The New Mac Pro: Ridiculously Fast

[ Please read my disclosure statement on product reviews. ]

Apple announced the new Mac Pro at their World-wide Developer Conference last spring. From the moment the image flashed on the screen, I knew I wanted one. Then, last week, when Apple released both Final Cut Pro X 10.1 and the new Mac Pro, they asked if I wanted to test drive a Mac Pro for a month. I instantly said “YES!!”

The next day a new Mac Pro showed up on my doorstep… with its return shipping label already attached. Sigh.

In this article, I want to do three things:

NOTE: This is the first of two articles on the Mac Pro. In my next article, I’ll compare the performance of the Mac Pro with a late model iMac for video compression.

WHAT APPLE SENT

The configuration of this Mac Pro retails for about $8,400. It is two steps down from the absolute top of the line:

From my point of view, the configuration Apple shipped would be identical in performance to a fully-loaded system.

FIRST REACTIONS

From the moment I pulled the system out of the box, I felt I was looking at an incredible Swiss watch – the fusion of art with technology. It is surprisingly heavy, with a solid feeling of substance.

The cylinder, standing on the desk, has a luminosity, depth and color that feels like looking into limitless depths. Every time someone new comes into the office, I invite them to see it.

In every case, I unplug all the cables, remove the cover, and we marvel over the sheer artistry at how the circuit boards are designed. Even the color of the circuit boards – black – reinforces the theme that every detail has been thought through.

Just sitting there, unplugged, the Mac Pro is a work of art. All the other computer gear that surrounds it, pales by comparison.

To the entire hardware team at Apple that crafted this system, let me tell you that I am blown away by the sheer beauty of what you’ve created.

BACKGROUND ON THE SYSTEM

Apple’s vision of the pro desktop is centered on performance. They looked at the entire system: CPU, GPU, bandwidth, their goal was speed – real-time playback, without the need to render.

NOTE: Rendering is still necessary at some point before output. All those great effects and color grades you are creating in the timeline need, at some point, to be rendered (meaning “converted”) into video. This is true of all editing systems. The trick is to figure out a way to get this rendering done without slowing you down; either during editing or exporting.

There’s nothing unique about dual GPUs, existing MacPros could install multiple GPUs inside the chassis. What is unique is that the MacPro now guarantees dual GPUs in every Mac Pro system. This allows developers to count on both GPUs being there. One GPU dedicated to displays, the other GPU dedicated to supporting the CPU. These are workstation-class GPUs with drivers are appropriate to professional software, as opposed to games. For example, these GPUs are better at the floating point operations used in video editing.

The Mac Pro uses PCIe-based flash storage; which is often called an SSD drive. While it only uses 4 PCIe lanes, it is the fastest flash available today: 1.2 GB/second. Also, the PCIe bus uses Generation 3 PCIe, which provides twice the bandwidth of earlier versions. This is enough bandwidth to handle the fastest flash… and then some.

There’s been a lot of talk about expansion. Here, Apple was thinking outside the box, by providing six Thunderbolt 2 ports with up to six peripherals attached to each port. On the one hand, this is a highly flexible approach that makes changing system configurations fast and simple. On the other hand, this approach requires awkward converter boxes, and additional expense, to attach existing PCIe-slotted devices.

On the third hand, new technology obsoleting older technology is not unheard of in our industry.

NOTE: There is a separate Thunderbolt controller behind every two Thunderbolt ports – three controllers in total. More controllers means less contention on the port and faster throughput.

SETTING UP THE MAC PRO

Connecting the system took mere seconds. But getting all the software downloaded and installed took a bit to time. There’s a new firmware update, plus I needed to download Final Cut, Motion, Compressor, and the iWork family of software. (Also, I installed SnapZ Pro, from Ambrosia Software, which I use for capturing all my screen shots.)

NOTE: Apple also provides a version of the Mac Pro where Final Cut and other software is pre-loaded.

I wasn’t in a hurry and I could work on other systems while all these installations occurred. I would guess the whole download and setup process took about three hours.

By the way, this system is QUIET!! 12 dB of total noise. 17 dB of total noise when under a load. My son, who’s ears are a WHOLE lot better than mine, could not hear the Mac Pro because the ambient noise in a very quiet office was louder than the computer. The cooling fan is efficient and quiet. And the amount of air coming out the cooling stack at the top is not enough to rustle loose sheets of paper — I checked.

On the same desk as the Mac Pro is a late 2012 27” iMac, which is the system I currently use for all my editing. All my media is stored on external Thunderbolt RAIDs, so moving media from one computer to the other was as easy as changing a cable connection.

NOTE: I’ve written about my iMac system configuration here and described editing on it, in this article.

MEASURING SPEED

Let me start by saying that the Mac Pro is a computer, it isn’t magic pixie dust. It is fast, but we are not talking miraculous super-powers that will save civilization as we know it. Sometimes expectations grow far past reality.

One of the KEY things you need to keep in mind is that video editing requires more than a computer. The computer is a component of an entire system. You could have the fastest computer in the world, but it if is connected to a USB 2 thumb drive you won’t be able to accomplish anything.

For me, the speed of the computer is secondary to the speed of the computer and storage working together. Storage bandwidth (the rate at which storage and the computer share data) is FAR more important than computer speed alone. To fully utilize the speed of the Mac Pro, you need to team it with storage that is equally fast. With that in mind, let me give you a perspective on just how fast the Mac Pro is.

Here’s the speed of the Mac Pro talking with a single FireWire 800 drive. (By the way, this drive used to be my main editing drive, as recently as a year ago.)

The Write speed, on the left, shows how fast you can record data on a hard drive. To help with the comparison, ProRes 422, when used for HD media, requires a data transfer rate (also called “bandwidth,” or “speed”) of about 18 MB/second. Write speed is most important for import, rendering and sharing.

The Read speed, on the right, shows how fast you can play back data from storage. Read speed is most important for editing, and especially for multicam editing.

This drive is fast enough for simple editing and playback of single stream HD media, but not multicam. And definitely not anything using larger frame sizes than 1080p. (These speeds are also fully adequate for editing standard-definition media.)

Here’s the speed of the Mac Pro talking with a Thunderbolt RAID connected to a server over a Gigabit Ethernet network. Better than a Firewire drive, but, essentially, only as fast a single hard drive internally attached to, say, an earlier Mac Pro. Not bad, but not good.

Here’s the speed of the Mac Pro talking with a 2-drive Thunderbolt RAID connected directly to the Mac Pro. Now we are starting to see some significant speed improvements in both write and read speeds. Direct attached storage is almost always better than attaching storage via a network.

Here’s the speed of the Mac Pro talking directly with its internal flash drive. Holy smokes! I have never measured speeds this fast — BUT, even this speed does not fully load a single Thunderbolt 1 pipe. The new Thunderbolt 2 protocol, which the Mac Pro also supports, is more than twice as fast as the internal flash drive.

All things being equal, I still recommend storing all media on external devices, for reasons of performance, portability, and expandability.

WHEN USING THE INTERNAL FLASH STORAGE MAKES SENSE

Solid State Drives (SSD), also called flash drives, are extremely good at playing back the same files over and over. This makes them ideal as boot drives, where they are playing back OS and application files over and over. I first noticed this performance boost with the iMac and its internal Fusion drive.

However, SSD drives lose their performance edge when they need to play constantly changing data – for example, all the different clips in our project. In this case, RAIDs have the performance edge; especially if the internal SSD is not very big.

An exception to this rule is multicam editing. Since multicam clips use the same media, but switch angles, you’ll have much faster performance copying the multicam source files to an internal SSD drive; assuming you have sufficient room on the drive.

For example, Apple told me that a multicam clip of 16 streams of 4K video plays seamlessly from the internal SSD drive. (I don’t have any way to test this, so I can’t verify that it is true, however, given what I know about SSD and normal hard drives, their statement makes sense to me.)

EDITING WITH THE MAC PRO

All this leads up to the main question: “What’s the value in using the Mac Pro for video editing?” And the answer is: “You spend a whole lot less time waiting around.”

Here’s what you NEED for video editing:

NOTE: I was struck that the new Mac Pro took almost twice as long to startup as an iMac. I suspect this is due to the iMac only needing to check 16GB of RAM, while the Mac Pro was checking 32 GB.

In both these cases, the speed of your computer is far less important than the size and speed of your storage. And, in both these cases, you don’t NEED the new Mac Pro. But this misses the point. These computers satisfy the need to edit today’s video. The new Mac Pro satisfies the desire to be able to do far more and positions you for the future.

Editing with Final Cut Pro X 10.1 felt faster, smoother, “glossier.” (I have not yet installed Premiere Pro CC on this system, that’s on my list to do later this month.)

However, for all its speed, orange render bars did not disappear instantly, and there were several occasions where I got a dropped frame error when trying to play unrendered text titles composited into a four layer video project.

For editing pure video, the performance is stunning. But, as always, as we layer on effects, things can slow down. This simply proves that editing video is enormously challenging technically and, at some point, all computers reach their limits.

NOTE An excellent tool for monitoring your system is Utilities > Activity Monitor. I use this all the time to see how hard the CPUs are working, Memory (RAM) usage, disk data rates and network transfer speeds. I love this utility.

Here’s the CPU load playing back a four layer project in Final Cut Pro X 10.1. This involved two ProRes 4444 clips, plus a text composite and a Photoshop watermark. Each black column represents a single CPU core. The amount of blue, at the bottom, represent how hard that CPU is working. Let’s just say that in spite of the complexity of the project, if the CPUs were working any less, they’d be taking a nap.

However, other operations, such as sharing, use as many processors as you have available. Here, I’m exporting a ProRes 4444 project as a ProRes 4444 file to locally attached Thunderbolt 1 storage.

Everything I can do on the iMac, I can do on the Mac Pro – only faster, smoother, more fluidly and with less waiting. That’s what the word “performance” means. If your current computer can keep up with you, then you won’t see much benefit in the new Mac Pro.

If, on the other hand, you are constantly waiting for your computer, then the new Mac Pro will make you more productive by decreasing the amount of time you have to wait.

It all boils down to the question: “How much is your time worth?” The Mac Pro is designed to save you time. Lots and lots of time.

UPDATE: A NOTE ON COMPRESSOR 4.1

Since first writing this article, I’ve learned that the Mac Pro does not support hardware acceleration of video compression and several key video codecs, such as H.264, are not multi-threaded. This provides limits on how fast the Mac Pro will compress video. Here are two articles that explain this in more detail:

CONFIGURING THE MAC PRO

If money is no object, get a fully-loaded Mac Pro. It is fast, sleek, screams “high-tech,” and will give you bragging rights for at least a year. You’ll be spending more than you need to, but the money isn’t that important to you in the first place.

For the rest of us, who need to balance configuring the system with the money we have to spend, here’s how I suggest you configure your system. In this configuration, my recommendation is to spend money on those parts of the system that can’t be easily upgraded. While the CPU, and, perhaps, the GPUs are socketed, updating them also requires new software from Apple which may, or may not, be in the works. However, both RAM and the SSD drive can be easily updated.

If you are on a budget and only editing HD, or SD, video, the base level system is fine. On the other hand, a well-equipped iMac would deliver about the same performance and cost the same or less. In this case, I’d vote for the iMac, because it includes monitor, mouse and keyboard, all of which are extra on the Mac Pro.

For most of us that need a Mac Pro, we should step up to the bigger system, and I’d start with the 8-core processor. The faster clock speed improves video compression, and Final Cut Pro will still feel very sprightly with 8 cores. Editing performance will be the same as 12-cores, while the performance hit for rendering and exporting will be minimal.

16 GB of RAM is fine to start. I am always surprised at how well FCP X manages memory. If you need more, adding it from the after market is cheaper than buying Apple RAM, and easy to add; even for the ham-fisted.

The Mavericks operating system only requires 21 GB of storage. ALL the apps on my current Mac Pro, take less than 45 GB; and this includes the entire FCP 7 suite, all the Adobe CS6 and CC suites, and all Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5, and Compressor 4.1. Plus more utilities, plug-ins, and miscellaneous application files than I can count.

In other words, we don’t need a lot of storage for the OS, our apps and a reasonably sized Home directory. Since the flash storage can be upgraded later, and flash drives are continuing to come down in price, if you are on a budget, get the 256 GB drive. If you can afford the extra $300, get the 512 GB, though I would lean against it. I don’t see any advantage to the 1 TB drive, because we are ALWAYS better off storing media on external devices.

When it comes to GPUs, I recommend you buy the best. These are the real workhorses and the key advantage to the Mac Pro. Skimp everywhere else, but not here.

At the moment, I don’t need a monitor, mouse, or keyboard – all of which are easily available everywhere – because I own them already.

This brings the total price for this configuration to: $6,099. Another $400 gets you a bigger flash drive, mouse, and keyboard.

Here’s a copy of the final specs for my system. (Your needs may be different, but if you ask what I would recommend, this is it.)

SUMMARY

Do we WANT this new computer? Absolutely.

Do we NEED this new computer? That is a much more complex question because there is such a fine line between need and desire.

Not all software is updated to take full advantage of the dual-GPUs in the Mac Pro. As those updates become available, the Mac Pro will continue to increase in speed.

Finally, to fully take advantage of the speed of a Mac Pro, you also need to invest money in high-speed Thunderbolt storage to work with it. There is debate about whether media should be stored on the internal flash drive. For now, I am still recommending that media be stored on external RAIDs; though, if all you have is a single Thunderbolt drive, the internal flash drive will be far, far faster.

When my time with this unit is up, I will send it back to Apple, then, head over to the Mac Store and buy a new Mac Pro for myself. Do I really need it? Well, that’s debatable.

But do I want it? Oh, yeah!

 


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73 Responses to The New Mac Pro: Ridiculously Fast

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  1. Frank T says:

    Has Apple begun shipping the MacPros? Mine’s been on order since January. They recently charged my credit card, so that’s a good sign, however, the shipping status is the same as it was from day one. Has anyone received any shipments?

  2. Lily says:

    Larry thank you for this article, it’s extremely useful.

    I am trying to decide between the 512GB PCIe-based flash storage [+ £240.00] and the Dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs with 3GB of GDDR5 VRAM each [+ £320.00] upgrades.

    Which do you think is more useful for FCPX video editing?

    • Lily:

      Always spend your money on the best graphics card you can afford. The boot drive should only store the operating system and all applications. Media should be stored on an external device. External storage will be a shade slower, but much more reliable and expandable than the internal flash drive.

      Also, the priorities for the flash drive are:
      1. The operating system
      2. All active applications
      3. All background applications and processes

      ONLY then, if there’s any spare time, will the internal hard disk be able to play media. Performance is highly variable and especially problematic when working with higher resolution or less-compressed video formats.

      larry

  3. Lily says:

    Thanks again.

    When you say store media on a second drive do you mean do not store media on the main hard drive at all? I usually use external HDs as back-up only and run all vid I’m using in the edit from the main HD.

  4. David Smith says:

    Hi Larry, I’m interested in upgrading from my 2007 iMac to the Mac Pro so that I can start converting all my analog VHS and 8mm home movies into digital format and burn them to blu ray, making two copies, one of which I’ll store in my safe deposit box to protect them for future generations. I’ve been using my iMac and Toast 11 to burn blu ray discs from my HD camcorder but the conversion from AVDHC to MP4 takes forever and it looks like the Mac Pro will exponentially reduce this. It takes me about 24 hours to burn one blu ray disk in the best setting. It looks like I should select 8 cores, the 700 graphics card, 16GB of memory (which I can upgrade later), and the 512 GB PCIe flash storage correct? I would also have the Final Cut Pro X pre-installed. I have the Roxio Easy VHS to DVD for Mac as the interface between the VHS and 8mm tape players and the Mac Pro. Your advice would be greatly appreciated.

    • David:

      Yes, you’ll see a significant speed increase.

      Your specs look good. Add more RAM when you can. And buy the best / fastest GPU you can afford.

      Larry

      • David Smith says:

        Larry,

        Thank you for your input. One last question, how much RAM would you suggest I add? I see OWC has up to 128GB available.

        David

        • LarryJ says:

          David:

          I suggest a minimum of 16 GB. More if you can afford it.

          Larry

          • David Smith says:

            Hi Larry,
            I’ve already ordered the Mac Pro with the 16GB of RAM but am looking to upgrade with what OWC has to offer. Do I want to got with as high as I can afford or is there a point that it’s just overkill?
            Thanks again,
            David

  5. Lisa says:

    Hi Larry,

    I was hoping you could briefly tell us if you tried to install FCP 7 on the new Mac Pro (I’m considering the 6-core for investment in new software), and if it worked? I understand that Mavericks requires some workaround to install it, but I’m having trouble finding the answer to, specifically, the Mac Pro – FCP 7 compatibility in general. Thanks!

    • LarryJ says:

      Lisa:

      There is NO! value to buying a Mac Pro to run FCP 7. FCP 7 does not take advantage of any of the advanced hardware, RAM, GPUs or operating systems the Mac Pro uses.

      If you need a new system AND you need to run FCP 7, buy an iMac.

      Larry

      • Lisa says:

        Thank you. We’re considering it because I plan to migrate away from FCP 7 after this current project, which is on FCP 7 and struggling on my Mac Book 2010. It’s an indie feature and getting ridiculous that I’m using that machine for the whole thing. But to avoid buying a machine that is only optimized for our needs through the end of this year (I estimate), I’d like to know if installing FCP 7 will even work. Do you know?

  6. Marcus Mackay says:

    Hi Larry

    I read your review with great interest.

    I am self taught in FCPX and will be ordering some of your tutorials when I return from holiday (currently in Malcesine, Lake Garda Italy… It’s terrible!)

    So my issue is this, while I know I have a lot more to learn, I am increasingly frustrated with the performance of my current set up, a MBP i7 early 2011 with 8gb of ram and an external FW G technologies raid 0. The more complex the project, the more effects I add, the slower it gets. I edit in 4444 for watermarks etc at 1080p mostly using DSLR footage.

    So what would make a sensible upgrade in hardware and how much of an increase in performance would I see? As a side point I import and optimise my media as you prescribed in one of your great tutorials I found on YouTube.

    Finally can you recommend a set of your tutorials that will help me go back to the beginning with FCPX and move on from the bad habits I will no doubt have picked up on the way, so I can enjoy editing more, both as an add on to our Marketing & Consulting business, but also for the joy of it.

    Many thanks in advance

    Marcus

  7. Alex says:

    Hi Larry,
    I’m curious to hear your opinion – we just had the 6core D500 for 14 days and now have the 8core D700. Truth be told, the D700 make a big difference, BUT i have the feeling that the general responsiveness of FCPX, skimming and editing are feeling slower and sometimes have hiccups like on the last Macbook Pro. With the 6 core we never had a single hiccup anywhere. Also – rendering feels slower on the 8core, which is weird to be honest.
    By rendering in this case i talk about basic stuff like Burn transitions (mBurns from MotionVFX).
    I know these assumptions are not based on actual benchmark tests – but on real world testing on broadcast projects.
    All projects we work on are mixed footage from all kinds of sources, all kinds of codes in 1080i, thrown into fcpx without transcoding.

    I’m not sure if this is just my opinion of if you or others have made the same experience? Does the faster clock speed make a big difference after all between 6 and 8ores?

    Your feedback would be appreciated.

    Many thanks,
    Alex

    • Alex says:

      I should add that for external storage we used a promise pegasusR2 with 12TB in both cases, so storage speed was not really the issue here.

    • Alex:

      My guess is that “it depends” as I don’t have the ability to test every possible scenario.

      Some codecs require more horsepower for playback and editing than others. For that reason, I would not be surprised that some non-optimized files play differently. I would strongly suggest you continue testing while using optimized video. (One thing I like about optimization is that you don’t need to slow down your editing. You edit as soon as files are imported in camera native mode until the optimized files are complete. FCP X invisibly switches to optimized as each file is ready – therefore you don’t need to slow down or wait for the process to complete.)

      Some rendering may emphasize the GPUs while others may emphasize the CPU. I would contact the developer to see if they have opinions on optimum systems.

      Larry

      • Alex says:

        Thanks Larry. I just checked, all footage actually is already optimised. Either way, i guess we’ll just have to keep testing.

        • Alex:

          If all your footage is optimized, then I am REALLY surprised you are getting choppy playback. Even an iMac provides glossy smooth playback.

          Given that all I know is from your description, my first suspicion is that the plug-ins you are using are not optimized for the MacPro. I would start by contacting the developers and see what you can learn. Let us know what you find out.

          Larry

          • Alex says:

            Larry, I should correct that. Blame it on my English.. I am not getting choppy playback, ever. What i meant, is that the responsiveness of fcpx feels slower than on the 6 core model. for tasks like skimming within the effects browser to test an effect.
            I did some very simple test renderings now only with FCPX own effects and will compare it to the 6core tomorrow.
            Contacted the developers of our plugins as well, to see if they support multicore/dual GPU.
            I’ll reply here with results.

            Thanks again Larry.

            P.S.
            Simply said – if i do not find a worthwhile improvement between the 6 and the 8core system – the D700 being an obvious choice though – then i’ll rather exchange the 8 for a 6 core and buy another thunderbolt display….

          • Alex says:

            Larry, i did some extended testing with the 6core D500 and the 8 core D700 by comparing render times. Basic effects added on top of each other on 8 minute long clips. with 1 or 2 effects applied, the 6core beat the 8 core by a few seconds. But, as we added more effects to the clip, the 8 core started taking over and became faster.
            I also tested adding effects and effects and effects and even more effects, to see how long it’ll take the 8 core to go down on its knees without rendering. I think i had about 20-25 effects from the effect browser applied to the clip and it still played flawlessly without rendering it.
            With the settings on ”better quality”, i could add about 10-15 effects, with ”better performance” it went up to 20-25 effects. Again – without rendering a single frame or losing a single frame during playback.
            My personal resumée – the 6core beats the 8 core in simple, basic HD editing. News editing if you want. Once things get more complicated, more effects, graphics, effects from external developers – the 8 core will start to shine impressively. I’m happy with my choice and we will keep the 8core as the our new centrepiece in our editing suite. Thanks again Larry, always a pleasure communicating with you here and hearing your advice.

  8. Sameer Ahmed says:

    Dear Larry,
    As the 6 core and 8 core arenot readily available in Bangkok, Thailand, im going for a 12core d700 graphics one with 16gb ram. will it bebetter than the 8 core , please im so confused about fcp x, cause i worked on fcpx on many machines and it performs very differently in them, some really slow, some fast that becomes slow, some extrememly frustrating. i need a smooth editing flow to create films. pls advice, i really appreciate your thoughts, yours
    sameer

    • Sameer:

      Sigh… “Will it be better?” is almost impossible to answer. But, in general, yes. Each individual processor in the 12-core is a bit slower than in other versions. Which means if you are running older software which does not take advantage of multiple cores – a classic example is FCP 7 – then FCP 7 won’t perform as well on the 12-core as on a 6-core. Video compression is another area where cores will make a difference. I think you’ll find that the current version of Adobe Media Encoder runs far faster on the MacPro than Apple Compressor.

      However, most current software has been optimized for the Mac Pro in terms of cores and GPUs, so, with modern software you should get blazing performance.

      For FCP X, the 12-core with the D700 GPUs should be plenty fast. I would get as much RAM as you can – and 3rd-party RAM works fine and is much cheaper than Appple’s. I like RAM vendors such as OWC, Kingston and Crucial.

      The other key thing that will make a difference is optimizing your media – and using proxy files if you are editing multicam work.

      Basically, if you can afford it, the 12-core Mac Pro is an excellent choice.

      Larry

  9. Sameer Ahmed says:

    Dear Larry

    Thanks for your excellent thorough and quick response. youve always been so dependable. thanks again. And Alex, im so curious about your amazing problem that the editing smoothness is better in 6core d500 than in 8core d700, is it the FCPX at fault?
    sameer

  10. Naurej Alam says:

    Dear Lorry

    please suggest me how to use 3rd monitor for colour correction, broadcast check etc ?? is there any others hardware required like black magic and aja kona etc??

    i am using fcp7 with dual monitor via thunderbolt but this time i wand 3rd monitor for online purpose..

    also video got out of sync some times.. how i can fix it?

    i have Mac Pro Cylinder 12GB / 256 GB/ Firepro 2GB Graphics..

    thanks!

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