elegantly arranged on a single panel. 
 
Even this has been meticulously designed, with all Thunderbolt, USB and Ethernet ports stacked in two columns. Cleverly, the labels and lines surrounding each individual group are backlit, illuminating when the system fires up, or whenever movement is detected. If you happen to have your Mac Pro stowed under a desk, those backlit labels make it easier to locate the port you’re looking for.
 
The Mac Pro’s big party trick is how easy it is to open up. Flip the single catch at the top of the chassis next to the port panel, and (assuming all cables have been disconnected) it’s possible to pull the entire exterior sheath up and off, with a satisfying, Star Trek-esque whoosh. It reveals a suitably exotic interior, with four RAM sockets sitting in two spring-loaded banks on either side, and the rear of the two graphics cards between them, one of which has the system’s single PCI Express-based SSD mounted on it.
 
Internal design 
The Mac Pro is certainly eye-catching, but what’s really clever about the design is the way that Apple has completely deconstructed the traditional desktop. Instead of everything sprouting from a single, monolithic motherboard, Apple has opted for a modular approach, with each major component mounted on a separate board.
 
This explains how Apple has crammed so much into so little space (it really is compact, rising a mere 251mm from the desk and measuring 167mm in diameter). What it doesn’t explain, though, is how the Mac Pro gets rid of the heat generated by all of its powerful components.
 
In more traditional high-end workstations and PCs, there’s usually an assortment of fans and heatsinks, all working together to cool the system. They draw air into the chassis, distribute it to the graphics cards, CPU, power supply and other components, and push it back out of the box again. Inevitably, under load, such an arrangement can make a lot of noise. The smaller the chassis, the harder those fans have to work, and the louder they become.
 
In the comparatively tiny Mac Pro, the main heat-generating parts – the CPU and graphics cards – are attached to a single, Toblerone-shaped heatsink that runs up the centre of the tubular case, with one component on each side. Apple calls this the “thermal core”, and it requires only a single fan to keep things cool, which is mounted at the bottom of the heatsink. This sucks air in from outside, pushes it across the surface of the heatsink and vents it out of the hole you see at the top.
 
It’s an incredibly efficient system: despite the cramped nature of the chassis, the Mac Pro barely ever registers more than a quiet hum. Even with the 24 logical cores of our review unit at full pelt, we had to put our ear right over the vent to hear it over the the office air conditioning.
 
Internal specification
The hardware inside the Mac Pro is, inevitably, a touch less exotic than the exterior design. Nonetheless, the sheer amount of power it’s possible to pack into it remains impressive. Our review unit came with a 12-core 2.7GHz Intel Xeon E5-2697 v2 CPU (complete with Hyper-Threading, Turbo Boost capability up to 3.5GHz, 30MB of L3 cache and a QPI running at 8GT/sec). It also had 32GB of DDR3 RAM, a 512GB PCI Express SSD with a claimed throughput of 1GB/sec, and a pair of AMD FirePro D700 GPUs.
 
The graphics cards are custom parts, and thus can’t be compared directly with AMD’s retail FirePro boards. With AMD’s Tahiti XT core at the centre of things, though, and 6GB of GDDR5 RAM, the closest comparison is with AMD’s FirePro W9000 cards, which cost a breathtaking $4450 each.
 
For the specification above, you’ll be paying a handsome $10,469. However, this isn’t the only line-up available. The range starts at a much more reasonable $3999, for which sum the Mac Pro comes equipped with a quad-core 3.7GHz Xeon E5-1620 v2, 12GB of DDR3 RAM, a 256GB PCI Express SSD and twin AMD FirePro D300 cards. It tops out at $11,299 for a 12-core system like our test unit, with 64GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, and in between there are options based on six- and eight-core Xeon E5 v2s.
 
Input, output
Whichever specification you opt for, you’ll get the same – rather impressive – array of external connectivity: twin Gigabit Ethernet, four USB 3 ports, and six Thunderbolt 2 ports. Thunderbolt 2 uses the same technology as the first version, but it enables channel aggregation; so where the original Thunderbolt allowed no device to access more than 10Gbits/sec up and down, those two channels can be lumped together on the Mac Pro to give 20Gbits/sec transfers.
 
This means that not only does the Mac Pro possess the capability to shunt around a huge amount of data very quickly, but – since Thunderbolt also allows monitor connections – it’s also possible to hook up higher-resolution displays. In the case of the Mac Pro, you can connect up to three 4K monitors simultaneously via its Thunderbolt ports – one for your video-editing window, one for a full-screen 4K preview and one for a 4K email client. If the budget won’t stretch quite as far as three 4K monitors, you can drop down to 2560 x 1440 and hook up six of those screens instead.
 
Whichever way you look at it, when it comes to raw data-shunting prowess, the Mac Pro is an absolute beast, and that includes the 512GB Samsung SSD. As with recent iMacs and MacBooks, it’s connected to the PCI Express bus, which Apple claims delivers throughput of up to 1GB/sec. Testing with AS SSD under Windows 8, we achieved close to these speeds, with maximum sequential read and write rates of 1080MB/sec and 850MB/sec, figures far in excess of anything we’ve seen from a SATA/600 drive.
 
Benchmarking the Mac Pro
With so much power to burn in all sectors, it was always going to take more than just our standard tests to push the Mac Pro to the limits, and so it proved. Initial results had us puzzled: in our Real World Benchmark suite under Windows 8, the Mac Pro achieved an Overall score of only 1.31.
 
We say “only” because –despite the 12 physical cores in our test system, which with Hyper-Threading appear as a staggering 24 logical cores to the OS – this isn’t the fastest Real Word Benchmark result we’ve seen. That accolade belongs to the Chillblast Fusion Photo OC V (web ID: 385555), which scored 1.43 overall with its overclocked, six-core, 4.5GHz Intel Core i7-4930K Ivy Bridge-E CPU.
 
Why is this? The answer is straightforward. The majority of the applications in our test suite are single-threaded – with the exceptions of Sony Vegas Pro and Cinebench – and are thus unable to take full advantage of all of the Mac Pro’s cores. With a clock speed much lower than the Chillblast’s 4.5GHz Intel Core i7-4930K, the system winds up being slower in those non-multicore tests.
 
Compare the results of only the intensively multithreaded Sony Vegas Pro test, however, and the Mac Pro streaks ahead. In that test, it cranked out a score of 2.39 – a full 10% faster than the Chillblast.
 
It isn’t all about the CPU with the Mac Pro, though. Remember those twin GPUs? They’re not there for window dressing, nor for gaming. They’re there to provide parallel processing horsepower – to process video effects, help churn through heavy-duty video-rendering jobs, complex number-crunching tasks and 3D rendering in double-quick time. 
 
But they’re no good if the software you’re running isn’t aware of them. Alas, our benchmark suite doesn’t help much here either. To really show off what the Mac Pro can do, you need software specifically written to take advantage of both GPUs. So we switched back to OS X Mavericks and loaded up the latest version of Final Cut Pro X, which Apple has tweaked to take full advantage of the Mac Pro’s dual-GPU grunt.
 
Final Cut Pro X is intelligent about how it uses the CPU and GPUs, employing the Mac Pro’s dual D700s not only to speed up rendering, but also to distribute the compute load. This ensures the editing system remains responsive, even with rendering and effects-processing jobs churning away in the background.
 
To give you an idea of what this means in terms of a real-life editing task, we carried out a quick stress test. We added three 1080p video clips to the timeline, reduced the opacity of each one, to force the preview engine to show them all at once, then applied a total of 24 effects, plus sharpening and colour correction. For a final touch, we overlaid a 4K video clip, adjusted its opacity, and then hit play.
 
This sort of effect- and clip-stacking doesn’t represent a particularly realistic video-editing workload, but it would bring most video-editing software and hardware combinations to their knees. The Mac Pro and Final Cut Pro X were able to play a full-resolution preview of this project relatively smoothly. When we kicked off a full render in the background, we were able to continue editing with barely a hitch in performance.
 
As another illustration of the potential of the Mac Pro’s dual-GPU setup, we ran our benchmark on Sony Vegas Pro 12, which features improved GPU acceleration over the PC&TA benchmark version (Vegas Pro 10). In this test, the Mac Pro finished the render in a mere 32 seconds. That’s twice as fast as with Vegas Pro 10.
 
Verdict
The Mac Pro is hugely impressive hardware, of that there is no doubt. It isn’t unique in offering this level of power, but to do so in such a compact and efficient package is a truly impressive feat of engineering. To our knowledge, there isn’t any other workstation machine that’s as compact and portable, or as quiet. It’s an unparalleled triumph in this regard. For that reason – and that reason alone – we can see an awful lot of individuals and businesses seriously considering purchasing a Mac Pro. Imagine being able to edit multiple streams of 4K video on location while shooting TV programmes or films, without having to ferry footage back to the studio. The sheer logistical advantage of using a Mac Pro over and above, say, a full-sized desktop tower is difficult to ignore.
 
The real killer blow, however, is likely to be the fact that Apple has managed to squeeze in all this custom engineering and potency at a price that doesn’t – at least in comparison to equivalent workstation-class desktops – break the bank. If you need a workstation-class machine, especially if your software can take advantage of dual GPUs, the Mac Pro has to be on your shortlist.  
Apple's Mac Pro (2014)
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Verdict
Compact and quiet despite a huge helping of horsepower, the Mac Pro’s revolutionary design is set to turn the workstation market on its head. Read the review.
Performance
Features & Design
Value for Money
Overall
Specs
as tested $10469 AUD
Copyright © PC Pro, Dennis Publishing
Copyright © PC Authority, nextmedia
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