Whereas Apple's other recent Mac announcements ranged from the highly welcome (the Mac mini) to the nice (the iMac) to the barely noticeable (the MacBook Pro), the new Mac Pro is far more significant despite the lack of outward changes to its aluminum shell.
Faster, More Capable CPUs -- Leading the way is the switch to the "Nehalem" family of Intel Xeon processors, in either a single or dual quad-core CPU configuration, for a total of either four or eight cores. The quad-core Mac Pro is available in either a 2.66 GHz or 2.93 GHz configuration, whereas the 8-core model adds a low-end 2.26 GHz model.
But performance isn't all about clock speed, and in fact, these new processors run at slower clock speeds than the models they replace. Apple claims that the new Mac Pros will be nearly twice as fast as the previous generation of Mac Pros, thanks to a single-die architecture that keeps cached data on the chip as it travels from core to core. Also helping boost performance is an integrated memory controller that gives the processor faster access to data in RAM, reducing memory latency by up to 40 percent.
Three other technologies also contribute to the performance increase. Turbo Boost is a dynamic performance technology that automatically increases the clock speed of active cores by up to 0.4 GHz (increasing a 2.93 GHz chip to 3.33 GHz, for instance), based on workload. Turbo Boost also shuts off idle cores, presumably saving power when it's not needed.
Also new is Hyper-Threading, which lets two threads run simultaneously on each core, enabling the Mac Pro to present Mac OS X with what appears to be 16 cores and letting the processor take advantage of resources available in each core. We suspect that Snow Leopard, the next version of Mac OS X, will make more of this processing power generally available to applications.
Lastly, the new Mac Pro uses a bidirectional, point-to-point connection technology called QuickPath Interconnect to connect the processor to the disk, I/O, and other subsystems. QuickPath Interconnect is also used to connect the two quad-core processors, keeping processor-to-processor data from being slowed down by traversing the I/O hub.
Enhanced Graphics -- Given the Mac Pro's status in the high-end graphics world, it's not surprising that Apple enhanced its graphics capabilities as well, making Mini DisplayPort standard at the same time. The default graphics card is the Nvidia GeForce GT 120 with 512 MB of GDDR3 memory, and Apple claims it provides up to three times the performance of the previous Mac Pro standard graphics card.
For those who need even more graphics power, the ATI Radeon HD 4870 with 512 MB of GDDR5 memory is a $200 option, providing up to five times the performance of the previous generation ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT with 256 MB GDDR3 memory. This card is also available on its own as a $349 upgrade for the older Mac Pro (Early 2008) models, giving them a Mini DisplayPort connection and faster graphics performance.
Both cards offer Mini DisplayPort and a dual-link DVI port and (with appropriate adapters) can drive two monitors at up to 2560 by 1600 pixels. Since the Mac Pro has three additional PCI Express 2.0 slots (two x4 slots and one x16 slot), you could put up to four video cards in a Mac Pro and drive eight 30-inch displays. That's 32,768,000 pixels, for those who are counting. If you have to ask how much all those pixels would cost, you can't afford it.
Other Specs -- On the storage side, the new Mac Pros ship with either 640 GB or 1 TB hard drives (previously, the options were 500 GB, 750 GB, and 1 TB), and an 18x SuperDrive (slightly improved from the previous 16x SuperDrive). Blu-ray support is still missing. As before, the Mac Pro can hold up to four hard drives and two SuperDrives. Drive pricing is still significantly higher than pricing from independent resellers.
6 GB of RAM is standard across the board, with support for up to 32 GB. Apple's RAM prices have dropped, making it easier to justify buying RAM from Apple rather than from an independent reseller, although maxing out with 32 GB of RAM will still set you back a hefty $6,100.
FireWire 400 has disappeared entirely, and there are now four FireWire 800 ports, two on the front panel, and two in back. Five USB 2.0 ports (plus two on the wired keyboard) remain standard, as does the built-in Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, the pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports, and the optional AirPort Extreme 802.11n card. Also unchanged are the front-panel headphone minijack and internal speaker, the optical digital audio input and output TOSLINK ports, and the analog stereo line-level input and output minijacks.
Pricing -- The base quad-core model of the new Mac Pro starts at $2,499, $300 less than before, and the 8-core model starts at $3,299. Although Apple's RAM prices are reasonable and hard drive prices a bit high, where you'll really increase the tab is by adding faster processors. Jumping from two 2.26 GHz CPUs to a pair of 2.66 GHz processors costs $1,400, and going all the way to two 2.93 GHz processors increases the price by $2,600.
With these updates, Apple continues to push the Mac Pro beyond what used to be considered the "professional" market and into the workstation market. The iMac and Mac mini now offer sufficient capabilities for most professionals. But for those whose jobs involve high-end graphics, audio, or video, or the use of scientific and engineering software that will happily take as many cores and as much RAM as it can, the new Mac Pro has power to burn.
I fall squarely into that first category. Three weeks ago, I purchased the previous generation Mac Pro, not because I needed its full power, but because I needed something that could run a matched pair of 24-inch monitors, since for me, productivity scales directly with screen real estate. Ironically, had I been able to wait for all these updates, the Mac mini might almost have been sufficient for my needs. I say "almost" because the maximum RAM ceiling of 4 GB in the Mac mini might have been too limiting.