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Apple Mac Pro review (2013)

At long last, the pros get some love

“We’re working on something really great for later next year.”

After years of seemingly neglecting Apple’s most hardcore, highest-paying users, a 2012 email from Tim Cook finally gave people hope. Hope for the first truly rethought version of the Mac Pro since it was introduced in 2006. Hope that even as it had overhauled Final Cut to the dismay of so many of its most dedicated users, Apple still cared.

Now, just in time for Christmas, Apple has released a new Mac Pro with new hardware and a radically redesigned body. With a starting price of $2,999, it’s the beginning of a new era for Apple, a careful bet on what professional users will want and need in the years to come. A lot of those bets have to do with 4K and the future of video, because that’s who this machine is for: people who make videos for a living.

Luckily for us at The Verge, there’s a whole crew of those people right in our office. The Verge Video team has been waiting for a new Mac Pro too, with a long list of hopes and wishes for the new model. Our director / editor John Lagomarsino and Regina Dellea, our post-production coordinator, have both spent many hours with the new PC over the last several days. What follows is a mix of their thoughts and mine, as we hooked up a Mac Pro and decided to find out what the future of professional computing looks like.

Small is the new big

DP: The Pro is unlike anything the PC industry’s ever seen. The Mac Pro used to be a big, boxy, silver rectangle of a machine; now it’s a small, cylindrical device that’s made to sit on your desk, not underneath it. It’s 9.9 inches tall, 6.6 inches in diameter, and weighs about 11 pounds — it’s not something you’ll want to carry around all the time, but it’s leaps and bounds more portable than the Pro has ever been.

It’s probably best-looking when its spectacularly reflective case is slid off, revealing the device’s insides. It’s a sleek, cool-looking exoskeleton, but the Pro won’t even run without the case. It sucks air in through the slits in its base, and uses the case to disperse it around and cool the machine’s many components before blasting hot air out the top. It starts blowing as soon as you turn it on, and it runs remarkably quietly, though it can get quite warm when it’s really working.

The Pro’s many ports and jacks have all been confined to the rear of the device, on the one panel not covered by the glossy case. Between glowing borders that illuminate when you spin the tower around are four USB 3.0 ports, six Thunderbolt 2 jacks, two Gigabit Ethernet slots, speaker and headphone jacks, and an HDMI port. Below the lot is the power adapter, which sits flush with the edge when it’s plugged in; there’s no big power brick to lug around, just a single black cable.

Slide off the case, and you can easily access the Pro’s RAM, hard drive, and GPUs. But they all require particular hardware, and there’s virtually no upgradeability here — that’s what Thunderbolt is designed to be. Apple sees the Mac Pro as the hub for all your accessories and add-ons, not the one box to hold them all. Thunderbolt’s grown slowly over the last few years, but Apple’s drawing a line in the sand: peripheral makers will use it, or they’ll be left behind.

John Lagomarsino, Director / Editor: The design is sleek, but after working next to it, I can’t help but feel there’s something sinister about its unassuming looks. It’s so straight, so shiny, so metallic — it reminds me of an oversized bullet waiting to be shoved down the barrel of some terrifying novelty sized shotgun. It’s definitely got a military vibe that’s a little unnerving.

We’ll use the Thunderbolt 2 ports for peripherals like BlackMagic capture boxes, external hard drives, and fiber adapters to connect to our SAN. I’m glad they stuck with the dual Ethernet setup, too. It’s always been a standout feature in the Mac Pro that you can connect to two wired networks simultaneously, or gang them together for double the bandwidth. I do wish Apple had included an SD card slot like they do in their other Macs, though.

I love how quiet the machine is. It’s impossible to hear over an external hard drive or ambient air conditioning noise, even under heavy loads. The only sign you’ll have that it’s cooling itself is the gentle rush of warm air coming out the top of the unit, which makes a surprisingly wide and uniform column of wind.

DP: How the Mac Pro looks is far from its most important quality. But it changes things: you can fit four Mac Pros in the space previously occupied by one, and particularly mobile or modular crews will certainly have an easier time — Apple heard the horror stories about people sawing off the handles of their Mac Pro in order to slide it into a rack, and responded in kind. (Someone will need to build a good rack mount first, though, as you’re quite literally fitting a round peg into a rectangular hole.) For teams where size matters, the Mac Pro is a massive upgrade.

That’s really the whole story of the Mac Pro, right now. For certain people, in certain situations, it’s a quantum leap forward. But for many others, including the Verge Video team, it feels awfully familiar.

Performance

For $2,999, the base price of the Mac Pro, you get a quad-core 3.7GHz Intel Xeon E5 processor, 12GB of RAM, two AMD FirePro D300 graphics processors, and a 256GB solid-state drive. But that’s only the beginning: our review unit has an eight-core, 3GHz processor, along with 64GB of RAM, a 1TB drive, and FirePro D700 GPUs. That’s $8,099 of Mac Pro kit, and a couple of other small upgrades will run you right up near $10,000. Throw in the 32-inch Sharp 4K monitor that Apple recommends, and spending $12,000 or more isn’t hard to do. Our review unit, screen included, costs $11,812.

JL: I worked on the Mac Pro as an editor. We shot some test footage on a RED Epic at 4096 x 2160, copied the contents of the card to the Mac Pro’s local storage, and imported that directly into both Final Cut Pro 10.1 and Premiere Pro CC without transcoding.

The Verge is a Premiere house. (Once Final Cut Pro 7 was discontinued, FCP X didn’t look like it was going to satisfy our needs.) However, since FCP X was specifically optimized for the new Mac Pro, we tested our RED footage with the app and it handled native footage from the Epic shockingly well. For this test, I turned off auto-render and set the playback quality to “better performance.” I was able to layer four streams, resized and composed on top of each other with color correction on each clip, and FCP X played the composite back without stuttering or dropping frames.

Final Cut may have been adjusting the quality of the playback to something less than native 4K, but the frame rate stayed solid, and in the resized preview window I wasn’t distracted by any downscaling. I saw the same smooth performance on other clips with more intensive filtering and transitions. If you enjoy using FCP X (which I truly, truly don’t), the Mac Pro is a fantastically responsive machine to edit on.

GeekBench 3 (64-bit, multi-core) (64-bit, single core)
Mac Pro (2013) 26,044 3,640
Mac Pro (mid-2010) 27,365 2,524
iMac (2013) 12,074 3,759
GeekBench 3 (32-bit, multi-core) (32-bit, single core)
Mac Pro (2013) 23,284 3,270
Mac Pro (mid-2010) 24,554 2,337
iMac (2013) 10,725 3,434
Cinebench CPU Cinebench OpenGL
Mac Pro (2013) 741cb 86.59 fps
Mac Pro (mid-2010) 1223cb 61.07 fps
iMac (2013) 528cb 80.37 fps
Disk read speed (MB/s) Disk write speed (MB/s)
Mac Pro (2013) 851.0 741.6
Mac Pro (mid-2010) 143.3 141.0
iMac (2013) 581.7 285.3
Valley GPU stress test (frames per second)
Mac Pro (2013) 21.4
Mac Pro (mid-2010) 25.6
iMac (2013) 23.2

JL: I work in an Adobe world, where the story is a bit different. Premiere is also able to deal with native 4K Epic footage, so I brought in our test batch through the Media Browser. I set up a timeline based on the clips’ native size and codec. Without any rendering, and without applying any effects, I couldn’t play any Epic footage in Premiere at an acceptable frame rate. When I scaled the playback quality to one-half or one-quarter, playback and scrubbing were consistently smooth. Applying color correction or Warp Stabilizer to clips usually meant that I had to render those clips in the timeline (in ProRes 422, here) in order to play them back smoothly. Editing in Premiere didn’t feel much snappier on the Mac Pro than it does on the previous generation, or even on the current iMacs.

In Final Cut Pro X, Apple is addressing both graphics cards on the Mac Pro. It has a fairly low CPU footprint, handing off most of the playback and processing duties to the GPUs. Premiere and After Effects, on the other hand, still see sharp spikes in CPU usage during render and playback. That should change as soon as Adobe updates its applications to take advantage of these specific GPUs, though, like they have in the past for Nvidia’s CUDA drivers. I’m curious to see what kinds of improvements Adobe and other developers can squeeze out of these GPUs.

A video we shot with a Red Epic, and edited on the new Mac Pro. Watch it in 4K!

Regina Dellea, Post-Production Coordinator: I tested four aspects of editing that we perform every day at work in Premiere, to see how the new model would affect our particular workflow. I timed how long conforming files takes, how long renders take, how long exporting a fully rendered timeline takes, and how long exporting an H.264 version of a ProRes timeline takes. I compared the results between the new tower, a mid-2010 Mac Pro, and a late-2012 iMac.

The 2010 Pro and the new model were very close in almost all of these tasks, but the new Pro did outperform the tower when it came to tasks where disk speed matters most. When you consider the difference between flash storage and a standard spinning hard drive, these differences aren’t surprising, but they were pretty significant. Saving an already rendered 20-minute timeline from Premiere generally takes about five minutes, but with the new Pro that was cut down to about 20 seconds. The render itself, however, was faster on the old Pro. And both towers were faster than the iMac.

There was nothing that was particularly slow, but there were things that I thought would be significantly faster that weren’t. Once Adobe has had some time with the new tower and makes its software work a bit better with the new hardware — the way Apple has with Final Cut Pro X — that will hopefully change.

DP: From a benchmarks perspective, the new Pro is a step above anything that’s come before it, but in only a few cases is it truly breaking new ground. That’s largely an optimization problem: its graphics capabilities are what really set the new model apart, and most tests stress only one GPU. And given that its scores are already quite high, once tests are properly tuned to its hardware they should be fairly remarkable. The one place that’s already a noticeable improvement is throughput — with solid-state storage inside, the Pro reads and writes from its disks incredibly quickly. Whether you’re copying files or exporting video, it’s immediately and noticeably faster than just about any other machine.

From a non-video perspective, the Mac Pro is in general very fast: once we switched the Sharp monitor’s refresh rate from 30Hz to 60Hz, absolutely everything felt smooth and fluid. (OS X is comically small on a 4K monitor, however.) The machine boots in a surprisingly slow 35 seconds, resumes from sleep very quickly, and it’s nearly always clear there’s plenty of power at your disposal while the Pro quietly hums along.

Gaming was mostly a solid experience — at 3840 x 2160 and on the highest possible settings, Bioshock Infinite dropped a few frames, but I played comfortably with a gorgeous 2560 x 1440 picture and high settings. Portal 2 is a couple of years old, and I couldn’t make it stumble no matter how hard I tried. But you’ll get far better gaming performance out of a high-end Windows machine — the D700 GPUs are designed for workstation use, not for gaming. None of the games I played used both GPUs, and instead taxed one while the other stayed idle. And unlike with Nvidia’s high-end cards and even others from AMD, the FirePros are made to be used together.

The Mac Pro’s most impressive performance may be currently reserved for Final Cut Pro X, but it won’t be long before other apps catch up. If Apple’s guessed right and stays committed to its ideas, there’s almost certainly going to be a renewed interest in both the Thunderbolt ecosystem and in building and optimizing apps that take advantage of the device’s two GPUs. Apple built the Pro not just to give developers the tools they want, but to encourage them to build other ones too — if they do, the Pro could quickly turn from subtle speed bump to an actual rethinking of what desktop PCs do and what we can do with them. Not to mention what it all looks like sitting on our desks.

DP: In many ways, the Mac Pro is the fastest and most powerful Mac ever made. But today, as it stands, it’s not a drop-in improvement that will instantly make any and every setup faster — its greatest tricks are enabled when software is specifically tuned to this hardware. Because this Mac Pro is now the de facto professional computer for Apple users, most important apps are virtually certain to be upgraded to support its particulars. There’s clearly plenty of power here for almost any use case, but while we wait for software updates this machine isn’t a particularly notable upgrade from the last-generation Pro, or the latest iMac. Or even, in some ways, the most recent MacBook Pro with Retina display. A combination of those three machines covers the entire studio floor of The Verge’s offices, and I’ve found virtually no one itching to trade them all for Mac Pros just yet.

RD: Already, the new Pro would be able to do everything my current tower can do, but for the cost of the upgrade, I’m not sure it does enough extra stuff that it would be worth it just yet.

JL: When I first heard about the new Mac Pro, like many other video professionals my first thought was "finally." Finally, Apple is paying attention to us again. Finally, we won't accidentally kick our massive workstations, or cut ourselves on their handles. Finally, the desktop computer is getting some real attention in 2013.

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.

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