We test and benchmark Apple's diminutive Mac Pro – a small shiny cylinder that hides its quiet power well.
By Andrew Harrison
At a Glance
Fast storage and multi-core performance
Beautiful compact design
Very limited availability
limited internal upgrade options
Quiet and cool, Apple has pulled off the thermal challenge of computing powerhouse in a modest cylinder as an objet d’art that breaks the run of square-cornered PCs. Knowing the absence of imagination from Microsoft hardware peddlers, expect to see a minor rash of Windows PCs aping the look before long. The 2013 Mac Pro may still only be a PC, but it’s an exceptionally capable one that redefines how it can look and perform graciously for a next generation of desktop personal computer users.
Price When Reviewed
Split personality could aptly describe the Mac Pro, if one could ascribe a personality to a computer in the first place. That’s the visual impressions we get from two quite different computer workstations, packed into one shiny cylindrical sleeve.
The first aquaintance you’ll likely make of the new 2013 Apple Mac Pro is as a stout metallic drum, resembling blued steel and as serious as a Smith & Wesson six-shooter. That dark metallic finish is extremely reflective, letting it take on the appearance of its surroundings like a convex mirror. As you walk around, so its shape and lustre changes with everything it’s reflecting around you. But do note that unlike Apple’s publicity shots, this highly polished anodised aluminium is not so much black as a dark metallic grey, nearly blue colour.
Its other persona is even more serious. Slide the thumbcatch at the rear smoothly to the right, and the cover is armed and unlocked. You then gently raise the weighty cylinder outer to reveal the real ordinance inside.
Two over-riding impressions are created now – of an advanced communications satellite; or better yet, deep-space probe. With two stuffed electronic circuit boards on display and hints of plenty more precison components surface-mounted all over, this could be an aerospace-built payload designed for space launches.
The alternative explanation of all that 21st-century electronics comes straight from watching too many Hollywood thrillers – it’s a bomb, a miniature thermonuclear warhead that’s just ripe for defusing. We still can’t slide the outer cowl up from the main chassis without a voice in our head imploring us to cut the red, no, the blue wire…
When you do come to plug in the required display and power cables, and watch it boot up as a personal computer, it’s almost anti-climactic after the double-punch effect of the Mac’s exterior and interior industrial design. Wondering when the new Mac Pro will launch? Read our
New Mac Pro 2015 release date rumours
The Mac Pro stands 251 mm tall. That’s little more than the height of an iPad. And with a diameter of 167 mm the 2013 Apple Mac Pro has similar proportions to a tin of baked beans, only around twice as high. A can of Pepsi may be more apposite, given the cylinder’s rounded ends.
At heart inside the Mac Pro is a central cooling core consisting of a finned triangular-section heatsink, with three facets that run the height of the casework – on two sides are high-power AMD FirePower professional graphics cards. The main logic board with CPU completes the third side, but is hidden from view by the port and connection panel.
Cooling is the challenge for any performance PC, and here Apple has taken the innovative step of discarding all cooling fans – except one, a large turbine-like finned rotor that sits at the top of the chassis (underneath the vents, below), drawing in air through a series of vents running the circumference of the base.
Cool air passes up the central heatsinked assembly and warm air drifts out through the chimney-like aperture at top. Thanks to the large size of that single fan, it can move plenty of air while still rotating relatively slowly. Compare this to the smaller high-revving fans that tend to populate a typical PC workstation. Slow rotation drops noise levels down to an unheard of minimum, the specifications citing just 12 dBA from the user’s position when idling.
In reality, that will be inaudible in anywhere but an acoustic anechoic chamber, unless you press your ear against the cowling. But as we discovered, that fan will ramp up when required – our first experience of hearing the fan was when applying a slew of software updates that strangely warmed the machine enough to raise noise to a quite noticeable 30 dBA or so. Most of the time though, even running various stressful benchmark tests, the Mac Pro was seen but not heard.
New Mac Pro specs
For central processing power the Mac Pro takes a new Intel Xeon E5 processor, available with a choice of four, six, eight or 12 cores. This chip is the workstation-class version of last year’s Intel Core-series Ivy Bridge processor, and is otherwise known as Ivy Bridge Extreme, refined and uprated for professional use.
The biggest material difference besides grading for performance will be the greater number of processing cores available. Consumer Intel chips usually top out at quad configuration but here the processor specialist will squeeze in up to three times as many physical cores.
Depending which configuration you select, the Mac Pro will be clocked anywhere between 3.7 GHz for the entry-level quad-core machine, down to 2.7 GHz per core for the 12-core version.
This 22nm-process silicon chip, like the consumer Core i7, can dynamically overclock to higher clock speed when demanded. The difference may be small though, just 200 MHz for the quad-core chip; but a greater delta for the slower-clocked chips with more cores. Crucially, every example supports Hyper-Threading, letting the OS and most software ‘see’ the processor with twice the number of physical cores.
For memory, the new Mac Pro takes fast 1,867MHz RAM, fault-tolerate error checking and correcting (ECC) memory we’d expect of a professional workstation. There are four slots available (below), pre-filled with a complement between 12 GB (3 x 4 GB) and 64 GB (4 x 16 GB), depending on selected configuration.
Why does the new Mac Pro have a single chip?
Unlike many modern desktop workstations, the 2013 Mac Pro is a single-socket design, good to run a solitary if amply multi-cored central processor; meanwhile the most powerful performance computers used as servers and workstations today are sometimes built around two or more discrete CPUs per motherboard. Apple’s design intent is obviously to keep size, power consumption and heat/noise to more tolerable levels by settling on a single-chip system.
But performance computing is no longer all about CPU cores and their gigahertz cycling speed. The graphics processor with its many, many cores running at not-much-slower speeds is now a computing tool to be reckoned with. Which explains Apple’s investment in the graphics capability of the Mac Pro with its two independent AMD FirePower D-series cards.
Through the recoding of key application software, some of the heavy lifting undertaken by the CPU can now be diverted to the GPU, and its massively parallel architecture is much more efficient at processing assorted productivity tasks. Graphics encoding and decoding, cryptographic routines and signal processing can all be handled extremely deftly by the right combination of hardware stream processors and a suitable API – Apple founded and is supporting perhaps the most important right now in OpenCL.
Debates of one- or two-socket systems become almost moot when you leverage the power of the GPU. What difference is it whether you have eight, 16 or 24 CPU cores, against two or three thousand stream processors simultaneously crunching the same numbers?
The hindrance to the golden general-purpose graphics processor (GPGPU) has been that recoding project for software, but pro and CAD developers especially are now providing real apps for power users to exploit.
We originally understood that the Mac Pro had one AMD graphics card reserved for display rendering, for one to three monitors, and the other set aside for compute tasks. But at a briefing at time of the Mac Pro’s actual launch in December 2013 we were shown a Final Cut Pro X setup that can make use of both cards for background video rendering, while still sparing enough horsepower to drive two Sharp 4K displays. That may be the exception for a while though, rather than the rule. For most current applications, GPGPU compute tasks are diverted and focused on one FirePro card.
As you may expect for a modern system built for speed, quiet operation and still with a strong eye on aesthetic impact, the Mac Pro has only solid-state flash for storage. And what an SSD it is too: like the last generation of MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro, it throws out the data-throttling SATA controller and puts fast flash chips more directly in touch with the PCIe bus. You can have either 256, 512 or 1000 GB of solid-state drive in the Mac Pro, an Apple proprietary card that resembles a long-form mSATA strip, and which piggybacks from one of the two AMD graphics cards.
Assorted I/O for the Mac Pro (above) runs to three Intel Thunderbolt controllers, providing six Thunderbolt 2 ports, and one HDMI 1.4 video port. There are four USB 3.0, while built-in audio connectivity comes in the form of two 3.5mm mini-jacks – one a combined stereo analogue line-out with Toslink digital audio output; the other a headset jack for earphones and a mic.
Helping keep down the cable count are the two latest wireless data standards: 802.11ac Wi-Fi with a three-antenna array for best throughput, and Bluetooth 4.0 with its low-power capability for new and upcoming LE peripherals.
New Mac Pro benchmarks
We ran our sliderule over a near-top example of the Mac Pro loaned to us by Apple. It was the eight-core model with Intel Xeon E5-1680 v2 running at 3.0 GHz, and maxed out with 64 GB of memory. This unit had twin AMD FirePower D700 graphics cards, each with 2,048 stream processors, 6 GB of GDDR5 memory and a 384-bit-wide memory bus. For internal storage, it was equipped with the largest 1TB PCIe-based SSD.
Storage is as good a place to start as any, and here the Mac Pro really showed the benefit of its PCIe 2.0-connected flash. Random reads from 4 to 1024 kB averaged 241 MB/s, while similar random writes soared to 441 MB/s. Those numbers indicated that for OS tasks like launching applications, saving and opening documents, its operation should feel exceptionally fast and fluid.
There may up to 1TB of on-board storage available; but after that, you’re reliant on external drives – potentially Thunderbolt-based since USB 3.0 will not deliver the throughput that some video professionals will demand. But if you do use on-board storage as scratch disk or storing work files, expect the fastest read/writes you’ll likely have seen so far in internal storage.
Sequential transfers of large files sped by the fastest though, averaging 1027 MB/s when writing and 1220 MB/s for reading, using data files 2 to 10 MB in size.
We don’t have a history of benchmarks from earlier Mac Pro models from the Macworld UK test lab, but can compare to recent MacBook Pro notebooks that have been packing some of the fastest Intel silicon available.
It’s perhaps a sign of how well mobile computing has caught up with desktop machines that we see some results from MacBook Pro models really start to encroach on PC territory. But remember: while a laptop can hit high speeds, especially briefly with the help of short-term Turbo overclocking, a desktop system should be capable of running at full pelt a long-day long without complaint.
New Mac Pro Cinebench benchmarks
In Cinebench 11.5, the 3.0 GHz Mac Pro scored 1.55 points with a single core. Last year’s ‘best’
Retina MacBook Pro (2.6 GHz), with its same generation of Ivy Bridge processor, hit 1.45 points here. This year’s top MacBook model pipped that by one hundredth of a point, at 1.46 points, even though it was running a chip with baseline frequency lowered now to 2.3 GHz.
Multi-threading is the game, though, and with eight real cores driving 16 virtualised threads, the Mac Pro hit 13.69 points in multi mode, against 6.78 and 6.82 points for the respective finest notebooks of 2012 and 2013.
Step forward to the later Cinebench R15 test, and we saw the Mac Pro score 138 points single-cored, with Retina MacBooks at 127 and 126 points. All cores on-song, the numbers crept up to 609 and 623 points for the portables; and 1225 points to the workstation Mac.
The older Cinebench test showed little measurable difference in OpenGL rendering though. Where the two MacBooks could render at 35 and 45 fps, Mac Pro was disarmingly close to the latter’s nVidia 750M result at just 46 fps. Less anomalous was the Cinebench R15 comparison: 48 and 54 fps from the MacBook Pros; but 87 fps with an AMD D700 on the job.
It’s worth pointing out that Apple also has Boot Camp drivers available to facilitate installing Windows on the Mac Pro. Used thus, it should even be possible to engage a CrossFire mode to combine the two graphics cards for best graphics performance.
Geekbench 3 results showed the benefits of many cores focused on one task – ‘just’ 3628 points from a single core, rising to 26,086 in multi-core mode. For comparison, the best 2013 Retina MacBook (2.3 GHz) reaped 3461 points from its more efficient Haswell chip, but couldn’t keep up in multi mode, finishing with around half the point score of 13,571 points from its quad-core/octo-thread processor.
Should I buy a new Mac Pro?
Who is the Mac Pro for? It’s certainly not one for Windows enthusiasts who insist that Apple is ripping off its customers with over-priced, under-specified computing hardware. You could indeed cobble together a faster workstation machine for less money, we’re sure, but it will be a huge wheezing box of ugliness that’ll take over your desk; or more likely the void under it, where it’ll sit unloved collecting dust and boot prints.
For some professionals the new condensation of Apple workstation into a high-performance cola can will be mourned most by the loss of upgradeable components. And that’s chiefly on the PCI expansion and storage side – memory can still be swapped, and there’s even potential for adventurous souls to strip the Mac Pro down and swap out the CPU from its socket in the future. But built-in storage is entirely limited to what Apple sells you, until a third-party supplier reverse engineers the PCIe SSD connector; and graphics processors are certainly fixed in place as part of the machine’s very furniture.
Most expansion and upgrades must come purely in the form of external boxes and drives, connected through the machine’s array of Thunderbolt ports. That leaves the Mac Pro sitting pretty but you’ll need to prepare for a spaghetti junction of wiring out the back, feeding all your sighted or hidden peripherals.