How the Mac Pro Works

By: Meghan E. Smith

Apple says the Mac Pro is its fastest desktop computer yet.
Photo courtesy Apple Computers

The Apple company of today is best known for its consumer electronics gadgets, but it wasn't always that way. When Apple Computer, Inc., was founded in 1976, its focus was selling bare-bones motherboards to tech-savvy users for customization [source: Linzmayer]. The Mac Pro, Apple's high-powered desktop computer, is a long way from being just a motherboard, but the spirit of customization remains. The Mac Pro offers flexible memory options, vast amounts of hard disk space and the ability to personalize and expand its hardware and software.

So, who is the Mac Pro for? Does the average home computer user really need to send e-mail at the speed of light, or is the target audience a bit more specialized? According to Rob Griffiths of Macworld, the Mac Pro is a niche product, mostly appealing to those who need more storage, expansion and memory than your average desktop can provide: graphic designers, film editors, engineers, gamers and the like. But there are also consumers for whom speed is the primary motivation [source: Griffiths]. Given the heavy-duty specs of the Mac Pro (more about that on the next page), you'd have to assume it's the fastest Mac on the market. But is that actually the case?

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The answer is both yes and no. For the average consumer, the Mac Pro is way more machine than necessary; with the mainstream iMacs getting faster than ever, it's only when using more specialized, high-end software that Mac Pro really makes a difference [source: Galbraith].

And unless that extra storage, memory and the flexibility to expand is critical to your work (or play), the Mac Pro's hefty price tag might scare you off. Mac Pro prices vary depending on the options you're looking for, but the most basic configuration starts at $2,499; the more powerful setups start as high as $4,999. If you customize your Mac Pro to include the most powerful processor, hard drives and memory specs, the price can climb well past $15,000 -- hello, new car! Given that the cheaper iMacs are also customizable, the Mac Pro doesn't make sense for the average computer user.

But the Mac Pro has also caused some controversy among hard-core tech fans and professionals. In November 2010, Apple announced that it was discontinuing Xserve (its line of rack servers) in favor of the Mac Pro Server or Mac Mini Server. Then in June 2011, Apple released a new version of its popular film editing software, Final Cut Pro X, that some argue caters more toward the amateur consumer rather than film industry professionals. [sources: Shah, Pogue]. Only time will tell how Apple will treat its professional customers in the future.

Controversy aside, what can the Mac Pro do? Check out the next page.

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Mac Pro Specs

What, exactly, are you getting with a Mac Pro? Knowing a computer's technical specs can help you choose the right model, so let's get down to business. As far as physical space goes, the Mac Pro is not small. It's a bit larger than 20 inches (50 centimeters) high, 8 inches (20 centimeters) wide and almost 19 (47.5 centimeters) inches long. It weighs about 40 pounds (18 kilograms), depending on what kind of processing power you opt for. While smaller is typically better when it comes to computers, the Mac Pro is an exception due to its heavy-duty capabilities [source: Apple].

Let's start with the operating system and processors. The Mac Pro runs on OS X Lion, which is a UNIX-based system. Apple explains the benefits of using a UNIX-based system for the Mac Pro, pointing out that it can compile and run the user's existing UNIX code in a stable manner. There are a number of configurations to choose from when it comes to processors; there are four basic models, with a choice of a Quad-, 8- or 12-Core, plus a Server option. All four machines (which can be further customized) come with Intel Xeon processors: the Quad-Core with one 2.8GHz Quad-Core Nehalem processor; the 8-Core with two 2.4GHz Quad-Core Westmere processors; the 12-Core with two 2.66GHz 6-Core Westmere processors; and the Server with one 2.8GHz Quad-Core Nehalem processor [source: Apple].

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Next, storage and memory. the hard drive capacity for all the baseline models is 1TB except for the Server, which comes with 2TB. The upper limit for all four models is 8TB. And for memory, the Quad-Core has 3GB; the 8- and 12-Cores have 6GB, and the Server has 8GB. The Quad-Core can be customized with up to 32GB, while the other three can support up to 64GB [source: Apple].

Then there are graphics: The Mac Pro comes with a double-wide, 16-lane PCI Express 2.0 graphics slot with either an ATI Radeon HD 5770 or 5870 card installed. There's also an option to get two 5770 cards installed, which gives the Mac Pro the capability of supporting six graphics displays. (Without the two cards, it can support three.) The Pro supports digital resolutions of up to 2560 by 1600 pixels; for analog, the upper limit is 2048 by 1536 [source: Apple].

Now that you know what the Mac Pro is made of, let's see what you can do with it.

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Mac Pro Software

The Mac Pro has two USB ports on the front panel and three on the back, allowing you to connect several  accessories at the same time; the accompanying keyboard has two more ports.
The Mac Pro has two USB ports on the front panel and three on the back, allowing you to connect several accessories at the same time; the accompanying keyboard has two more ports.
Photo courtesy Apple Computers

In addition to the OS X Lion operating system, the Mac Pro comes loaded with iLife, a software bundle that includes iDVD, iMovie, iPhoto, iWeb and Garage Band. But there are plenty more heavy-duty software options available for Mac Pro owners. Final Cut Pro has made a name for itself in the film business; other Apple software includes Aperture, a photo management program, and Logic Studio, which allows musicians to write, record, edit and mix music [source: Apple].

There are lots of non-Apple, professional-grade software products on the market, and some companies are capitalizing on Apple's apparent move away from its professional customer base. The popular blog site Cult of Mac reports that Adobe is aiming to make the most of the Final Cut Pro X controversy with a switcher program, which offers Final Cut Pro users 50 percent off Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5 or CS5.5 Production Premium editing programs [source: Bell]. Adobe already has a foothold where other creative software is concerned; its Creative Suite encompasses a wide array of design-related products, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Dreamweaver, all of which make excellent use of the Mac Pro's extra storage, memory and processing power.

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On the more technical side of things, there's Mathematica, a computation program that's used by professionals in industries ranging from aviation to pharmaceuticals. It not only crunches the numbers, it allows users to develop workflows and produce models. For database development and management, there's FileMaker Pro, which you can supplement with FileMaker Server; the latter helps keep data on networked computers secure and up to date [source: Apple].

Keep reading to learn about the myriad accessories you can buy for your Mac Pro.

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Mac Pro Accessories

Given the Mac Pro's flexibility when it comes to expansion and customization, it's not surprising that Apple offers a wide array of accessories to choose from. Of course, what you choose will depend on what you're planning to use the workstation for. If you're using your Mac Pro to edit film or photographs, for example, you might consider one of its displays, not to mention a digital camera or recorder. Apple's Music Creation accessories, featuring speakers, keyboards, turntables, microphones and like, might interest composers, DJs and recording artists.

Then there are the more technical accessories:

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  • If you've got more than one Mac Pro or other Apple device, Apple has several networking options. Networking lets you connect each machine so that you can share files, all use the same printer or even hook up your TV to your computer.
  • Apple's Time Capsule is a wireless backup system and base station that works on both 2.4 and 5GHz bands simultaneously. Most older computers use the 2.4GHz band, while newer devices that support the Wireless-N (802.11n) standard can move up to the 5GHz band, which has less interference. So, Time Capsule is compatible with almost all wireless devices [source: Murphy]. Or, if you want a dual-band wireless base station without the backup system, AirPort Extreme is exactly that.
  • If you're looking for extreme portability, AirPort Express helps to extend or create a wireless network anywhere you need it. When near the edge of the range your normal router services, AirPort Express widens the coverage. This could come in handy if, for example, your printer is at the other end of the house.

And of course, you'll need a place for your Mac Pro to live. Like all CPUs, it's best kept free from dust, so look for a desk or shelving system with a cabinet large and sturdy enough to hold the tower (be sure air can circulate around it so it cools properly). There are desks on the market that keep cables and wires organized, so you can keep things relatively tangle-free. If you're looking to cut down on even more wires, Apple also offers the Magic Trackpad (like a laptop tracking pad but for your desktop computer) and wireless keyboard, both of which utilize Bluetooth technology for cord-free integration with the computer.

So, is the Mac Pro too much computer for you, or does it provide just the right amount of power and flexibility? Only you can decide. Check out the next page to learn more about Apple products.

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Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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  • Galbraith, James. "Faster than ever: Macworld Lab speed tests the mid-2011 iMacs." May 6, 2011. (Aug. 19, 2011) http://www.macworld.com/article/159692/2011/05/imacmid2011benchmarks.html#lsrc.mod_rel
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