Commentary: Is Apple's Mac Pro Worth the Upgrade for G5 Pros?
Posted Aug 11, 2006

This week, at Apple's 2006 World Wide Developer Conference, CEO Steve Jobs completed the company's transition to Intel-based machines. After bringing out Intel-based MacBooks (née PowerBooks), Mac minis and iMacs, there was one group of users thus far with no Intel meat on their plate: pro desktop users. Jobs not only announced that the Mac Pro replaces the Power Macintosh G5, but that the new systems are already shipping. What's more, Apple's single-rack Xserve has also made the processor switch, but the Intel-based Xserve will not ship until later this year.
     With these announcements, it's official: there are no more new Apple computers that use the G4 or G5 chips from IBM and Freescale (née Motorola). This basically puts to rest the PowerOpen alliance formed by the three companies to promote the PowerPC chip in the early 1990s.
     But what of the latest incarnation of Apple's "Tower of Power?" It's still clad in a G5-looking case, following the precedent that these new computers are the same computers we already know, just with a different CPU. The only computer to undergo a clear design revision was the MacBook. The MacBook Pro, mini, iMac, and Mac Pro all look nearly identical to the PowerPC-based models that preceded them. This is similar to what Apple did when transitioning from Motorola 680x0 chips to PowerPC: they kept the user experience as similar as possible to ensure a seamless transition to the new machines.
     But does the final piece of the pie offer up a tasty slice of computing? Well, it depends on what you want to do. There are several advancements in the new model, all of them "under the hood." Foremost among them are adjustable PCI Express architecture, a "double-wide" 16-lane slot for the graphics card, four easily removable internal hard drive bays, a true 3Gbps internal SATA controller, design for two internal optical drives, more external ports, and better error-correcting RAM.

But what does all this mean in terms of performance? Pros need to know if the computer does the job, and when it comes to Photoshop and Adobe apps, you'll still be in emulation. A G5 runs Photoshop way faster than the Intel-based machines, other improvements notwithstanding. We aren't scheduled to see universal Adobe Creative Suite apps until well into 2007.

Universal apps will see a speed boost. Head-to-head tests are just now being performed between a Quad Core G5 and a Quad Core Intel. They are showing a marginal improvement in those processes that are honed for the Intel chips. But not all processes are, and overall, the G5 remains the most solid machine to have.

Moreover, the cost of upgrading your machine will likely be more than just the cost of the box. Looking at various specifications, it seems like graphics cards from the PCI-Express Dual-Core G5 Power Macs will not work in the Mac Pro. Nor will standard Windows PC graphics cards work in the Mac Pro. Also, there is no support for SLI on the Mac Pro.

The costs continue when it comes to the better RAM. The 667MHz ECC PC-5300 buffered SDRAM required for the Mac Pro currently costs around $2,000-2,500 for 8GB. For about the same amount of money, you can set up your Quad-Core G5 with 16GB of ECC memory. So if you need to delve into Photoshop for serious work, or run multiple non-universal apps at the same time, 2x as much memory in a PPC G5 is the clear winner here.

When Apple introduced the "gumdrop" iMac with only USB ports and no planned expansion capability, that was a big leap into the unknown and it paid off handsomely, with amazingly inexpensive and powerful machines. These Intel-based Mac Pro machines are not the bold steps into the future that Apple has taken in the past. But with a whole pro industry counting on their machines to work every day, small steps are just what the doctor ordered.