Mac Pro First Impressions

Well about a fortnight ago, my new development machine, the Mac Pro 3Ghz Xenon/ 2Gb RAM/ 500Gb HD finally arrived at my doorstep.


Installing the new machine, as always, was a breeze. Plug USB leads from my 4xUSB DVI KVM switch into new machine, plug in ethernet cable, put “old” G5 into Firewire target mode, connect both machine via a FireWire cable (found somewhere on my wife’s G5), plug additional 2 monitors straight into the DVI connectors on the additional NVIDIA 7300 GT graphics card and let Mac OS X do its thing.

After 10 hours of transferring files, everything works fine on the first boot. Excellent.

That’s when my first and only real gripe with the new machine strikes.

I’m one of those screen-real estate junkies with three 1600×1200 21″ LCD monitors plugged into my development machine. It’s a great setup for programming and web site editing and cheaper than getting a single 30″ screen (or at least it used to be when I was young).

I’m running the center screen in landscape mode and the two monitors at the side in portrait mode. That allows me to deal with “wide” stuff on the middle monitor and “long” stuff like documentation, web browsing and the like on the side panels. Also, especially on the left hand side, the left edge of the screen is so far off-center that you can’t really use it unless you physically move your chair. That’s why if you’ve got a two monitor setup, you are probably better off using a center and a right hand display rather than a center and left hand display. Unless you use a right-to-left script like Japanese, Chinese, etc..

Anyway, the Mac Pro does not support portrait mode! Arrgghhh… What do you mean NO portrait mode on a Pro graphics machine in the 21st century?

Admittedly, this is probably not much of a problem for most people, but especially given the fact that Apple targets this machine squarely at creative professionals with deep pockets, this is a big disappointment and many graphics artist may get more additional productivity from a multiple screen setup than from doubling processing speeds. I’ve heard whispers that the ATI XT1900 for an extra $250 will do portrait mode, but don’t take my word for it..

As a good Apple Developer Connection member I did my duty and promptly posted a bug report with ADC: Yes, I know this is hardly a “bug”, but Apple insists on getting “improvement requests” submitted as “bugs” via BugReporter.. turns out the “bug” is already known, meaning I was not the first person to complain. What a relief, there are other people like me out there 🙂

After turning my displays into a 4800×1600 “panorama” setup (which is a huge pain with the Ergotron DS100 Triple Monitor Deskstand), I was free to continue my Mac Pro tour.

Something I was worried about was the speed and compatibility of my PowerPC-only Adobe products: the (dreadfull) Go Live and the(wonderous) Photoshop.. turns out that this wasn’t an issue. GoLive is just as sluggish and unreliable using the Rosetta emulation as it is on a proper PowerPC-equipped model; Photoshop is just as usable and wonderfull as it always is. Great stuff.

I made a moderate effort before “switching” machines to upgrade all my software to Universal Binaries, but there were some notable exceptions, such as MPlayer (Linux-based video player for those pesky avi movies). Not screamingly fast under Rosetta, but still good enough. Anyway installing all those updates was no problem and took no time at all.

Installation then (unless you are a sucker like me and need multi-screen portait mode) is a snap and all the normal stuff seems to run fine out of the box.


This would be the major argument for switching to the new machine unless you are a developer and simply need to make sure your stuff runs on Intel. I haven’t conducted any side-by-side benchmarks, because I’m not into that kind of thing. Does it matter that it’s 10% or 30% or 200% faster on jobs that already took no time at all? No.

The only places where you really benefit from the additional power is in tasks where your old machine made you wait, i.e. you’re faster than your machine. For a graphics artist this might be in Photoshop or Final Cut Pro, for a developer like myself it’s going to be during the edit-build-debug cycle. So I went ahead and installed XCode 2.4 and svn and gave it a shot.

Builds are incredibly fast now and even the usually somewhat sluggish GNU debugger “gdb” comes up reasonably fast. That’s what I got the machine for, so I’m happy 🙂

In everyday tasks the response from the Mac Pro is almost always instantaneous, but that’s not a big difference from my “old” dual G5 PowerMac 2.7 (Single Core).

No Noise

This is the best new feature and one that hasn’t been given a lot of attention in the press.

If you have gone through sucessive multi-processor PowerMac generations like myself, you know all about the dirty old secret: The Dual G4 QuickSilver was a real leaf-blower and you could be excused for thinking that a helicopter just took off five inches from your head when it came on. Even changing the power supply that Apple graciously sent you for free to help minimize the problem, didn’t make much difference. The G5s were better but still awful and even the watercooled (!) G5 under my desk still manages an impressive roar when you make it actually do anything. Ah, I’ll miss the magical moments when you know that your build has finished because the “engine noise” drops by a few decibels. Nostalgia aside, the noise was a major annoyance especially in a quiet office.

The new Mac Pro manages to be fairly quiet even with two graphics cards installed. It is not as quiet as an iMac or a Mac mini, but while you can hear the fans, it’s easy enough to ignore them. For somebody upgrading from a PowerMac the drop into normality is a huge step forward. Shhhhtt! Listen. The quiet.

First Look Conclusions

All in all, the Mac Pro is an uncomplicated and worthwhile upgrade for anybody who needs an Intel-based machine or is looking for more raw speed. Even Rosetta apps run reasonably fast. The reduction in noise is a major bonus and if you are a long term PowerMac sufferer, probably worth the upgrade on its own.

If you are looking for excitement and “ahhhs” and “oooohs”, you’re going to be disappointed. There is nothing flashy about the upgrade. Even the box is almost identical. It’s just a faster, quieter version of the PowerMac.