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Speculation on Mac Pro refresh
It's been more than a year since the current Mac Pros came out. Although the software to fully take advantage of them is still not here, a year is a long time and technology has moved on. As a 2009 refresh is very likely, here's some speculation on what the new machines are likely to be like.
First of all, a release to coincide with Snow Leopard is very likely, as the Mac Pros are the best-equipped machines in Apple's lineup to show off the new OS. Snow Leopard will be released (assuming no iPhone-related delays this time) in either Q1 or Q2 2009, discounting any hardware that is due to be released after this date.
I'm almost certain this will be a Xeon 5500 series "Gainestown". That will be Intel's most powerful CPU line until Beckton towards the end of the year.
Although the clock speeds are identical to the Harpertown range inside current machines, they offer significant performance boosts elsewhere. The biggest of these is an on-die memory controller (i.e. built into the CPU instead of on the motherboard). This reduces bottlenecking significantly and is something AMD's chips have had for several years. It will provide a major performance boost.
Another new technology is QuickPath Interconnect, which replaces the legacy Front-Side Bus (FSB). The FSB connects all system devices and memory to the CPU through a single interface. This is now split up, with the new memory controller handling memory and QuickPath Interconnect dealing with the other system components. You may have noticed that the caches on these CPUs are smaller than their predecessors - this is because the greater efficiency in the new architecture means data spends less time in cache memory.
There have been several optimizations to multithreading, including hyperthreading which allows two threads per core (great for Snow Leopard). Although Gainestown is limited to four cores per CPU (8 in total in a Mac Pro), Apple may market it as a 16-core machine because of the 8 extra logical cores. True 16-core machines will not be available until the end of the year when the Beckton series is released.
You're probably familiar with dual channel memory which doubles memory bandwidth. That's why you have to install Mac Pro memory modules in pairs.
The new architecture has triple channel memory! Mac Pro motherboards are expected to have three rows of four memory sockets, totaling a maximum of 96 GB (12 x 8 GB). You would be required to install chips in groups of three.
Hard Disk Options
2 TB internal hard disks are now available so it seems likely that Apple will offer these in their machines. This will allow up to 8 TB in total.
What about solid-state disks? I doubt they will be offered for the Mac Pro just yet. They're too small for media storage (unless you can afford to RAID them) and although they are a decent size for boot disks I don't think they are suitable for that purpose just yet.
I always put Western Digital Raptors (10,000 RPM) as boot disks inside my machines because they reduce boot times, load applications faster, and everything is generally more responsive as memory can be paged to and from disk a lot faster. So the fast read speeds of SSDs are welcome from me, but there are two problems. Writing is slow. The OS writes a lot of data to disk and you will notice a slowdown when multitasking or using a lot of memory at once.
The second problem is that each memory cell inside the drive has a lifetime of around 100,000 writes. You can easily exceed that in the lifetime of your computer, particularly if it is switched on constantly. Modern chips try to get around this by writing evenly to all areas of the disk in order to balance it out, but the usefulness of this will depend on the total size of the disk.
SSD technology looks very promising and these are problems that will be overcome as time goes on, but they are not ready for this kind of usage just yet in my opinion.
I don't know what the stock graphics card will be but the following cards may be offered as options:Radeon 4870
- This is a high-end card capable of accelerating H.264 and MPEG-2 encoding and decoding. ATI's drivers are traditionally much better optimized for Core Image than NVIDIA's so Final Cut Studio performance is likely to be good. Crossfire technology is available on the PC version of the card - it remains to be seen if this is something Apple will embrace. Another version, the 4870 X2 with dual GPUs, will not be available for the Mac.
It comes with DisplayPort and HDMI connectors. Apple may request a Mini DisplayPort connector instead (or in addition).GeForce GTX 285
- This is a single-GPU card that is SLI-capable (NVIDIA's equivalent to Crossfire), should Apple choose to utilize that technology. This card does not offer DisplayPort by default so this is something likely to be requested by Apple for the Mac version.
Let's hope NVIDIA improve their Mac drivers to offer better Core Image performance.Quadro FX 5800
- This card supports DisplayPort technologies as well as the brand-new OpenGL 3.0 specification (which the other cards do not). It's very fast but also very expensive. It is not necessarily guaranteed to make a significant difference to Pro App usage because, while it has a lot of raw power, it does not have some of the optimizations that the other cards have (e.g. H.264 hardware acceleration), and I don't know how well-optimized for Core Image they are. In addition, raw power is worthless if it is bottlenecked by other components in your system.
With the launch of Snow Leopard, Apple will be trying to sell us multiple graphics cards in our machines. I would personally wait until I have read reviews before deciding on purchasing multiple cards for Pro App usage. Also, I would have to wait until Final Cut Studio 3 came out anyway because multiple cards with FCS 2 cause problems.
Things you shouldn't hold your breath for
* eSATA - Apple has completely ignored this particular technology in the past - this time around will most likely be no different.
* FireWire S3200 / USB 3.0 - It's early days and I'm not aware of any devices currently supporting the new standards.
It's pure speculation but if my predictions come true, there will be a hell of a lot of new tech in the Mac Pros. Which is great because they'll be leaving a lot of legacy technologies behind - but on the other hand, new things carry a certain degree of risk.
The first-gen Mac Pros needed a couple of firmware updates to fix minor issues, and I have my own rule that says I refuse to use an operating system for professional work until at least 10.x.4. This rule will be particularly crucial for Snow Leopard which now has a 64-bit kernel, meaning every system component will need new drivers. This is fine for the hardware that ships with your machine but what about third-party capture cards, graphics tablets etc? I don't think it's going to be a huge problem but it's worth thinking about in advance.
Either way, 2009 looks pretty good for video professionals.