updated 10:18 pm EST, Tue December 31, 2013
HP, Lenovo unable to match Apple on price, performance
A lengthy analysis of the new Mac Pro by hardware enthusiast site Anandtech has found that Apple's latest desktop not only offers a design that is unmatched in the industry, but that its mix of custom features (like Thunderbolt 2 support on the motherboard and special dual FirePro graphics cards) and low price (for a workstation of this caliber) make it a compelling option for creative professionals, and cheaper than other manufacturers' options.
The site compared the entry-level 3.7Ghz quad-core Mac Pro with dual AMD FirePro D300 graphics cards to somewhat similar configurations of HP and Lenovo workstation offerings. As with the efforts of a previous attempt by a DIY PC building enthusiast site, the reviewers found that they could not fully match the specs for anything close to Apple's price. Even with a few compromises -- a single FirePro card instead of dual cards, no on-board Thunderbolt 2 support but more flexible internal expansion options -- the difference in price was over $1,000 difference in Apple's favor, compared against a customized HP Z420 ($4,490) and a Lenovo ThinkStation S30 ($4,373). And Apple's price of $3,248 included AppleCare.
The team were able to best Apple's price, like the DIY site before it, only by dropping many of the Mac Pro's key features, such as using a Xeon processor, PCIe SSDs (which is more than twice as fast as standard SATA SSD storage) and higher-accuracy ECC RAM (crucial in some pro apps). While the resulting system would be of more interest to gamers than anyone doing serious pro-levle creative work, a machine built using an Intel Core i7 with 12GB of RAM, two FirePro W7000 GPUs and a SATA SSD came to $2,730, a very fast consumer-level PC about $770 less than the entry-level but more powerful Mac Pro.
The review also includes benchmarks comparing the new Mac Pro to previous editions, and notes that at present the new machine's support for third-party 4K high-resolution displays is currently spotty, though this is likely to change in future software or firmware updates. The benchmarks found the new Mac Pro unsurprisingly faster than any previous model with anything thrown at it, though obviously with legacy benchmarks and applications its performance was only 25 percent faster than the next most previous Mac Pro model.
On benchmarks using the latest Final Cut Pro, which has been tweaked to take better advantage of the new Mac Pro, results were suitably impressive, ranging from 2x performance up to 8x the previous model (when using a stock video card in the 2009-design Mac Pro). In benchmarks against Retina MacBook Pros and beefed-up previous Mac Pro models, it becomes clear that for pro-level applications, it is the dual FirePro GPUs that make at least as big an impact as the improved CPU, and in pro applications far more.
Cinebench benchmarks comparing the new Mac Pro to current consumer Macs like the MBP and iMac show that the new machine is nothing special on single-thread applications, but that when apps are able to take full advantage of the Xeon multi-core processor, it wipes the floor with even the quad-core i7 chip, again reinforcing that the latter chip -- while very fast by consumer standards -- is not an acceptable "good enough" alternative when building a serious workstation. The Mac Pro's multi-thread Cinebench 11.5 scores were 2.5 to 3x faster in 3D rendering, and more accurate Cinebench 15 put the Mac Pro more firmly at 3x to nearly 6x performance in 3D rendering compared to quad-i7 and quad-i5 Retina MBP performance.
In addition, the new Mac Pro will continue to improve as more apps and later updates of OS X are fine-tuned to take full advantage of the processor, RAM, storage and graphic capabilities. Tests using current versions of Adobe tools like Lightroom and Photoshop were comparable to previous Mac Pro scores, but future optimized versions are likely to significantly improve performance in these and other pro applications. This also includes gaming -- at present, the Mac Pro is not really the best option for a gaming machine (and every fiber of its design reiterates this), but should developers choose to optimize builds for it, it would likely be competitive with some of the best GPUs available.
At the moment, the main reason to buy a new Mac Pro is for Final Cut Pro and 3D rendering, but the future potential of the machine -- not even considering its unusual high upgradeability factor -- adds to its present allure. Presuming Apple improves 4K monitor compatibility and pro-app developers upgrade their software to leverage it, the new Mac Pro is not just a remarkably-engineered and trend-setting desktop workstation, but a long-term investment that will continue to mature, evolve and influence far beyond its revolutionary appearance and approach.