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November 2014
Issue: May 1, 2014

Review: Apple's Mac Pro

By: Gary Adcock
MANUFACTURER: Apple

PRODUCT: Mac Pro

PRICE: $2,999 (quad-core); $3,999 (six-core); $6,799 as tested (eight-core)

WEBSITE: apple.com
- six Thunderbolt 2 ports
- FCP X optimization
- small form factor



With the release of Apple’s New Mac Pro, I, among many others, speculated that this may not be a machine for pros. From the beginning, we all new that Apple was going to break boundaries, and the condensed form factor has drawn numerous comments and some serious questions. 

Equipped with six independent 20Gbps Thunderbolt 2 ports that enable this micro-sized machine to handle data at unnaturally fast speeds, Apple has released the most insanely-powerful desktop that Mac users have ever seen, albeit in a form factor dubbed “the Mac Mini Pro” for its ultra-compact size and lack of user configurability. While there is a lot packed into this minuscule package (roughly 10 inches high by 6.6 inches in diameter), the small form factor was initially discounted by pro users. I can assure you that nothing is farther from reality. Apple’s new Mac Pro is undeniably a Thunderbolt-enabled monster of a computing platform.

UNLIKE ANY MAC BEFORE

The architecture behind the new Mac Pro is unlike the computer most people have worked on. The unit I tested was an eight-core, 3.0GHz processor with 32GBs RAM and 512GBs of solid state flash memory in place of the traditional spinning disc or SSD. The flash memory Apple uses here allows for an unparalleled level of I/O performance — this Mac is astoundingly fast, with read /write speeds to and from the internal storage at an astonishing 1GB/second. None of the legacy connections on previous Mac Pro’s could be harnessed at that speed or performance. Yet here they align nicely with the 1.3GB per-second throughput available via the multiple Thunderbolt 2 connections. I am even able to maintain that data rate level externally to the computer using LaCie’s Little Big Disk 2.

The vast majority of users are just not accustomed to this level of throughput and performance — but it comes at a cost. Using it will require pros to replace nearly every piece of hardware in their shop. The new form factor no longer allows pros to use Nvidia graphics, my one wish, nor does it allow internal use of any of the legacy PCIe video cards that have defined professional post workflows. Companies like Blackmagic Design, AJA and Matrox have ported most of their new products with Thunderbolt interfaces. Gone too are things like DVI connections for monitoring, and finally — with good riddance — legacy FireWire ports.

While the lack of internal hardware support is an issue for many, most video cards and HBAs in use are easily replaceable with smaller, lighter Thunderbolt-enabled versions. Connectivity to Fibre, SaS, and even 10gE networking, with high-speed data transfers and monitoring via Display Port, is all possible with the new specs. 

STRESS TEST 

Without question, this machine has been built from the ground up to make the most of Apple’s own FCP X, Motion and Compressor apps, and does so handily, even when hammering the buss, converting 2.8TBs of 16-bit, 4096-by-2160 content from the high-speed Phantom 4K Flex. I converted the camera’s native .cine file format into a post friendly ProRes HQ format for a 4K “offline” edit. The test project had shot a wide range of frame rates and few processes have the ability to show flaws in a computer’s buss and storage architecture faster than file conversion at this magnitude. 

Compressor, updated and with optimized functionality on the new Mac Pro, sped through file conversions using a beta version of Gluetools PhantomCine plug-in, taking just 10 percent longer for the conversions than realtime playback.

FCP X’s optimization for this machine is readily apparent, handling 750GBs of 4K DCI ProRes HQ files with uncanny ease while editing and simultaneously processing the default file analysis settings in the background while performing color correction and video transitions in realtime — all without the need for rendering. FCP X’s integration with the hardware allows for seamless use of a Thunderbolt to Display Port adaptor for true 4K at 10-bit monitoring via the Sharp PN-K321 supplied for this review. While HDMI output is also available, I prefer to use the higher 10-bit color depth of the integrated Display Port layer available over the Thunderbolt connection rather than running into the limitations of HDMI 1.4a cabling and often limited color depth.   

Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC was nearly as responsive. The Adobe editing experience was enhanced more than I expected when the pixel dense Sharp display was used. While I found Premiere Pro CC comparable to FCP X in overall performance, not all of Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps responded as well. Both After Effects and SpeedGrade ran 15-20 percent faster using the Nvidia GPU on my Thunderbolt 2-enabled Retina MacBook Pro due to those apps’ current bias for CUDA processing than they did on the MacPro. The demo machine’s pre-installed Mavericks OS meant I was unable to even test Autodesk’s Smoke on the Mac.



CONNECTIVITY 

Since I have specific needs for any computer that I take on-set, I tested the latest video I/O interfaces, starting with Blackmagic’s UltraStudio 4K and AJA’s Io4K with Thunderbolt 2, and then tested a wide variety of peripherals, including G-Technology, Promise and LaCie storage devices; pro audio with the Apollo Twin Duo and Motu 828x; and a Thunderbolt-enabled LTO drive from M-Logic. The compact nature of the Mac Pro requires that all of these devices be connected externally. Intel’s Thunderbolt is the better choice for connecting to the widest range and scope of devices when compared to products available with USB3. 

While this machine may have been knocked for its inability to be modified internally, make no mistake, there are no restrictions due to the lack of legacy connectivity.

CONCLUSION

The new Mac Pro is truly an exceptional machine, with power and performance that is unrivaled for the massive data-centric workflows required in 4K production. I know of no other computer able to attain this level of throughput directly out of the box. For now, I am holding out for an Nvidia-flavored version that would put my mainstay HP workstation to shame.

Gary Adcock operates Studio37 Inc. in Chicago. He can be reached at: gary@studio37.com; www.garyadcock.com or on Twitter: @garyadcock.