What does the new Mac Pro mean for you?

If you’re not sure whether to stick with your existing machine, move down to a top-spec iMac or start saving for when the first crop of new Mac Pros reach our shores, this is the article for you. Read on to find out what you need to change, what can stay the same and whether it’s time for you to make the move to PC.

A look under the hood

Let’s start with some key specs. The new Mac Pro’s CPU is a single socket Intel Xeon E5 chip that’s capable of supporting up to 12 cores. It’s got four DDR3 memory slots and the Flash storage has a top read speed of 1.25GBps, meaning it’s similar to Steve Wozniack’s latest, the iOFX.

GPU-wise, you get dual AMD FirePro cards that can deliver up to 7 TFLOPS of power, and which will be able to drive three 4K screens (we’re hoping the 4K wallpapers that came with the OS X Mavericks beta meant that Apple are planning to release a 4K Cinema Display soon). The massive six Thunderbolt 2 ports mean you can daisy chain up to 36 devices to your Mac Pro, and that’s before you even go near the four USB 3 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, HDMI and Line out connections.

That circular core not only means that the Mac Pro will look great on your desk, but allows Apple to use the same cooling system they’ve been developing in MacBook Pros, resulting in effective cooling that’s also near-silent.

The big questions: Thunderbolt 2 and NVIDIA GPUs

There are two questions we’re hearing a lot lately: will Thunderbolt 1 machines be able to upgrade to Thunderbolt 2, and can I get my Mac Pro with NVIDIA GPUs? The answer to the first is probably a no – Thunderbolt 2 is based on a different chip set and combines signals differently to Thunderbolt 1, to the extent that we don’t think old machines will be forwards-compatible. However, the fact that you’re getting 20Gbps of throughput on each channel means that Thunderbolt 2 is a must-have investment for anyone looking to work in 4K, and in a way solves the grachics debate as it’s fast enough for you to work of GPUs stored in an external chassis.

The dual GPUs in the new Mac Pro are going to give fantastic OpenCL performance, but being FirePro cards they’re not going to deliver the CUDA processing that so many professional post apps have come to rely on (Smoke, Resolve and After Effects, we’re looking at you). Now, ATI have been creeping up on NVIDIA recently, and this has led to a lot of vendors increasing their OpenCL support. Blackmagic Design’s Grant Petty has been pretty vocal about his support for this new model and the way it’ll work with Resolve v10, and Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC is also better with AMD cards than any of the previous versions. If you’re ray-tracing in After Effects and will really miss the CUDA support that speeds that up, you could try keeping your GPUs in an external chassis and working off them over Thunderbolt 2 – we’ve not qualified this workaround, but we’re keen to get testing and will let you know more as soon as we do.

Your Mac options: iMac 

If your current Mac Pro just isn’t cutting it but you can’t wait until October to upgrade, one option is to go for an interim iMac. The 1TB and 3TB Fusion drives offer a good mix of capacity and speed, you can upgrade the RAM to a more-than-repectable 32GB and if you choose the top spec 3.4GHz i7 option, you’ll have a perfectly usable workstation solution that has beaten 2010-era Mac Pros in a series of benchmarking tests over at Barefeats.com.

If this sounds like an expensive interim plan, it’s worth bearing in mind that once your Mac Pros come in, any iMacs can serve a dual purpose as extra nodes on your rendering farm (or even just picking up rendering tasks while your artist work on their Mac Pro) and a second display for your new workstations.

Your Mac options: Upgrading your current Mac Pro

If you don’t want to abandon your existing machine, there are a few things you can do to help it stay current. The first thing we’d recommend is adding more RAM, as this will give you an immediate and relatively affordable boost in performance. And while there’s no way to add Thunderbolt capabilities to your current Mac Pro, you can add USB 3.0 via a PCIe card, which should give you a significant increase transfer speeds over FireWire or USB 2.0.

After that, add an SSD. The SATA ports in a Mac Pro will top out at about 350MBps because they use SATA II, but some of the faster SATA III SSDs we’ve tested will get you up to about 550MBps, and a PCIe-based Flash memory unit can reach speeds double that. OWC’s Mercury Accelsior, which clocked raw read/write speeds of 693 and 567MBps in our recent benchmarking tests, is our current favourite.  As you can see from the graphic above, the Mercury reaches top speed quickly, breaking the 500MBps mark with relatively small files, which means it’s perfect for working with video.

If money’s no object, there’s always the Fusion iOFX (made by ex-Apple stalwart Steve Wozniack, no less), which is the fastest Flash memory we’ve ever tested and which can up your GPU usage from around 30% to 90%.

The third thing to try is replacing your existing GPU with a more powerful one. If you’re working to a budget, we’d recommend NVIDIA’s GTX 680 for Mac, a recently released card that’s technically for gamers but actually delivers fantastic value. Another excellent option is the NVIDIA Titan which, although slightly pricier, offers greater durability and is a better choice if your machine will be in constant, heavy use and you don’t want to risk your GPU melting. However, to run it you will need to be on OS X 10.8.4 or later.

If you’re working with H.264, don’t forget to try adding a CompressHD card. These cards have their own dedicated CPU that is used solely to compress your footage to H.264 faster than realtime without taxing your computer’s own CPU – we’ve seen it cut export times from nine hours to forty five minutes, so it’s definitely worth a look if this is a format you handle regularly.

Moving to PC

If you don’t want to stay with Apple, your options are basically Windows and Linux, both of which are supported by the likes of Avid and Autodesk, and the Linux versions are often more powerful and scalable. Current HP and Dell machines also have the advantage of letting you pack in more cores (up to 16, with 24 promised in the upcoming Haswell-based Xeons, compared to the Mac Pro’s 12). The current industry standard is HP’s 16-core Z820, which packs up to 512GB of RAM and has been qualified for more or less every high-end piece of PC-friendly software out there. You can also scale back slightly to a lower-spec Z820, Z620 or Z420 while still maintaining decent performance as long as you have a powerful enough GPU, or try the Avid-qualified Dell T7600 for your Media Composing and Pro Tooling needs. If you’re a hardcore NVIDIA supporter (or just want the fastest graphics performance possible), take a look at Dell’s Maximus 2 equipped machines, which split graphics tasks between a Quadro and Tesla card to improve the efficiency of each.

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