Apple Mac Pro £1999

27th Sep 2010 | 09:35

Apple Mac Pro

Apple's 2.8GHz, quad-core MacPro puts in an excellent performance

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

The entry-level mid-2010 Mac Pro gives us little cause for complaint. A Blu-ray drive would be welcome but was never on the cards, and it's expensive, but not poor value for money. It's great to see that even in the midst of a recession, Apple isn't neglecting its high-end range.

Like:

Great new processors Extremely capable graphics card Runs almost silently 18x optical drive Good bundled software

Dislike:

No Blu-ray Expensive Only one optical drive No form factor improvements Could use more SDRAM

MacPro 2.8Ghz quad-core: Overview

Apple's mid-2010 refresh brings us three new models of the Mac Pro – the top-of-the-range tower format Mac aimed at professionals and high-end users. The one we're reviewing here is the entry-level model at £1999, based around a 2.8GHz quad core Intel Xeon processor using the 45nm Nehalem microarchitecture.

If you need even more processing power, the mid-range Mac Pro sets you back £2,799 and features two 2.4GHz quad core Xeons based on the Westmere 32nm process. If you're really ambitious (and rich), the top-of-the-range model costs £3999, and boasts twin six-core 2.66GHz Xeon Westmere processors, for a total of 12 cores.

Naturally, if you order online, any and all of these machines can be customised. The entry-level model reviewed here can be boosted to a 3.2GHz quad-core CPU or a six-core 3.33GHz chip, though if you really want to spend some money, go for a top-of-the-range model with twin 2.93GHz six-core Xeons.

This particular Mac Pro comes with 3GB (three 1GB DIMMs) of DDR3 ECC SDRAM at 1066MHz, but its four memory slots can support up to 16GB. The two-processor models are supplied with 6GB of memory out of the box, but offer eight slots for up to 32GB in total. The top-of-the-range Mac Pro also uses faster, 1333MHz SDRAM.

Processor and memory aside, the three models brought to us with the Mac Pro's mid-2010 refresh have a lot in common. They all have a 1TB SATA hard drive running at 7200rpm; a ATI Radeon HD 5770 graphics card with 1GB of GDDR5 memory, offering two Mini DisplayPort outputs and one dual-link DVI video output; and an 18x dual layer-compatible SuperDrive for optical discs.

Each has two USB 2.0 ports and two FireWire 800 ports at the front of the machine, plus three USB 2.0 and two FireWire 800 at the back, where you'll also find dual 10/100/1000BASE-T (Gigabit) Ethernet ports. Wireless-N is catered for, as is Bluetooth 2.1.

MacPro 2.8Ghz quad-core: Specs

Enough about the new Mac Pro range. Let's take a closer look at the entry-level, 2.8GHz quad core Xeon model and see what it can do. Its Xeon processor, like the Core-i series used in the current iMac range, has a feature called Hyper Threading. This allows each of the processor's four cores to run two threads simultaneously, giving a total of eight virtual cores.

Workload can be shared more evenly, maximising its use of resources and delivering enhanced performance. Naturally, not every software application is capable of using every available core. The Xeon's Turbo Boost feature shuts down idle cores and boosts the clock speed for those that are active. The quad core Xeon can reach a clock speed of up to 3.06GHz in this way.

The Mac Pro's speed advantages don't end with the processors. Its new ATI Radeon HD 5770 with 1GB of GDDR5 memory is up to five times faster than the graphics cards offered by the previous generation, and even outperforms its speediest configure-to-order option.

If you want something faster still, you can upgrade to a ATI Radeon HD 5870 using the online custom order option, or even add a second HD 5770 card. The 5770 offers a single dual-link DVI port and two Mini DisplayPorts, which can be connected to a DVI monitor using an adapter, giving a potential three-display set-up, or up to six displays if you fit a second graphics card.

A bidirectional point-to-point connection called QuickPath Interconnect gives the processor quick access to the Mac's various subsystems, such as the hard drive. This helps to reduce latency, allowing the CPU to get on with processing data instead of waiting for it to arrive.

The Mac Pro is built with configurability in mind. Its interior is designed to make access as simple as possible, giving the end user the freedom to change or upgrade components without professional assistance. Fitting extra hard drives is a simple task, or you can use some or all of its four cable-free SATA drive bays for solid state drives instead.

They're easy to fit – just attach the drive carrier to the drive and slide it in. RAID 0 and 1 are supported out of the box, and you can add a RAID card for additional configurations. You can fit and swap PCI cards without tools too, and because the Mac Pro uses a double-sized graphics slot, your graphics card won't block an adjacent port.

Like all modern Macs, the new Mac Pro comes supplied with OS X (specifically, 10.6: Snow Leopard), and the latest version of the iLife application suite. It's bundled with a full-sized USB keyboard, and Apple's Bluetooth Magic Mouse.

MacPro 2.8Ghz quad-core: Performance

In our benchmarking tests, the new Mac Pro performed admirably. Using MAXON's Cinebench to test its 3D rendering capabilities, the advantage offered by the Xeon's multiple cores became very apparent indeed.

Compared with the 3.2GHz mid-2010 iMac, the Mac Pro was just under 3 per cent slower using a single core. But when all available processors were brought into play, it outperformed the all-in-one by an incredible 67.5 per cent.

For our gaming test, we ran the notoriously system-hungry Doom 3 with the graphics options turned up to maximum. It gave us almost 180 frames per second, an increase of almost 34 per cent over the 3.2GHz Core i3 iMac. It encoded our five-minute test movie to iPod format in just 129 seconds too, 31 per cent faster than the iMac.

Although designed for professionals, there's clearly an advantage in having a Mac Pro as a home machine.

Perhaps the most surprising (though extremely welcome) test result came when we timed how long it took iTunes to rip and encode our test CD. For a long time this test has been stuck at around 380 seconds, as a series of Macs under test failed to capitalise on incremental power increases due to the limitations of the standard 8x SuperDrive.

Thankfully, the Mac Pro uses a faster optical drive – specifically an 18x dual layer-compatible SuperDrive introduced with the previous generation of Mac Pros. Our test CD was ripped and encoded in 177 seconds, a little under half the time taken by the 8x optical drive used in the rest of the Mac range. These figures suggest the optical drive is still the limiting factor, but this is hardly surprising.

The Mac Pro has two optical drive bays, only one of which is populated. You can add a second SuperDrive if you wish, although Apple still hasn't seen fit to give us a Blu-ray option.

To be fair we weren't expecting one, though – the Cupertino-based company simply isn't interested in high-density optical storage, and prefers to promote its HD movie downloads through iTunes to facilitating Blu-ray movie playback on the Mac. But expected or not, it's still annoying.

One thing Mac Pro owners won't find annoying is background noise. The new machine runs almost silently, even with the optical drive running at full speed and the processors working hard. This is also true for the new iMacs and Mac mini, and is something Apple has definitely got right of late.

MacPro 2.8Ghz quad-core: Verdict

The mid-2010 refresh's entry-level Mac Pro is a very capable machine. Its 2.8GHz quad core Intel Xeon CPU boasts Hyper Threading and Turbo Boost features that help it make the most of its processing power. The graphics card is certainly impressive.

Off the shelf it boasts an ATI Radeon HD 5770 with 1GB of GDDR5 memory, allowing you to connect up to three displays. This can be upgraded to an ATI Radeon HD 5870, or augmented with a second HD 5770. A dual graphics card set-up can support up to six displays.

The Mac Pro is designed with configurability in mind. Components are easy to reach, and can be upgraded and replaced by the end user. This particular model can take up to 16GB of memory (the other two Mac Pros can handle up to 32GB), and there are four cable-free SATA bays for hard drives, giving up to 8TB storage.

In our tests, it performed admirably. When rendering 3D images, it almost matched a 3.2GHz iMac in a single-core test, and roundly trounced it when all available processors came into play. Its 18x SuperDrive makes short work of ripping CDs to iTunes too, and you can fit a second if you wish.

We liked

There's plenty to like about this new Mac Pro. Although the entry-level model, it's still blisteringly fast. Dock applications such as iCal and iPhoto open after a single bounce, and tasks such as video and music encoding are handled much quicker than with other Macs.

And although even a high-end Mac will never be the gamers' computer of choice, if you like the odd blast, this new Mac Pro is quite capable of pushing around the polygons with the best of them.

We disliked

The only real drawback here is that the new Mac Pro still doesn't bring us Blu-ray support. Apple is famously pushing HD downloads and probably feels a Blu-ray drive would cut into its sales through iTunes, but many Mac owners lament the fact that they can't play their Blu-ray movie collection on their Macs as well as their under-the-TV Blu-ray players.

Verdict

The entry-level mid-2010 Mac Pro gives us little cause for complaint. A Blu-ray drive would be welcome but was never on the cards, and it's expensive, but not poor value for money. It's great to see that even in the midst of a recession, Apple isn't neglecting its high-end range.

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