From the Lab: Mac Pro options put to the test

Mac users seem to have more choices than ever when it comes to configuring Apple hardware. Sure, in the past, you could often add a hard drive here or extra RAM there, but now a bevy of options are yours for the choosing, as Macworld Lab discovered when we tested a tricked-out MacBook Pro. We’re turning our attention back to the assorted add ons available for Apple’s desktop offerings, specifically the Mac Pro. As customizable as the MacBook Pro proved to be, we’ve found the Mac Pro to be perhaps the most configurable Mac ever to come out of Cupertino.

Let’s start by considering the Mac Pro’s standard configuration. The desktop comes with a pair of quad-core Intel Xeon processors; all eight cores run at 2.8GHz. The $2,799 desktop ships with 2GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon 2600 XT graphics card with 256MB of video memory, and a 320GB 7200 RPM SATA hard drive.

That’s where the customization options come into play. You have three different processor choices—a four-core 2.8GHz model for $500 off the base price; an eight-core 3GHz option for an extra $800; or an eight-core 3.2GHz chip that costs an extra $1,600.

You can also pick from two other graphics card configurations—an Nvidia GeForce 8800GT with twice the video memory of the standard ATI Radeon card for an additional cost of $200 or an Nvidia Quadro FX 5600 boasting 1.5GB of video memory. That particular add costs a paltry $2,850, or $51 more than the standard configuration Mac Pro. (We couldn’t get our hands on the Quadro for this round of testing, but rest assured that we are now obsessed with obtaining one.)

The Mac Pro offers eight RAM slots capable of holding either 1GB or 2GB memory modules, you can upgrade from the machine’s standard 2GB RAM up to 4GB, 8GB even 16GBs. And while you were already able to add up to three extra hard drives, the new Mac Pro offers an optional SAS-based (Serial Attached SCSI) hardware RAID card (priced at $800) capable of running four internal SAS drives ($650 for the first to replace the standard SATA drive and $800 for each additional drive), each spinning more than twice as fast as the 7,200 RPM hard drive in the base model.

For this round of tests we’ve focused on individual upgrades available for the base model—testing the memory, hard drive, and graphics options separately and together. We also included the highest-priced, highest-performance Mac we’ve ever tested: a $9,949 behemoth with four SAS drives in a RAID 0 (striped) configuration, 8GB of RAM, the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics card and eight processing cores running at 3.2GHz. That system became the first ever to earn a Speedmark 5 score above 400.

Here’s what we found in testing each of the Mac Pro’s assorted customization options.

RAM

As with our MacBook Pro testing, adding memory to a system only boosts performance in a couple of our individual tests—namely, the Photoshop actions suite test and unzipping a 2GB file.

Mac Pro Memory Tests

Cost Zip 2GB Folder Unzip 2GB Folder Photoshop actions Professional Application Multitask Suite
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with 2GB RAM, 320GB SATA HD $2,799 3:51 1:12 0:49 1:04
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with 8GB RAM, 320GB SATA HD* $4,299 3:46 0:33 0:35 0:48
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with 2GB RAM, RAID card and four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $6,649 3:33 0:30 0:32 0:43
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with 8GB RAM, RAID card and four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $8,149 3:32 0:29 0:29 0:40
Mac Pro Xeon/3.2GHz (8 core) with 8GB RAM, RAID card and four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)^ $9,949 3:06 0:26 0:27 0:38
<Better <Better <Better <Better

Best results in bold. * denotes build-to-order system. ^ denotes build-to-order system with Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT instead of standard ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card.

All scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5.2. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 2GB folder and then unzipped it. For the Professional Application Multitasking suite, we recorded how long it took Photoshop to run our standard test suite while a longer Cinema4D task and our Compressor encode test ran in the background.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, JERRY JUNG, AND BRIAN CHEN

When we tested the standard configuration Mac Pro equipped with 2GB of memory, the system took 49 seconds to complete the Photoshop tasks. With 8GB of RAM, the system took 29 percent less time, clocking in at just 35 seconds. Unzipping the 2GB file took 1 minute 12 seconds with 2GB of RAM, but only 33 seconds with the 8GB of RAM installed.

The benefit of additional RAM often becomes clear when working with multiple applications simultaneously. To see the effect of this increased RAM on our Mac Pro’s performance, we ran our Professional Multitask suite, timing our Photoshop actions script while using Compressor to encode a movie and Cinema 4D to render a scene at the same time. In the Multitask test, the standard system took 1 minute, 4 seconds. The same system with 8GB of RAM took just 48 seconds, or 25 percent less time, to complete the tests.

Hard drives

For the first time in a long time—if not ever—Apple offers a hardware RAID card as a build-to-order option on a product outside of its Xserve line. The Mac Pro RAID Card can support four internal SAS or SATA drives. It also supports many different RAID levels and includes a battery that can help you escape a power outage without data loss.

We installed four of the 300GB, 15,000RPM SAS drives in a RAID 0 (striped) configuration in our otherwise standard 2.8GHz Mac Pro. In our finder tests, we saw very impressive file duplication times, 11 seconds to duplicate a 1GB folder with the SAS RAID vs 31 seconds with the single SATA drive. And even though adding RAM alone didn’t affect file duplications times, pairing it with the SAS RAID took another 3 seconds off of the time.

Mac Pro Hard Drive Tests

Cost Startup Duplicate 1GB File Zip 2GB Folder Unzip 2GB Folder iMovie Export to email iPhoto 100 jpeg import Photoshop actions Pro Application Multitask Test Final Cut Multi-Cam streams
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8-core) with 2GB RAM, 320GB Sata HD $2,799 0:27 0:31 3:51 1:12 0:25 1:15 0:49 1:04 2
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8-core) with 2GB RAM, RAID card with four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $6,649 1:08 0:11 3:33 0:30 0:17 0:23 0:32 0:43 16
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8-core) with 8GB RAM, RAID card with four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $8,149 1:09 0:08 3:32 0:29 0:17 0:24 0:29 0:40 16
Mac Pro Xeon/3.2GHz (8 core) with 8GB RAM, Mac Pro RAID card and four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)^ $9,949 1:09 0:08 3:06 0:26 0:14 0:23 0:27 0:38 16
<Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better >Better

Best results in bold. * denotes build-to-order system. ^ denotes build-to-order system with Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT instead of ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card.

Final Cut Multi-Cam Streams scores are in number of streams. All other scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5.2 . The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. In iMovie, we exported a 2 minute movie to Quicktime's email settings. We created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 2GB folder and then unzipped it. For the Professional Application Multitasking suite, we recorded how long it took Photoshop to run our standard test suite while a longer Cinema4D task and our Compressor encode test ran in the background. For our Final Cut Mulit-Cam test we opened a multi-cam project and then added unique 45 second clips and until the system was unable to play back the project without stalling or until the running into the application's 16 clip maximum.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, JERRY JUNG, AND BRIAN CHEN

The base system with the RAID was faster at just about everything, but especially at unzipping a 2GB archive, exporting an iMovie to Quicktime’s e-mail presets, and importing JPEGS into iPhoto. Compressor and HandBrake were also faster, just not by as much. In fact the only performance drawback we found was the RAID system’s long startup time—it took about about 70 seconds to boot up with the SAS RAID installed instead of 27 seconds with the standard 320GB SATA hard drive spinning inside.

As impressive as that overall performance may be, few among us would be willing to pay the extra $3,850 for snappier file duplication. No, for that kind of monetary investment, you’d likely be making a living using demanding professional applications. When we ran our Professional Multitasking Suite on the standard configuration with the SAS RAID installed, the configured system was 33 percent faster at completing the task—more of a performance increase than running the standard system with 320GB SATA drive and 8GB RAM.

We also ran a Final Cut test where we looked to see how many ProRes-encoded video streams we could play simultaneously in a multiclip configuration. In this test, the base system was able to play two clips at once, but began sputtering and dropping frames when trying to add a third. Bumping the RAM up in the base configuration to 8GB, we were able to run that third clip. Once we installed the Mac Pro RAID Card and the four SAS drives, we were able to run the maximum allowed 16 clips at once. Few may ever need that capability, but don’t you feel better knowing that you could if you wanted to?

Graphics

We’ve already reported on the performance differences between the ATI Radeon 6600 XT and the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT, but in summary, the Nvidia wasn’t as fast as the ATI in our Unreal Tournament testing. UT is an older game, but we continue to include it due to its compatibility with a wide range of systems.

Mac Pro Graphics Tests

Cost Unreal Tournament 2004 Quake 4 Doom 3
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8-core) and ATI 2600 XT with 2GB RAM, 320GB Sata HD $2,799 110 74 88
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8-core) and Nvidia 8800GT with 2GB RAM, 320GB Sata HD* $2,999 98 81 124
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8-core) and Nvidia 8800GT with 8GB RAM, 320GB Sata HD* $4,499 100 80 120
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8-core) and Nvidia 8800GT with 2GB RAM, RAID card with four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $8,349 99 82 126
Mac Pro Xeon/3.2GHz (8 core) and Nvidia 8800GT with 8GB RAM, Mac Pro RAID card and four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $9,949 107 90 133
>Better >Better >Better

Best results in bold. * denotes build-to-order system.

All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5.2. All games were set to run at 1024 by 768 pixels. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, JERRY JUNG, AND BRIAN CHEN

In newer games, like Doom and Quake, the GeForce proved to be a much stronger gaming card, pushing through 41 more frames per second in our Doom 3 test and about 9.5 more frames per second in Quake. The graphics card is not a player, performance-wise, in the rest of our Speedmark tests.

All together now

In terms of Speedmark performance, the standard configuration earned a score of 301. Upgrading the RAM to 8GB increased the score by about 6 percent. Adding just the SAS RAID to the standard configuration boosted performance by 24 percent. Upgrading the standard configuration’s processor to the 3.2GHz eight-core Xeon boosted Speedmark performance by nearly 9 percent. And as mentioned above, adding the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT doesn’t help a system’s Speedmark score.

Mac Pro Speedmark Scores

Cost SPEEDMARK SCORE Unzip 2GB Folder MP3 Encode iMovie Aged Filter Photoshop actions Compressor 3 Handbrake Cinema 4D 10.5
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with ATI 2600XT, 2GB RAM, 320GB Sata HD $2,799 301 1:12 0:48 0:32 0:49 0:51 1:10 0:15
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with Nvidia 8800GT, 2GB RAM, 320GB HD* $2,999 299 1:13 0:47 0:32 0:50 0:51 1:13 0:15
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with ATI 2600XT, 8GB RAM, 320GB Sata HD* $4,299 318 0:33 0:47 0:32 0:35 0:51 1:10 0:15
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with Nvidia 8800GT, 8GB RAM, 320GB Sata HD* $4,499 317 0:34 0:48 0:32 0:36 0:51 1:10 0:15
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with ATI 2600XT, 2GB RAM, RAID card + four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $6,649 373 0:30 0:47 0:32 0:32 0:46 0:54 0:15
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with ATI 2600XT, 8GB RAM, RAID card + four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $8,149 382 0:29 0:48 0:32 0:29 0:46 0:55 0:15
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 core) with Nvidia 8800GT, 8GB RAM, RAID card + four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $8,349 380 0:29 0:48 0:32 0:30 0:46 0:55 0:15
Mac Pro Xeon/3.2GHz (8 core) with ATI 2600XT, 2GB RAM, 320GB Sata HD $4,399 327 1:10 0:44 0:30 0:47 0:51 0:52 0:13
Mac Pro Xeon/3.2GHz (8 core) with Nvidia 8800GT, 8GB RAM, RAID card + four 15,000-rpm 300GB SAS (RAID 0)* $9,949 408 0:26 0:43 0:29 0:27 0:46 1:00 0:13
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better

Best results in bold. * denotes build-to-order system. Customized options in italics.

Speedmark 5 scores are relative to those of a 1.5GHz Core Solo Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, iTunes, and Finder scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5.2. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We recorded how long it took to render a scene in Cinema 4D XL. We used Compressor to encode a 6minute:26second DV file using the DVD: Fastest Encode 120 minutes - 4:3 setting. In iMovie, we applied the Aged Film Effect from the Video FX. menu to a one minute movie. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We uncompressed a 2GB Zip archive in the Finder.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, JERRY JUNG, AND BRIAN CHEN

So what happens when you add it all together? Well, our system with the fastest-possible Xeon processors, four-drive SAS RAID 0, bumped-up memory, and upgraded graphic card raised the Speedmark score by 36 percent, or 107 points, over the standard configuration. For $9,949, you get the first Mac to ever break the 400-mark on our Speedmark tests, making it the fastest machine we’ve ever tested. Whether that’s worth nearly $10,000—especially when you consider that the $2,799 Mac Pro is not exactly a slouch in the performance department—depends entirely on your perspective.

[James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.]

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