Review: Apple Mac Pro (Late 2013)

Apple reinvents the professional workstation (January 21st, 2014)

MacNN Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: From $2999 ($3999 as tested)

The Good


  • - Superbly engineered
    - Beautiful, yet practical design
    - Incredible system bandwidth
    - Outstanding connectivity
    - Class-leading value for money

The Bad


  • - iMac outpaces Mac Pro in some areas on paper
    - Performance dependent on app optimization
    - Few Thunderbolt 2 peripherals at this time

Last June, Apple unveiled the new Mac Pro in what turned out to be a an excruciatingly long six-month wait for the shipping product. Now that we finally have our hands on one, the high-end standard configuration with a 6-core Intel Xeon and dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs, we have been putting it through its paces. In our first look at the Mac Pro, we noted that it is clear that Apple has created something special defining what it believes is a new paradigm for the pro workstation moving forward, while our early benchmarking supports the assertion. In our full review, we take a deeper look into Apple's bold vision for pro computing that, like many of Apple's breakthrough products, looks set to redefine its category.

Design and build quality
The new Mac Pro is an instant classic of Apple design. It's cylindrical design is a radical form factor that has never before been seen in the computing landscape, and it is simply stunning to behold. At just 9.9-inches tall and 6.6-inches in diameter, it belies just how much processing power is neatly tucked into its innards - in fact, it must go pretty close to being the most powerful desktop computer ever made, pound for pound. It's finish is also currently unique in Apple's product portfolio (although we suspect that more Apple products will soon appear in it as well). Officially, it is Space Gray in color with its aluminum enclosure both anodized and polished, giving it a beautiful, reflective metallic look. Yet, it also seems rugged and able to resist finger smudging and minor knocks without looking worse for wear. Apple has worked hard to vastly improve the finish and quality of its anodized products in recent times and the new Mac Pro takes this to previously unseen levels.



Yet, it is function first that has resulted in Apple's latest design masterpiece. Its base is punctuated by perforated vents that encompass its full 360 degrees, which courtesy of a single fan, suck air through its structure to keep it cool with a circular vented exhaust port on the top expelling the heated air. Cleverly, the circular exhaust port at the top, with its iPad and iPhone-like chamfered edge, also doubles as a handle. Apple considers the Mac Pro a portable desktop, and at just 11 pounds it is easy to understand why. The outer aluminum enclosure is relatively thick and solid and lifting the device from what is effectively its handle underscores just how sturdy and rigidly constructed the new Mac Pro is. Its base also has a rubberized band around its circumference that helps to protect the base of the chassis, but also the surface it is placed on while allowing for the vents to extend down as far as possible to maximize airflow. As with anything Apple, when you study it closely, you can get a sense of just how much thought and consideration goes into the execution of its products. The Mac Pro is an exceptional embodiment of Apple's design philosophy.




Hardware and connectivity
As a precision workstation, the Mac Pro has been fitted with the very latest workstation hardware to ensure enhanced reliability and stability as well as performance. Further, its overall system architecture has been completely redesigned to ensure that every potential performance bottleneck has been eliminated and replaced with the very fastest components and connectivity options. The system's DDR3 RAM is the Error Code Correcting (ECC) type, with similar technology built into other system components including its workstation-class GPUs. For workstation applications, this is a very important overall part of a systems overall performance in mission critical contexts where bit errors can introduce inaccuracies in processing data, algorithms, design details, or even result in application or system crashes. For small businesses and enterprises, downtime naturally equals lost productivity and lost money. It is this level of precision that results in the relatively high component costs in the Mac Pro, although Apple has done an excellent job of keeping the Mac Pro pricing sharp compared to its PC-based workstation competition.



The Mac Pro is fitted with Intel's latest workstation CPUs, in this case, its Xeon E5 processor family in 4, 6, 8 or 12 core versions. As the core count increases, clock speed decreases reducing single core performance scores, but sharply increasing multi-core performance in multi-threaded applications designed to take advantage of a processor's full bandwidth. From a microarchitecture perspective, the Xeon chips are based on Intel's 'Ivy Bridge' design, though the chips are bolstered with larger L1, L2 and L3 memory caches. The entry-level standard configuration with a 3.7GHz quad-core Xeon E5, 12GB of DDR3 ECC RAM, dual AMD FirePro D300 graphics with 2GB of GDDR VRAM each and 256GB PCIe flash storage, starts from $2,999. Like the microarchitecture in the Xeon chips, the architecture underpinning the AMD FirePro GPUs is not its very latest either, but like the Xeon processors, they have been bolstered to provide optimal performance, data processing accuracy and integrity pro user's expect from workstation-class GPUs. The high-end standard configuration 6-core unit is fitted with a 3.5Ghz Xeon E5, 16GB of DDR3 ECC RAM, dual AMD FirePro D500 graphics with 3GB of GDDR5 VRAM each and 256GB of PCIe flash storage starts from $3,999. System RAM is user upgradeable to 64GB, while flash storage options include a 512GB drive and a 1TB drive.



The main hardware is attached in on a triangular frame with the CPU on one side, and the GPUs on the other two sides. A small motherboard resides beneath the triangular frame. The gap in the center of the triangular board arrangement is a unified thermal core that, in part, has allowed for such a dramatic reduction in unit size over the previous generation. This design has allowed for the inclusion of just one (extensively engineered and designed) fan, reducing the fan count over the previous generation by seven. Along with the switch to a modular computing paradigm which forgoes the inclusion of PCI expansion slots and drive bays, Apple has been able to reduce the volume of the Mac Pro to just one-eighth of the previous generation. While an incredible engineering achievement, the modular approach has not been without its critics, especially those who prefer internal expansion options. As all users have different requirements, Apple has turned to external connectivity to create a single, highly efficient system design, that can take advantage of the latest in I/O technology for expansion options.



To this extent, the Mac Pro supports Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 and comes equipped with four USB 3.0 ports, six Thunderbolt 2 ports and dual Gigabit Ethernet ports and an HDMI 1.4 port. The inclusion of Intel's Thunderbolt 2 technology with its 20Gb/s bidirectional bandwidth is critical for supporting 4K Ultra HD video processing and back up over compatible storage devices. Although its theoretical bandwidth remains the same as the original Thunderbolt specification, the four 10Gbps channels have been bonded in pairs to allow for double the simultaneous data transfer rate for a new total bandwidth of 40Gbps. Thanks to Thunderbolt 2, it is now possible to simultaneously import and backup 4K Ultra HD with the Mac Pro. Further, when 4K Thunderbolt displays become a reality, higher 4K frame rates than what is possible over HDMI 1.4 will also be possible, Intel advises. Each Thunderbolt 2 port can also support up to six Thunderbolt devices per port at the end of each daisy chain for a total of 36 connected peripherals, plus six DisplayPort-connected displays. This all possible because of the PCIe interconnect technology underpinning Thunderbolt connectivity that allows for the addition of external PCIe expansion chassis in lieu of internal PCIe expansion slots. There is no other workstation on the market that can compete with what Apple is offering right now. If there is one word that springs to mind when thinking about the Mac Pro, it is 'bandwidth.' Apple has chosen every component for the Mac Pro with optimal bandwidth in mind. From the CPU, to the RAM, to the GPUs, the system architecture, the storage to the I/O, Apple has made a concerted effort to use the latest technology.




Performance
The performance of the Mac Pro is geared towards optimal performance in professional applications like Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere, DaVinci Resolve, AutoCAD, Maya, Cinema 4D R15, Logic Pro X, Aperture, and Motion among others. The combined system architecture and I/O of the Mac Pro is designed to ensure that if you use any of these applications, you will get through your workflow faster and with greater reliability and flexibility than any other computer in Apple's lineup, or even comparable PC-workstations. We ran some early benchmarks of the Mac Pro up against a rMacBook Pro (Early 2013) to get a sense of its general performance, but we have since run it up against an iMac (Late 2013) for this review. The rMacBook Pro runs a dual-core Intel Core i5 chip clocked at 2.5GHz and incorporates Intel's 'Ivy Bridge' microarchitecture with HD 4000 graphics, while it is paired with 8GB of RAM and uses a 128GB flash storage drive The iMac runs a quad-core Intel Core i5 chip clocked at 3.4GHz and incorporates Intel's 'Haswell' microarchitecture, while it is paired with 8GB of RAM with discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 775M with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM and uses a new generation PCIe-based 3TB Fusion Drive. In terms of raw speed, some of the results may surprise users who might expect that the new Mac Pro will be the performance flagship for the Apple Mac product line up in all areas. Our benchmarks show that this is not the case, which may influence some users who are lusting after the Mac Pro. What the benchmarks do show, is that to get proper bang for your buck from a Mac Pro workstation, you really need to be running professional-class applications.



The Primate Labs Geekbench 3 test runs reveal that while the new Mac Pros are between 17 and 78 percent faster than their equivalent predecessors based on Intel's older 'Nehalem' and 'Westmere' microarchitectures, the new 6-, 8-, and 12-core models are going to be outpaced by an iMac running a Core i5 processor in single-core performance. In the single-core test, the 3.4GHz quad-core 'Haswell' Core i5 outruns the 3.5GHz 6-core Xeon E5 in the Mac Pro with a score of 3794 against 3620. While this may be surprising (and somewhat disappointing given the relative price premium of the Mac Pro) the true value of the Mac Pro workstation architecture is revealed particularly in the area of multi-core performance and on multithreaded strings. The reason the Core i5 processor in the iMac (Late 2013) outpaces Intel's latest workstation chips in single-core performance is thanks to its more efficient processing pipelines and newer instruction sets. However, as the Core i5 chip in the iMac is not enabled with hyperthreading, it will suffer in multicore tests where hyperthreading allows for the simultaneous execution of two threads at once, which is born out in its multi-core score on the Geekbench 3 test. Unfortunately, Apple didn't have an Intel Core i7 (with hyperthreading) powered iMac available for testing at the time of our review, so were weren't able to ascertain how much better that chip performs against the 6-core Xeon in the Mac Pro. In the multi-core test, the Core i5 iMac scores a still respectable 12029 against the 6-core Mac Pro multi-core score of 20683. The Core i5 iMac multi-core score, is, however competitive with the 6-core Mac Pro from 2010 and even the new 4-core Mac Pro because of its microarchitecture advantage.



We spoke with Intel regarding its workstation chips and they explained that the 'order of release' of its desktop class chips and the nature of its workstation chips in general. While Intel is unable to comment about why Apple chooses certain components for its products, it was able to provide further insight into the difference between its approach to desktop-class and workstation-class chip design. While there are many similarities between the microarchitecture of its Core and Xeon chips, its Xeon chips are optimized for muliticore-enabled and multithreaded applications and to this extent, a Xeon chip will have more turbo bins, better I/O and additional onboard cache compared to its Core stablemates. Further, only Xeon processors support ECC RAM, which is critical in workstation computers. Although the Xeon E5 processors used in the Mac Pro were just released in September 2013 and are the latest workstation chips that Intel offers that are suitable for the Mac Pro, Intel released its latest 'Haswell' microarchitecture desktop chips in June 2013. According to Intel, its Xeon chips undergo many months of further and extensive testing and validation over and above what is required for its desktop-class chips. Once the design passes this rigorous testing regime, it is then deemed fit for purpose, which is why Xeon chips necessarily follow the release of their desktop counterparts. In this case, the first 'Ivy Bridge' products were made available a full twelve months before the Xeon E5 v2 chips powering the Mac Pro. Intel also advised that because workstations and respective workstation-class applications are so specialized, benchmarks that are designed to provide a real world evaluation of a chip's performance might be better suited to providing an assessment of the Xeon E5's performance; more so than a more generic test like Geekbench 3, even if it does provide interesting insights into Apple's product line.




An example of a real world benchmark based of the types of workloads performed by a CPU/GPU in the context of a professional application is the Maxon Cinebench R15 test. It stresses both the CPU and GPU with computationally intensive algorithms and geometry that are typically required to execute tasks in its pro applications. Given the creative potential of Maxon's Cinema 4D application, the Cinebench test gives a an accurate assessment of how the Mac Pro, or indeed a high-end iMac, will handle pro applications. As you can see from the CPU test, although the Core i5 iMac scores well in the single-core tasks in Geekbench 3, it's lack of hyperthreading means that it fails to handle the (up to 250) processor threads demanded by the Cinebench CPU test as well as does the 6-core Mac Pro. In this instance, the Mac Pro nearly doubles the score of the iMac with a score of 961 against 521. Although the Mac Pro only utilizes one AMD FirePro GPU for the Cinebench R15 GPU test, it is still interesting to observe that the latest Nvidia 'Kepler' architecture helps the GeForce GTX 775M with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM to an impressive average of 74.75 fps. The AMD FirePro D500 in the Mac Pro uses 'Tahiti' based microarchitecture, which was first introduced in its consumer line in mid to late 2012. It returns an average of 80.13 fps in the Cinebench GPU test. This suggests that optional Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M with 4GB GDDR5 VRAM graphics available for the high-end iMac will outrun the mid-range workstation graphics in the 6-core Mac Pro fairly comfortably. With CrossFire X enabled under Windows, and the AMD D500 GPUs working in unison, they are able to achieve an average of 106.64 fps in the same cross-platform Cinebench R15 GPU test. However, keep in mind that the AMD FirePro graphics in the Mac Pro have also undergone extensive validation testing and will necessarily follow the release of AMD's latest desktop graphics solutions. An iMac might outrun the Mac Pro in some areas, but its CPU and GPU are not validated for workstation use.



The benefit of workstation-class hardware means that Mac Pro users editing and rendering a film, for example, won't have to contend with the likelihood of dropped frames or other potential bit error mishaps that can potentially arise in 'mission critical' uses with regular desktop hardware. The Mac Pro GPUs are also designed for use in the Mac Pro where one card is dedicated to handling output up to three Ultra HD monitors, or six Thunderbolt displays, which requires substantial driving. The second GPU is designed for compute tasks where processing loads that can benefit from stream processing that graphics cards excel at in an Open GL framework. Further, the AMD FirePro cards found in the Mac Pro incorporate AMD's Graphics Core Next technology for accelerated compute performance. According to Apple, in Mac OS X developers can design their applications so that they are optimized to take advantage of this capability via Grand Central Dispatch. Grand Central Dispatch is at the core of Mac OS X and determines which of a Mac system's components are best able to execute certain types of tasks. If you want to do some gaming on your Mac Pro in your down time, the fact that CrossFire X is enabled in Windows means that to more mileage out of the graphics processing hardware at your disposal, the Windows environment is where you will want to do it. If gaming on a Mac is a high priority for you, a fully specified CTO iMac could still be a better bet overall.



Of Apple's pro applications, Final Cut Pro X is the first to have been updated to support parallel computing on the Mac Pro, although the extent to which this will take place will depend your particular workflow. This is why the Intel Xeon chips still play a crucial role in the overall performance of the Mac Pro, despite the additional 2.2 teraflops of compute performance available on tap through the second AMD FirePro D500. As others have discovered, the Mac Pro can indeed support up to run 8 picture-in-picture streams of 4K video at once in Final Cut Pro X as Apple claims, although we weren't able to fully stretch our 6-core unit to test full extent of its ability to render multiple layers effects in real-time as our Mac Pro is limited to 16GB of RAM. Given that the Mac Pro can support up to 64GB of RAM and it renders Final Cut Pro real-time effects in system RAM, we look forward to updating this review when we get our hands on a unit with RAM fully loaded. Needless to say with our workflow, which we amplified for this review using RAW 4K clips shot on a Blackmagic Production Camera 4K, the Mac Pro did not drop any frames with settings set to "Best Performance". We monitored CPU load and found that the all the cores were being utilized, with the load peaking occasionally, particularly when applying multiple renders in real-time. Given the Mac Pro can handle the same workloads on up to three 4K displays simultaneously, we are not in danger of really tripping our system up using a pair of 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt monitors. Hopefully Apple updates its display line up with 4K monitors soon, as widely anticipated, so we can see how it performs in this usage context. Overall, though, using the Mac Pro with 4K footage feels no different to editing footage in 1080p in general use, which will help to dramatically speed up the 4K workflow of professional editors.



Another reason why the Mac Pro handles heavy workflows with ease is that its on board system storage is connected over a PCIe bus. Working with large files on the built-in 256GB flash drive is super responsive and fast -- Apple claims that the Mac Pro delivers up to 1.2GB/s sequential reads and up to 1GB/s sequential writes, which is up to ten times faster than using a 7,200rpm SATA hard drive. Similarly, working with external RAID drives over Thunderbolt is also extremely fast and efficient. We look forward to hooking up a Thunderbolt 2-enabled drive array as the new 20Gbps bandwidth actually allows Mac Pro users to simultaneously import and backup 4K Ultra HD files, which is currently only possible thanks to Apple's early adoption of Intel's latest I/O tech. Importing, exporting and simultaneously exporting and converting files (whether audio or video files) is as seamless an experience as you will find on a computer. Although under heavy loads the Mac Pro started blowing much warmer air and got quite warm to touch, it always operates extremely quietly. Apple says that at peak load, it will not exceed 17dBA, a claim we have no difficulty believing. Its unique approach to handling thermal stress thanks to its highly efficient unified thermal core, combined with heat dissipating aluminum sleeve means that the Mac Pro will be the least noisy of any hardware that you will use that incorporates moving parts. It is designed to be both very powerful, but extremely robust. Yet at the same time, it is surprisingly portable, meaning that you can realistically consider taking the Mac Pro on location when needed.



Wrapping up
Apple has clearly set a new benchmark in performance and overall usability for workstation computers with the Mac Pro. It is the pinnacle of hardware engineering packaged that in the truest Apple tradition is packaged in the pinnacle of industrial design. While it might seem inevitable that all workstation computers will be made this way in the future, Apple is always at the front of the guard when it comes to making this type of user experience possible now, now rather than waiting around for it to slowly evolve over the next ten years as other makers might. The Mac Pro is testament to Apple's authentic innovation in hardware, its willingness to continually reimagine computing paradigms, and is yet another great example of Apple skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it's been.

If there are any potential weaknesses in the Mac Pro, it is not a result of Apple's product execution. The necessary product testing and validation processes for workstation-class hardware means that the Mac Pro does not enjoy a large performance gap over the high-end iMac that the price differential might otherwise indicate. However, if your needs skew towards needing the fastest and most reliable performance when running professional applications, you will not find a finer machine on the market. The overall performance and system bandwidth of the Mac Pro means that you will never have been able to handle intensive CPU and GPU computations like you will with the new Mac Pro. If you are in the market for a workstation, there is no more cutting-edge hardware on the market than the Apple Mac Pro.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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