This Radical Redesign Is a Tiny Powerhouse ... with a Few Limitations

The new Mac Pro is here! The new Mac Pro is here!
That’s all that went through our heads when we first saw the announcement of this new iteration of Apple’s flagship pro desktop model. (Yes, that's a reference to The Jerk.) The years had dragged on slowly as Apple’s faithful patiently but loudly waited to hear the words “New Mac Pro.” And this new design is radically different from anything any major computing company has posited. It was exciting. Maybe too exciting — the initial public response was more like, “He hates these cans!” (Yes, that’s my second reference to The Jerk.) That's because the popular name for this new design was the “trash can.” It looked like a fancy office garbage bin. It was also interesting that it was called a desktop computer. No one in their right mind would have put a previous-gen Mac Pro on their desk. But this tiny beast finally can sit there. This is no incremental upgrade; it's a major overhaul.
Let’s get the business out of the way first. The model we had for review was spec’d out like this: 64 GB RAM, 8 core E5 3 GHz processor, 1 TB internal SSD, and dual AMD FirePro D700 graphics cards with 6 GB RAM each. This configuration runs about $8,766, including the keyboard and mouse and the installed copy of FCP X v10.1.
Heavy Duty
First, this is a small and dense little tower. At 9.9 inches high, 6.6 inches around and weighing 11 pounds, it’s like a Middle Earth dwarf with a battle axe. It’s also very quiet, unlike a dwarf with a battle axe. We used a third-party app to jack the fans up all the way and leave them on, and we could still barely hear them. Considering the punishment we put this thing through, it was a good idea to have the fans pinned anyway. Given that the fans are now pulling air directly from the curved bottom edge of the computer and funneling it up the center, drawing the heat out of the giant triangular heat sink that makes up the inner core and structure of the tower, we wouldn't suggest leaving it on the floor, especially a wood or smooth floor. It seems like it would become a Roomba pretty quickly, sucking up dust, so maybe a mount or actual desktop position is warranted.
Actually, the tower was denser than we expected. If you remove the lid — you just have to slide one switch thats just above the back control panel on the upper left — the cover feels like it could be, and kind of looks like, Magneto’s helmet. (That's a bonus, in my opinion.) Given the size of it, we could easily and quickly move the computer from room to room, and definitely take it out on a shoot. In reality, you could pack this thing up in a reasonably sized Pelican case or DIT rig and have some serious power at your fingertips.
Note the six Thunderbolt ports. There are three controllers, each capable of 20 Gb/sec, for a total of 60Gb/sec throughput. The ports have a defined layout per controller, and you need to know where they fall so you don’t accidentally overload a port unnecessarily. Looking at the back of the machine, Thunderbolt Bus 1 is the top two vertical ports on the left, Thunderbolt Bus 2 is the top two vertical ports on the right, and Thunderbolt Bus 0 is the remaining 2 ports horizontally across the bottom. It would’ve been smart for Apple to spell this out more clearly, since the rest of the machine is so well thought out.
The HDMI port is also on Thunderbolt Bus 0, so connecting an HDMI device, especially one running at 4K, will saturate that bus. The USB3 controller is the older Intel C600 series chipset on the motherboard, and thus is not USB 3.0 native. It’s using a single PCIe 2.0 lane from the Thunderbolt bus, so all 4 USB 3 hub ports have to operate together within the same 500MB/s PCIe lane limitation. It's a safe assumption that Apple will update these chipsets as they become available to them and the larger market, so generation two of the new Mac Pro should be an impressive leap on top of this large step forward they’ve already taken.
Questions for Configurations
For most people, the harder decision will be how many processors to get. We’ve had many discussions that end up supporting the idea of higher clock speeds and fewer cores. In our estimation, the relation of price to performance favors the eight-core configuration. Look at it this way: the 12-core processor upgrade is $1,500. For a little less money, you could get yourself the D700s and a 1 TB internal SSD, which would be a much better investment for the long-term performance of your machine. Yes, the number of cores matters, but the efficiency of the software is more important. A lot of general tasks use just a single core, and some tasks in many apps use only two or three cores. More processor cores aren’t always the best bet for heavy lifting and post, since the clock speed tends to drop as the number of cores goes up. That's why we really think — and Apple agrees — that, for video pros, the eight-core Mac Pro is in the sweet spot.
The new partnership between Apple and AMD brought a few custom-designed GPU configuration options as well. It looks like the D300, D500 and D700 GPUs are tweaked, Apple-specific versions of AMD’s W7000, 8000 and 9000, respectively. Since you can only have two GPUs in the tower, you have the option of 4 GB, 6 GB or 12 GB total VRAM in your system. The W9000 card is listed on AMD’s web store at $3,399, which means the two cards in the MacPro would run you $6800 if you were to buy them at retail. Apple has the D700 option in the Apple Store as a $1000 upgrade from a D300 equipped machine and $600 from a D500 base model. This is all great news for the end user — high-end GPUs purpose-made to crunch and deliver multiple 4K streams of video to your apps as well as external monitoring.
One 4K display over Thunderbolt can use almost 18 Gb/sec of the advertised 20 Gb/s per controller, so you’ll need to be aware of the data requirements for the peripherals you decide to hang off the box. There’s been talk of putting dedicated, application-specific GPUs in expansion chassis for specific workflows (for example, using Cuda-accelerated software with Nvidia cards) but, as of now, GPU-over-Thunderbolt is not officially possible. Yes, power users have hacked it and figured out workarounds, but they’re not stable enough for real, day-to-day workflows. Our understanding is that it’s possible to do this, based on the Thunderbolt spec, but Apple doesn’t allow it under the current OS. Is it something they could enable eventually? The answer we got from them was yes … but not at this time. The problem is these AMD GPU’s are OpenCL, and not every vendor has optimized their software to maximize their true potential. Of course, Apple has these cards dialed in for FCP X and Adobe released an update to their Creative Cloud Suite with support for these GPUs. Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve also has native support. As you’ll see, the results are very good.
Thunderbolt Networking
Thunderbolt Networking was introduced in Mavericks, and we were keen to try it out. This allows for a multitude of uses. For example, you can use a computer with multiple Thunderbolt ports as a network server of sorts. Hooking up other computers via Thunderbolt allows them to function as network-attached, so you can share files, drives or anything connected to the central computer. There’s no metadata server like you’d get in an EditShare or Avid ISIS, but for using pooled dumb storage and getting fast data transfers between computers, this is a great solution. Also it may be possible to use this for clustered storage of some sort with Compressor or maybe even render nodes in After Effects or Nuke.
We connected a new 15-inch MacBook Pro to the Mac Pro with a current-gen Apple Thunderbolt cable over Thunderbolt 2. We made sure our Thunderbolt Bridge connection appeared as active in our Network settings, and we also assigned appropriate permissions to share items between the two computers. You can use the Connect to Server or Network windows in Finder, just like you would under an Ethernet network setup to choose the Thunderbolt-connected device you want. Screen-share worked very well, with little lag. As a stress test, we played a 6KHD ProRes file that had a data rate of 1.57Gb/sec over screen share—about 2.5K based on the screen resolution. After a few plays, data seemed to buffer slightly, so it caught up and played with no problem. Using the Blackmagic Speed Test, we got about 750 MB/sec in each direction across the Thunderbolt Bridge using internal SSDs in both systems. Transferring files between the computers, we sent a 58.06 GB folder of F55 XAVC clips (113 items) and saw the finder’s sustained file transfer, in Activity Monitor, of about 707 MB/sec and 763 MB/sec peak. The second transfer test was using very large image sequences from an ARRIRAW shoot with a 48 GB (5197 items) folder. The activity monitor showed 125 – 360 MB/sec and it seemed to buffer and stop and start a lot more. It came in around an average of 184MB/sec. The ARRIRAW files are very data intensive, as well as being many more files per GB than the previous F55 folder. Buffering lots of smaller files is harder on the caching than having fewer, larger files.
A New Final Cut Pro X, Too
We’ve been Avid guys since 1995 and have really had very little contact with Final Cut Pro in any of its forms over the years — mainly migrating projects from FCP to the Avid. But we did try out the newest version of FCP X. It's hard to forget all the grousing and grumbling from the die-hards in the FCP community when pro users were told that the well-dug-in FCP 7 would be put out to pasture and this new shiny new FCP X — which looked suspiciously like a prosumer app — would be their tool of choice. Most users eventually found a happy place, either making do with FCP X in some fashion or moving on entirely.
But Apple took the complaints to heart and really went elbows-deep to try to bring the faithful back to the fold on this version. I still don’t completely understand why Apple thought it necessary to rename and redefine the industry-standard terminology that editors use when talking about their sequences and tracks, which are now called roles, primary and secondary storylines andm finally, libraries. My feeling is that while FCP X is full featured enough for pro editors, Apple is looking to appeal to the largest market possible, which is not professionals.
All of that aside, the app is incredibly responsive, and Apple clearly has the upper hand when it comes to making their applications sing on their own cutting-edge hardware. I was able to play back six streams of 5KHD RED .R3D’s shot on my Epic with effects on each track like blurs, repositioning and color effects. The clips were being read off the Mac Pro's insanely fast internal SSD, which certainly helps with throughput. Multicam grouping is very simple, and the ability to watch a large number of streams simultaneously while choosing the best angles was pretty impressive. 
However, I found nearly identical performance in Adobe Premiere CC using the latest updated version as of the middle of January. Premiere will use the first GPU for playback and both for render/export. In Adobe Media Encoder the GPU is used for the same thing as in playback, so a straight transcode won't be any different performance than in Premiere but a sequence with lots of effects and time remapping etc will see a marked difference. I’m very happy to see Adobe keeping stride with Apple in this way.
Yeah, We Got Benchmarks
Benchmarks chart [PNG file]
Giant PNG image.
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right-click to download.

As production and post people, one of the biggest opportunities that came from having the new Mac Pro in-house was the chance to test transcoding speeds for various formats and resolutions. Here are some more specs on our setup. We used the Blackmagic Speed Test to benchmark the internal SSD on the Mac Pro that we used as our media read disk for the testing, which spec’d out at 1 GB/sec write and 900 MB/sec read. Our write disk was an external Thunderbolt SSD Raid with two 1 TB Disks that came in around 660MB/s write and 800MB/s read. All file outputs were at 1080p and all files were 23.98 fps original clip and transcodes. We used Assimilate Scratch, DaVinci Resolve and REDCINE-X for our transcoding tests using only GPU and processing power — no Red Rocket cards or any external peripheral help. The provided testing spreadsheet is pretty self-explanatory and should give a good starting point for looking at multiple formats and assessing how the tower lines up against other available machines. 

Since we're looking at new technology and how it performs, it’s important to keep in mind that these are brand new machines with very new integrations with software and hardware vendors. In these scenarios, I prefer to look at the performance metric from the bottom up, viewing the results as a kind of worst-case scenario. Future software updates and optimizations are sure to allow professional and prosumer apps to take better advantage of the hardware power in these machines. That said, DaVinci Resolve was the clear winner at the time of our testing, based on sheer, brute-force maximization of the CPU power. Checking Activity Monitor while rendering out a clip in Resolve, we saw hyperthreading reach a maximum of well over 1400% CPU usage. We found a render slowdown in Resolve with ARRIRAW files that we immediately informed the Resolve team of, so they are working to solve the issue. Otherwise, as you can see from the chart, Resolve chewed through data faster than Takeru Kobayashi in Coney Island on the Fourth of July. As these apps get more time with these boxes, they will most certainly continue to be optimized to make the best usage of these powerful CPUs and GPUs.
Overall, we were extremely impressed with the performance of the machine across multiple heavy-duty use cases. Apple's forward-thinking design and configuration options are certainly welcome, but the lack of expansion options for the computer still gives us pause. The success of the Mac Pro is predicated on the third-party community supplying users with expansion chassis, hubs and the like to make the machine as operable for the market as the older box towers were for the pro users who have been clamoring for this the most. Those solutions will come, but right now there aren't a lot of solid options. That and the choice of AMD GPU’s give Apple a challenge when it comes to mass adoption. Let's hope the vendors writing OS X software jump on that opportunity and give the users the best experience that can be wrung from this tiny powerhouse. In reality all we really need is this mouse, and this keyboard, and maybe this Thunderbolt cable, and this paddle ball game, and this thermos …

Josh and Jason Diamond are a New York City producing and directing team responsible for a number of award-winning music videos, short films, commercials, and documentaries. Visit them on the web: