The Mac Pro from a gamer's perspective

At long last, Apple’s high-end Intel-based Mac desktop is out in the world. In its standard configuration, the Mac Pro comes packed with a lot of power and costs a pretty penny— $2,499— but it’s certainly a step in the direction many Mac game enthusiasts were hoping for. Here’s how it rounds up from a gamer’s perspective.

On the outside, the Mac Pro is physically similar to the Power Mac G5 that it replaces. More ports on the front, dual optical drive trays, and entirely new guts within, but it’s a Mac, no question. What’s odd is that I’ve been seeing copycat case vendors with very similar-looking PC clone cases lately—so there’s clearly some crossover appeal to PC gamers looking for a muscular look.

Under the hood of the Mac Pro is a heart of Intel Xeon microprocessing power—two dual core “Woodcrest” microprocessors each running at 2.66GHz (again, in the standard configuration). You also get 1.33GHz dual independent frontside buses and 1GB of RAM, not bad, along with standard Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT graphics card equipped with 256MB RAM.

That’s a decent rig, though let me be clear: The Xeon hasn’t exactly distinguished itself as the ultimate gaming microprocessor. Many PC gamers have preferred AMD’s offerings because they produce better benchmarks for games and have benefitted from a shorter processing pipeline than Intel chips. But that’s not to say the Mac Pro is short on horsepower—with two dual-core chips inside and faster clock speed than we’ve seen on the platform before (optionally at up to 3GHz), there’s a ton of muscle under the hood.

How much of that raw muscle will be tapped by games is still a question that awaits an answer. After all, multicore machines are still a novelty for consumers who use PCs, and we’re only now starting to see a trickle of games support multiple processors and multiple cores.

Then again, anyone buying a Mac Pro on its own merits just for games isn’t thinking clearly. What the Mac Pro is, in fact, is a hellaciously fast desktop system that’s built for speed for a lot of applications, and can ultimately run games pretty well, too.

The Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT card that Apple includes in the “standard” Mac Pro configuration is competent enough, but the best cost benefit for gamers appears to be the ATI Radeon X1900 XT card you can add on to the system for an additional $350. Apple’s own benchmarks running Doom 3 and Quake 4 produce frame rates more than twice as high with the ATI Radeon X1900 card than with the GeForce 7300. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise—the memory bandwidth, number of vertices per second the cards can process, and fill rate make the Radeon X1900 XT a much better fit for gamers.

The X1900 XT requires the 16-lane double-wide PCI Express (PCIe) interface that the Mac Pro uses for games, by the way—not only is it quite fast, but it’s also physically larger to accommodate the massive fans that these cards require for cooling. The Mac Pro also provides 300 watts of total power to all PCIe slots—necessary to make sure that these behemoths get enough juice to run.

If you need another reason to upgrade to the Radeon X1900, consider this: It has two dual-link Digital Visual Interface (DVI) ports on its back, so you can hook up two 30-inch Apple Cinema HD displays. The GeForce 7300 GT has one dual-link DVI and one single-link DVI port, so the most you can do with that is a 23-inch Cinema HD Display and a 30-inch in tandem. That many pixels in graphics memory is irrelevant for gaming, but it could be a selling point if you are going to be using your Mac Pro for professional video editing or other work where having more screen real estate really helps.

What’s truly exciting is that the Mac Pro machine is as much, if not more, for the future as it is for today. With Leopard coming next spring, Universal Binary games here today and Cider-wrapped games coming within the next couple of months, Mac gaming is on the upswing, and the Mac Pro is a rig that should really be able to take advantage of everything that’s offered.

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