Apple’s aluminium-encased Mac Pro is about as serious a workstation computer you can get. The machine is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside (there’s not a cable in sight!), and Apple should be commended for once again producing a jaw-dropper of a product. Similar to the Power Mac G5 which it replaced in terms of outward appearance and expansion capabilities, the Mac Pro is based on Intel’s built-for-work Xeon processor – the workstation counterpart of the desktop-oriented Core i7 – and is by far the fastest computer that Apple has ever produced.

The Mac Pro was formally announced in 2006 and completes Apple’s transition from the PowerPC to x86 architecture. Early last year, Apple unveiled the first 3.2GHz, dual quad-core Intel Xeon-based Mac Pro. The latest Mac Pro reviewed here, which was officially unveiled on March 3, features the new Intel Xeon processors based on the Nehalem micro-architecture as well as a lower entry price. Unfortunately, due to the wonderful law of economics, UK prices for Mac Pros are slightly higher than in the U.S. The Quad Core Mac Pro, for instance, costs $2499 (roughly £1775). Over here, however, the very same machine costs £1899.

I received the entry-level Mac Pro (£1899), which ships as standard with a single 2.66GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon X5550 64-bit processor, 3GB DDR3 (1066MHz) system memory (leaving one spare memory slot), 640GB (7200rpm) SATA-2 hard disk drive, 18x double-layer SuperDrive and nVidia GeForce GT 120 with 512MB discrete memory. If money is no object or your processing needs are intense, the 8-Core model (£2499) offers two 2.26GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon processors and 6GB system memory (no spare memory slots).

The upgrade options don’t stop there. For the ultimate Mac Pro you can specify two 2.93GHz Xeon X5570 processors (£2080), 32GB system memory (£4480), bump the hard drive up to 1TB (£80), fit another three 1TB hard drives for a total of 4TB storage (£720), specify a RAID card to support these multiple hard drives (£560), go for another SuperDrive (£80), and increase the graphical performance of the machine by swapping the GeForce GT 120 for an ATI Radeon HD 4870 (£160). Are you sitting down? This top-of-the-line specification costs a bank-busting £11,059 – and that’s if you can resist yourself from purchasing a 24-inch LED Cinema Display (£635) or 30-inch Cinema HD Display (£1173), Apple Wireless Keyboard and Mouse (£34), Airport Extreme Wi-Fi Card (£40) and quad-channel Fibre Channel PCI Express Card (£800). As you can tell, this is not a machine for casual users tinkering with GarageBand and iPhoto, but a serious workhorse for content creation professionals.

Targeted at the server and workstation markets, Intel’s Xeon X5550 processor competes with AMD’s Opteron range but packs a more powerful punch. Based on the LGA1366 socket and manufactured using 45nm technology, the chip uses a 1333MHz front-side bus speed and comes with 8MB L3 cache. Xeon CPUs generally have more cache than their desktop counterparts in addition to multiprocessing capabilities. Because the most recent revision is based on the Nehalem microarchitecture, the old front-side bus technology has been replaced by Intel’s QuickPath Interconnect interface. As a result, the processor is capable of Turbo Boost, which dynamically boosts the clock rate of a core if the temperature does not climb too high.

An updated interior provides easy access to all components within the Mac Pro for hassle-free expansion. There are four direct-attach cable-free hard drive carriers for installing up to 4TB of internal storage, and the optional cable-free RAID card allows the four internal drive bays to be set up in RAID 0, 1, 5, or 0+1 configurations for improved disk performance and redundant data protection. For internal expansion the Mac Pro has four PCI Express (PCIe) 2.0 expansion slot. The 2008 model had two PCI Express (PCIe) 2.0 expansion slots and two PCI Express 1.1 slots. The first slot is double wide and accommodates the main video card, arranged with an empty area the width of a normal card beside it in order to leave room for the large coolers used on modern cards. A nice usability feature is that instead of the tiny screws typically used to fasten cards to the case, the Mac Pro uses a single ‘bar’ which holds the cards in place. The bar itself is held in place by two ‘captive’ thumbscrews that can be loosened by hand without tools and do not fall out of the case. The processors and RAM are even on a daughterboard, which connects to the motherboard via a sliding tray.

The PCIe slots can be configured individually to give more bandwidth to devices that require it, with a total of 40 ‘lanes’, or 13 GB/s total throughput. Sadly, when running Mac OS X, the Mac Pro does not support SLI or ATI CrossFire, limiting its ability to use the latest high-end gaming cards. Having said that, it has been reported the users have run both CrossFire and SLI installations when running Windows XP under Boot Camp – SLI/CrossFire is largely a function of software drivers.

With both a Mini DisplayPort and DVI-I port, the new Mac Pro provides out-of-the-box support for the 24-inch Apple LED Cinema Display, the 30-inch Apple Cinema HD Display, or other DVI-based displays. For further external connectivity the system includes five USB 2.0 ports (two on front, three on back) and four FireWire 800 ports (two on front, two on back), two Gigabit Ethernet ports, and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. Wi-Fi is supported, but only via the optional AirPort Extreme card. The system also provides both digital (optical) and analogue headphone jacks for sound in and out, the latter available on both the front and back of the case. Unlike other recent Mac products, the Mac Pro does not include the infrared receiver needed to use the optional Apple Remote.

For what it’s worth, the Mac Pro exceeds Energy Star 4.0 requirements and is leading the industry as an early adopter of the more stringent Energy Star 5.0 requirements, which will become effective later this year. The Mac Pro enclosure is made of highly recyclable aluminium and the interior is designed to be more material-efficient. The Mac Pro uses PVC-free internal cables and components and contains no brominated flame retardants.

Every Mac Pro includes Mac OS X 10.5 ‘Leopard’ operating system, which features Time Machine backup utility, a redesigned Finder that lets you quickly browse and share files between multiple Macs, and Quick Look for viewing files without opening an application. Furthermore, Spaces is an intuitive feature used to create groups of applications and switch between them, and iChat makes video calling easy (Web camera required). You also get a copy of Apple’s brilliant iLife ’09 suite of applications for managing photos, making movies and creating and learning to play music. iLife ’09 features iPhoto for organising and managing your photos, iMovie for making home movies, and GarageBand for producing the next chart-topping hit.

Conclusion

The Mac Pro is a stunning machine and there’s nothing on the market that is built with such precision. The aluminium enclosure is the same size as a small family car (206×475×511mm, 18.1kg), but its industrial design is guaranteed to survive a nuclear attack. The combination of high performance, practical expandability (it’s the only machine in Apple’s line-up that lets you change the graphics card or otherwise install internal upgrades beyond RAM), quiet operation and superb mechanical design makes it the system against which others should be measured.

The Xeon platform is, however, Intel’s professional offering and is not aimed at more general purpose use. This is why there is a large price and performance gap between the Mac Pro and Apple’s most powerful consumer machine, the all-in-one iMac (from £949). If you have to run Mac OS X for work and can stomach the giddying price, the Mac Pro is untouchable. It is impossible easy to maintain, works like a dream, and is backed up by strong after-sales support. If you want a complete multimedia machine that also allows you to watch HD movies and play games (Apple doesn’t sell a Blu-ray drive because it wants to push its own movie store and SLI/CrossFire isn’t supported), there are much more affordable Windows-based systems on the market if design and image aren’t a factor.