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How Do You Like Your New Mac Pro?


Recently, my desk acquired a new wastebasket:


Oh, wait, that’s not a wastebasket—that’s a new Mac Pro! I’ve had the same machine at home for a little over three years now, and of course computer years are like dog years, so after over two decades, it was time for something new. Plus, the Dean’s office owed me a new machine anyway. I keep getting asked how I like it, so I thought I’d present a little review. I’m going to do this in Q&A form.

Is it really fast?
First, the machine I was coming from was a 2.66 GHz 12-core monster from the 2010 line. The wastebasket is a 3.5Ghz 6-core CPU. Is it a lot faster than the old one? Well, for the most part, yes. Certain operations are stunningly fast, like waking from sleep, which feels nearly instantaneous. When running something that really seriously taxes the multicore, the fact that it has six fewer cores means the difference is barely noticeable. But for a lot of normal things, especially anything that hits the internal SSD, which is just stupid quick, it blazes. Here’s how fast it is: Even Word and Excel launch quickly, which seems like a violation of the natural order. So, I’m totally satisfied with this.

Wow, pretty.
OK, true, that’s not actually a question. In principle, yes, it’s a pretty piece of hardware. But that’s the view of it on my desk, and that’s the way I see it. What I’d really like to be able to do is turn it around so that I don’t have to look at all those cables and can just see the glossy black aluminum in all its glory. However, that’s not feasible, because of where the power button is. See that little glowing spot near the bottom, just to the right of the center? Yeah, that’s the power button. Fantastic placement, Apple. (That’s sarcasm in case that’s not coming through adequately in writing.) Seriously, not only do I have to dodge all those cables to actually push the power button, but it means I have to keep what sure looks to me like the back of the machine facing me. This is a totally inexplicable bit of industrial design. Yes, I understand that I’m not actually supposed to have use the power button all that often, but, unfortunately, I’ve had to use it rather a lot so far, so I’m not optimistic on that score.

What about storage? Didn’t your old Mac Pro have four filled drive bays in it?
This is my single least favorite thing about the wastebasket. Yes it’s small and pretty and everything, but there’s almost no on-board storage. Yes, you get a single SSD, and upping the size of that is something you pay dearly for. This is one thing the Pro towers did better than any other machine I’ve ever owned. Those four sleds that allow you to slide in bare SATA hard disks, and space for a full four of them without having to sacrifice optical drives was just excellent design. I loved that. So, my old Pro had about 6TB of storage on board. This was internal storage so it ran at full SATA speed for the time, 3Gbps.

Well, you can’t get 6TB of SSD storage on a new Pro, and if you could, well, it’d probably cost the GDP of Estonia. So, one of the four disks in my old Pro could be copied onto the internal SSD, fine. So what to do with the other three drives? This is my fundamental frustration with the new Pro. What did Apple think current Pro owners were going to do, fit everything in their old bays into the on-board SSD? I think not. So why doesn’t Apple sell, or strongly lean on some third-party vendor to sell, a three-bay Thunderbolt enclosure with no disks in it? Would that have been so hard? Apparently.

So, before considering a wastebasket, one must consider what to do about the other three disks. They have to be external enclosures. There are three possible options:

  • FireWire. Affordable, but even FireWire 800 is noticeably slower than 3 Gbps.
  • USB 3.0. Cheap, probably not quite as fast as Thunderbolt, but should be fine.
  • Thunderbolt. Very fast, but bloody hell, external Thunderbolt enclosures are expensive. Consider the same two-disk enclosure with the same basic feature set: one Firewire, one Thunderbolt. I get that the Thunderbolt chipset is more expensive and the black paint is very chic, but $190 more? Seriously?

So, I had a plan: put the one drive that has stuff on it that really needs to be fast in a Sonnet Echo dock, which I had on order, since that would give me both an optical drive (which I still need), and a Thunderbolt-speed access to one of my old hard disks. I figured I could take the FireWire performance hit on the other two drives since one of those is just my iTunes library.

However, because Sonnet decided that they’re still not shipping the Echo until “Summer 2014” (originally slated to ship “Summer 2013”), I had to ditch that idea. So, FireWire means anything disk-limited would actually be substantially slower than on the old machine, so I had to (a) order an optical drive separately, and (b) try a USB 3 enclosure for the drive I wanted to run a little faster.

Well, I don’t know what the story is, and maybe it’s because I have a bad machine, but I tried two different USB 3.0 enclosures from different manufacturers, and neither worked. The machine either couldn’t see the disk at all, or thought it had to be initialized, or it’d crash during a read, and the whole machine would hang. (This is why I the power button had to be within reach, as I had to hard reset the machine multiple times.)

OK, so Thunderbolt. Look, I generally like Apple, I do, but sometimes… grr. Thunderbolt is definitely a grr-inducing Apple kind of thing. Sure, yes, it’s really fast, and it’s nice to have one small cable over which you can run anything. But, wow, are Thunderbolt enclosures expensive. And nowhere could I find a Thunderbolt enclosure that didn’t already come loaded with disks I don’t need.

So, I finally settled on the CalDigit T3, despite the fact that you cannot buy it empty of disks. So far it seems really nice, but it was a really smack in the pocketbook. The sad thing is that I don’t really need the RAID functionality, I’m just using it JBOD mode anyway. So, yeah, grr.

So, side note: it is now two days since my T3 arrived, and I just saw this on the OWC site: a 4-bay Thunderbolt enclosure not already loaded with disks. As of this writing, it doesn’t actually seem to be shipping yet, but it seems like just the ticket, and “only” $500. Yay Thunderbolt.

Is it really quiet? Doesn’t it use less power and generate less heat?
Yes, actually, it is amazingly quiet. I can’t hear it at all, and it most definitely draws less power and generates less heat than the old Pro. My UPS typically said 25-30 minutes of run time for the old Pro, and the wastebasket plus the T3 yield 45-50 minutes, so it’s clearly using a lot less power. I’ll be able to say more (almost certainly good) things about the heat issue once we get into the hot months here in the Houston area, which should be pretty soon now, it being February and all. The power and heat performance are all significant improvements.

However, in practice, while the machine itself is quieter, it hasn’t made my computer setup quieter. Why? The external drive enclosures and optical drive all have fans, and the total of all of those fans is actually subjectively louder than the old Pro was. Part of this is probably because the old Pro went under the desk, rather than on it. Also, this might be slightly improved once I get all my data onto the T3 and off the OWC FireWire enclosure. One of the reasons I got the T3 is that it’s rated at a nice quiet 17 dB, and the fan on the OWC enclosure is a bit louder.

Still, the less power and heat thing is nice, but don’t get too excited about the quiet.

How about connectivity?
One of the nice things about the old Pros is they had a lot of ports on them. Oodles, front and back. While the wastebasket has a whopping six Thunderbolt ports, which is good, it still has only four USB ports. This means hubs, and in my experience USB is a slightly flaky technology and sometimes hubs don’t quite work properly—some things just seem to only work right when plugged directly in to the machine. It would have been really nice if Apple had put on a few more USB ports.

Also, there’s no optical audio in jack. Why on earth not?

On the other hand, props to Apple for the Bluetooth. I use a Bluetooth keyboard and trackpad, and the old Pro had recurring problems staying connected to them (particularly the keyboard), especially through multiple sleep/wake cycles. Absolutely no problem with that here, so whatever Apple did differently in terms of Bluetooth, it’s certainly working for me.

Any compatibility issues?
Directly, so far, no. Indirectly, yes. The wastebasket requires Mavericks, which is not exactly Apple’s best effort on the OS stability front. I upgraded to Mavericks before the new Pro arrived so I’d be ready, and it’s just a pain. First, Mavericks seems to have taken away a few things, is seriously buggy in multiple places, does certain things very slowly (AppleScript, in particular, seems really sluggish), and breaks certain other pieces of software, sometimes in subtle but annoying ways, and other times in really serious ways—I can no longer print to the departmental printer at work, for example. (This is, however, the first time I can remember where a .x upgrade to OS X didn’t break SPSS, so that’s something positive, I guess.) I thought Mountain Lion was one of the best updates to Mac OS ever, since it broke almost nothing and provided useful new functionality. Almost nothing that’s new in Mavericks seems of any use—I had high hopes for the “Maps” app but then I remembered that it still uses Apple’s map data, which is very dated—and the bugs and missing/broken functionality are simply not worth it. I wish I could have stated with Mountain Lion.

But still, it’s really fast, right?
Yes, yes it is. Is it fast enough to justify the major expense and the storage hassle? Frankly, no. Maybe I’ll have a better attitude about it once all my data are actually migrated to the T3, but right now it’s been a very expensive and time-consuming process with insufficient upside. It might have been better to wait a while for better third-party storage support and another round of bug fixes.

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  1. 2015.01.02 at 13:27
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