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Mac Pro Nehalem Recommendations

Last updated 2009-06-01 - Send Feedback
Related: Macs, Mac Pro, Mac

After reviewing my test data over the first few days, my immediate thought was: “I spent $6400 for a 20% gain?!!!” I was on the fence about keeping the old model instead.

But after using using the MP09 for a month, seven days a week for 8-12 hours a days, put simply it’s worth it for me for the time it saves— which isn’t a lot, but is enough.

Those who need every bit of speed will adore the 2.93GHz Mac Pro Nehalem. Anyone working long hours at the computer on tasks that impede the ability to get work done will really appreciate even a 10% gain, with greater gains in some cases. And as applications improve their utilization of CPU cores, greater gains may arrive with the 16 virtual cores of the MP09, especially with Apple’s Grand Central technology, coming late in 2009 with Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard).

But for most existing Mac Pro users, especially those with a 3.2GHz 8-core model, there isn’t enough improvement to justify the huge price premium.

It all depends on frequency and duration: for tasks are in the 0-10 second range, it’s questionable whether speeding that up to 0 - 2 seconds will amount to anything worthwhile, unless of course such tasks are done over and over again many times.

Memory prices come down, but not from Apple

A 2.93GHz MP09 with 32GB from Apple comes in at an awesome US$11,000 or so, great for companies or government agencies with freshly printed fiscal-stimulus money, but out of reach for the vast majority of us, and nearly doubling the price tag.

As of April 2009, 32GB from Apple was a $6100 upcharge, vs about $1750 at OWC. That’s right—the memory from Apple costs more than the dual-CPU 2.93GHz Mac Pro itself!

If you need 24GB or 32GB, go straight to OWC, and save yourself about $4300. Fortunately, most people will do just fine with 16GB as 8 X 2GB, at about $290.

How much memory?

For the dual-CPU MP09, all users are advised to go immediately to 16GB (8 X 2GB)— it’s a small fraction of the system price (10% or less), and there is absolutely no sense in spending $3300 - $6000 on the Mac Pro, then skimping on a few hundred dollars of memory.

For the single-CPU MP09, start with 8GB from OWC, and upgrade to 12GB or 16GB as necessary—time is likely your ally on prices for 4GB modules.

Wither the 2.26 and 2.66GHz models?

Given the typical gains around 20% or so by the 2.93GHz model over the 2.8GHz MP08, the slower-clock-rate MP09 siblings aren’t compelling in comparison to the 2008 models. The 2.26GHz model looks like a misfit in that regard.

It’s safe to say that the 2.26GHz model should be about the same speed as the 2.8GHZ MP08 model, often slower, sometimes a little faster, but likely slower than the previous generation 3.2GHz model on just about everything.

A previous-generation 8-core model stocked with 16GB or 32GB and four 1TB hard drives looks appealing from a value (cost) perspective. Do remember that a single hard drive further reduces any performance differences whenever disk I/O is involved, so spending for “faster” means at least a 2-drive striped RAID, 3 or 4 drives preferred.

Single vs dual-core system

A single-CPU system has 8 virtual cores and a dual-CPU system has 16 virtual cores.

The big win is when programs can fully exploit all 16 virtual cores of the MP09, but as the testing shows, this is rare, with 6-10 cores a very good showing for most programs.

The best programs are about 80% faster using all 16 cores, as compared to the 8 cores of a single-CPU system. That’s a Big Deal if the program(s) you use fit into that category. If they don’t, then a single-CPU 2.93GHz system is a good choice, but the 4 memory slots are a “gotcha” to be understood.

Same chassis, different brains and slots

The single-CPU Mac Pro Nehalem chassis is exactly the same as the dual-CPU system except that it has one CPU, but most importantly, 4 memory slots instead of 8. One can literally swap the CPU tray in seconds and give the machine a brain transplant (with memory) which is how the single and dual CPU systems were tested for this review.

Here’s the rub with the single-CPU machine: to get 16GB in 4 slots, 4GB modules are required: that costs about $989 (or $3500 or so from Apple), versus about $290 in the dual-CPU machine (8 slots). Think that over carefully.

For 16GB of memory, the single-CPU machine add a $700 premium—funds that could put towards a dual-CPU system.

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Total system cost of dual vs single core

Let’s compare two systems: a single-CPU 2.93GHz model, and a dual-CPU 2.66GHz model, with both systems configured with 16GB memory.

While the dual-CPU system is another $1000 (25% more), the total system cost including display(s), software, backup systems, hard drives, etc is likely to drive the percentage differential towards the 10-15% range. A Mac Pro is a multi-year investment for most people, plan accordingly.

Item 2.93GHz Mac Pro single CPU 2.66GHz Mac Pro dual CPU
Mac $2999 $4699

16GB = $980

16GB = $290

Total 16GB (32GB) $3979 $4989

System cost — 2009 Nehalem Mac Pro vs 2008 Mac Pro

The table below captures the total system cost of a robust system (click links to check current prices).

All of these systems really need backup, AppleCare and other extras, so the total system cost should be considered. Save money by getting quality memory, hard drives and backup solutions at Other World Computing.

Availability of the previous generation as refurbished models will fade rapidly, so the choice will quickly become used versus new. If you choose to buy used, you can get a great value, but be sure to get a machine that is eligible for AppleCare, and the usual caveats apply about trusting the seller.

Item 2008 Mac Pro 2.8GHz 2009 Nehalem Mac Pro 2.26 GHz
Mac $2500 (est)
$4099 (refurbished 3.2GHz)

16GB = $360
32GB = $980

16GB = $293

24" Apple Cinema Display $899 $899
Total 16GB (32GB) $3760 ($4380) $4491

Final word

If this review or Mac Performance Guide has helped you, help support future efforts by buying from site sponsor OWC through the links/ads in the Guide, or by subscribing to any of my photographic offerings, or by buying through Apple links here like the one at right. Custom consulting is also available for professionals interested in setting up a high performance workstation.

The 2.93GHz Mac Pro is an exceptional machine—Apple’s fastest ever. And if it were $4000 instead of $6000 it would be a no-brainer. It’s a classic price/performance curve: a lot more money yields moderately better speed.

Buyers considering an upgrade from the 8-core 2008 Mac Pro should look closely at the test results and consider whether the slower MP09 models (2.26 and 2.66GHz) really offer much of anything compared to the previous lineup at 2.8/3.0/3.2GHz. Users with a need for more than 16GB of memory should tread cautiously here also.

Finally, remember to consider the total system cost, price differences on a percentage basis can converge when this is done. That might well eliminate any reservations about the new 2009 Mac Pro Nehalem, or a single vs dual CPU system.

My final decision

I decided to keep the 2.93GHz Mac Pro Nehalem, selling my 2008 Mac Pro 2.8GHz octa-core.

Yet I don’t feel that the Mac Pro Nehalem yields anywhere near the performance gains it ought to for the ~$3000 or so cost differential (price of the 2.93GHz MP09 less the sale price of my 2008 Mac Pro).

However, several factors persuaded me to keep it:

  1. It is significantly faster on some tasks, and working on the computer as many as 14 hours a day I can use whatever speed is possible, especially with sluggard programs like Nikon Capture NX2. Over the long term, those time savings add up;
  2. My software development benefits from 16 cores in terms of testing for threading bugs, always tricky to ferret out;
  3. Future reviews on this site are best done using the latest hardware; it’s what users will prefer to see. Not much choice here! It also means that I can detect compatibility issues that might not be present with older models.

Your own situation

Assess the test results carefully for your situation before buying, and for those who need performance but have budget constraints, consider the 3.2GHz 2008 model, which was available at the time of writing this review for $4099 as a refurbished model from Apple.

Remember also that performance for a specific application might be better, the same, or even worse on some speeds of the Mac Pro Nehalem, especially the 2.26GHz model.

See How to Choose and Buy a Mac.

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