Apple Mac Pro: Australian Review

Apple Mac Pro: Australian Review

[clear] There hasn’t been a properly new Mac Pro for a very long time. The original Mac OS X workstation for creative professionals — video editors, commercial photographers, 3D animators — was released in 2006, and the giant cheese grater suffered a ploddingly slow upgrade cycle that meant that plenty of its former fanboys jumped ship to iMacs, MacBooks Pro or Windows boxes. But the Mac Pro is back, it’s better, and now there’s actually no reason not to buy one.

The new Apple Mac Pro is just stunning. It doesn’t look remotely like any computer I’ve ever used before. Straight out of the box, it’s surprisingly small and surprisingly unobtrusive; it may have a beautiful, perfectly curved aluminium shell finished in a very high gloss metallic black paint, but even sitting in the middle of a room it doesn’t draw the eye in the same way that a big hulking machine like the MSI GT70 laptop does.

A note on the photos in this review — the Mac Pro is black. But it’s also very reflective, and I photographed it in a room with a white ceiling and blue walls. That’s why it doesn’t look as lustrous as Apple’s product renderings.

The entire body of the Mac Pro, to the casual observer, could just be machined from a single solid billet of metal. It’s solid, it’s smooth, there are no visible edges, and it’s very pretty. Sure, it picks up fingerprints like nobody’s business, and it doesn’t even have a visible power button at first glance, but this is a Mac that is designed to sit up on a shelf, away from peeking eyes and prying hands — it’s not made to be manhandled like a MacBook Air. I found that out first-hand when the machined lower air intake edges sliced my finger open.

[clear] The attention to detail, in true Apple fashion, extends as far as the ordering of ports on the rear of the Pro; the 240V power socket is at the base of the I/O panel, the mandatory HDMI video output is just above that next to the power button, then there’s twin Gigabit LAN ports (very important for serious production houses with SAN storage), then there’s the three-by-two array of six Thunderbolt 2 ports, then there’s four USB 3.0 ports, then headphone and line-level audio output 3.5mm jacks. Everything is organised in terms of priority — how often it’ll be used, and how long it’ll be plugged it when it is used.

Having so many Thunderbolt 2 ports — and the ability to daisy-chain suitably compatible Thunderbolt 2 devices with each other — means that the Mac Pro is capable of being a multi-display, multi-storage video processing powerplant. You could run three 4K monitors off the Mac Pro, hook up a Promise RAID for a Final Cut Pro X scratch drive, and import video from an external Elgato Thunderbolt SSD, all using the Mac Pro’s own Thunderbolt inputs, and still have one to spare. USB 3.0 seems almost superfluous — it’s definitely an inferior connection standard — but we see it being used more for input devices than high-speed storage.

Unseen but not unwelcome is three-channel 802.11ac Wi-Fi, with antennas hidden inside the Mac Pro’s body — with a suitable wireless router, it’s incredibly fast, and means that if you’re in a business that doesn’t have wired Ethernet cables set up to every workstation, like a production house that relies on MacBook Pros, accessing networked storage is perfectly quick for everything but the most demanding use cases.

Unlock the Mac Pro’s case — there’s a single sliding latch on the back, near the workstation’s vertically stacked inputs — and things just keep getting better. Every track of copper, wafer of silicon and printed circuit board inside the Pro is bespoke; unlike the previous Mac Pro, there’s no off-the-shelf hardware in the new cylinder, apart from an Intel Xeon processor and some super-fast RAM.

Apple Mac Pro: Australian Review

[clear] Certain components are designed to be easily user-removable and user-replaceable; press a single switch and you’re able to access each pair of RAM slots. A single Torx screw holds the PCI-E solid state drive in place; if you’ve got a massive Final Cut project ready to deliver, pulling out the Mac Pro’s SSD and couriering it interstate might just be the quickest way to deliver it.

At the top of the Mac Pro, though, is the crowning glory of the entire system — and it’s almost invisible. It’s not user-accessible, but hidden away in the central cylinder of the Mac Pro is a longitudinal blower exhaust fan, pulling cool air in at the raised base of the Mac Pro, drawing it past the hot sides of every heat-expelling component (the single CPU and dual GPUs, in this machine’s case).

Apple Mac Pro: Australian Review

[clear] It’s slightly surprising that such powerful components don’t require specialised water-cooling or a more outrageously large air-cooling system, but it works incredibly effectively — even in the heat of a third sequential Geekbench benchmark run, or while exporting a hundred 24-megapixel JPEG files from RAW in Adobe Lightroom, the Mac Pro’s exhaust fan was barely audible. If you had any ambient noise in your office — a desk fan, some colleagues talking, music playing — you wouldn’t hear the Mac Pro, even hard at work.

My test Mac Pro was the mid-range model — using an Intel Xeon E5-1680 V2 8-core processor, 32GB of 1866MHz DDR3 RAM, a single 1TB PCI-Express soid-state drive, and twin AMD FirePRO D700 workstation graphics cards. You can actually adjust the configuration of the Mac Pro significantly, if you have the disposable income; the base 6-core model starts at $3999 and the completely upgraded 12-core system, sans accessories, costs an eye-watering $12029. This might seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to competing digital edit suites like Avid.

Apple Mac Pro: Australian Review

[clear] The Mac Pro is even portable, in its own odd way. If you have access to a HDMI- or Thunderbolt-capable display at your destination, it’s really quite easy to unplug the Pro, sling it into a backpack with its wireless keyboard and trackpad, and carry it around. The top lip, with a bit of airspace between the top of the aluminium cover and the Mac Pro’s blower fan housing, makes for a surprisingly useful handle.

The entire Mac monolith doesn’t weigh more than 5kg — that might not sound like a lot, but it’s probably about a quarter of the bulk of a previous-gen Pro tower. To put it in perspective, if you were a freelance creative professional travelling around the world regularly, you could dump the Mac Pro in your carry-on for an international flight.

Apple’s Mac OS X Mavericks operating system, as with all other new Macs, is pre-installed on the Mac Pro. Setup is a very short process — hook up keyboard and trackpad over Bluetooth, enter your Wi-Fi details if you’re not using Ethernet, enter your existing Apple ID (because if you’re buying a new Mac Pro, chances are you already have an Apple ID), and in around a minute, you’re set up and ready to go.

Apple Mac Pro: Australian Review

[clear] One problem with benchmarking the Mac Pro using regular synthetic testing software is that because its processor is so multi-cored and multi-threaded, and because it runs two hugely powerful graphics cards in parallel, and everything runs through OS X’s Grand Central Dispatch, is just a bit pointless. It’s a piece of hardware that has to be used to be appreciated — I never felt like I was pushing the Mac Pro especially hard at any point in this review.

Geekbench, for example, doesn’t entirely accurately summarise the Mac Pro’s overall performance with a single number, because it can’t take the massive parallel graphics processing grunt into account. Nonetheless, I ran my regular suite of Mac benchmarking software to see how this particular mid-range workstation performed.

Apple Mac Pro: Performance

Overall: Geekbench: 25820 Novabench: 1387 CPU: Cinebench: 1583 Cinebench (OpenGL): 78FPS Storage: Blackmagic Disk Speed Test (Read): 979MBps Blackmagic Disk Speed Test (Write): 888Mbps

These results only go the smallest way to demonstrating the outright power of the Mac Pro. The Blackmagic test especially is pessimistic; Apple rates the 1TB drive at up to 1500MBps peak transfer speeds. Perhaps the best indication of this PC’s power is the fact that no matter what you’re doing — cutting and editing and adding transitions and graphics to 4K and 1080p video in Final Cut Pro X, churning through edited RAW libraries in Aperture or Lightroom for Mac, or even loading a dozen different apps and then casually browsing the Web — the Mac Pro just never shows any hint of slowing down. It doesn’t raise a sweat, and it doesn’t even bother to raise the speed of its internal fan.

Apple Mac Pro: Australian Review

[clear] The Mac Pro I tested, at just $9269, is actually incredibly good value. Hear me out, because I really mean that. The 8-core Intel Xeon E5-1680 V2 is a US$1723 chip if you buy it direct from the guys at Santa Clara, the dual AMD FirePro D700 workstation graphics cards have a desktop equivalent in the W9000 that is US$3635 (so add two to the list), there’s a terabyte of ridiculously fast flash-based storage, a huge amount of incredibly fast RAM, an incredibly effective and quiet unified cooling solution, and you just can’t put a price tag on that amazing Darth Vader-esque cylindrical shell.

There’s really no significant Apple Tax on this machine — you couldn’t build a competitive Hackintosh with much change left over, and even if you could, it’d still be stuck whirring away in a big ugly black desktop tower. Speaking of fake taxes, there is a decent Australia Tax premium on the Mac Pro that disappoints us. Australians are being slugged roughly $300 extra on the pre-configured Mac Pro models after currency conversion and GST.

Interestingly enough, Apple doesn’t include a keyboard or mouse with the Mac Pro — faintly ridiculous for any machine that costs over $5000. Think about it for a second, though, and it makes sense — anyone buying a Mac Pro will already have specific preferences for a specialised keyboard or trackpad or trackball or other interface that they’ll use for their professional tasks, and a bundled set of input devices would just end up stashed away in a drawer or cupboard somewhere. And, for the design tragics, it’s also obvious as soon as you set the Mac Pro up that its finish doesn’t really suit the bright aluminium and white accents of Apple’s consumer-friendly peripherals — so why bother?

Apple Mac Pro: Australian Review

[clear] The Apple Mac Pro is a fascinating device. It’s a supremely impressive piece of industrial design that’s also priced out of most buyers’ reach. It’s a hugely powerful workstation that’s almost too powerful; it certainly proved overkill for my regular daily photo editing and a quick dabble with some 4K and timelapse test footage. If I had the money, and had the need, I really would consider buying one.