Hands on with the Mac Pro: Putting it to work

My blow-by-blow account of setting up and running a Mac Pro continues. In the first installment, I shared my out-of-the-box experience and ran some tests on some apps. In this second part, I talk about my observations of working on the desktop, perform audio and video tasks, and use Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop to turn my Mac Pro into a Windows-running powerhouse.

Here’s what I discovered.

General usage observations

In this section of my March report on the mini, I spent a lot of time discussing the tradeoffs involved in buying a low-end Intel-powered mini. While the speed was good, the machine was clearly not an option for serious gamers, as the chip-based graphics just didn’t have the oomph for the latest 3-D games. And there was a lot of discussion about Rosetta, and its impact on application performance. I also discussed memory, and how adding more real RAM makes for a smoother computing experience.

Well, other than the bit about RAM, there’s no need to talk about any of those other issues relative to the Mac Pro’s performance. This is Apple’s top-of-the-line product family, and it shows. As I alluded to in the first part of this report, the machine is just plain fast—at everything, including using Rosetta-based applications. It still likes RAM, of course, and Apple has made it about as easy as possible to add more. Power down the machine, pop out the RAM daughter cards, install the new chips, reinstall the cards, and power back up. For now, I’ve left the machine’s memory at 2GB, though I plan on taking it to 4GB once RAM prices drop in the future.

Even with “only” 2GB of RAM, the machine had no troubles at all running 20 to 25 applications at once. Paging, which I discussed in the article on the mini, did occur once I used up all the real RAM. But the hard drives in the Mac Pro are fast enough that it’s only a bit of a hassle when an application has to be read back into RAM from disk. I still wouldn’t recommend operating in this mode, but with each new generation of Macs, the level of inconvenience associated with paged out applications seems to go down.

Just to see what would happen, I created a folder with about 25 application aliases in it. I mixed Rosetta, Java, and Cocoa applications, ranging from simple utilities to things such as PowerPoint and Keynote. I then opened the folder, selected everything, and double-clicked to launch them all at once. The machine chugged away for a minute or so, launching everything. When it was done churning the hard drive, I had no troubles switching between programs via Command-tab, and every program was responsive. I also couldn’t easily tell whether an app was running in Rosetta or not, as they all were responsive and speedy.

For instance, I guessed that Marine Aquarium 2 must be a Universal app—I was getting more than 425 frames a second with a 1,024-by-768 three-fish window on the screen:


A quick check in the Finder, though, showed that I was wrong—it’s PowerPC code. (I also discovered that version 2.6 is Universal. When I installed the new version, the frame rate increased to over 950fps at 1,024-by-768!)

The more I see Rosetta in action on a speedy machine, the more impressed I am with its performance. Without it, the transition to Intel might not have been possible, as we would have had to give up access to too many applications. And when running Universal applications, you can really see the performance capabilities of the Mac Pro, as those programs simply scream.

Noise level

The Mac Pro is a very quiet machine, notably quieter than my 2GHz Dual G5. Both machines have multiple hard drives and video cards with their own fans, so they’re somewhat similarly equipped. But the Mac Pro is the quieter of the two. Even while testing games, I never heard the fans kick up appreciably. In normal use, the ambient noise level is very acceptable, even with the box sitting at ear level on the desk. Once I move it to its final location, off to the side of my desk, it should be nearly silent from my seat. It’s clearly not a mini, but for the amount of power inside the box, it’s admirably silent.

The only time the machine is louder than my G5 is on wake from sleep. After doing some quick testing with my ear behind the machine, it’s the video card that’s responsible for most of the noise—its fan cycles up and expels a great deal of air for a second or two, then returns to its normal quiet level. The G5 does something similar, but not to the same extent.

Three takeaway points

  • More RAM is always good, particularly if you’re running applications in Rosetta.
  • Rosetta’s performance on a fast Mac is quite impressive. So much so that you may stop pining for native versions of every single little application you own. Sure, we need native Photoshop, but a native version of Quicken isn’t going to make paying the bills all that much faster! (And yes, I realize it’s important for the long term to have Universal applications. But Rosetta is a great solution in the short term.)
  • The Mac Pro runs very quietly, even with a high-powered video card installed.
  • Audio and video

    Unlike the mini, whose primary role in many households may be that of A/V center, it’s not likely that many of us will purchase a Mac Pro to stick next to our televisions. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a great audio-video machine, of course; it’s more a comment on the machine’s bulk and noise level. There’s enough horsepower here to handle just about any audio or video task you throw at the machine. As such, I’ll just give a few highlights about the Mac Pro's performance in this area.

    Audio: I was interested in seeing how well the new machine would rip a CD. So I grabbed one at random from our collection (Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris’ All the Roadrunning ). To get a baseline, I first ripped it on the Dual 2GHz G5. My import settings are to rip to 192Kbps MP3 with VBR enabled on High. On the G5, the import took a little more than four minutes—4:03 to be exact. Moving over to the Mac Pro, I first used the stock Sony drive, and the import took just 2:28 (and yes, I made sure the import settings were identical). I then deleted the imported songs and tried again with my after-market drive, which reads CDs at 48x versus the stock drive’s 32x. Total import time: 2:01. The extra rotational speed snipped almost 30 seconds off the import time.

    Next, I was curious about the speed of the CPUs themselves, without the need to use the optical drives. I copied the AIFF for the track “All the Roadrunning” to the hard drive (it’s about 41MB), imported it into iTunes, and then used the Advanced -> Convert Selection menu item to convert the track to different formats. On the Dual G5, converting to 192Kbps high VBR MP3 took about 9 seconds; converting to 192Kbps AAC took a little more than 12 seconds. On the Mac Pro, those times dropped to 3 and 7 seconds, respectively. Clearly the four CPUs have a lot of power.

    HD Video: There are no issues with HD playback—the Mac Pro handled everything I threw at it without complaint. The CPUs weren’t even breathing hard during playback. So I thought I’d tempt fate again, as I did with the Mac mini, and try playing two HD clips at once. On the Mac mini, QuickTime died a painful death when I tried this, exiting abruptly. So what happened on the Mac Pro? Not much at all—it just worked. It worked so well that I threw another curve at it—I asked Snapz Pro to capture the 1,440-by-900 window, with sound, at 30fps while the two HD clips were playing back. Amazingly, the machine still had no troubles at all. Here’s a brief snippet of the video, at two reduced sizes—click the link to open the video of your choice in a new browser window:


    720x450, 1.6MB     360x225, 840KB

    As you can see, the machine performed admirably, with nary a hiccup. In fact, if you look at the four vertical bars on the right side of the menu bar, you can see that the CPUs weren’t even maxed out for most of the time. My G5 will try to play two HD clips at once, but it won’t do so very well—there’s lots of stuttering audio and dropped video frames.

    Since two clips didn’t seem to cause any issues, I upped the ante—three HD clips at once. No problem. What about four? While I still didn’t kill QuickTime, this did at least force the CPUs close to maximum utilization. As evidence, check out this large screenshot (148KB, 1440x900). Four clips playing, still no dropped frames or audio, but the CPU meters in the menubar are close to full. I could have continued the insanity, of course, and eventually found the spot that broke the machine. But suffice it to say that the Mac Pro’s ability to handle HD video is not something you need to question.

    DVD Playback: There’s not much to say here, other than DVD playback worked fine. About all I tested was whether my new drive would work with DVD Player. It did—insert a DVD into either drive, and DVD Player launches and starts playing the movie. Unfortunately, you can’t play back two DVDs at once (not using Apple’s DVD Player, anyway).

    Video encoding: In the original report on the mini, I tested video encoding by converting Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils & Dust” music video. This clip is 61MB in size, runs 5:15 in length, and was encoded with the Sorenson 3 codec. I set up QuickTime Pro to convert it to H.264 video at medium quality using the faster single-pass encoding method.

    On the mini, the conversion took 14:39. On the Dual G5, the job was done in a little more than 7 minutes. On the Mac Pro, it took only a very brief 3:35.

    As a further test, I installed HandBrake on the Mac Pro, and then set it up to rip my DVD of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (well, to rip the main movie, not all the associated extras). I left all of HandBrake’s settings at their defaults, except I changed the Quality section to “Constant quality,” and upped the associated slider to 70 percent. I then started the rip and let it progress for five minutes. I repeated the exact same experiment on the MacBook and the Dual G5—and on my 12-inch PowerBook G4/1.25GHz, just to see how far we’ve come with the portables. Here’s how things came out:

    DVD RIPPING COMPARISON

    RAM CPUs CPU Speed Avg FPS Time left @ 5 mins
    PowerBook G4 768MB 1 1.25GHz 10.09 4:27:49
    MacBook 2.0GB 2 2.0GHz 61.23 0:40:01
    PowerMac G5 2.5GB 2 2.0GHz 45.85 0:56:36
    Mac Pro 2.0GB 4 2.66GHz 85.36 0:27:15

    All testing by Rob Griffiths

    HandBrake version 0.7.1 was used to rip Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for five minutes on each machine. All HandBrake settings were at their default values, except for the Quality section. The quality was set to Constant quality, and the associated slider was set at 70 percent. The results above are from a screenshot taken at the five minute mark. Avg FPS is the average frames per second processed by HandBrake. Time left @ 5 mins represents the estimate that HandBrake provides on how long it will take to complete the rip, as displayed at the end of the five-minute test. Times listed are in hours:minutes:seconds.

    Not surprisingly, the Mac Pro bested the other two, and by a substantial margin. What was surprising to me was how well the MacBook did against the G5. While the CPU speeds and counts are identical, the MacBook will take fully 16 minutes less to rip this DVD than will the G5. That’s impressive performance from a machine that cost less than half as much as the G5!

    It’s also fairly obvious that the G4 chip in my PowerBook has been completely outclassed—the MacBook could theoretically rip almost seven DVDs in the time required for the PowerBook to process but one. Even if the PowerBook G4 had two CPUs, it wouldn’t be doing much better than 20fps, still well off the pace of the MacBook. To me, this clearly demonstrates one of the main reasons Apple gave for switching to Intel chips—there was much more processing power available for the laptop line.

    If you’re working with video conversion, where time is money, investing in the Mac Pro seems like a very simple expense to justify.

    Three takeaway points

  • The Mac Pro makes short work of ripping CDs into iTunes, and converting existing tracks between formats.
  • HD video playback doesn’t pose much of a challenge for the Mac Pro. Playing back multiple HD clips at once didn’t cause any issues, even when I was recording that playback at the same time.
  • The four CPU cores in the Mac Pro greatly speed the process of converting video from one format to another.
  • Windows on the Mac

    This is a new section, one that doesn’t have a counterpart in the Intel Mac mini report. Back in March, running XP on an Intel Mac was still in its early stages, and I didn’t focus on it back then. Now, however, between Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop, running Windows on your Mac is easier and more compatible than ever before. As such, I decided to spend a bit of time discussing the Mac Pro’s performance both as a native Windows machine (Boot Camp) and when running Windows in a virtual machine (Parallels Desktop ). I’ll look at Parallels first.

    Parallels Desktop

    This is the easy way to run Windows (and many other operating systems) on your Intel-powered Mac. Download and install Parallels, launch it, tell it you want to create an XP installation, insert your XP disk, and install Windows XP. It’s about as simple as things get. Once installed, you can do most of the things you could do on a “real” Windows machine, with a couple caveats:

  • Not all peripherals work. You may have devices attached which don’t work at all, or don’t work as fast or as well as they do on a real PC. Peripheral support is getting better with each Parallels Desktop update, but there are still some devices that give it trouble.
  • You can’t use 3-D accelerated graphics in Parallels Desktop. This means that Parallels is out as a solution for those looking to play the latest 3-D Windows games within Mac OS X.
  • Outside of those two caveats—and with a nod to Parallels’ claims that both USB 2 and accelerated graphics support will be present in the next version—the software is amazingly good at what it does (as we noted in our review of the virtualization software ). Office productivity applications run fine and at speeds near what you’d get running them natively. Web browsers work as expected. You can set up shared folders with your Mac. In short, Parallels is probably the best solution for 95 percent of those who need to access Windows applications.

    Given how well Parallels works on both my mini and MacBook, I wasn’t expecting any issues with the Mac Pro—and I didn’t experience any. One of the nice things about Parallels is that each operating system you install exists as a single large file on your hard drive. Want to migrate Parallels to a new machine? Just copy those files to the new machine and you’re done.

    On the Mac Pro, Parallels originally had some issues—especially for users with more than 4GB of RAM. However, the latest updates have taken care of those problems, and the product is now trouble free on the Mac Pros. One other change in recent builds is an “express install” option for Windows. Using an assistant, you input your Windows activation key and personal info, and the assistant does the rest—no more working through 200 dialogs. Just click the button, and Parallels Desktop installs and configures your Windows system. It’s significantly easier than installing Windows yourself on a real PC.

    In my testing, Parallels worked as it did in my original review, only faster. With more RAM, I could probably run seven or eight virtual machines at once at full speed. As it was with only 2GB of RAM, four virtual machines (Windows XP, Windows 2000, Fedora Core Linux, and Debian Linux) all ran fine (click the image for a (156KB JPEG) 1,440-by-900 version):


    That’s an Exposé-ed shot of all four VMs running at once. At the top left is Windows 2000, running Firefox and display the Mac OS X Hints page. At top right is Windows XP, showing Macworld.com on Internet Explorer 7. The bottom left is Fedora Core Linux, which is shown editing (in OpenOffice) a document I wrote a few years ago in Word on my Mac. Finally, the bottom right window is Debian Linux, running a movie player and playing some free sample clip I downloaded from the Web.

    What you can’t see in the shot is how well things are running. Even though I was using all of the machine’s physical RAM, each VM was running fine (though switching between them was somewhat slow). If you’re the type who likes to look at other operating systems, or needs to use Windows for the occasional project, Parallels Desktop is great tool for the job.

    Boot Camp

    If you want the full Windows experience on your Mac, then Boot Camp is the solution. Currently in an extended public beta, which will end with the release of OS X 10.5 next spring, Boot Camp actually turns your Mac into a Windows machine, with full hardware support.

    Installation is somewhat more complex than it is with Parallels. After downloading and installing Boot Camp, you run the Boot Camp Assistant. Using the Assistant, you first must partition the boot disk of your Mac to provide space for the Windows installation. This is a non-destructive action, so none of your OS X data is harmed in the process. (Still, it’s always good to have a fresh backup).

    After partitioning, you then burn a CD containing the Windows driver for the Apple-provided hardware in the Mac Pro. You’ll install these drivers in Windows, once you get it up and running. Which is, obviously, the next step in the process. You insert your Windows XP Pro or Home (with Service Pack 2) CD, and the Mac then reboots into the Windows installer. If you’ve never seen this before, you’re in for a visual shock—it’s a non-graphical installer. Some 30-odd minutes later, if all goes well, you’ll be booted into Windows, and all signs of OS X will be gone. (Windows can’t see or write to your OS X partition, so you don’t need to worry about transferring viruses or losing data in OS X while booted into Windows.)

    The final step is to run the driver installation CD—this will add support for the graphics card, sound chip, ethernet adapters, wireless network, keyboard, mouse, and probably a few other things to the Windows OS. I was fairly impressed with the drivers, as things such as the keyboard volume keys work, and I can even eject both CD trays from the keyboard (using Eject and Option Eject). One minor complaint is that even after plugging a set of speakers into the speaker output on the back of the Mac Pro, audio continues to come from the Mac’s internal speaker (in addition to the connected speakers). The only solution for this seems to be to plug something into the headphone jack on the front of the Mac Pro—I used a headphone splitter cable, without any headphones connected. It’s not the prettiest of solutions, but it works.

    After the Mac drivers are installed, you’re done—you’ve now got a dual-boot computer which will run both Windows and Mac OS X natively. Just hold down the Option key during startup to choose which system to boot. After reboot, you’re greeted with Windows (click the image for the full-size 1,440-by-900 version):


    So how good of a Windows machine is a Mac Pro? Very good, especially one when paired with the ATI X1900XT video card. In preparation for the Mac Pro I thought I’d be buying next year, I had recently sold my standalone PC, intending to use Boot Camp for my occasional forays into the world of Windows (at the hardware, not Parallels, level). My brief time with the Mac Pro as a Windows machine has shown me that my thinking was correct—the Mac Pro makes a wonderfully speedy Windows machine.

    The system feels very responsive in all aspects. Apps open very quickly, and the games I tested all had excellent frame rates and beautiful graphics. As but one example, here’s a series of four shots (click each for a larger version) taken from Microsoft's new Flight Simulator X:

           

    The game ran fluidly at 1,440-by-900 with anti-aliasing enabled and most graphics effects set to medium or high. Other games would have similar performance—the Mac Pro seems to be a solid PC gaming platform (albeit an expensive one compared to no-name homebuilts).

    Three takeaway points

  • Using either Parallels Desktop or Boot Camp, the Mac Pro makes for a powerful Windows machine.
  • If you want to experiment with multiple operating systems, Parallels Desktop is a painless and basically risk-free method of doing so.
  • When booted directly into Windows via Boot Camp, PC games play just fine. And with the ATI video card, frame rates are high even with detailed graphics.
  • In the final part of this report, I’ll be looking at gaming on the OS X side of the Mac Pro, running a few different benchmark tests, and wrapping it all up with my conclusions on the Mac Pro.

    [ Rob Griffiths is a senior editor at Macworld .]

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