Review: 2013 Mac Pro

2013 Mac Pro
2013 Mac Pro

The 2013 Mac Pro is pretty impressive as a piece of industrial design, inside and out.

But beyond that, as a dedicated Final Cut Pro workstation (which is how Apple likes to demonstrate it) it’s amazing.

This hardware is fast. And I’m not talking about compared to super computers or the PCs some people might (spuriously or not) compare them with. I’m talking about fast for a Mac – I don’t have the resources to run cross-platform comparisons, but I copied a 2GB movie file from a Lexar 16GB thumb drive onto the Mac Pro in 1 minute 27 seconds. Then I duplicated it on the Mac Pro’s internal drive: 4.39 seconds …
But what about for the rest? I mean, sure, you could get one of these to do your email and check Facebook – if you can afford to do that, you can also afford a good head examiner. And that’s what I’d recommend, over buying a 2013 Mac Pro for such simple tasks, if that’s all you want it for.
Because this is the first Mac for a long while that has the upper echelons of computing tasks squarely in frame – it really is for professionals. It can do everything else a Mac can do, of course (professionals need to check emails too) but it’s hardly what you’d buy a Mac Pro for. If you’re sane.

There are some lovely and surprising design touches: for example, the thin white rims around the port groups all light up brightly when you first turn it on, but after a while they turn off so as not to be distracting. The power cord and plug for this unit is black (white, as is normal for Macs, wouldn’t do) but the plug is curved ever so slightly to perfectly fit the curve of the Mac Pro’s body, to sit flush.

The game Borderlands 2 on my 2012 Retina MacBook pro (2.6GHz i7) makes the fans spin up, and stay spinning quite loudly, the whole time it’s open. It’s a bit frustrating because some levels, if you quit out, need starting over from scratch next time you try it, but I don’t like my laptop staying on for hours at full stretch so I can come back to the game and pick up where I left off. Quitting gets the fans back to normal in a minute or so. The MacBook Pro has 16GB RAM and 1GB video card, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference what I change in settings, especially video-wise. Those fans work-out.
But on the Mac Pro – but of course, I would have been very surprised if it did.

iFixit's Mac Pro teardown
iFixit’s Mac Pro teardown

I like asking people what they think of it. My mother in law got quite excited – but that’s because she thought it was a champagne bucket. My brother in law, who designs and builds high-end cabinetry (but isn’t exactly computer-savvy – he still uses a 7-year old white plastic MacBook), said ‘Wow, that’s beautiful. What is it?’ Those who do know what it is are surprised how small it is – jot takes up about an eigth of the volume of the model it replaces.

So how fast is it, actually? On my Geekbench test, the Mac Pro had a single-core score of 3590. That’s more than the 2-core (multicore) score of a 2007 MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo with 4GB RAM), which was 3122. Of course, each core of the new Mac Pro is running at 3GHz, and it’s a much advanced version of the core too: an Intel Xeon E5-1680 v2, with one Processor, eight Cores, and 16 Threads. Multicore, the score is a blistering 25,865. The caches on this thing obviously serve a purpose – some are small but there’s loads of them: L1 Instruction Cache 32Kb (but there are eight of them), and same with the L1 Data Cache. L2 Cache is 245Kb (also x8) but the L3 cache is a rather staggering 25MB.

The latest Haswell-chipped MacBook Pro has 6MB of L3, as does the Haswell i5 iMac I looked at last year. (The new Mac Pro I had for testing had 32GB RAM.)
Before the Mac Pro actually shipped, someone Geekbenched a prototype and posted the figures: 23,901. The model I had to salivate over I mean evaluate actually beat that; Apple may have tweaked a few things before release, or made a little software update that let a bottleneck free-up, or something.
The main reason the new Mac Pro seems so fast is the two AMD FirePro GPUs. They deliver up to eight times the graphical performance of the previous-generation Mac Pros, but they also help out the CPU when needed … but as many have noted, the aluminium tower Mac Pro video cards were well out-of-date by the time Apple stopped selling it.

prior Mac Pro
The prior Mac Pro was much bigger

Critics don’t like the fact there’s not much you can do once you slide the sleek, shiny, sinister-looking case up-and-off. The old Mac Pro had a highly user-welcoming interior space you could open in seconds, and it was full of slots (left). On the new one, all your connectivity is external – but what connectivity! There are six Thunderbolt 2 ports, which combine the two 10GBs channels of Thunderbolt (1) into into a single 20Gbs bi-directional channel. This is ideal for streaming large amounts of data, including 4K video. Thunderbolt 2 can theoretically display 4K video (x3) while simultaneously transferring it at that unified 20 Gbit/s throughput rate. Since up to six Thunderbolt peripherals can be daisy-chained to each port, the Mac Pro can actually support up to 36 Thunderbolt devices … all at once. Once the pros get their heads around this (and the ensuing potential for desk clutter and cable mayhem) this will be a boon.
That said, more tech-savvy reviewers have noticed that some of the internal components are actually swappable. So it’s conceivable Apple could release Mac Pro upgrade kits in future, meaning you might be able to keep your investment up-to-date.

Apps that take advantage
On launch in late 2013 a few – very few – apps were optimised to take advantage of the new Mac Pro’s multicore powers. Final Cut Pro X is, of course. So is Logic – both Apple software products for professionals. Apple’s Motion is too, and Compressor. That means they’re ready for 4k video as well. But Adobe hasn’t got its (also professional) apps to the point where they’ll take advantage of the Mac Pro (I think you can edit in 4k on PCs?), while interestingly the fastest rising successor to Photoshop on the Mac, Pixelmator, has been updated to take advantage of the Mac Pro. The Marble version (Pixelmator 3.1), released last week, added support for 16 bits per channel. The Mac Pro has two Graphics Processor Units (GPUs) and the CPU (Central Processing Unit) hands tasks off to GPU capacity using technology Apple calls Grand Central. This adds grunt, if you like, to demanding computing tasks, and Pixelmator 3.1 uses that too, but most other apps simply can’t leverage the full potential of the new Mac Pro at launch, apart from Pixelmator.
In the case of Adobe, engineers from companies this important in the personal computing scene usually get to see what’s coming from related concerns, in highest secrecy. This is so they can tool their apps up ready. And it happens more than you think, even between those we think of as rivals. Adobe hasn’t been too happy with Apple for the last few years, but Mac (and latterly, iDevices) are important platforms for its products regardless. You have to wonder why Adobe hasn’t: is it because its engineers didn’t get the opportunity? Didn’t want to, hoping the enlargement of its installed base on Mac since the Final Cut Pro X thing would keep Mac users loyal to Premiere? I don’t know. Wish I did. Maybe it’s coming, maybe it’s not.
Meanwhile, if you’re serious about Final Cut Pro X and Logic, the new Mac Pro is a very good reason to stick with Apple – its hardware and software – if you’re one of those pro users working in the fields of moving image and audio. You might even change back to Final Cut Pro X in concert with a purchase of a Mac Pro simply because it’s so awesome.
Of course, other pro apps will be coded to take advantage sooner or later. While they’ll feel fast already, on a Mac Pro, this is thanks to its sheer power and all the RAM and other goodness. But they actually promise more power and speed in the future if you’re a Mac Pro user. Buy it now, benefit more later. This is a common trope with various Apple releases over the years. Even OS X promised more power and speed as developers rewrote their apps in native code for it, and adding USB then Thunderbolt to Macs before there were virtually any viable peripherals is another example.
It’s an interesting scenario because Apple upset a lot of people when it originally released Final Cut Pro X, changing features and removing multi-cam support.
Despite the criticism, Final Cut Pro X had some great features and was far from ‘iMovie Pro’, as some very disgruntled video people branded it. Meaning I copped some of the backlash too (I guess that’s partly what tech bloggers are for – venting at).
I don’t know how far the schism carried on. I’m not sure how many angry Final Cut users turned to Adobe’s Premiere or Avid for Mac (meaning they had a lot to relearn, which upsets people too). And I don’t know how many, if any, came back to Apple’s Final Cut Pro once Apple made good on it.
Some managed to stay with Apple’s cinematography software, and there’s been a healthy and growing community of people working in that field since, but trust in Apple was shaken.

What people think
This is what other have been saying (assuming you’ve already read Macworld/TUAW/Apple Insider etc): “It’s a masterpiece of engineering and suitably expensive. Fresh ideas such as the unified thermal core and backlit expansion ports together with high-performance components combine to make the Mac Pro the ultimate high-end workhorse.” That was TechRadar, not a Mac specific site, and which gives examples of PCs in the same league.

TechCrunch wrote “… the true power lies under the hood, and what’s contained therein will satisfy even the most pressing need for speed.” (This review includes a video.)

The English site IT Pro says “Yes it’s expensive – but after testing we feel the Mac Pro is worth it if you will utilise it to its full potential. Workstations have never looked so good and you get performance, upgradeability and portability as well.” (My italics.) Again, though, not an Apple-centric site.

And Engadget is also no Apple fan site. “It’s hard to say if the Mac Pro is pricey, per se, given that there’s nothing else quite like it. There are plenty of Windows-based workstations, certainly, but none are quite this small or quite this portable (many aren’t quite this quiet, either).”

The Verge used several testers trying several different things out on the Mac Pro. Regina Dellea noted it wasn’t that quick in Adobe apps (including Premiere) since Adobe hasn’t optimised it for the new Mac Pro the way Apple (of course) got to with Final Cut Pro X. But hopefully that’s on the cards for Adobe products – because pros are buying these, and pros use a lot of Adobe, one way or another. All in all, the Verge’s review was the most critical (8.5 out of 10) but it’s a good look from several user viewpoints. It (in part) concludes: “The new Mac Pro is an undeniably serious and powerful machine aimed at professionals. But it’s also incredibly expensive, and at least from my Adobe-centric perspective, it’s not quite worth the outlay right now. The day-to-day performance is similar enough to that of the iMac that I’d have a difficult time convincing my boss to spend double the money on this computer, plus a monitor, plus the Thunderbolt peripherals I’d need to make it a viable solution — at least, not until Adobe makes its suite shine on the new hardware the way Final Cut Pro X does. At the end of the day, I’m back to hoping, but this time that third-party developers step up.”

Do I want one? Absolutely.
Do I need one? No way. Dang!

— 2013 ‘assembled in Texas’ Mac Pro, starting NZ$4499 (which is cheaper than when it debuted in late 2013).