In depth – storage
Solid-state storage is one of the most significant improvements in computer technology in the last decade. With no moving parts and data accessed electronically rather than from a spinning disk, much faster speeds can be achieved, reducing installation and boot times.
But with desktop computers, SSDs rely on the SATA bus for data transfer, which has a hard theoretical limit of 6Gbit/s and a practical limit of around 500MB/s. While that's fast, much higher speeds are possible by switching from SATA to PCI-Express.
There are a few models of PCI-Express SSD cards for PCs, notably the OCZ Revodrive line. But these cards are much too big to fit inside the Mac Pro. Apple has designed a custom storage module which squeezes the flash chips into a small area, in a similar way to how it does with the iMac and MacBook SSDs.
Apple says the super-fast PCI-Express storage is necessary for 4K video editing. Indeed, with the large bit rates of uncompressed 4K video, a hard disk or even a low-end SSD simply cannot feed the system fast enough for smooth playback. But when running the BlackMagic Disk Speed Test software, we recorded 952MB/sec read speeds and 903MB/sec write speeds from the Mac Pro's 512GB SSD, almost double what you get from a desktop drive.
We tested this further with some 4K sample videos from Blackmagic Design
When playing the videos on our desktop workstation, with a Core i7 processor, 256GB Samsung 840 Pro SSD and 16GB memory, the video playback was choppy, pausing after a second since it was starved of data. On the Mac Pro, the video played in its entirety without a frame missed.
However, for 3D design, superfast storage is not the biggest performance bottleneck. It's lovely to have the system boot up in seconds, and software loading lightning quick, but it doesn't do much for rendering.
In depth – graphics
Apple's decision to include dual FirePro GPUs across the entire Mac Pro range is interesting, since Crossfire, the AMD technology that allows 3D applications to address both cards, only works in Windows.
In OS X, by default one card is used for the display graphics, while the other is used for Open CL computing. For both cards to be used together, software must be rewritten and updated to take advantage of the second GPU. Given the inclusivity of Apple's platform, it's highly likely that 3D software firms will update their products if they take the Macintosh design market seriously.
Apple's own video-editing package, Final Cut Pro X
, has been updated prior to the Mac Pro's launch, along with its Motion 3D effects software
. During a demonstration, Apple showed off the Mac Pro seamlessly editing multiple 4K video streams in Final Cut.
The use of AMD graphics cards
means only OpenCL is supported for general-purpose GPU processing tasks, not Cuda. If you heavily use Cuda-accelerated tools this will be a severe handicap. The Foundry's NUKE, for example, relies on Cuda exclusively, as does Adobe's After Effects application.
Given that the Mac Pro's graphics cards are roughly comparable to AMD's FirePro cards in PC workstations, based off the Pitcairn and Tahiti design, they're powerful. The D300 has 1280 shader processors, 2GB of memory, 80 texture units and 160 GB/sec of memory bandwidth. The D500 has 1536 shader processors, 3GB of memory, 96 texture units and 240 GB/sec of bandwidth, while the D700 has 2048 shader processors, 6GB of memory, 128 texture units and 264 GB/sec of memory bandwidth.
One difference between the Mac Pro's FirePro GPUs and their desktop equivalent is a lack of ECC memory on the Mac Pro cards. ECC memory carries a performance hit, and would add to the Mac Pro's cost, but it seems an odd omission, given its presence as main system memory.
But the most interesting aspect of the Mac Pro's graphics cards is the low price. A single W9000 FirePro graphics card for PC workstations costs almost £3,000 ($3,269). But in the high-end Mac Pro, you get two cards that are very similar. Upgrading from D500 cards to D700 cards adds only £480 ($600) to the cost of the Mac Pro. Superb value!
In depth – software
The Mac Pro comes with OS X 10.9.1, better known as 'Mavericks'. This is effectively identical to the software that comes with any other Mac.
As with any other Apple computer, you can install Windows on the Mac Pro to run alongside OS X, with a downloadable driver package provided by Apple. But with the Mac Pro, Apple does not support Windows 7 and even Windows 8.1 refuses to install. An older Windows 8 ISO was the only Microsoft OS that worked.
Nearly all Windows 3D editing software is available for OS X. Maya
, CINEMA 4D
all work in a similar way. Network rendering works the same way too, with the possibility that long rendering jobs can be dispatched to other computers, including Mac Pros, on the network.
We tested the 12-core Mac Pro, with 32GB of memory and dual D700 cards with a variety of tools, from rendering software and design packages to video encoding tools and standard benchmarks such as Cinebench
For comparison we used a PC workstation we had to hand, running Windows 8.1, with a Core i7 3770K processor running at 3.5 GHz and an AMD FirePro W5000 graphics card.
In Windows, a single desktop FirePro W5000 card achieves 91 fps in the OpenGL test in Cinebench 11.5, but on the Mac Pro with its vastly more powerful D700 cards, the result was only 74.1 fps under OS X. We partly blame this on the difference in OpenGL implementation on OS X and Windows, not to mention the second GPU going unused.
The Cinebench CPU score was more reassuring. On the Core i7, we measured 615 points, but on the Mac Pro this jumped to 1536, almost three times the score, which makes sense given there are three times as many cores in the processor. That said, it's not quite three times, which is explained by the difference in clock speeds.
Luxmark, a tool to measure OpenCL performance, saw more substantial differences. On a PC workstation, the most detailed scene render scored 463. The Mac Pro scores 2153.
In Smart Converter 2, a popular OS X video encoding tool, videos encoded approximately five times faster than on the desktop PC, with the Activity Monitor showing all 12 cores being used.
Geekbench 3, a popular synthetic benchmark, showed the biggest speed hike of the Mac Pro of any tool we used. This benchmark has been ported to most platforms, allowing for (rough) comparison of Android, iOS, OS X and Windows. The Mac Pro scored 33150 in the multi-core test. A 2011 iMac scored 4757.
"What Apple has achieved is creating a desktop computer that's undeniably powerful, but the company focused on reducing its footprint considerably instead of raw performance, an approach that may well pay off"
These results are really impressive, given the Mac Pro's small size and quiet operation. It's not the absolute fastest 3D workstation in the world though, nor is Apple seeking that title. Modern dual-processor systems will outpace the Mac Pro in software that relies on CPU performance.
But in a way, those workstations are a throwback to the past, when thermal and acoustic properties were hampered by the need to adhere to ancient ATX standards for PCs, dreamt up in the 20th Century. The Mac Pro does away with all that, and it's mostly for the best.
What Apple has achieved is creating a desktop computer that's undeniably powerful, but the company focused on reducing its footprint considerably instead of raw performance, an approach that may well pay off.
Although it's too early for a final judgment on its reliability, the Mac Pro's efficient cooling system should hopefully reduce component failure rates too.
Internal storage expandability is a casualty of Apple's new approach, but professional 3D environments are more likely to rely on network storage anyway, rather than keeping files on local storage. The included PCI-Express SSD is amazingly fast, and that's all you need for OS X and applications.
There are a few minor irritations. The Mac Pro's small size makes it an easy target for theft. There's no way to attach a Kensington Lock, so it's easy to just pop one in a rucksack and quickly steal thousands of pounds worth of equipment from a college or university.
If you're looking to build a render farm, the Mac Pro's shape means it can't be used in a rack, which could be a deal breaker for some.
Finally, the HDMI port only supports 4K resolutions at 30Hz (24Hz at 4,096x2160) and the Mac Pro can't output 10-bit color, which may put some people off.
Some of the problems are likely to ironed out in time, or whenever the next iteration comes. As the Mac Pro currently stands, it's still a brilliant workstation and a magnificent piece of engineering.
For those artists who currently use OS X for 3D, the new Mac Pro, it will likely be a no-brainer purchase at some point in the future. Artists who were previously on the fence about using a Mac for rendering now have a good reason to consider switching, since there is no big performance bottleneck in the same way as before.
But we're not certain a Mac Pro is the first choice for everybody who works with 3D modeling. When more applications make use of both GPUs, the Mac Pro will really flex its muscle, but for now, a clunky old-style tower workstation might be a better buy.
• Dual AMD graphics cards
• Intel Ivy Bridge V2 Xeon processor
• PC-Express SSD
• Silent operation
• Reduced desktop footprint
System specifications - model as reviewed:
• 12-core Intel Xeon E5-2697 v2
• 32GB ECC DDR3 memory
• 512GB PCI-Express SSD
• Dual AMD D700 cards
• OSX Mavericks 10.9.1
• Cinebench R15: 1534
• Geekbench 3 Single Core: 3232
• Geekbench 3 Multi Core: 33150
OpenCL Luxmark (room render): 2153
Check out Apple's store
to order your Mac Pro
For more info on the FirePro graphics cards, click here
Get the benchmark
for your current desktop with cinebench
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