Hands on with the Mac Pro: Getting started

When I joined Macworld a little more than a year ago, the company offered to buy me a Power Mac G5 for handling my Mac OS X Hints duties. But since I already owned a fairly fast Power Mac—a dual 2GHz G5, actually—it didn’t make much sense to go through the hassle and expense of an upgrade for a slightly faster processor. I decided to wait.

This summer, my wait paid off. Apple replaced the G5 line with the Xeon-powered Mac Pro, a machine with two dual-core processors for a grand total of four individual processing units. The Power Mac G5 has gone back to being my personal machine—the Mac Pro now does my heavy-lifting.

Back when I picked up a Mac mini earlier this year, I wrote an extensive three - part report on my experience of switching over to one of the early Intel-powered Macs. Given that the mini I have is on the low-end of Apple’s desktop offerings while my new Mac Pro is at the other end of the spectrum, I thought it would be interesting to give the Mac Pro the same treatment I gave the mini—a multi-part look at setting the machine up and putting it through its paces in a variety of different tasks.

Let’s start with the set-up.

Getting started

The Mac Pro arrived last week, after trucking its way up Interstate 5 from Macworld ’s San Francisco office (where it was given a quick look-see and gained the all-important Macworld asset tag). The machine’s baseline configuration is:

  • Two 2.66GHz dual-core Woodcrest CPUs;
  • 2GB RAM;
  • 250GB Serial ATA 3Gb/s hard drive;
  • ATI Radeon X1900XT video card with 512MB of memory;
  • One standard 16x dual-layer SuperDrive; and
  • A wired Apple keyboard and Mighty Mouse.
  • I was surprised (and happy!) to find the upgraded ATI video card in the machine—the standard Mac Pro configuration features an Nvidia GeForce 7300GT with 256MB of memory. The optional ATI card is quite the beast, and really increases the graphics performance of the machine. (I’ll talk more about the card and its performance in upcoming installments of this report.)

    The out-of-the-box experience

    As a first-generation Dual G5 owner, I’m used to large boxes. Well, I thought I was used to large boxes. But where the G5 shipped lying on its side in a flatter box, the new Mac Pro ships standing upright in its box. And even though the actual machines are identical in size, the Mac Pro’s box dwarfs that of the G5 (even accounting for the difference in orientation):


    Yowza. What a monster.

    Open the box, though, and it’s the typically excellent Apple packaging job. A tray up top holds all the software, cords, keyboard, and mouse. Remove that, and you can then easily lift the Mac Pro out of the box—well, as easily as one can lift 60 pounds. Once you’ve done that, and removed all the packaging, you can see that the case is physically the same size as that of the G5, as seen in the image at right.

    Inside the box, in addition to the keyboard, mouse, and computer, Apple includes the install/restore discs, a keyboard extension cable, a DVI-to-VGA monitor adapter, and of course, the power cord. Piled up next to the box, the whole lot looks rather inconsequential.

    Three takeaway points

  • The Mac Pro box is big. Really big. Hope you have a lot of closet/attic space to store it in!
  • Unpacking the mini was actually much tougher than unpacking the Mac Pro.
  • Lift with your legs, not your back. Otherwise, you’ll be using your new Mac Pro from the comfort of a hospital bed.
  • Initial setup and configuration

    After I lugged the beast up onto the desktop, I connected the power cord, keyboard, mouse, and the VGA adapter—I didn’t have a spare DVI adapter lying around when I first connected the Mac Pro to my monitor. After pressing the power button, the Mac Pro booted up quickly (very quickly) and I completed the initial configuration and account creation screens.

    Then it was time to download the required Apple software updates, which turned out to be a bigger task than I was expecting. My Mac Pro shipped with OS X 10.4.7, which meant for a truly gargantuan initial update:


    Add those figures up, and you'll see that it comes in at over 415MB worth of data. Yikes! If you’re on dial-up, you’re looking at 16-plus hours until your new Mac Pro is ready to go. Even on mid-grade DSL, it’s 1.5 hours. Thankfully, we’ve recently switched to Verizon’s FIOS, so download time wasn’t a problem. But for those still on modems, I think this is a real issue—you’d almost have to take the machine into a dealer, or to a friend’s house with a fast connection.

    After the software updates (and a firmware upgrade), I rebooted and the machine ran perfectly. Ready to go to work, right? Not quite. Given that I had this great machine sitting there in front of me, and it had spare ports all over the place, I thought I should try to fill some of them up.

    Time to upgrade

    Unlike the insides of the otherwise-identical case on my G5, the Mac Pros have a ton of room inside the case. Whereas my G5’s innards are mostly devoted to cooling fans (nine of them), the Mac Pro’s lower cooling requirements let Apple use the available space to allow for greater expansion. The RAM cards, for instance, are on two cards that pull out completely to ease the installation of more memory. There are also four hard drive bays, and room for two externally-accessible optical drives. Here’s a shot of the inside, with the various areas labeled (click the image for a larger version).


    My machine arrived with one hard drive and one optical drive in place, leaving lots of empty spaces. So my first thoughts were “I’ll need more storage space,” and “It’d be nice to have a second optical drive,” as I tire of playing “Swap the CD” all the time.

    A quick trip to our local build-it-yourself computer store netted two Seagate 320GB Barracuda drives and a black Sony AW-Q170A dual-layer DVD burner. I had no clue if the burner would even work under OS X, but given that the stock drive is a Sony, it cost only $40 locally, and was returnable, I figured it was worth a shot.

    After a day of working with the two hard drives, I realized I actually needed a third—see this article for the reasons—so it was back to the computer store for another Seagate (a 400GB model this time).

    All told, it cost about $375 for all three hard drives and the burner—not small change, but not too bad for more than a terabyte (unformatted) of drive space and a capable dual-layer burner (assuming it worked; more on that later ).

    Hard drive installation and configuration

    Adding new hard drives to a Mac Pro is a snap. Turn the machine off, remove the power cord, pop off the side panel, and slide a drive carrier out of its slot. Position the carrier over the drive, tighten four screws, and then slide the carrier back into position. Here’s what the carrier looks like before and after securing to the hard drive:


    That’s it; there are no cables of any sort to worry about. It took about two minutes to install the two new drives.

    A quick power-up showed that all three drives were visible to Disk Utility. Now, what to do with all that space. One choice, obviously, would be to just use them for storage space. But I was interested in formatting them as a level 1 RAID set (mirrored) for my boot drive.

    RAID is a method of combining two or more physical disks into one logical device, and OS X has supported it for many years. There are various levels of RAID, as explained in the linked article above. A striped array (RAID 0) creates a very fast drive, while a mirrored array (RAID 1) is a very safe set up—if a drive in the array dies, it can be replaced without losing any data. If you lose a disk in a striped array, though, you’re in trouble, as data from one document might be stored on several physical hard drives. I was much less interested in speed than I was in safety, so I went with the mirrored (RAID 1) setup.

    To create a RAID array, you use Disk Utility and its RAID tab. Just drag in the disks you want to use, choose the type of RAID to create, and set Disk Utility to the task of doing so. You’ll lose everything on the drives when you create the RAID, so it’s obviously best to do this with new, blank hard drives. Once set up, your disks will look like this in Disk Utility:


    One thing to note if you’re going to try this (other than that bit about losing all your data—you did notice that part, right?) is the Options button at the bottom of this window. When you first set up your RAID, you’ll want to click that button if you’re creating a mirrored array. When you do, a new window opens, and one of the options is the RAID Mirror AutoRebuild checkbox. Check that box, and when you replace a disk that’s been removed from the array, the mirror will be automatically rebuilt. If you don’t check this box, you’d have to do that step manually in Disk Utility.

    Putting the RAID to use

    I wanted to use the mirrored RAID I’d set up as my boot disk. To do that, I needed to get a functioning system onto the RAID. I thought the easiest way would be to use SuperDuper to clone the existing system (on the original 250GB drive) to the newly-created RAID. So that’s what I did.

    Everything seemed to work just fine, and I then rebooted the machine with the RAID drive selected as the startup disk. And that’s when the problems started. The machine wouldn’t boot, despite the fact that it seemed to find the RAID during boot. Instead of booting, though, the machine just sat there, and eventually put a circle with a white slash through it up on the screen.

    Big problem—made bigger by the fact that the Mac Pro (like the G5 before it) lacks an eject button on the CD tray. So not only could I not boot the RAID, I couldn’t boot off a CD, as I couldn’t get a CD into the drive! A bit of grumbling and troubleshooting, and then I remembered the PRAM reset. Restarting while holding down Command-Option-P-R did the trick; it reset my startup disk to the original internal, which booted just fine.

    So much for the easy plan. For try number two, I used the Install/Restore CDs that came with the Mac to install onto the RAID. After the 20 minute process, I crossed my fingers and rebooted. This time, it worked perfectly—the Mac started from the RAID. Success!

    Of course, since I had used the stock installer CD, that meant I had to download the same 419MB worth of updates again. (And no, I didn’t use the “download and save installers” option the first time.) But once that was done, I had a machine running with four drives:


    In the above image, the WDC drive is the stock 250GB unit, the two ST3320 entries are the RAID 1 320GB Seagate drives, and the ST400 is the 400GB Seagate. That gives me roughly a terabyte of usable storage space, which should be enough for my data, backup, and testing needs.

    DVD burner installation and testing

    For part two of my first-day upgrade, I set about installing the Sony DVD burner. Why a second burner, you may ask? It’s not really that I do all that much disc burning, but I do have CDs and DVDs in and out of my machine all the time. Having a second drive can cut down on the swapping required—say you have a game that requires the CD, and you want to rip some new music. Instead of ejecting the game, inserting the music, then reversing the process when done, you just use the second CD/DVD slot. Why a DVD burner? Because it was only about $10 more than a CD burner, so why not? The fact that it’s also faster than the stock drive in all modes was an added bonus.

    Installing a new optical drive in the Mac Pro is a bit tougher than installing new hard drives—but only a bit. The two optical drives are mounted in a bay that slides out. To add a new optical drive, you pull the bay halfway out, then release the power and IDE cables from the back of the existing drive. With the bay freed, you slide your new drive in, secure it with the four provided screws, slide it halfway back in, connect the power and IDE cables, and then slide it the rest of the way in. That’s how it works in theory.

    In practice, the IDE cables come out easily, but the power connection is very tight. It’s also located right next to the frame holding the drive in place, so it’s tough to remove. I suggest gentle rocking motions with your fingers, as tempting as it may be to grab hold with a pair of pliers. After several minutes, I had the power disconnected. I inserted the second optical drive, secured it with the screws, reconnected all the cables, and slid everything back in. When I powered up the Mac again, I ran System Profiler to see what it told me:


    Success! System Profiler sees the drive… but claims that it’s not supported for burning. We’ll get to that in just a bit, but here’s a comparison of the two drives’ stated speeds with various media:

    Mac Pro Optical Drive Comparisons

    Stock New
    DVD-R burn 16x 18x
    DVD+R DL burn 6x 8x
    CD-R/RW burn 24x 32x
    DVD read 16x 16x
    CD read 32x 48x

    Stock optical drive is a Sony DW-D150A. New optical drive is a Sony AW-Q170A.

    I’ll have more comments on how those differences affect things in the “real world” in a future installment of this report. But for now, back to the setup of the new drive. Feeling all proud of my efforts, I thought I’d test out iTunes’ ability to read a disc in the new optical drive. So I ejected the second optical drive (by pressing Option-Eject), only to be greeted with a “clunk” sound. Uh oh.

    The door that seals the optical drives wouldn’t open for my newly-installed drive. Why not? Because a plastic trim piece on the front of the drive was too tall for the opening. Since the part wouldn’t fit out the slot even when I manually lowered the Mac Pro’s door, I had to shut down the Mac and remove the new optical drive. Not only that, but to remove the front trim piece, you have to have the drive’s tray open at least a bit. Thankfully, the drive did have a manual eject button, so a paperclip solved that problem.

    Once the drive was open, removing the front trim piece is relatively easy—just slightly flex the trim piece to release the tabs, then lift, and it will separate from the tray—if you do it correctly, it will do so without breaking. I suggest doing this before installing the drive, so you can work with the drive on a solid surface. Here’s what the trim piece looks like, sitting just in front of the open drive tray:


    If I get really motivated, perhaps I’ll cut out and attach a thinner piece of black plastic to finish off the front of the drawer. But I’m not taking a bet on the odds of that project getting done.

    Once I had the trim piece removed, I reassembled everything, powered it back up, and made sure the drive could now eject (it could). But what about that “not supported” statement in System Profiler? So far in my testing, that’s just not true. iDVD, iPhoto, iTunes, and iMovie all see that the system has two burners and ask me which one I’d like to use. I was also able to import a CD from either drive into iTunes, so all certainly seems to be fine. I even successfully burned a DVD+R dual layer DVD (the latest Leopard seed requires a dual-layer burner). It sure looks like this drive appears to be natively supported, despite the message to the contrary in System Profiler.

    Although this may sound like it was a hard process, it really wasn’t. I probably spent a couple hours on the setup stage, and that includes the time needed for SuperDuper and the reinstall from disc that I had to do. Everything generally went quite smoothly, and I was very impressed with the precision engineering of the hard drive and optical drive bays.

    Three takeaway points

  • If you own a Mac Pro with a Sony burner, you can probably install a newer and faster Sony burner in the second bay and find that it will work perfectly.
  • If you’re going to RAID your drives, don’t use SuperDuper to clone the installed OS onto the RAID. It may work for you, but it definitely didn’t work for me.
  • When removing the optical drives, take care with the power plugs, as they’re quite tight and there’s not a lot of room to work with.
  • Application testing

    As with the mini, I’ve been using the Mac Pro as much as possible since its arrival. Unlike the mini, however, it’s hard to claim that this machine feels slow doing much of anything. It’s fast—really fast. Even stuff in Rosetta, which bogged down the mini at times, is fast. But enough generalities; here are some blurbs on the same programs I covered in the mini write-up, in both Rosetta and Universal flavors.

    Rosetta apps These programs have not yet been compiled to run natively on the Intel chips, so they must rely on Apple’s Rosetta emulation technology to function. The good news is that Rosetta isn’t a stagnant technology. Apple has, in fact, continued to improve it since its release earlier this year. The latest improvements came with OS X 10.4.8, and as Macworld ’s testing showed , there are some very measurable real-world improvements in Rosetta’s performance. So how does that all come into play with Rosetta apps on the Mac Pro?

    Photoshop: Although still not native, the speed of Photoshop CS2 under Rosetta on this Mac is quite impressive. I still don’t think the machine is ideal for someone who edits 300MB TIFFs all day, but if you aren’t presently using a Dual G5 or newer and you don’t rely on Photoshop as your primary means of making a living, it should be more than good enough. That’s especially true if you’re coming from an older Mac—you’ll probably find that Photoshop is faster in Rosetta on a Mac Pro than it was in native mode on your old rig. As our full review mentioned, the Photoshop benchmark speed on the Mac Pro was about equal to that of the old Dual 1.42GHz Power Mac G4. So if you’re moving from a single-CPU G4, you’ll probably see a net speed increase.

    I didn’t want to repeat the work done for the full review, so instead, I replicated the liquify mesh test I ran for the original XP on Mac write-up, as well as in my first report on Parallels Desktop for Mac. I’ve updated that table with my results for the Mac Pro (as well as for my Mac Book, which I also tested):

    PHOTOSHOP CS2 LIQUIFY FILTER TEST

    CPUs CPU Speed RAM Time (seconds)
    Mac Pro 4 2.66GHz 2.0GB 27
    Dual G5 2 2.00GHz 2.5GB 28
    Mini XP 2 1.66GHz 2.0GB 36
    Athlon 1 2.12GHz 512MB 39
    MacBook 2 2.00GHz 2.0GB 56
    Mini OS X 2 1.66GHz 2.0GB 77

    Testing by Rob Griffiths, very unofficial!

    This was my first real “wow!” experience with the Mac Pro: in this particular test, it’s faster than my Dual G5, despite the fact that Photoshop is running in Rosetta. Granted, this is just one test, but in general use, Photoshop feels quite responsive on the Mac Pro. Now, if you happen to be a graphics professional working on 100MB-plus images, and you’re working on a fast Dual or Quad G5, then you’ll probably find that Photoshop is still notably slower than your current rig. But for anyone working with small-to-midsize images on anything other than bleeding-edge PowerPC gear, I think the Mac Pro is a very viable alternative today, even without a native version of Photoshop—especially knowing that the native version is just around the corner.

    Photoshop Elements: I don’t have Photoshop Elements 4 (as I started using the full Photoshop application instead). With Photoshop Elements 3, however, speed was more than fine. Given that most Elements users will be working on smaller images, I don’t think anyone would complain about the Rosetta impact in Elements. That’s good, because it’s unclear when (or if) a Universal version of Elements will ship.

    Quicken 2006: This program is about as non-intensive as they get, and it ran very quickly on the Mac Pro. In my mini write-up, I mentioned a report that took 7 seconds on the G5 required about a minute on the Intel mini. With the Mac Pro, that time drops to 12 seconds. Although there’s not yet a Universal version of Quicken, it’s really not a problem running it in Rosetta.

    Microsoft Word 2004: Using the same 4MB image-laden document as in my mini tests, a top-to-bottom scroll took about 16 seconds on the Mac Pro. This is about 7 seconds quicker than the Intel-based Mac mini, and roughly the same time as it took on my PowerBook G4. The G5 still has the lead here, at 8 seconds. The reality is, however, that Word works fine. Even at 16 seconds, the document is scrolling past at a faster than usable rate. Typing, spell checking, and all of Word’s other features work fine and without any notable delay. If you were to put someone in front of the machine with Word already running, it’s very doubtful they would even notice that it’s running under Rosetta.

    Microsoft Excel 2004: As with Word, Excel runs fine. More than fine—it runs fast. Again, there’s no reason to delay a Mac Pro purchase if you’re concerned about a non-native version of Excel. It’s a non issue.

    Google Earth: Google Earth is now a Universal application; you can read about it in the next section.

    jEdit: jEdit runs even faster, obviously, than it did on the mini. So much so that it no longer even feels a bit “laggy,” as it does on the G5. Instead, it’s just a fast text editor with a slightly odd interface. (It doesn’t quite look like a native app.) I also repeated the CaffeineMark Java benchmarks, and the Mac Pro handily outpaced my Dual G5, with a final score of 14,939 against the G5’s 8,047—the Mac Pro is nearly twice as fast!

    Universal Applications These are programs that have been recompiled to run natively on the Intel-chipped machines. All of the Apple-provided applications, for instance, are Universal, and the number of third-party Universal apps increases daily. Apple has an excellent Universal Applications page that presently includes 4,030 listed native applications (that figure was 1,073 when I published the mini write-up back in March).

    As with the Rosetta applications, the following apps are the same ones I tested back in March for the mini write-up—other than Google Earth, which has moved from the Rosetta to the Universal section. In that vein, what I wrote then about BBedit, Camino, and OmniGraffle still holds true, so there’s no real need to revisit those apps. (One improvement is that there is now a Universal Flip4Mac browser plug-in.)

    Google Earth: Smooth, fluid, fast, and simply fun to use, the native version of Google Earth is a joy on the Mac Pro. No complaints at all, and zooms in and out are accomplished without delay.

    Finder: As with the earlier write-up on the mini, I ran my “open 100 new Finder windows, close 100 Finder windows” test. I’ve updated that table for my results on the Mac Pro (and the MacBook, which I also tested):

    Rob’s Empty Folder Test

    Open 100 new windows Close 100 new windows
    PowerBook 21 6
    Dual G5 15 5
    MacBook 12 3
    Mac mini 10 4
    Mac Pro 5 2

    Testing by Rob Griffiths.

    As you can see, it’s no contest—the Mac Pro was twice as fast as the mini, and knocked a full 10 seconds off the time required on the Dual G5. If you haven’t gotten the sense yet, this is one fast machine.

    Even more impressive were the results at 200 folders. Previously, the G5 was the quickest with a larger set of folders, opening them all in 31 seconds and closing them in 10. The Mac Pro’s times? An amazingly-quick 12 seconds to open, and only 4 seconds to close all of them—those are basically the same times as required for the MacBook to deal with 100 folders. The Finder has obviously benefited from the much faster hardware.

    Other programs: Since March, Snapz Pro has also been updated for Intel-powered machines, though it’s not yet a full Universal binary. It runs just fine, though, and given how much work I do with screenshots, that’s a very good thing.

    Application launching tests: What follows is an update to my application launch tests from the Mac mini report. I didn’t bother to run these tests on the MacBook, just the new Mac Pro. The table below shows the initial launch time, from double-click to usable state, and an immediate subsequent “relaunch” time. Initial launches were run after a reboot on each machine. Note that the relaunch times figures aren’t indicative of real-world usage, unless you often relaunch apps immediately (or very quickly) after last using them. As more time goes by, OS X will have to essentially reload the applications from scratch, as the RAM will have been put to other purposes. But it’s still a good indication of how quickly the machine can reactivate a recently-used program.

    So here’s how the Mac Pro compared to the three other machines in application launch times:

    ROB'S LAUNCH TESTS

    1st launch   2nd launch
    Mac Pro Dual G5 Mac mini PowerBook   Mac Pro Dual G5 Mac mini PowerBook
    Excel 3.9 3.2 13.0 3.9 2.7 2.2 6.3 2.2
    PS Elements 3 13.8 12.1 34.9 23.2 7.2 5.9 16.3 8.4
    Photoshop CS2 15.2 16.7 55.3 26.4 9.0 6.1 22.8 6.7
    Word 6.5 5.9 11.6 5.7 2.2 1.5 3.7 1.8
    BBEdit 2.8 2.8 5.7 6.8 <1 1.0 1.0 2.3
    Camino 2.1 5.0 3.3 4.5 <1 1.7 0.5 1.5
    Google Earth 5.6 6.0 14.8 9.4 1.9 2.2 6.7 3.1
    iChat 3.8 3.9 2.9 4.2 1.0 1.5 0.5 1.4
    iTunes 2.9 4.5 3.1 3.8 1.0 1.5 0.5 2.2
    Keynote 6.0 9.9 11.1 14.2 1.5 5.3 1.9 4.1
    Pages 3.1 5.1 4.2 8.2 1.1 1.8 1.5 2.2
    Safari 1.5 4.0 1.3 2.5 <1 1.5 0.1 1.3

    ROSETTA APPS IN ITALICS

    Google Earth was originally a Rosetta app. It has been retested on the Mac mini in its new Universal form. Times were hand-timed on a stopwatch, and are probably accurate to about a half-second either way.

    Keep in mind that my G5 is a workhorse—there are many drives, the machine tests tons of hints, I install and remove hundreds of apps each year, and so forth. It’s in no way a fair comparison to an out-of-the-box Mac Pro, but I still think the table is interesting. As you can see, there’s still a speed hit from Rosetta, but all the Universal apps open notably quicker on the Mac Pro than they do on the Dual G5. As noted in my original write-up, second launch times on the Intel-powered boxes are amazingly fast. Many of them seem to be open before you’ve even completed the second mouse click. This fast relaunch behavior really helps make the machine feel speedy.

    Three takeaway points

  • If you throw enough horsepower at a problem, the problem basically goes away. Rosetta was the problem, and a pair of dual-core Woodcrest CPUs was the required horsepower. If you’re a heavy Photoshop (or other non-native graphics app) user, and you’re running on a quad CPU G5, then you may be disappointed with the Mac Pro’s Rosetta performance in general applications. For anyone else, though, I think Rosetta has really ceased to be much of an issue.
  • Photoshop beating a Dual G5 in a timed filter application test absolutely amazed me. I would have lost money if I’d made a bet before running the test! This is just further proof that Rosetta isn’t much of an issue if you’re not throwing massive files at Photoshop.
  • The Mac Pro is a very, very, very fast computer. I’ll get into that in more detail in future installments as well.
  • I hope you’ve found the first section of my Mac Pro report of interest. I’m now hard at work on the second and third parts, so stay tuned for further updates!

    [ Senior Editor Rob Griffiths writes Macworld ’s Mac OS X Hints weblog. ]

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