Mac Pro options put to the test

The Mac Pro is perhaps Apple's most customizable computer to date; here's how memory, hard drive, and graphics card changes affect its performance

Mac users seem to have more choices than ever when it comes to configuring Apple hardware. Sure, in the past, you could often add a hard drive here or extra RAM there, but now a bevy of options are yours for the choosing, as Macworld Lab discovered when we tested a tricked-out MacBook Pro. We're turning our attention back to the assorted add ons available for Apple's desktop offerings, specifically the Mac Pro. As customizable as the MacBook Pro proved to be, we've found the Mac Pro to be perhaps the most configurable Mac ever to come out of Cupertino.

Let's start by considering the Mac Pro's standard configuration. The desktop comes with a pair of quad-core Intel Xeon processors; all eight cores run at 2.8GHz. The $2,799 desktop ships with 2GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon 2600 XT graphics card with 256MB of video memory, and a 320GB 7200 RPM SATA hard drive.

That's where the customization options come into play. You have three different processor choices -- a four-core 2.8GHz model for $500 off the base price; an eight-core 3GHz option for an extra $800; or an eight-core 3.2GHz chip that costs an extra $1,600.

You can also pick from two other graphics card configurations--an Nvidia GeForce 8800GT with twice the video memory of the standard ATI Radeon card for an additional cost of $200 or an Nvidia Quadro FX 5600 boasting 1.5GB of video memory. That particular add costs a paltry $2,850, or $51 more than the standard configuration Mac Pro. (We couldn't get our hands on the Quadro for this round of testing, but rest assured that we are now obsessed with obtaining one.)

The Mac Pro offers eight RAM slots capable of holding either 1GB or 2GB memory modules, you can upgrade from the machine's standard 2GB RAM up to 4GB, 8GB, or even 16GB. And while you were already able to add up to three extra hard drives, the new Mac Pro offers an optional SAS-based (Serial Attached SCSI) hardware RAID card (priced at $800) capable of running four internal SAS drives ($650 for the first to replace the standard SATA drive and $800 for each additional drive), each spinning more than twice as fast as the 7,200 RPM hard drive in the base model.

For this round of tests we've focused on individual upgrades available for the base model--testing the memory, hard drive, and graphics options separately and together. We also included the highest-priced, highest-performance Mac we've ever tested: a $9,949 behemoth with four SAS drives in a RAID 0 (striped) configuration, 8GB of RAM, the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics card, and eight processing cores running at 3.2GHz. That system became the first ever to earn a Speedmark 5 score above 400.

Here's what we found in testing each of the Mac Pro's assorted customization options.

As with our MacBook Pro testing, adding memory to a system only boosts performance in a couple of our individual tests -- namely, the Photoshop actions suite test and unzipping a 2GB file.

When we tested the standard configuration Mac Pro equipped with 2GB of memory, the system took 49 seconds to complete the Photoshop tasks. With 8GB of RAM, the system took 29 percent less time, clocking in at just 35 seconds. Unzipping the 2GB file took 1 minute 12 seconds with 2GB of RAM, but only 33 seconds with the 8GB of RAM installed.

The benefit of additional RAM often becomes clear when working with multiple applications simultaneously. To see the effect of this increased RAM on our Mac Pro's performance, we ran our Professional Multitask suite, timing our Photoshop actions script while using Compressor to encode a movie and Cinema 4D to render a scene at the same time. In the Multitask test, the standard system took 1 minute, 4 seconds. The same system with 8GB of RAM took just 48 seconds, or 25 percent less time, to complete the tests.

Hard drives
For the first time in a long time -- if not ever -- Apple offers a hardware RAID card as a build-to-order option on a product outside of its Xserve line. The Mac Pro RAID Card can support four internal SAS or SATA drives. It also supports many different RAID levels and includes a battery that can help you escape a power outage without data loss.

We installed four of the 300GB, 15,000RPM SAS drives in a RAID 0 (striped) configuration in our otherwise standard 2.8GHz Mac Pro. In our finder tests, we saw very impressive file duplication times, 11 seconds to duplicate a 1GB folder with the SAS RAID vs 31 seconds with the single SATA drive. And even though adding RAM alone didn't affect file duplications times, pairing it with the SAS RAID took another 3 seconds off of the time.

The base system with the RAID was faster at just about everything, but especially at unzipping a 2GB archive, exporting an iMovie to Quicktime's e-mail presets, and importing JPEGS into iPhoto. Compressor and HandBrake were also faster, just not by as much. In fact the only performance drawback we found was the RAID system's long startup time -- it took about 70 seconds to boot up with the SAS RAID installed instead of 27 seconds with the standard 320GB SATA hard drive spinning inside.

As impressive as that overall performance may be, few among us would be willing to pay the extra $3,850 for snappier file duplication. No, for that kind of monetary investment, you'd likely be making a living using demanding professional applications. When we ran our Professional Multitasking Suite on the standard configuration with the SAS RAID installed, the configured system was 33 percent faster at completing the task -- more of a performance increase than running the standard system with 320GB SATA drive and 8GB RAM.

We also ran a Final Cut test where we looked to see how many ProRes-encoded video streams we could play simultaneously in a multiclip configuration. In this test, the base system was able to play two clips at once, but began sputtering and dropping frames when trying to add a third. Bumping the RAM up in the base configuration to 8GB, we were able to run that third clip. Once we installed the Mac Pro RAID Card and the four SAS drives, we were able to run the maximum allowed 16 clips at once. Few may ever need that capability, but don't you feel better knowing that you could if you wanted to?

We've already reported on the performance differences between the ATI Radeon 6600 XT and the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT, but in summary, the Nvidia wasn't as fast as the ATI in our Unreal Tournament testing. UT is an older game, but we continue to include it due to its compatibility with a wide range of systems.

In newer games, like Doom and Quake, the GeForce proved to be a much stronger gaming card, pushing through 41 more frames per second in our Doom 3 test and about 9.5 more frames per second in Quake. The graphics card is not a player, performance-wise, in the rest of our Speedmark tests.

All together now
In terms of Speedmark performance, the standard configuration earned a score of 301. Upgrading the RAM to 8GB increased the score by about 6 percent. Adding just the SAS RAID to the standard configuration boosted performance by 24 percent. Upgrading the standard configuration's processor to the 3.2GHz eight-core Xeon boosted Speedmark performance by nearly 9 percent. And as mentioned above, adding the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT doesn't help a system's Speedmark score.

So what happens when you add it all together? Well, our system with the fastest-possible Xeon processors, four-drive SAS RAID 0, bumped-up memory, and upgraded graphic card raised the Speedmark score by 36 percent, or 107 points, over the standard configuration. For $9,949, you get the first Mac to ever break the 400-mark on our Speedmark tests, making it the fastest machine we've ever tested. Whether that's worth nearly $10,000 -- especially when you consider that the $2,799 Mac Pro is not exactly a slouch in the performance department -- depends entirely on your perspective.

James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.

This story, "Mac Pro options put to the test" was originally published by Macworld.