Nehalem Mac Pro: The Mac reborn

This isn't merely the ultimate Mac, but an impossibly idealistic concept for a fast, green, silent, rugged, expandable, and affordable top-end workstation, made real

You can't tell from the outside that Apple's new two-socket, eight-core Mac Pro, based on Intel's new Nehalem Xeon CPU, is much changed from the two-socket, quad-core Mac Pro that preceded it. The only giveaway? One front panel FireWire port has been upped from 400Mbps to 800Mbps.

If Apple hewed to PC tradition, that port, and the swapped-in Nehalem guts, would be the headline changes to the platform. Nehalem Mac Pro could get my attention, and the attention of the top echelon of Mac users, with that alone. What completely blows me away is that Nehalem Mac Pro is a reengineering of the entire Mac Pro platform, the 2006 edition of which set a bar for build quality that nothing in its price class can touch.

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Apple used Nehalem as an occasion to build the ideally fast and modern Mac, but it didn't stop there. In the new Mac Pro, Apple also created a computing platform that satisfies a combination of criteria that buyers only dream of demanding: Toxin-free, recyclable, quiet, low power, rugged, transportable, field-repairable, upgradable without tools, broadly configurable, internally and externally expandable, and the kicker, affordable.

Nehalem certainly deserves its due. It is thoroughly modernized with on-chip memory controllers, three-level cache, and a point-to-point bus design. The 1066MHz DDR3 RAM is the fastest memory yet made. Based on Apple's numbers, it looks like Nehalem packs 50 to 90 percent more firepower into the Mac Pro chassis compared to prior and current top configurations. The arrival of Intel's world-class architecture couldn't be more timely. Nehalem Mac Pro is a hand-in-glove fit for the full 64-bit Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6) that will put Mac Pro on par with two-processor RISC Unix workstations.

[ The Mac wins! See Where does Intel's Nehalem get its juice? and the InfoWorld Test Center's reviews: MacBook Pro is built to last, Mac OS X Leopard: A perfect 10, and Leopard Server: The people's Unix. ]

I'm embarking on a full review, with performance testing, of the top-end Nehalem Mac Pro now, but I got an early look at a more basic Mac Pro config expressly so that I could share some of the more remarkable aspects of the platform. Some of the enhancements are new, and some continue along the path set by the original Mac Pro, but in combination, they afford owners a unique level of flexibility and investment protection. And they mark the new Mac Pro as wildly different.

Like the Mac Pro before it, Nehalem Mac Pro is loaded with I/O. This front panel has a headphone jack, along with two USB 2.0 ports and two 800Mbps FireWire ports. There are three more USB 2.0 ports, two more FireWire 800 ports, stereo line in and out, TOSLINK optical digital audio in and out, and two gigabit Ethernet ports around back. One day, these 800Mbps FireWire ports will be killer conduits to external storage, but cables and adapters for 400Mbps peripherals are available.

Mac Pro has four internal, side-facing 3.5-inch SATA drive bays. Empty bays are filled with aluminum drive trays in which you can mount raw SATA drives. Hard drives and PCI Express 2 expansion cards plug into Mac Pro the same way, by being inserted into backplane sockets. There are no loose hard drive cables in the system or in the drive trays, just SATA plug headers stuck right onto the logic board that mate directly with the drives. Inserting and removing drive trays requires no tools, and is so easy that you may, as I do, treat these as removable storage.

In addition to the SATA hard drive bays, there is a front-facing bay for a second 5.25-inch, half-height optical drive. I have not tested this assumption, but I suppose you could mount another SATA hard drive in there using a standard mounting bracket. That, by the way, is the only expansion operation that might require you to look at a cable, much less handle one. Connections between system logic boards are made via short headers, none of which you need to mess with. Getting rid of all that cable helped Apple get the toxins out of Mac Pro's recipe.

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The bit that took my breath away, not only for its elegance but for its implications, is the processor tray. One lightweight tray holding the CPUs and RAM is the most easily removed module in this fully modular system. With this arrangement, it takes Apple no time at all to custom-build a Mac Pro to your specifications. It takes you no time at all to reprovision (i.e., swap trays among machines according to need) or effect repairs on-site without moving machines or pulling cables.

As I see it, the tray also allows Apple to track Intel's tick-tock architecture updates without subjecting the entire system to another redesign, or subjecting Mac Pro buyers to requirements for unique spare parts. Anything that Intel changes, even the size of the socket or the speed of the RAM, should be limited to the processor tray.

This is the sort of forward-looking, longevity-focused engineering invested in very high end systems. If my take is right, then the 2009 Nehalem Mac Pro hardware platform, once purchased, is one that should stay stable and upgradable until, say, PCI Express 3 becomes an imperative.

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