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Test Drive: MacBook Pro vs. Mac Pro, Part 1

Mac Pro

Although I”m more technology geek than journalist, I love a good scoop just as much as they do at The Washington Post or The New York Times. Sometimes, however, you pick a subject, do your research, and dog does, in fact, bite man and Goliath beats David in an early first-round knockout. Such is the case here, where we tested a single-processor, dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo-based Apple MacBook Pro notebook against a dual-processor, dual-core Xeon-based Mac Pro workstation, and the workstation proved faster in all trials—sometimes nearly twice as fast.

 
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Test Drive: MacBook Pro vs. Mac Pro, Part 2

Just to get you up to speed, let”s review. This article attempts to contrast and compare the video editing experience on an Apple MacBook Pro notebook computer and dual-processor, dual-core Mac Pro desktop. In the last installment, I detailed each computer”s specs, discussed the difference in screen size and disk capacity and the like…

That said, if you cut your teeth in the analog days, when it took a real workstation to capture and edit video, you”ll be very pleasantly surprised to see how far notebook computers have progressed since those bygone days. If you”re forced to take your editing act on the road, you might also be wondering how the editing experience changes from desktop to notebook, and when it might make sense to box up your desktop and send it on location.

This article will start by describing the two test computers, spending a bit of time on their respective components with some historical perspective on the progress made over the last few years. Then, in the next installment, I”ll detail how the two computers performed in trials performed with both Apple Final Cut Studio and Adobe Production Premium CS3, and provide some tips for editing while on the road.

MacBook Pro

Our Contestants

Our Desktop system was a Mac Pro with two 3GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon processors with 8GB of 667MHz DDR2 RAM, equipped with an ATI Radeon X1900 graphics card driving one 23in. Cinema display, with the preview monitor driven by the Matrox MXO. Both the Radeon and MXO monitors could produce up to 1920×1200 resolution. The system came with four 465GB Western Digital drives, one for the system drive, and three set up in RAID configuration.

The notebook computer was a MacBook Pro, driven by a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, with 4GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM. The graphics chip is an NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor with dual-link DVI support and 256MB of GDDR3 SDRAM, with a 17in. display that maxed out at 1680×1050 and a 150 GB serial-ATA drive.

Core 2 Duo

The Historical Perspective

To understand how laptops and desktops compare, let”s break the computer into its most relevant components, which are CPU, hard disk, graphics, and display. Only two or three years ago, most notebook computers trailed desktops significantly in most—if not all—components. Today, there”s much greater parity between the two, which obviously levels the performance playing field.

Let”s start with the CPU. Prior to 2005 or so, most notebooks used underpowered CPUs to meet power and heat requirements unique to portable devices. However, these CPUs not only lacked the performance for serious editing, they were also single threaded, which meant they could only handle one task at a time. Try to check email while rendering that MPEG-2 file, and you”d be in for a long wait.

The tide turned significantly with the introduction of Intel”s Core 2 Duo processor line, a completely new “dual-core” platform that ran cool with low power consumption. For the first time, notebooks and desktops could use the processor, which meant very similar, if not equivalent performance, an unprecedented dynamic.

Xeon

Soon after the Core 2 Duo announcement, however, Intel launched a new generation of Xeon processors such as those that drive the Mac Pro. At a high level, the Xeon is based on the same processor technology as the Core 2 Duo with a couple of key differences. Xeons have faster input/output, a larger internal cache and run at a faster clock speed. Probably most significantly, Xeons can be configured in multiple processor systems, while the Core 2 Duo can”t. This makes the Xeon a natural for workstations like the Mac Pro.

In most instances, a 3GHz Xeon will outperform a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo by 20 percent or more—you can take that to the bank. Interestingly, however, adding another processor to the mix seldom doubles your performance. That”s because applications need to be written (or most often rewritten) to take advantage of multiple processors. In fact, the first multiple processor workstations that appeared years ago usually allowed you to disable one of the processors because most CAD programs that hadn”t been optimized for multiple processors actually ran faster with a single-processor computer.

Actually, when testing workstations in 2006 (see the Test Drive series), I discovered that Adobe Premiere Pro 2 (then PC-only) handled multiple processors awkwardly, and performed some operations faster on a single Core 2 Duo processor than on a dual-processor, dual-core Xeon. So, with Premiere Pro CS3 available (and especially because it’s now compatible with Apple systems), I was interested to see if multi-processor performance had improved, and also how efficient Final Cut Pro is in a multiple-processor environment.

30in. Cinema display

Hard Disk Capacity and Performance

Of course, CPU wasn”t the only factor that disqualified notebooks for serious editing; without sufficient hard disk space, it”s hard to be productive. Older notebooks lacked the space and power capacity for drives capable of editing HDV, but that dynamic is also changing.

With a maximum capacity of 250GB, the MacBook Pro has more than sufficient capacity for even multiple-hour, multiple-camera productions. And, with the same Serial-ATA interface found on most desktops, the read/write speed is clearly adequate even for multiple camera productions, as we”ll see in our next issue.

Not to beat a drum too loudly, but Apple has been the leader in the adoption of FireWire 800, which gives you the fastest possible integrated connection to affordable external drives. In our next edition, we”ll also see how that compares to the USB 2 found on most other notebooks. Of course, you can supplement FireWire 800 with a host of third-party options to other external disk types, such as SATA, but we”ll leave further comparative tests of SATA vs. FireWire 800 for another day.

Graphics and Display

In terms of graphics, the MacBook Pro comes with an Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor with dual-link DVI support and 256MB of GDDR3 SDRAM, which is more than enough processor for straight video editing. Unless you”re doing extreme 3D design work or using multiple 3D effect plug-ins, you probably won”t notice the difference between the MacBook Pro and a Mac Pro equipped with an Nvidia Quadro FX card.

On the other hand, the MacBook Pro”s 17in., 1680×1050 display is definitely dwarfed by Apple”s 23in. Cinema display, and if you”ve upgraded to the 30in. display, working on the road will be positively depressing. There are some software tweaks you can make to improve the experience somewhat, but unless you carry your LCD panels with you, the size of your notebook display will be significantly smaller than what you”re used to.

What We Tested

To set up what you”ll read about in a couple of weeks, let me tell you what I tried to measure with my tests. Basically, rendering performance is fairly easy to test, and certainly there will be plenty of that. On the other hand, you typically spend much more time editing than rendering, which you can do at night and on weekends. So I also tried to assess the difference in subjective experience afforded by the two platforms—although obviously these results are more subjective.

For the record, my main Premiere Pro project was a four camera, mixed format concert shoot, which I mixed with Premiere”s multicamera tool and burned to SD DVD. On Final Cut Pro, I edited a single-camera concert shoot and interview. Check Part 2 for the results of my tests.

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