Mac Pro refresh brings high-end graphics to the Mac

Today's new hardware announcement refreshed the Mac mini and iMac lines, and at long last, the Mac Pro was also given some love. In the 14 months since the last Mac Pro refresh there have been some significant hardware changes within the microprocessor world and within Apple's own line. The result meant that the Mac Pro, while still a beast, wasn't as cutting-edge as it has been in the past. Let's look at the update and see if that story has changed.

Processor and Chipset

The big news with this Mac Pro update is the Quad-Core Intel Xeon "Nehalem" processor. Intel's "Nehalem" is the latest breakthrough in Intel's 45nm space. The Mac Pro may actually be the first commercially available computer that uses the Nehalem-based Intel Xeon. The base configuration is a Quad-Core 2.66 Ghz Intel Xeon, but you can configure a Mac Pro with two Quad-Core 2.93 Ghz Xeons, effectively meaning 8 cores. As far as I know, the 16-core option for the latest Xeon won't be available until later this year. To put it another way, this is bleeding edge.

Looking at Apple's benchmarks (obviously, the independent tests that are sure to come will probably give a more accurate overall picture), the 8-Core 2.93 Nehalem-based Xeon processor offers some significant speed increases over last generation's 8-Core Xeon 3.2 Ghz.

Aside from pure processor speed, the new chipsets include an integrated memory controller, Intel's QuickPath, Turbo Boost and Hyper-Threading technologies. The Hyper-Threading implementation is especially interesting because it means you can run two threads on each core, effectively meaning your Mac can recognize 16 virtual cores on an 8-core system. This is a virtualization nut's dream.

On the memory front, a single Quad-Core Mac Pro can take up to 8 GB of RAM. If you do the 8-core option, that capacity expands to 32 GB.

Graphics and Displays

Last October, Apple committed itself to using DisplayPort technology for its products and displays. The unfortunate side-effect of that decision meant that users wanting a Mac Pro to go with that sexy new 24" Cinema Display were out of luck, because those displays require a Mini DisplayPort, something the previous generation Mac Pros just didn't support. No more. The new Mac Pro features both Mini DisplayPort and a dual-link DVI port, so you can hook up both a 30" Cinema Display and that new 24" LED beauty.

Apple is touting the new Mac Pro as having "the fastest Mac graphics ever". Indeed, the stock NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 (note, NVIDIA changed the naming convention of its graphics chipsets recently, but the GT 120 is based on the 9500GT chipset) with 512 MB of GDDR3 RAM is a pretty decent start, especially for video professionals. You can customize the Mac Pro to include the ATI Radeon HD 4870 with 512MB of GDDR5 memory, which is one of the latest and greatest cards available from ATI.

You can put in up to four GT 120 cards in the Mac Pro, meaning you can drive as many as 8 displays off the Mac Pro. That's the video setup of my dreams.

Storage and Expandability

The Mac Pro has 4 3.5" drive bays for lots of storage options. Although you can set-up a RAID 0 without any other add-ons, Apple has introduced a new RAID card. At $700 US, it isn't cheap, but it includes 512MB of RAID cache and a 72-hour battery protecting that cache. It supports RAID 0, 1, 5 and 0+1.

The new Mac Pro also includes a double-layer 18x SuperDrive, and you can add a second 18x SuperDrive for $100 US. As for expandability, there are three open PCI Express expansion slots, one x16 slot and two x4 slots.

The regular expandability options include:

  • Four FireWire 800 ports (two on front panel, two on back panel)

  • Five USB 2.0 ports (two on front panel, three on back panel)

  • Two USB 2.0 ports on included keyboard

  • Front-panel headphone minijack and internal speaker

  • Optical digital audio input and output TOSLINK ports

  • Analog stereo line-level input and output minijacks


Apple has redesigned the interior of the Mac Pro to make it easier to perform upgrades, swap out drives or access memory. The Mac Pro was already really neat on the inside, but the new pictures (I'll have to harass the Apple Store people later this week) look really slick.


The base price for a Mac Pro with one Quad-Core 2.66 Ghz Xeon processor, 3 GB of RAM, a 640 GB hard drive and the NVIDIA GT 120 is $2499, $300 less than last year's base model price. The base price for a two Quad-Core 2.23 Ghz Xeon Mac Pro, with 6 GB of RAM, and a 640 GB hard drive and the NVIDIA GT 120 is $3299.

If you want a machine with the 2.93 Ghz Xeon, add $500 US for the single Quad-Core option and $2400 for the two Quad-Core powerhouse ($1400 US will up the 8-core to 2.66 Ghz). The ATI Radeon HD 4870 is a $200 upgrade and a second SuperDrive is $100. All prices are US.

Component wise, hard drives aside, the upgrade prices for this year's Mac Pro lineup are actually pretty competitive. RAM prices aren't outrageous ($150 to go from 3 GB to 6 GB on the single Quad-Core model, $100 to go from 6 to 8 GB on the 8-core model) and considering the Xeon 2.93 Nahalem is listing at $1349 for bulk purchases, the chipset upgrade prices are actually pretty decent.

Granted, in this economy, there aren't going to be a lot of individuals who are going to relish in spending $3000+ for a new computer -- but even the base spec'd Mac Pro is a good value for video editors, digital professionals or Mac-based IT departments.