Inside the New Mac Pros
Mike's recommendations, cost/performance analysis and tea leaf readings on the new Mac Pros
By Mike Curtis | March 08, 2009
Last Tuesday Apple announced new Mac Pro models based on Intel's Nehalem architecture (at long last!). We got some things we'd been hoping for (Nehalem architecture, improved memory handing, MUCH faster GPUs, cleaner internal layout), and not some others some of us had been hoping for (Blu-ray burners, 10GigE networking, cookie dispenser). Read on for Mike's breakdown of all the BTO options, what they mean, what they cost, and what Mike recommends in a new Mac Pro. Read on after the jump for the Full Scooby.
The Big News is that the new Mac Pros have (finally!) moved to the faster Nehalem architecture. Notes on new models and options:
-clock speed down, but performance up per clock cycle
-clock speed increases are PRICEY - on the 8 core, jumping from 2.26 to 2.66 is $1400 ($3299 to $4699, that is a 42% price increase for a 17% clock speed increase...which will NOT lead to a 17% increase in render/process speeds), jumping up to 2.93GHz is $1200 more ($5899 - a 78% cost increase ($2600) for a 30% (0.67 GHz) clock speed increase). Bang for the buck? The base 2.26 GHz 8 core.
-different memory setups - for the 4 core box @ $2500, 8GB max - for the hard core, 8 core model, up to 32GB RAM - it scales, it makes sense
-I configured one the way I'd want, says it ships in 2-3 weeks - uh huh...I've heard that before, so Wait And See. What was the critical waiting factor? Not the processor speed jump, as I stepped through carefully, it was the change in RAM config from 6 to 8 or 12 GB that made the difference from 2-4 days to 2-3 weeks. Odd! Changing to the top end GPU didn't affect that 2-4 day estimate either. So if in a hurry, order stock RAM and get more elsewhere....
RAM upgrades seem to be more reasonably priced now - start stock w/6GB on the 8 core model, $100 to get to 8, $300 more to double to 12, $500 to get to 16, but 32GB is $6100 extra - poor ROI! The 4 core model starts with 3GB, next jump is up to 6GB for $150. Reasonable.
RAID card - SAS or SATA, but gotta go all with the same flavor. Now $700, price has dropped. I noticed at MacWorld a LOT of progress in the storage space in terms of RAID 3/5/6, fault tolerant SATA storage. Makes me think twice about Apple's offering. But if your data is important (and whose isn't?) fault tolerant RAID is faster and safer than a single drive. Apple's built in solution is straightforward and simple. With drives up to 2TB as cheap as $300 on the market, you can fit up to EIGHT TERABYTES of data in a Mac Pro these days internally. Wow.
drive choices - 640 or 1TB, 1TB is $100 more (again, more reasonable pricing than in past)
drive bays 2-4, 640GB 7200rpm SATA is $200, 1TB add $300 (compare to zipzoomfly etc.)
Graphics - NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 512MB is stock, add a second, third, or fourth (to drive up to 8 monitors) for $150 apiece
or get a single Radeon HD 4870 512MB for $200 - which is significantly faster. Running Avid? They like NVIDIA. Running Redcine? They like ATI.
Optical drive - 18x SuperDrive standard (dual layer), add another for $100. (expletive deleted) - STILL no Blu-ray burner option! MAYBE, if we get a new Final Cut Studio, which MIGHT have Blu-ray burning capabilities, we MIGHT then get a BTO option for Blu-ray burner built in. That clinches it - I'm not buying a new Mac until NAB, hoping for a Blu-ray burner.
Apple Displays - LED Cinema Display 24" for $899, or a 30 (non-LED) for $1799. the more I work with the 30s, the more I don't want to work with anything else. The LED backlit LCD should be seen side by side compared to the old ones - MARKEDLY better
Mighty Mouse regular, Wireless for $20 extra
Keyboard with or without numeric keypad, available in a buncha languages, but if you're reading this, English will probably suffice. Remember, wireless has no numeric keyboard. Sucky.
Wireless - Airport Extreme with 802.11n is $50. I recommend it - NEVER hurts. I'm getting ready to doodle with ethernet based SAN stuff, so having Internet on WiFI helps as an option.
Preinstalled stuff - iWork, can save $30, Final Cut Express 4, save nothing, Aperture 2, save nothing, Logic Express 8, save nothing, FileMaker, save nothing, Server 10.5, 10 client for $500, Unlimited for $1000, Xsan 2 for $1000,
DISPLAY ADAPTORS - you get a dual link DVI and then a MiniDisplayPort, so a if want a second monitor that isn't an Apple LED LCD 24", since it uses a Mini DisplayPort, you need an adaptor to connect it to a regular monitor. They have standard DVI ($29), Dual Link DVI ($99, yikes!), and VGA ($29). Benefits of having a Mini DisplayPort? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? See additional article (link forthcoming) on DisplayPort and MiniDisplayPort for further answers on that.
MobileMe - save $30 for a year subscription if you buy it w/your Mac. I like it and use it, but it is increasingly less outstanding a deal, even as they (gradually) improve the service. Hello, Google? Flickr? AIM? Way cheaper, as in free. But push syncing with iPhone is awfully nice if you have one. But yes, I've been using, paying for, and enjoying the service for years.
AppleCare - $250, including if you get a monitor with it. AKA, if you buy a Mac with a monitor with AppleCare, the monitor gets AppleCare for free. Worth it in that instance.
Buy a printer with it - yeah yeah, don't care. No savings, moving on....
First thing - should you pop for the faster processors? Welcome to Premium Intel Pricing - $1400 for the bump from 2.26 to 2.66, and a whopping $2600 bump from 2.26 to 2.93. Is it worth it?
Hint One - you can buy a WHOLE OTHER 4 CORE MAC PRO for the cost of the increase from 2.26 to 2.93. What will be more productive for you? And that Mac with be Quad core, 2.66 GHz, 6GB RAM (OK, now you're spending $50 more than the CPU upgrade price, $2650ish), 640GB boot drive, NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 512MB, 18x SuperDrive. Get yourself a monitor and you have an entirely decent cutting station. And remember, LOTS of apps do not currently take good advantage of multi-threading. Nothing peeves me more than staring at the Activity Monitor (yes, you have it, in your Utilties folder, first thing) CPU readout, with one bar pegged to the max, and 7 more picking their noses or staring off into space, doin' nuthin'. You'd be surprised what will work OK in that context - there are more single threaded apps out there than you realize, you just need to pay attention to which ones you're using, how much, and how much thumb twiddlin' time you end up with waiting.
Hint Two - how many Macs do you need, and how will you use them? If you make a lot per hour, and/or this Mac is going to be the core of a heavy duty Avid or FCP station with $10-$20K of other goodies around it, it isn't such a big deal. If it is this Mac, a monitor, three chords and the truth to get your documentary cut, I'm thinking you don't need it probably.
RAM - GREAT that the are getting realistic about base configs. Interesting to take note for professional users - having more RAM used to be about running bigger apps, then bigger data sets, then more apps at once (FCP AND DVD Studio Pro AND Compressor, etc.). Nowadays, for power users, beyond 8GB it is about being able to run multiple instances of software to process your frames faster - for 3D software, for Compressor, for Redline, for After Effects, stuff like that - remember how to jigger QMaster to make Compressor faster? Each instance needs its own RAM. I think it very canny that Apple released 4 core capable of 8GB max RAM, which is FINE for most users, even most editors that are just busy cutting. For the power user trying to crunch a lot of data, the 8 core really justifies itself nicely, and the room to add more RAM really helps. I heard up to 2GB per instance for Compressor is optimal, for instance, but I didn't hear enough about what context that was in, how much of a difference it made, etc.
Performance? Take a look at this page, scrolling down a bit to the Final Cut Studio 2 part - because this is what we care about.
ProRes to H.264 encode? Yeah, you'll use it, but not every day. As compared to a 3.2 GHz 8 core, the new top of the line Mac is 50% faster. I have a 3.0GHz box, so that makes my ears prick up. My next oldest Mac is a Quad Core G5 (rare beast that those were) and new Mac Pro cooks ProRes to H.264 2.4x faster than the Quad G5 - quite the improvement.
ProRes Rendering - OK, this is one I use daily - and the boost is only 20% from 3.2GHz older to 2.93GHz newer. Hmmph. All that new stuff Nawt Sew Grate, Akshully. Especially considering the price - you CAN'T get a 2.93 GHz box for less than $5900. Ouch. BUT it IS fast, and it is a notable improvement, and the speed difference MAY increase IF we get a new, more optimized version of Final Cut Studio announced at NAB. That is, however, a lot of conditional statements.
HDV to H.264 and HDV rendering - only 10 or 20% improvment. Got a 3.0 or 3.2 GHz box? DON'T UPGRADE unless you need ANOTHER box for this kind of utilization - the improvements aren't there IF this is what you are doing.
As for other apps? Photoshop and Aperture only show a 20% improvement from a 3.2GHz 8 core previous Mac to 2.93 GHz new Mac Pro.
What about Motion and Color? Motion shows HUGE improvements for some stuff, up to 3x. Dunno about Color but VERY curious to find out, and Motion's improvements bode well. The great bus slowndown thingy to get realtime 1080p out to a Kona, Blackmagic, or Matrox card really has me curious to see if that has been resolved.
Games, however, benefit MASSIVELY from the new GPUs and new memory bus stuff it would appear - and while Apple has posted no specs on Color preview or rendering times, I'm hopeful Color MIGHT have some improvements to show - Motion has, so we'll see. Color's Achilles heel has always been bus related - you couldn't get a graded 1080p24 signal (let alone 1080i) out to a professional broadcast monitor in real time at full frame rate - shuttling the data over the bus was the problem, and GPUs played a lesser role as well.
EDIT - found a reference to Motion 3.02 playback on this page towards the bottom - as compared to an ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT 256MB (what I've got in my 8 core 3.0 GHz box), playback and export speed is 1.5x the speed faster with the NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 512MB, and 3.0x faster with the ATI Radeon 4870 512MB
RAID card - the new SAS drives are wicked fast, and a 3 drive array can PLAY back 10 bit 1080i uncompressed, but I dunno about RECORDING. 5 or 6 streams (SATA vs SAS) for ProResHQ 1080i.
Graphics - that 4870 card looks KILLER, and for $200 should be your FIRST upgrade on the build-to-order page - it'll be the best money spent. I remember when GPU upgrades were $500-$800 and were long pondered over - $200 is cake. DO IT. I'm eager to see how Color and Redcine respond to that change. But Avid users - last I knew, Avid likes NVIDIA, so stick with the stock card, but haven't checked for version 3.5 recently announced of Media Composer.
pretty similar in basics to the prior Mac Pros, but the processors are on the same board as the memory, which will fuel ideas of processor upgrades in the future that will probably go unfulfilled. Such is life. But the layout is clean and simple - Apple continues to refine a really good idea. RAM upgrades without having the lay the box on its side? YES! The slide out tray for RAM/processors is even cleaner and slicker than the prior designs. VERY clean and refined layout now.
Apple - Mac Pro - A redesigned interior makes expansion a snap. And a slide.
up front, two FW800 ports, 2 USB 2.0 ports, headphone jack all up front.
Missing in Action up front though: NO FIREWIRE 400. And don't bother looking in back, either. After all the years of getting FW400 as the standard for a lot of video decks and formats (DV, HDV, DVCPRO HD, etc.), you now don't even have that port natively on the computer. You can, however, use a FW800 to FW400 cable and it'll work - but that is one more funky, more rare cable to chase down and always keep handy. I have, literally, a bucket of FW400 cables - looks like they'll be relegated to Old Mac status from here on out.
I wonder if the FW800 ports are all on the same bus still? I'm betting likely - which could create potential issues if recording to FW based drives - dunno if that is true, just something I want to verify.
Also, no Line In on the front of the Mac - gotta go in back for that. Less confusing for consumers to figure out where to plug in, more frustrating for Skype users.
In back, 3 USB 2.0, 2 FW800 ports, optical audio in and out ports, analog audio in and out ports, and two Gigabit Ethernet ports.
Durn, I was kinda hoping for 10 Gigabit Ethernet as a basis for more affordable high speed NAS/SAN type stuff. Denied.
Back panel layout is a paragon of clean and tidy though - love it.
WHAT WE DIDN'T GET:
-no Blu-ray option
-no FW400 ports
-no front line in port
Keep reading on to the next page!
Follow the jump to see what Mike thinks about who should buy what, how to configure these Mac Pros, buying recommendations, etc.
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freshdv - Thu, May 23 2013 - 10:06 am
RT @philiphodgetts: @alex4d I don't think they're in trouble. http://t.co/86abhU0AUb The truth on Avid's financial position.
freshdv - Thu, May 23 2013 - 10:05 am
RT @alex4d: Avid didn't correctly account for free s'ware updates in 2009-11 financial statements http://t.co/cOIzB98nlM Hope they'll weather the storm