A New Mac Pro

A new Mac Pro is long overdue, and I need one. Lightroom’s too slow on my vintage 2007 MacBook, and more importantly Warcraft is only giving me about 5 FPS. :-) If the new machine is fast enough, maybe I could even use Parallels/VMWare/Bootcamp instead of my Windows 7 desktop PC (which clocks 60 FPS in WoW without breathing hard). Maybe Apple will release new models tomorrow? If it does, I want to compare it to today’s prices, so if I bought today behind door #1 we have:

One 2.66GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon
8GB (4x2GB)
640GB 7200-rpm Serial ATA 3Gb/s
ATI Radeon HD 4870 512MB
One 18x SuperDrive
Apple Magic Mouse
Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad (English) and User’s Guide
AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi Card with 802.11n
$3,019 before taxes and discounts

I would likely add at least two more third party hard drives to this, one 2 TB internal and one smallish SSD drive. Do I need more memory? 4GB is not cutting it. Will 8GB be enough? Should I just configure with the minimum and then buy 3rd party RAM? RamJet has 16GB for $575.99, way below Apple’s price.

Behind door #2, we have the same system but with eight 2.26GHz cores instead of 4 2.66GHz cores for about $3619. Which is likely to perform better, especially for Lightroom?

Behind door #3, we have the same system but with eight 2.66GHz cores for $5,069.00. This is over my budget, but maybe tomorrow it won’t be?

Behind door #4, we have the same system but with eight 2.93GHz cores for $6,269.00. This is way over my budget.

Behind door #5 is a quad core 3.33GHz system for $4,219.00. If raw CPU speed is what I need, this is the best I can do.

Finally, behind door #6 is something completely different, a 15″ MacBook Pro:

2.66GHz Intel Core i7
8GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 2x4GB
512GB Solid State Drive
SuperDrive 8x (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
MacBook Pro 15-inch Hi-Res Glossy Widescreen Display
Backlit Keyboard (English) & User’s Guide

The big advantage here is that I could then sell my MacBook to offset some of the cost since I don’t need two laptops. On the other hand, I do prefer a smaller laptop when travelling. I could even drop down to the 13″ model but I really want to max out the CPU. Would this system be fast enough to suit me? I don’t know. Certainly it should be faster than the 2007 vintage MacBook I’m using now. But I really want a system that has as close to zero delay as possible when moving between images in Lightroom. Are today’s MacBook Pros fast enough to deliver that? Even when the images are stored on an external Firewire drive? If not, then I’d be happier with a Mac Pro. Three critical questions I don’t know the answer to:

  • How many external monitors can I drive off a MacBook Pro?
  • What makes the biggest difference for Lightroom 3 performance: RAM, CPU clock rate, number of cores, internal drive speed (where the system, app, and catalog are stored) and external drive speed (where the photos are stored)?
  • How efficiently does Lightroom 3 make use of multiple cores? Lightroom 2 had major issues here and so did Lightroom 3 beta.

Still I have a feeling that even if I go with a Mac Pro tomorrow, it may be the last desktop I ever buy. There is a point at which a faster system just doesn’t matter, and even for heavy RAW file processing today’s systems are getting close. Video can still suck up a few more generations of hardware, but I think we’re nearly topped out on photo editing performance. Hard to believe I can remember times when Macs had special add-on cards just to do JPEG compression! In 2010 poor computer responsiveness is almost always the result of really bad programming that fails to take proper advantage of available CPU, rather than wimpy hardware.

Update: 8:08 AM EDT and the Apple Store is down. Looks like something is coming.

4 Responses to “A New Mac Pro”

  1. Chris Adamson Says:

    No Mac Pro update today. The product page says 6/12-core models are coming in August. Apple rarely pre-announces revs like this (since it will kill sales of 4/8-core MPs for the next few weeks), so I wonder if something slipped at the last second.I’m not a Lightroom user, so I can’t answer your performance questions there, sorry. What I do wonder about is when, or if, we’ll ever see the performance gains that OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch were supposed to bring to multi-core machines with discrete graphics CPUs.

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Yes, that is strange. Also annoying that I can’t price out the options yet. I expect I’ll go with a 6 core system at maximum 3.33 GHz clock rate, the lower end video card, and buy a passle of 3rd party RAM. I’ll have to see what Apple’s prices are on the 512 MB SSD drive before deciding whether or not to get that preconfigured or just buy a third party SSD drive.

    I suspect we’ll never see the performance gains that OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch were supposed to bring to multi-core machines with discrete graphics CPUs outside of a few very special purpose applications. Performance gains are a lot easier to realize when they come from components that are invisible to the application programmer. E.g. an SSD disk speeds up applications because they don’t need to do anything different to take advantage of the faster drive. However if apps have to be rewritten to take advantage of potential speed gains, then by the time programmers have learned how to use the new features, much less shipped software based on them, the classic model hardware has caught up an exceeded the performance gains promised by the new model. I’ve seen this happen time and time again. Think RISC vs. CISC, for example. In 2010, most application programmers still don’t know how to take advantage of multiple cores to run their program.

  3. Chris Adamson Says:

    I’ll be surprised to see OpenCL put to much use, but GCD is harder to avoid. Also, GCD is messing up iOS 4 apps in surprising ways. I was maintaining some code that was setting up network connections in NSOperations. In iPhone OS 3, those were always called on the main thread, but in iOS 4, they come from whatever thread GCD feels like calling you back on. And as it turns out, Cocoa’s networking classes really want to be set up on the main thread.

    We pretty much ignored threads in our iPhone OS 3-targeted book last year, but if we were doing a new version, I think we’d have to cover them, and do so early. Another big question is if any of these concurrency-oriented languages really take off, will they get Apple’s blessing for Mac and iPhone use? Or is shoehorning “blocks” into C and Apple’s various C/Obj-C libraries really going to work?

  4. Dolan Halbrook Says:

    LR3 seems pretty responsive on my i7 iMac, and it’s a killer screen.

    Admittedly it would be a lot better machine if it had an eSATA port, but it’s worth considering.

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