Apple’s New Mac Pro

df_mp2013_4_smThe run of the brushed aluminum tower design that highlighted Apple’s PowerMac G5 and Intel Mac Pros ended with the introduction of a radical replacement in late 2013. No matter what the nickname – “the cylinder”, “the tube” or whatever – Apple’s new 2013 Mac Pro is a tour de force of industrial design. Few products have had such pent up demand. The long lead times for custom machines originally ran months, but by now, with accelerated production, has been reduced to 24 hours. Nevertheless, if you are happy with a stock configuration, then it’s possible to walk out with a new unit on the same day at some of the Apple Store or reseller retail locations.

Design

The 2013 Mac Pro features a cylindrical design. It’s about ten inches tall, six-and-a-half inches in diameter and, thanks to a very dense component construction, weighs about eleven 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 and not mobile or desktop products, as used in the Apple laptops or iMacs. It 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 and graphics cards are AMD FirePro GPUs. This Xeon model is a multicore, single CPU chip. Four processor options are offered (4, 6, 8 and 12-core), ranging in speed from 3.7GHz (4-core) to 2.7GHz (12-core). RAM can be maxed out to a full 64GB. It is the only component of the Mac Pro where a user-installed, third-party upgrade is an easy option.

The Mac Pro is optimized for dual graphics processors with three GPU choices: D300 (2GB VRAM each), D500 (3GB VRAM each) or D700 (6GB VRAM each) GPUs. Internal storage is PCIe-based flash memory in 256GB, 512GB or 1TB configurations. These are not solid state drives (SSDs), but rather flash storage like that used in the iPads. 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).

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 32GB of RAM, dual D700 GPUs and 512GB of storage. This configuration with a keyboard, mouse and AppleCare extended warranty would retail at $7,166.

Connectivity

df_mp2013_5_smAll connectors 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 have multiple Thunderbolt monitors connected, as well as a 4K display via the HDMI spigot, however you will want to separate these onto the different buses. For example, you wouldn’t be able to support two 27” Apple displays and a 4K HDMI-connected monitor all on one single Thunderbolt bus. However, 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 Display Port, 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 10Gb/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 20Gb/s. You can daisy-chain Thunderbolt devices and it is 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.

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.) This might also include a USB hub. For example, I have more than four USB-connected devices on my current 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 tougher dilemma is if you need to accommodate current PCIe cards, such as a RED Rocket accelerator card, a FibreChannel adapter or a mini-SAS/eSATA card. In that case, a Thunderbolt 2 expansion unit will be required. One such solution is the Sonnet Technologies Echo Express III-D expansion chassis.

Mac Pro as your main edit system

df_mp2013_2_smI 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 just a 2013 Mac Pro sitting on your desk with nothing else, other than a Thunderbolt monitor, that’s not the real world of post. If you are evaluating one of these as your next 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 put a lot of video media on a 1TB (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 an Apple 27” display, the Sharp 32” UHD monitor, a Promise Pegasus2 R6 12TB RAID, plus a few other peripherals, like speakers, audio i/o, docks and adapters. This bumps the total to over $15K. Granted, I’ve pretty much got a full system that will last me for years. The point is, that it’s important to look at all the ramifications when you compare the new Mac Pro over a loaded iMac or a MacBook Pro or simply upgrading a recently-purchased Mac Pro tower.

Real world performance

df_mp2013_6_smMost of the tests promoting the new Mac Pro have focused on 4K video editing. That’s coming and the system is certainly good for it, but that’s not what most people encounter today. Editors deal with a mix of media, formats, frame rates, frame sizes, etc. I ran a set of identical tests on the 2013 Mac Pro and on my own 2009 Mac Pro tower. That’s an eight-core (dual 4-core Xeons) 2.26GHz model with 28GB of RAM. The current video card is a single NVIDIA Quadro 4000 and my media is on an internal two-drive (7200RPM 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, but possibly better than with externally-connected drives.

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

df_mp2013_3_smTo 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 this as a 5K ProRes 4444 file. The older tower accomplished this in 1:47, while the new Mac Pro smoked it in just :19. My After Effects timeline 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 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 4-12fps (depending on the clip) on the tower versus 15-40fps on the new Mac Pro.

df_mp2013_1_smIn general, all operations with applications were more responsive. This is, of course, true with any solid state storage. 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 totally devoted 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. It also takes a trick to get it 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 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 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 service your needs for the next five years, then it’s the ideal choice.

(Note: This unit was tested prior to the release of 10.9.3, so I didn’t encounter any of the render issues that have been plaguing Adobe and DaVinci users.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine/CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters