From the Lab: Testing the Mac Pro graphic card options

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Though the latest Mac Pro update shipped in early January, many of the desktop’s build-to-order options, such as faster hard drives and graphics cards, are just now becoming available. Macworld Lab has received a Mac Pro loaded for bear—an 8-core 3.2GHz Mac Pro with 8GB of RAM, four 300GB SAS drives along with an Apple RAID card, and an Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics processor. The price for this beauty? The Apple Store would charge you $9,949—a decided mark-up from the $2,799 price tag for the standard configuration Mac Pro, with its two quad-core 2.8GHz processor, 2GB of memory, 320GB hard drive, and ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics.

We plan to test our monster Mac Pro eventually, but first, we’d like to focus on each of the individual add-ons. The first piece of the puzzle we’re going to focus on is the graphics card and what kind of improvements you can expect from the assorted build-to-order options.

As mentioned above, the recommended Mac Pro configuration sports an ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card. Our tests involving this card have shown it to be a good overall performer. But for gamers and users of other GPU intensive applications, good just ain’t good enough.

For those users, Apple offers two different graphics cards options, both from Nvidia. The Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT card that our new Mac Pro came with is a $200 option; it comes with 512MB of graphics memory—twice the graphics memory as the stock ATI card. The GeForce 8800 GT also boasts a 256-bit memory interface versus the Radeon HD 2600 XT’s 128-bit interface and nearly three times the memory bandwidth. Apple’s specifications say that the Nvidia card can process 16.8 billion textured triangles per second as compared to the ATI card’s 700 million.

The other optional Nvidia card, the Quadro FX 5600, comes with 1.5GB of graphics RAM and, at $2,850, costs more than the base model of the Mac Pro. We have not received the Quadro FX 5600, but we have requested one.

We decided to pull the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT out of the 3.2GHz Mac Pro that it shipped in and insert it into the stock system to see what kind of performance difference we’d see.

Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT Tests

Doom 3 1024 x 768 Doom 3 1600x1200 Quake 4 1024 x 768 Quake 4 1600 x 1200 Unreal Tourney 1024 x 768 Unreal Tourney 1600 x 1200
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 cores) with ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT 87.8 45.1 74.3 37.8 110.5 94.4
Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz (8 cores) with Nvidia 8800 GT* 123.7 122.3 80.7 80.4 94.5 93.7
>Better >Better >Better >Better >Better >Better

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

All systems were running OS X 10.5.2 and had 2GB RAM. We used three games and ran them all at both 1024x768 and 1600x 1200. Doom was run at Full screen, Ultra high quality, V-sync and anti aliasing off, all others set to on. Quake 4 was tested at High Quality, Multiprocessing set to on, V-sync and antialiasing set to off and all other setting set to on. Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, JERRY JUNG, AND BRIAN CHEN

In terms of 3-D game frame rates, the Nvidia’s performance was impressive in our lower-resolution game tests, especially the more taxing applications like Doom 3 and Quake. Running at a resolution of 1,024-by-768, the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT was 41-percent faster than the ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT. In Quake 4 testing at that same resolution, the Nvidia was nearly 9 percent faster than the ATI. Not a bad performance gain, but we were much more impressed by how well the Nvidia performed at even higher resolutions, barely slowing down even after we cranked up the resolution to 1,600-by-1,200. The ATI’s high-resolution performance, on the other hand, dropped dramatically at the higher settings—pushing through 49-percent fewer frames per second in both Quake and Doom tests when run at 1,600-by-1,200 versus 1,024-by-768.

Our legacy gaming test, Unreal Tournament 2004 (included in Speedmark 5 because of its extensive compatibility with older Mac systems as well as the latest models), showed the ATI with a surprising advantage at the lower resolution setting. But that advantage was erased when resolution settings were bumped up to 1,600-by-1,200.

Games aren’t the only applications that tax the GPU. More and more applications like Aperture and Motion rely on the graphics card to speed up performance. For those of you not that interested in gaming, we’ll look to include some more application testing when we revisit the Mac Pro’s graphics card options—hopefully with that Nvidia Quadro FX 5600 card. Our next tests, however, will focus on the standard 2.8GHz Mac Pro with additional RAM, the SAS RAID and the combination of those two with the graphics upgrades to see if all the combined options equal more than the sum of the parts.

And of course we’re already hard at work testing the newly announced laptops, so stay tuned.

James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.

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