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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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