Mac Pro time

For the past three or four years, I’ve been promising myself that I was going to buy myself a Mac Pro. This mostly a result of digital photography, which makes rapacious demands on computer systems. In the last 9 months or so, it’s also been because I am doing more work using virtualized machine images. In any case, every time Apple had an event, I was telling myself that I was going to buy the machine, but there was always some reason why it never happened. The announcement of the Nehalem based Mac Pro earlier this year finally pushed me over the edge. And pushing was required. There’s been a lot of benchmarking which casts the performance of these machines in questionable light when compared with the machines that they replaced. Until a bunch of applications are rewritten to take advantage of the large number of cores in Nehalem based systems, these boxes are only slightly better than the ones they replaced, and a bit more expensive.

I ended up getting an 8 core machine, because these are the machines that can be expanded to an outrageous amount of memory, something which is a necessity for systems doing a lot of Photoshop. Due to the benchmarking controversy, I got the 2.66GHz processors, so that single threaded programs wouldn’t suffer as much. Here’s a quick rundown on my experience after having the machine for a few weeks.

Hardware

All of my hardware moved over without a hiccup, except for my Logitech Z-5500 speakers. I needed a TOSLINK to TOSLINK cable, which was rectified by a trip to Radio Shack (yes, we have one on Bainbridge Island. It’s not Fry’s but once a year or so they save my bacon.). The machine is much quieter than I expected. The last desktop machine that I owned was a homebuilt Windows box, and that thing was really loud. The Mac Pro is quieter than some of the external FireWire drives that are plugged into it. Heat would be a different story. My office is already several degrees warmer than the rest of the house, and now it’s probably another several degrees warmer. I’m having to be very careful about leaving my office doors open in order for things to cool down. Figuring out how this works in the summer is going to be interesting.

Performance wise I am pretty happy. Things are definitely snappier than my Sun supplied 2.6GHz MacBook Pro. I moved some external disks off of Firewire and into the Mac Pro’s internal SATA drive bays, and I am sure that the change in interface made a big contribution to the improved speed. The machine has 12GB of Other World Computing RAM in it, so it basically doesn’t page unless I am doing something big in Photoshop or have several VirtualBox VMs open at the same time.

There are some things that I miss:

We don’t have TV, so we do a lot of NetFlix and other DVD’s. This happened mostly on the MacBook Pro via Front Row and the Apple Remote. The Mac Pro doesn’t talk to the Apple remote, and I miss that. If people have suggestions for controlling Front Row on a Mac Pro, please leave them in the comments.

I got used to having the laptop hooked up to the LCD display, and using the laptop LCD as my “communications display” for IM, IRC, Twitter and so forth. Now I’m back down to a single display and missing it. I’m also missing it in Lightroom.

The Mac Pro came with an Apple keyboard, and the keyboard I was using was a Microsoft Natural Keyboard from 2000, and some of the keys were starting to get hard to push. So I figured that I would try the Apple keyboard. So far I don’t mind it, but keys are in different places, and the new keyboard has 9 years of muscle memory working against it. But that would be true of just about any keyboard.

Software

Any time I get a new machine I update my Macintosh Tips and Tricks page. I definitely have some updates that I could make, and I might make some of them after JavaOne. The rumor mill is suggesting that MacOS 10.6 Snow Leopard is going to ship this summer, so I might just wait until that happens, since I expect a lot of things to need updating, rearranging, etc.

I did have a problem when I tried to update the machine to 10.5.7. Things were behaving very oddly, so I restored the machine back to 10.5.6 with Time Machine. Time Machine backups on an internal SATA drive take less time (and make less noise) than on an external FireWire drive. I’m going to give this another try after JavaOne. And for prospective commenters, yes, I repaired permissions and used the Combo Updater.

Photoshop occasionally makes use of the additional cores, but it’s the large amount of RAM that is really making the difference at the moment. The same is true for Lightroom. Perhaps the next editions of these programs, coupled with 10.6, will do a better job of keeping multiple cores busy. In the meantime, my Lightroom to Photoshop batch jobs are definitely running quite a bit faster than before.

On the whole

On the whole, I am happy with the machine, and I expect to be a lot happier when 10.6 ships this summer.

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