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Form and Function: Apple’s Mac Pro Accelerates Post Performance

The run of the brushed aluminum tower design that highlighted Apple’s Power Mac G5 and Intel Mac Pro ended with the introduction of a radical replacement in late 2013

The run of the brushed aluminum tower design that highlighted Apple’s Power Mac G5 and Intel Mac Pro ended with the introduction of a radical replacement in late 2013. No matter what the nickname—“the cylinder,” “the tube,” “the trashcan” and others—Apple’s 2013 Mac Pro is a tour de force of industrial design. Few products have been released to such pent-up demand, and Apple has been able to lower lead time on built-to-order machines to 24 hours. If you are happy with a stock configuration, then it’s possible to walk out of some of the Apple Stores or reseller retail locations with a new unit right away.

Design

The 2013 Mac Pro features a cylindrical design. It’s about 10 inches tall, 6.5 inches wide and, thanks to a very dense component construction, weighs about 11 pounds. The outer shell—it’s actually a sleeve that can be unlocked and lifted off—uses a dark (not black) reflective coating. Internally, the circuits are mounted onto a triangle-shaped core. There’s a central vent system that draws air in through the bottom and out through the top, much like a chimney. You can still mount the Mac Pro sideways without issue, as long as the vents are not blocked. This design keeps the unit quiet and cool most of the time. During my tests, the fan noise was quieter than my tower (generally a pretty quiet unit) and the fans never kicked into high.

Despite the small size, all components are workstation-class, not the mobile or desktop modules used in Apple laptops and iMacs. The Mac Pro employs the fastest memory and storage of any Mac and is designed to pick up where the top-of-the-line iMac leaves off. The processors are Intel Xeon instead of Core i5 or Core i7 CPUs. This Xeon model is a multicore, single CPU chip. Four processor options are offered (4, 6, 8 and 12-core), ranging in speed from 3.7 GHz (4-core) to 2.7 GHz (12-core). RAM maxes out at 64 GB. RAM is the only component of the Mac Pro where a user-installed third-party upgrade is an easy option.

Graphics cards are dual AMD FirePro GPUs. There are three GPU options: D300 (2 GB VRAM each), D500 (3 GB VRAM each) or D700 (6 GB VRAM each). Internal storage is PCIe-based Flash memory in 256 GB, 512 GB or 1 TB configurations. These are not solid-state drives (SSDs), but rather Flash storage like that used in Apple’s iPad. Storage is connected directly to the PCIe bus of the Mac Pro for the fastest possible data I/O. The stock models start at $2,999 (4-core) and $3,999 (6-core).

Side by side, the new Mac Pro takes up a significantly smaller footprint than the machine it replaces.

Apple shipped me a reviewer’s unit configured in a way that they feel is the “sweet spot” for high-end video. My Mac Pro was the 8-core model, with 32 GB of RAM, dual AMD FirePro D700 GPUs and 512 GB of storage. This configuration with a keyboard, mouse and AppleCare extended warranty would retail at $7,166.

Connectivity

All connections are on the back: four USB 3.0, six Thunderbolt 2, two Gigabit Ethernet and one HDMI 1.4. There is also wireless, Bluetooth, headset and speaker support. The six Thunderbolt 2 ports are split out from three internal Thunderbolt 2 buses, with the bottom bus also taking care of the HDMI port.

You can connect multiple Thunderbolt monitors, as well as a 4K display via the HDMI spigot, but you will want to separate these onto different buses. For example, you wouldn’t be able to support two 27” Apple displays and a 4K HDMI-connected monitor on a single Thunderbolt bus, but you can support up to six non-4K displays if you distribute the load across all of the connections. Since the plug for Thunderbolt is the same as Mini DisplayPort (MDP), you can connect nearly any standard computer monitor to these ports if you have the proper plug. For example, I used my 20” Apple Cinema Display, which has a DVI plug, by simply adding a DVI-to-MDP adapter.

The change to Thunderbolt 2 enables faster throughput. The first version of Thunderbolt used two channels of 10 Gb/s data and video, with each channel going in opposite directions. Thunderbolt 2 combines this for two channels going in the same direction, thus a total of 20 Gb/s. You can daisy-chain Thunderbolt devices, and it’s possible to combine Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 devices in the same chain. First generation Thunderbolt devices (such as monitors) should be at the end of the chain so as not to create a bottleneck.

When the Mac Pro is powered on, the back panel is illuminated to highlight the ports.

The USB 3.0 ports will support USB 1.0 and 2.0 devices, but, of course, there is no increase in their speed. There is no legacy support for FireWire or eSATA, so if you want to connect older drives, you’ll need to invest in additional docks, adapters and/or expansion units. (Apple sells a $29 Thunderbolt-to-FireWire 800 adapter.) The list of accessories required for legacy support may also include a USB hub. For example, I have more than four USB-connected devices on my 2009 Mac Pro. The benefit of standardizing on Thunderbolt is that all of the Thunderbolt peripherals will work with any of Apple’s other computers, including MacBook Pros, Minis and iMacs.

The greater dilemma is if you need to accommodate current PCIe cards, such as a RED ROCKET accelerator card, a Fibre Channel adapter or a mini-SAS/eSATA card. In that case, you’ll need a Thunderbolt 2 expansion unit. One such solution is Sonnet Technologies’ Echo Express III-D expansion chassis.

Mac Pro as Your Main Edit System

I work in many facilities, with various vintages of Mac Pro towers. There’s a wide range of connectivity needs including drives, shared storage and peripherals. Although it’s very sexy to think about editing with nothing on your desk but a 2013 Mac Pro and a Thunderbolt-connected monitor, that’s not the real world of post. If you are evaluating a Mac Pro workstation as a possible investment, consider what you must add. First and foremost is storage. Flash storage and SSDs are great for performance, but you’re never going to get a lot of video media on a 1 TB (or smaller) drive. Then you’ll need monitors and most likely adapters or expansion products for any legacy connection.

I priced out the same unit I’m reviewing and then factored in a 27” Apple display, a 32” Sharp UHD monitor, a Promise Technology Pegasus2 R6 12 TB RAID and a few other peripherals (speakers, audio I/O, docks and adapters). This bumps the total to more than $15K. Granted, I’ve pretty much got a full system that will last me for years. The point is that it’s important to take into account all the options and accessories when comparing the cost of the new Mac Pro to a loaded iMac or a MacBook Pro or to simply upgrading a recently purchased Mac Pro tower.

Real-World Performance

The six Thunderbolt 2 ports are split out from three internal Thunderbolt 2 buses, with the bottom bus also taking care of the HDMI port.

Most of the tests promoting the new Mac Pro have focused on 4K video editing. While the system is certainly good for it, 4K is not what most people encounter today. Editors deal with a mix of media, formats, frame rates and frame sizes.

I ran a set of identical tests on the 2013 Mac Pro and on my own 2009 Mac Pro tower, which is an 8-core (dual 4-core Xeons) 2.26 GHz model with 28 GB of RAM. The video card on the 2009 Mac Pro is a single NVIDIA Quadro 4000 and my media is on an internal two-drive (7,200 rpm eSATA) RAID 0 array. Since I had no external drives connected to the 2013 Mac Pro, all media was playing from and writing to the internal Flash storage. This means that performance would be about as good as you can get, and possibly better than with externally connected drives.

I tested Apple Final Cut Pro X, Apple Motion, Apple Compressor, Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Adobe After Effects CC. Media included RED EPIC 5K camera raw, ARRI Alexa 1080p ProRes 4444, Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K ProRes HQ and more. Most of the sequences included built-in effects and some of the new Red Giant Universe filters.

To summarize the test results, performance—as measured in render or export times—was significantly better on the 2013 Mac Pro. Most of the tests showed a 2x to 3x bump in performance, even with the Adobe products. Naturally FCP X loves the GPU power of this machine.

The “BruceX” test, developed as a benchmark by Alex Gollner for FCP X, consists of a 5K timeline with a series of generators. I exported it as a 5K ProRes 4444 file. The older Mac Pro tower accomplished this export in 1:47, while the new Mac Pro took just 19 seconds.

Blackmagic Design’s Disk Speed Test shows the performance of the internal Flash storage.

My After Effects timeline test consisted of ProRes 4444 clips with a bunch of intensive Cycore filters. The old versus new renders were 23:26 and 12:53, respectively.

I also ran tests with Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 10, another application that loves more than one GPU. These were RED EPIC 5K files in a 1080p timeline. Debayer resolution was set to full (no RED ROCKET card used). The export times ran at 4 to 12 fps (depending on the clip) on the tower versus 15 to 40 fps on the new Mac Pro.

In general, all operations with applications were more responsive on the 2013 Mac Pro. This is true with any solid-state storage, of course. The computer boots faster and applications load and respond more quickly. Plus, more RAM, faster processors and other factors all help to optimize the 2013 Mac Pro for best performance. For example, the interaction between Adobe Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC using the Direct Link and Lumetri filters was noticeably better with the new machine. Certainly that’s true of Final Cut Pro X and Motion, which are ideally suited for it. I would add that using a single 20” monitor connected to the Mac Pro placed very little drag on one GPU, so the second could be devoted exclusively to processing power. Performance might vary if I had two 27” displays, plus a 4K monitor hooked to it.

I also tested Avid Media Composer. This software doesn’t particularly use a lot of GPU processing, so performance was about the same as with my 2009 Mac Pro. I should note that it takes a trick to get Media Composer to work. The 2013 Mac Pro has no built-in audio device, which Media Composer needs to see in order to launch. If you have an audio device connected, such as an Avid Mbox2 Mini or even just a headset with a microphone, then Media Composer detects a core audio device and will launch. I downloaded and installed the free Soundflower software. This acts as a virtual core audio device and can be set as the computer’s audio input in the System Preferences sound panel. Doing so enabled Media Composer to launch and operate normally.

Whether the new 2013 Mac Pro is the ideal tower replacement for you comes down to your budget and many other variables. Rest assured that it’s the best machine Apple has to offer today. Analogies to powerful small packages (like the Mini Cooper or Bruce Lee) are quite apt. The build quality is superb and the performance is outstanding. If you are looking for a machine to serve your needs for the next five years, then it’s the ideal choice.   dv

Product:Apple Mac Pro

Score:

Pros: Powerful performance in a small form factor. Cool and quiet operation. Highly customizable with multiple options for CPU, GPU, RAM and storage. Optimized for 4K video post.

Cons: No internal expandability for storage or PCIe cards. No optical CD/DVD drive. Support for PCIe cards, FireWire and eSATA requires extra expansion units or adapters for connectivity.

Bottom Line: This is a radical new approach to a workstation-class machine. Expandability has been out-boarded to third-party units that connect via the Thunderbolt 2 protocol.

MSRP: Starting at $2,999 (4-core) and $3,999 (6-core).

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