Test Drive: Apple Mac Pro, Part 1

When some people get a powerful new computer, they want to produce a new video, play games, or show it off to their friends. I just want to run as many tests as possible to analyze its performance, which I guess means that I’m well suited for this portion of my job description.






This navel-gazing aside, I have in my hands an Intel Nehalem-based Apple Mac Pro, specifically a 2.93GHz dual-processor, quad-core unit running Mac OS 10.5.7 with 12GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon HD 4870 driving a beautiful Apple LED Cinema Display. In this month’s first installment, I’ll compare performance of this computer with that of two older Macs running a variety of programs. Next issue, I’ll open up the case and delve into options such as a RAID hard-disk controller, multiple graphics boards, and different RAM configurations, assuming that I can convince someone to send me 24GB of RAM in 4GB dual in-line memory modules (DIMMS).

Preliminary Matters

Briefly, in my review of the Mac Pro for millimeter, I described what the new Nehalem-based Intel Xeon CPUs brought to the table, which essentially is increased throughput between main memory and the CPU, and faster CPU performance. My hard-hearted editors frown on my using the same material twice (or, I should say, charging for it twice), so I won’t repeat the bulk of that information. I’ve looked at the Nehalem CPU a few times now, and you can find the most comprehensive description, albeit within the context of a Windows workstation, here.

I ran three sets of tests for this article, one of which is included in the Mac Pro review, which I’ll include for completeness. Let’s start with a brief review of those.

Real World Editing Trials

I tested three applications—Apple Final Cut Studio, Adobe Media Encoder, and Telestream Episode Engine—comparing the results to those from a one-year-old 2.8GHz eight-core Xeon system with 10GB of RAM kindly provided by Carrie Cannaday, a shooter/editor of broadcast, wedding, and other event work in southwest Virginia. Note that by virtue of processor speed (2.93GHz to 2.8GHz) the Nehalem-based computer should be about 5 percent faster than the older-style Xeon. I present the first set of results in Table 1.


Table 1. Apple Final Cut Studio comparative testing.

The Final Cut Pro tests involved a 30-minute wedding ceremony shot by Cannaday in HDV with multiple camcorders. I rendered the ceremony to a QuickTime Reference Movie, input that file into Compressor, and produced an H.264 file for streaming and a DVD-compatible MPEG-2 file. The comparative times are shown in Table 1.

As you can see, the Nehalem-based system was only 22 percent faster than the older-style Mac Pro (17 percent after adjusting for CPU speed) when producing the QuickTime Reference Movie, but the numbers jumped significantly for the heavy-duty encoding, totaling 91 percent for producing both compressed formats. Note that total encoding time doesn’t equal the sum of the parts because I encoded both files simultaneously by enabling Apple Qmaster.


Table 2. Adobe Media Encoder comparative testing.

The second round of tests involved the Adobe Media Encoder and two of my own real-world projects. The first was a 90-minute ballet shot with two HDV camcorders mixed via Premiere Pro’s multicam feature and rendered to MPEG-2 for an SD DVD. In this test, the Nehalem-based Mac Pro was 79 percent faster than its older sibling.

The second and third tests involved a 10-minute single-camera DV shoot produced as an audition for America’s Got Talent. I rendered the file to H.264 and to MPEG-2. As you can see in Table 2, for this simpler project, the Mac Pro’s performance advantage was more modest.


Table 3. The results from Telestream Episode Engine tests.

Streaming Encoding

The next tests involved Telestream Episode Engine, a streaming-media encoder with very efficient multiprocessor use. Here I ran two tests, the first encoding a single HD file to nine different streaming formats, a mix of VP6, H.264, and Windows Media output in different resolutions and data rates. The second involved encoding 16 1-minute SD source files to 14 output files in the same three streaming formats, plus MPEG-2.

In the first round of tests, the Nehalem-based system was 31 percent faster, while proving 77 percent faster in the second, which likely reflects the fact that encoding 16 SD files involves much more I/O than encoding a single HD file to multiple formats.

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