What to Know About the New Mac Pro

| Analysis

Like many Apple customers who bought a Power Mac G5, dual processor, back in 2003 or 2004, mine is finally reaching the end of its lifetime. In my study of the new Mac Pro, I've discovered some interesting things that I want to share.

First, my Power Mac G5 (PMG5), bought in November 2003, has been a real workhorse. That's not to say there haven't been hiccups. I bought it with AppleCare, and at the 2.7 year point in the three 3 year coverage, I had a complete failure of the motherboard and one CPU. My local Apple store replaced the motherboard and both CPUs, invoice cost: ~ US$2,000. Cost to me: zero. It's been working fine, mostly, ever since.

PMG5

Original Power Mac G5

However, little things are starting to go wrong now. One USB port is problematic. The trusty old Mac often has nightmares, forgets to talk to the fans while sleeping, and goes into wind tunnel panic mode. Good thing it can't sleepwalk. The original 160 GB hard disk, almost six years old, can't be trusted for much longer. FireWire 400 drives never did work well on the bus with the original iSight camera, an Apple bug, but I never pursued the issue. So it's time to upgrade.

I had toyed with the idea of an iMac, but my biggest complaint there is that a desktop Mac should have a lot more computing power than a notebook. I have been hoping that Apple would introduce a quad core iMac, but it hasn't happened, and now it's show time for me.

The Nehalem Series of CPUs

As I studied the new Mac Pros, I noticed that the Nehalem processor code name is very broad. The Wikipedia article on Nehalem shows the family tree and reveals that the eight core Mac Pro is based on the "Gainestown" 5500 series as follows:

2.26 GHz:  E5520
2.66 GHz:  X5550
2.93 GHz:  X5570

The Gainestown is classified as a server with dual processors (DP), each with four cores, and these Gainestown CPUs are expensive.

The quad core Mac Pro uses the "Bloomfield" line as follows:

2.66 GHz:  W3520
2.93 GHz:  W3540

This uniprocessor (UP) system, with four cores, uses chips that are a lot less expensive.

 

Mac Pro

Mac Pro, Early 2009 (courtesy: Apple)

Memory Configurations

For technical reasons as well as cost reasons, I'm guessing that Apple elected to only put four memory slots in the lower end quad core Mac Pro. With 2 GB DIMMs, one can put a maximum of 8 GB in that system, according to Apple. For unknown reasons, Apple is currently deprecating the 4 GB DIMMs which are, incidentally, a lot more expensive.

My colleague, Ted Lanudau, reports that Other World Computing (OWC), a major reseller of memory, has tried putting 4 GB DIMMs in a quad core Mac Pro, and all is well. That raises the maximum memory to 16 GB, sufficient breathing room for growth if I also keep this Mac for 5+ years like the PMG5.

On the other hand, the eight core high end system has 8 memory slots, and 4 GB DIMMs are not deprecated. So one can put 32 GB of RAM in that system out of the box. I'm monitoring closely this mystery regarding the quad core Mac Pro memory.

Display Issues

When I drag iTunes protected video off the display of my MacBook Pro, with a DisplayPort to DVI connector, to the cinema display, I get a nastygram. The protected content can't be displayed there. This is part of Apple's sequential move to add DisplayPort for all its Macs to accommodate Hollywood's demands that protected (HD) content be encrypted between the source and destination.

Ted Landau reports that he dragged an HD TV show from his DisplayPort Cinema Display to an external DVI-based Samsung, and the content continued to play. So this is a topic of interest to me. One could save a little money with a nice but inexpensive Samsung 24-inch display for a fraction of the cost of Apple's (awesome) 24-inch LED backlit Cinema display. Time will tell.

I Feel the Need for Speed

My personal rule for upgrading to a new desktop is that the new Mac has to have four times the computational power. I've been monitoring the benchmarks over the years, and the original (indeed even recent) Xeon-based Mac Pros didn't meet that standard for me. Now, however, with the new Mac Pros using an integrated memory controller and bypassing the legacy front side bus (FSB) contention issues of yore, I think that a 2.66 GHz quad core Mac Pro fully meets the standard of four times faster than my dual processor, 2.0 GHz, PowerMac with its IBM PPC 970 CPUs. The original PMG5 sold for $1,999, so the new quad core Mac Pro is roughly in the same price class.

In fact, when Snow Leopard ships, with the aid of Grand Central (better, easier CPU threads) and OpenCL (using the graphics processor as an extra core) there's no doubt now that the quad core Mac Pro and Snow Leopard are on my hot list for the summer of 2009.

When Apple announces new computers, there's a lot of marketing glitz and emphasis on new technologies -- on a surface level. However, it's not a bad idea to wait just a bit, let the Internet bubble up with deeper info and dig into the details. There are always tradeoffs, like the ones I've described above, to be aware of.

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Comments

pata

Thanks, John, for the info.  It looks like we share the same requirements for computer hardware.

I do wonder, though, why heat dissipation of the CPU’s is not mentioned:
Bloomfield burns off almost 40% more Watts than Gainestown.

Drew

It’s interesting that your G5 had a major failure just prior to the Applecare expiration. My G5 also died with similar sounding issues (fans on full locked up in sleep mode, processors disappearing), but this was 2 months after the Applecare expired, so Apple couldn’t care less.
There are quite a few reports of other G5’s dying too on various Mac forums.

It makes me question if we are actually buying Macs that last longer than the Applecare coverage, or if it was that the G5’s were just pushing too many limits.

I’m torn between getting a lower end mac or a Mac Pro because the length of life of the ‘Professional’ Macs doesn’t seem very long recently.

Tiger

I received my MacPro last Friday and set it up Monday, migrating from a dying MDD Dual 1.2GHz G4 tower. Seriously dying. Cycling power to USB and Firewire ports, etc. Comes from the capacitors in the power supply expanding and ultimately failing.

But come in, it was 7 years old and had been through 3 moves, dirty power in our building, and a lot of on-hours.

My new MacPro is a Quad 2.66 unit (3520 processr) and came with 6 G of Ram. I’ll likely had the last 2 G myself and settle for 8. That’s double what the G4 had. Smokin’!

The migration from the G4 to the MP was flawless in delivery, though process was a challenge. I didn’t have the correct FW 800 to 400 adapter, so I used an ethernet cable. Interesting setup to do that, you load certain software from the MP install disk onto the G4 and then connect them. (disk sharing).

The first thing you notice on the MP is it’s noiseless. My G4 sounded like a steam train running all the time. The MP has no noice. It’s very nice.

I do think the ever changing FireWire and display ports is annoying enough for me to scream STOP IT. It took some creative adaptation to get my iSight camera working because I didn’t want to have to buy multiple adapters. I plugged one FW800 adapter cable into the back of the MP and the 400 end into a Combo USB/Firewire Hub and the camera into the hub. That worked. Shouldn’t have, but it did.

The speed is great. I only waited 7 years for a new machine. This one will last me that long too. (And since I’m told the processors are socketed, they can be upgraded!)

I’m all about upgrading.

John Martellaro

pata: I’m guessing the lower heat output is one feature that contributes to the Gainestown’s enormous price.

-J.M.

geoduck

migrating from a dying MDD Dual 1.2GHz G4 tower. Seriously dying. Cycling power to USB and Firewire ports, etc. Comes from the capacitors in the power supply expanding and ultimately failing.

I have the same MDD 1.25Ghz DP system. So far the old beast been solid. I never even bothered moving beyond 10.4. Mostly we use it to house the ever growing iPhoto and iTunes libraries so speed isn’t critical.

But thanks for the note. I’ll keep an eye out for the PS strangeness.

pata

John:  The Snow Leopard, Grand Central, Open CL that you mentioned, along with a possible reduction in Xeon 5500 CPU prices are why I’m waiting at least until WWDC before sifting between Quad and Octo. 

Don’t you think the new software might make the Mac Pro Octo worth the price?

These CPU’s are exclusive to Apple and therefore priced at a significant premium.  My guess, anyway.

cgrscott

Your G5 was the first iteration of an all new desktop design.  I think it’s lack of longevety comes from being an early development version of the Dual G5 desktop.  But the G5 was more difficult to cool, from the get-go. 

I think the Mac Pro is now very mature in its refinement of the aluminum desktop tower and it is reasonable to expect it to be more reliable and longer lasting than the very first round of G5 towers.

ptchristy

Thanks, John ... I’m convinced.

I placed an order for a single-CPU in March, but canceled it and ordered a dual-CPU ... 8 GBytes of RAM may be enough, but I don’t want to find out later that it is not. Also, the difference you discovered between the Gainestown and Bloomfield processors was convincing ... there is more of a difference than just the number of processors ... as demonstrated by the price differential!

I also learned the hard way that the Mac Pro RAID card is a limiting item. My canceled system included that card, but delivery was not expected until mid-May. The system I just ordered will be here in before the canceled system I ordered a month ago. I ordered the Mac Pro RAID card separately ... delivery in late-June ... I wonder how long the canceled system would have been delayed if I had waited for that card?

I’m replacing an early-2005 Dual G5 2.7 GHz, which is a liquid-cooled system. No leaks yet, but I’ve been known to neurotically peer into the case with a flashlight ... just in case. I’ll sleep better knowing the Mac Pro has no liquid to leak and work better without a “desktop vacuum cleaner” roaring at me!

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