Inside the Mac Pro: Hard drives

One nice thing about the G4-based Power Macs was that they had lots of room inside for things like internal hard drives. Then the Power Mac G5 arrived. Sure, the G5 featured improved Serial ATA (SATA) hard-drive technology—but it also halved the number of internal hard drives to two and made the process of installing them more complicated. The Mac Pro is a nice step forward in both respects.

The standard Mac Pro includes one 250GB hard drive. Like the Power Mac G5, the Mac Pro uses SATA hard drives. But while the Power Mac supported SATA drives with a maximum bandwidth of 1.5 gigabits per second (Gbps), the Mac Pro supports the second generation of SATA drives—sometimes known as SATA II or SATA-300—which have a maximum potential bandwidth of 3 Gbps. (For a review of SATA drives, visit our Storage topic page, which includes recent reviews of the G-SATA 1TB hard drive, and WiebeTech’s SilverSATA II SR 1TB hard drive.) However, this doesn’ actually translate into doubled speed—drive mechanisms aren’t currently fast enough to pump out that much data in that amount of time.

Swimming in Storage If you need more internal storage but only want one drive, Apple will bump that 250GB drive up to 500GB, for $200. Or you could take advantage of the Mac Pro’s four easy-to-access hard-drive bays and really load up on storage—filling each bay with one of Apple’s 500GB hard drives (at $400 at piece) will give you 2TB (terabytes)—that’s 2,000GB—of storage.

Of course, you can do even better than that (and spend less money) if you take your business elsewhere. For example, you can buy a Seagate Barracuda 750GB SATA hard drive —the largest single mechanism currently available—for around $335 online . That drive not only costs less than one of Apple’s 500GB drives, but also lets you increase your Mac Pro’s total storage to 3TB.

Hard drive
Installing drives in the Mac Pro is easier than installing drives in any other recent Mac. Each empty hard-drive bay includes a metal drive carrier. You simply attach the drive to the carrier with four screws and slide the carrier back into place. The drive connects directly to the motherboard, without messy data or power cables. (Just don’t try to slide them in and out when the Mac Pro is turned on! Although the drive bays and carriers look similar to those in Apple’s Xserve, the Mac Pro drives are not hot-swappable.)

RAIDing Party Of course, those four drive bays give you more than just raw storage. With a little work, they can also speed up essential hard-drive tasks. For example, you could use Drive Utility to set up your drives in a striped RAID volume—multiple drives configured so they act as one single, speedy volume (see below). If you’re considering this setup, note that a startup drive and multiple RAIDs work best.

You could also create a mirrored RAID—in which the same data is stored, or mirrored, on two drives—for an up-to-the-minute backup. (Or, when Mac OS X Leopard arrives, you could dedicate one drive to the Time Machine backup utility.)— Jonathan Seff

RAID: The penny-pincher’s path to faster performance

Although the standard Mac Pro configuration has just one 250GB hard drive, you can install up to four SATA hard drives in it. One way to increase drive performance is to take multiple drives and create one RAID 0 volume. This type of RAID, also referred to as a striped array, reads and writes data to and from all the drives at the same time, which can really speed things up. To see what kind of performance boost we’d get from this type of setup, we connected two 250GB drives in a RAID 0, installed OS X, and ran some of our standard tests on it. And the results were impressive, to say the least. Adding just one drive (available for $90 or less online) gave us a lot more bang for our buck than the $800 processor upgrade available from Apple. A 2.66GHz Mac Pro with a striped array was just 5 percent slower than a 3GHz Mac Pro without the striped RAID.

Mac Pro RAID Test

Speedmark 4.5 Compressor 2.1 Finder Finder iPhoto iTunes 6.0.4
OVERALL SCORE MPEG-2 ENCODE DUPLICATE FILE EXPAND ZIP ARCHIVE IMPORT PHOTOS MP3 ENCODE
Mac Pro/2.66GHz (standard) 299 1:47 0:17 0:44 0:32 0:48
Mac Pro/2.66GHz (RAID) 337 1:38 0:09 0:32 0:21 0:48
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better

Best results in bold.

Speedmark 4.5 scores are relative to those of a 1.25GHz Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Compressor, iPhoto, iTunes, and Finder scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.7 and had 1GB of RAM. The standard configuration used one 250GB Western Digital WD2500JS Caviar SE drive. The RAID configuration used a striped RAID volume made up of two WD2500JS drives. We used Compressor to encode a 6-minute-and-26-second DV file using the DVD: Fastest Encode 120 minutes - 4:3 setting. We duplicated a 500MB file in the Finder. We expanded a Zip archive of a 1GB folder in the Finder. We imported 100 photos into iPhoto from the hard drive. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. To compare Speedmark 4.5 scores for various Mac systems, visit our Apple Hardware Guide .—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

Comparing performance on disk-intensive tasks, you’ll see that the 2.66GHz RAID system was 47 percent faster than the standard 2.66GHz system at duplicating a 500MB file, 27 percent faster at unzipping a 1GB folder, and 34 percent faster at importing pictures into Apple’s iPhoto. Some of our tests, such as 3-D gaming, rendering in Maxon’s Cinema 4D XL, and even MP3 encoding in Apple’s iTunes, don’t rely much on hard-disk performance, so we saw no big improvements there. However, the gains made in other areas seem well worth the price of setting up a striped RAID volume.— James Galbraith

[ Jonathan Seff is Macworld ’s senior news editor. James Galbraith is Macworld ’s Lab Director. ]

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