Hands on with the Mac Pro: Putting it to work

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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.
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