When Apple's ever-so-slightly refreshed Nehalem-based Mac Pro showed up on our doorstep, we were understandably taken aback by the enclosure. Sure, it looks exactly like the previous Mac Pro externally, and only slightly more beautiful internally, but it's hard to deny the gorgeousness of this metallic wonder. That said, the so-called cheese grater design is one that's mighty familiar to Mac fans by now, so we'll spare you the details there. What you're probably wondering is whether or not this rig is really worth the steep asking price. At $2,499 for a single quad-core 2.66GHz rig and $3,299 for a twin quad-core 2.26GHz machine (which is our test system, by the way), neither option is particularly "affordable." And outside of the refreshed Intel Xeon processor, there aren't too many new hardware components to really convince you that an upgrade is a dire necessity. Follow us past the break to get a real-world perspective on the value proposition, and moreover, to get a better understanding of who exactly benefits most from a workstation of this magnitude.
Apple

Mac Pro

Pros

  • Drop-dead sexy design
  • Plenty of expansion options
  • Quiet for a workstation

Cons

  • Limited USB ports
  • No SSD support / CTO options
  • Awful as a gaming rig
Summary




Design

  • Design wise, you won't notice a single change externally from the previous generation Mac Pro... save for the port selection.
  • Speaking of, the old FireWire 400 ports have been done away with; you've now got twin USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 ports on the front (along with a 3.5mm headphone jack), while the rear presents three USB 2.0, two FireWire 800, optical audio (Toslink) in / out, stereo audio in / out and dual gigabit Ethernet ports.
  • Internally, Apple has made the eight DIMM slots stupendously easy to access by providing an easily removable tray that slides completely out of the chassis (check out a video of the removal process here).
  • You'll also notice that some six feet of cabling has been removed, which makes the installation of additional hard drives and another optical drive much easier than before.
  • All in all, the inside of the Nehalem-based Mac Pro is super clean, and it's entirely air cooled; no liquids allowed on this one.
  • The bundled Apple Keyboard with Numerical Pad and wired Mighty Mouse were found to be satisfactory and still lame, respectively. We can't help but wonder if Apple will ever add backlight capabilities to its desktop keyboards. Sure, it's novel, but for avid MacBook Pro users, reverting back to a non-backlit keyboard just feels dirty.



Hardware
  • Our review unit was the baseline "8-Core" model listed on Apple's website; it's the $3,299 rig with two 2.26GHz Intel Xeon 5520 processors.
  • The new Intel architecture promises big speed gains all around, with inclusions like 8MB of fully shared L3 cache per processor, an integrated memory controller and support for Hyper-Threading. In our tests (we'll explain a bit more later), the fancy CPUs didn't add that much zip when dabbling in basic tasks, though they certainly helped in processor-intensive situations.
  • This Mac Pro supports eight DIMM slots, each of which can handle a stick of 1,066MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM. Our system came with 6GB spread over six slots -- thanks for leaving us loads of room for expansion, Apple.
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR is bundled in, though WiFi (via an AirPort Extreme card) is still a $50 option. Really, Apple? Your $3,299 flagship desktop doesn't include WiFi? We know, 96 percent of these will be attached to a CAT5 / 6 cable, but it's the principle here that's irking us.
  • The standard graphics card is NVIDIA's 512MB GT 120, which -- frankly -- is a travesty. This nomenclature may sound new, but really, it's hardly more than a renamed, die-shrunk GeForce 9500 GT with dual-link DVI and mini DisplayPort thrown in. We were seriously underwhelmed by the performance (we'll touch more on it later), and can fully understand why Apple's pushing the more potent ATI Radeon HD 4870 512MB (a $200 option) as the real-deal power card for those who'd like to game.
  • The 18x SuperDrive still takes too long to eject (around four seconds on average), makes entirely too much noise while sliding out / reading a disc and amazingly, doesn't do Blu-ray. We'd wager that most video professionals haven't made the jump to burning their footage to BD-Rs just yet, but to not provide the option due to some off-the-wall belief by Sir Steve is just farcical. Give your video pros the option to toast to Blu-ray, Apple -- believe it or not, the format is here to stay (at least for a while).
  • We'll take this opportunity to lament the fact that not a single FireWire 400 port is included. We know, times change and all must eventually move forward, but loads of professional AV equipment has been and still are based on FW400. To not even provide a single front-mounted port just seems snobbish, and to not toss in a complimentary FW800-to-FW400 adapter just seems dumb.
  • One of the most pressing concerns from previous Mac Pro owners is noise / heat. We're happy to say that even when taxed, our test system never got overly raucous or forced us to flip on the air conditioning. In fact, we were shocked at just how quiet it remained until we really pressed it in Final Cut Pro; we had to seriously stress it in order to get those fans to be super audible, which is a great, great thing.

  • Both Mac Pro systems come loaded with a single 640GB SATA hard drive with three open HDD slots; we asked Apple why there was no option for SSD storage (or even a Fusion-io ioDrive), and it simply stated that users with a need for more speed should consider the $700 Mac Pro RAID card, which can utilize 15,000RPM SAS hard drives. The lack of optional flash-based storage isn't a deal breaker, but we can't understand why Apple would pass up the opportunity to give well-endowed speed freaks the option to indulge in PCI-based SSD RAID storage.
So, let's talk about performance, shall we? Bootup was predictably snappy, though we didn't notice any significant speed increases in app launching compared to our 2.4GHz / 4GB / 320GB 7,200RPM MacBook Pro. Was it a hair faster at basic tasks like firing up Firefox and opening up new tabs in Safari? Sure, but not amazingly so. Without running the numbers and proving in milliseconds how much faster PhotoShop batching was, we can definitely say that we expected a bigger speed boost than what we got (compared to the aforesaid MacBook Pro). We'll let the benchmarks below do the talking, but the takeaway is that this machine won't make those everyday, menial tasks seem that much faster. Unless you're engaging in some serious data crunching (hence the whole "workstation" moniker), you'll probably wonder why you paid this much for this tiny an increase in speed.

Update: It should be pointed out that XBench, while an excellent gauge of overall performance in a generic sense, doesn't perfectly demonstrate the potential of these CPUs. The tool doesn't yet test multi-threading, and given that these processors are so new, it'll probably take awhile for it to be re-coded to take advantage. That said, we can tell you from real world use that these fancy new slabs of silicon aren't worth their asking price for menial tasks; you'll only truly appreciate 'em when using true professional applications. You can tell by Apple's own selection of benchmarks -- seen here -- that this machine is tailor made to perform best when working with pro software. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but consumers in general should definitely be aware before expecting the wrong thing.

Apple Mac Pro (early 2009) Benchmarks

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All in all, we've come to realize that this is a pro-level machine for a reason. It's just marginally faster than much cheaper consumer-level rigs at doing consumer-level things, and it's downright lousy at gaming. In fact, we had to force the resolution to 1,600 x 1,200 and turn anti-aliasing off entirely to get Call of Duty 4 to become playable. The newest Mac Pro has proven once again that it serves a clearly defined niche, and unless you'll be firing up Aperture, Final Cut Pro or similar on a regular basis, you should probably pass. 'Course, you could also slap that ATI card in here along with four 2TB HDDs to create a powerhouse that can't be replicated in any other current Mac form, but we'd propose that it's just not worth the cost. If you're looking to game, there are far cheaper ways to do it. If you're looking to handle web surfing and typical Office tasks, the same is true here. If you're a pro looking to cut down those render times and give yourself lots of room for expansion, this might be your machine. We'd stop by an Apple store to give it a whirl first, though.

Apple Nehalem-based Mac Pro unboxing and hands-on

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Apple Nehalem-based Mac Pro in-depth impressions