Apple Bumps Mac Pros, Xserves to Eight Cores

A week before the Macworld Expo, Apple rolls out its "fastest Macs ever." 

Only a week before the annual Macworld Conference and Expo in San Francisco, Apple has released new Mac Pro Xserve models, both sporting twin quad-core, 45-nanometer processors at clock speeds of up to 3.2 GHz.

The new Mac Pro is "the fastest Mac we've ever shipped," said Tom Boger, Apple's senior director of desktop, servers and storage product marketing. He said that Apple's own testing with the applications Logic, Maya and Final Cut showed a performance gain of 1.9 to 2.3 times over the previous Mac Pro standard configuration.

The Mac Pros and Xserves are the first products from Apple to use Intel's 45-nanometer Xeon 5400 (aka Harpertown) processors. Intel has stated that the new use of a Hafnium-based technology in the Penryn family, of which Harpertown is one, will reduce power leakage and improve the processor's performance-to-power ratio—a metric that Apple CEO Steve Jobs stressed when he first announced his company's switch from Power PC to Intel CPUs.

In addition to using "the fastest Xeon architecture on the market," Boger said, the new Mac Pros will take advantage of the faster system design of the new chips, with two independent front-side bus speeds at 1600MHz and memory speeds at 800MHz.

"One of the ways to measure performance is to use the STREAM benchmark," Boger said. He said that Apple's tests using this protocol showed more than a 60 percent speed boost over the previous version of the Mac Pro's base configuration.

The new base Mac Pro configuration, which Boger said was available today at a price of $2,799, includes two 2.8 GHz Xeon 5400 quad-core processors; 2GB of 800MHz DDR2 ECC DIMM memory; a 7200-rpm SATA hard drive with 320GB of storage; an ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT with 256MB; two PCI Express 2.0 and two PCI Express card slots; a 16x SuperDrive; Bluetooth 2.0 support; and an Apple Mighty Mouse and new "thin" keyboard. Oddly, an 802.11n AirPort Extreme card for Wi-Fi networking is an additional $50 configure-to-order option.

Dell was the first major computer manufacturer to release Xeon 5400-based desktops in November, with Lenovo and HP following. Dell's base model, the Precision T5400, starts at $1,819, but configuring it to match Apple's base Mac Pro--moving to two 2.8GHz Xeon 5400s, bumping up the RAM to 2GB, upping the hard drive from 80GB to 320GB--pushed its price to well over $4,000.

And the Precision did not offer the same graphic card options as the new Mac Pro. The standard card can be deleted in favor of the popular nVidia GeForce 8800 GT 512MB card (this will add $200 and a delay of about three weeks) or the nVidia Quadro FX 5600 1.5GB card (for $2850 and a similar shipping wait). Boger pointed out that with the option of four of the base ATI cards installed, the new Mac Pro could drive up to eight 30-inch monitors at once.

Boger also noted new storage options for the Mac Pro. Its four hard-drive bays now support 1TB drives and with the Mac Pro RAID card (an $800 option) the Mac Pro can use RAID levels 0, 1 and 5.

The Mac Pro also ships with Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) and the iLife '08 software suite installed.

Xserve: Doc Octo?

The Xserve, Apple's 1U rack-mountable server, received a similar architecture boost to dual Xeon 5400s.

"It's the most powerful server we've ever shipped," said Boger. He added that the eight 45-nanometer cores "amps up performance from a thermal standpoint."

"Like the Mac Pro, when we do memory throughput tests we see over a 60 percent improvement," he said.

Boger also pointed out that the Xserve offers three drive bays, unlike the two that most 1U servers have, and that the Xserve supports 1TB drives per bay. All are hot-swappable.

"Another key difference of the Xserve is that it includes Leopard Server with an unlimited client license," Boger said. He noted that most Windows-based servers come with only a five-client license.

The base Xserve configuration costs $2,995, which is the same as the previous generation's base cost. But, Boger said, the new model includes 2GB RAM, a SuperDrive, a video card and the faster architecture.

It is unusual for Apple to announce new models a week before Macworld, where CEO Steve Jobs has long made a tradition of unveiling surprise new products. Veteran Mac watchers point to Intel's published processor road map as making it harder for Apple to completely veil its plans; still, many are looking to next week's consumer-oriented show with anticipation.

After all, Jobs will need something new to wow the crowd.