First Impressions of a New Mac Pro Compared to an Older iMac for Color Grading

As a colorist I’ve come to think that no matter how much power you have under the hood of a machine, you always seem to want more. But practically speaking, what is enough power? Especially if you want to invest in a new machine and you’re focused on staying with the Apple products – in particular the new Mac Pro that you plan to use for the next 3-4+ years before starting another upgrade cycle. It’s time for an upgrade in my studio, and I wanted to know if the new Mac Pro would be the right direction for me.

Thanks to OmegaBroadcast here in Austin Texas, who generously allowed me to borrow their new Mac Pro for a few days, I was able to do some testing. This wasn’t the most complete, objective testing one can do, but I just wanted to get a rough feel for what the performance is like on the mid-priced standard configuration show here.

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 11.03.36 AM So I brought that little black cylinder home, hooked it up to my environment, and took clips from two full-length narratives  I recently completed grading. One film was shot on Canon C300 using C-Log encoding in 1920×1080, which is representative of the kinds of on-going projects I see. The other was an EPIC 5K RED-based 4800×2700 film using their REDLogFilm encoding.

Believe it or not, I’ve graded literally dozens of shorts and long-form narratives on a two-year-old iMac fully tricked out with 256 SSD, 32GB of RAM and 10TB Raid 5 Thunderbolt drive, and I use Resolve 10 for my projects.  I have been reasonably happy with the performance of HD projects on this older iMac, and I can even get pretty consistent audio playback.  But in general it feels like that machine is at its hairy edge trying to keep up, and I know render times could be better.  Needless to say, noise reduction can only be used sparingly.  Though I have graded EPIC 5k projects on this machine, it’s a challenge at times and not the most efficient way to work. You work with the tools you have, right? That said, I know the time has come to upgrade, and I’m not going to move to a PC nor am I interested in purchasing an older Mac Pro.

General Impressions

As other bloggers have commented, when you first pick up the little black jewel you can’t help but wonder how in the world they engineered so much power  into such a small package. It’s hefty when you lift it – roughly 11 pounds – but your lasting impression is this guy is PORTABLE. I began imagining how I could take advantage of its small size. I have the option of keeping it on my desk to marvel at or easily find room in the cabinets below. This is going to be a popular machine for on-set grading, and I imagine we’ll see hundreds of these Mac Pros sitting in booths at NAB 2014 this year.

You can easily lift off the outside case and look inside. The memory cards and graphics are accessible immediately after lifting the round case, and they appear to be replaceable. The CPU, which is down at the bottom on the daughterboard, is replaceable, too, I’m told, though that would require some disassembly.

Yes, the Mac Pro is quiet. Frankly, I never heard it, as even the quietest disk drives seemed to be louder than Mac Pro.  On the tests below where I rendered 5K files using the full debayering feature, the Mac Pro was pushing warm air out the top but there was no loud rush of fan noise. This to me is a huge deal for me. I do a lot of audio work. It’s critical to keep my studio as quiet as possible, so that’s a plus.

Subjective performance observations – booting, loading Resolve, loading stills, moving through timelines – all of these just felt substantially faster, especially with the 5k EPIC files. But even the handling of HD files – which I thought was adequate on my older iMac – was substantially quicker, snappier.  The render times for tests are below and they are impressive.

Before I review the testing I did, I ask you to keep two things in mind. One, this was a quick, partially objective, partially subjective testing process for me. I had projects to get out, so my time was limited. Two, if you’re looking for a down-and-dirty, nuts-and-bolts performance analysis, you’ll find that at AnandTech and other places showing detailed performance benchmarks, and they are more comprehensive in their reviews of the Mac Pro features.  

Another excellent backgrounder was written by Jason Myers of LiftGammaGain. He was able to run a few different benchmarks, including the Resolve 9 Standard Candle, as well as a variation that Juan Salvo has been working on called the Standard Flashlight, some Sapphire Plugin benchmarks, a 6-node HD encoding test, along with playback performance for a number of cameras. His tests were on the same Mac Pro I used in my tests. Juan Salvo Jason Myers and Josh Petok give an extremely thoughtful perspective on whether or not to buy a new Mac Pro on their latest Coloristo’s #15 Podcasts “The new Mac Pro“.

New Mac Pro testing – 
I ran two tests:
1.  Render a single ProRes 422 1920×1080 file from Canon C300 C-Log encoded clips. Total length: 16 minutes 23 seconds
2.  Render a single ProRes 422 file 4800×2700 fully debayered from RED EPIC clips. Total length: 6 minutes 17 seconds.
Here is a quick summary of my current iMac and new Mac Pro configuration with Blackmagic disk speed tests. Note that on the RED footage tests I did NOT have the same disk drive on the new Mac Pro.  I just didn’t have a practical (safe) way to move the source files that were on my iMac because I was still making some changes to that film. I had an 8TB FireWire Raid 0 LaCie drive which had a duplicate set of source files, so I thought what the heck, let’s run the Mac Pro with a significant disk handicap and see how it does. Sure enough, the Mac Pro beat the pants off the iMac, even with the handicap.
iMac – CANON C-LOG 1920×1080 Render Test
LaCie 4TB RAID 0 Thunderbolt:  Write 250 MB/s   Read 265 MB/s
Timeline speed – 20-24 FPS – ~5 nodes per clip
Render 6:17 minutes of Canon C-LOG source files to a single ProRes 422 file — 21.25 minutes
New Mac Pro – CANON C-LOG HD Render Test
LaCie 4TB RAID 0 Thunderbolt:  Write 250 MB/s   Read 265 MB/s
Timeline speed – 24 FPS  ~5 nodes per clip
Render 6:17 minutes of Canon C-LOG  source files to a single ProRes 422  file — 5.5 minutes
iMac – RED EPIC files 4800×2700 Render Test
LaCie 1oTB Raid 5 Thunderbolt:  Write  550 MB/s   Read 710 MB/s
Timeline speed at half resolution – good – 3-5 FPS (typically 7-8 nodes per clip)
RED files test 4800×2700 6:17 duration – Force sizing and debayering to highest quality took ~55 minutes
New Mac Pro – RED EPIC files 4800×2700 Render Test
** FireWire Raid 0 8TB LaCie drive:  Write  60 MB/s   Read 75 MB/s
Timeline speed at half resolution – good – 24 FPS – solid  (typically 7-8 nodes per clip)
RED files test 4800×2700 6:17 duration – Force sizing and debayering to highest quality took ~38 minutes 
In summary, this mid-level Mac Pro was easily outperforming the older iMac in playback and render times, even with the Mac Pro using an older FireWire drive on the RED files.  I can see stretching some financially to get the faster graphics cards and going up to 8 processors versus 6 and upping the SSD RAM to 512GB or likely 1TB. I’m basing this partially on the testing I’ve seen at other blog sites and my intuition in configuring systems over the years.  I will not likely go for the 12-processor model. Having worked at Motorola Semiconductor for 12 years and seeing the development of parallel processing CPUs, I have some insights around the product maturation process and increasing performance over time. Typically the 12 processor is going to cost a lot more and the additional performance can be questionable.
As a side note, I made a rather interesting observation: The back of the Mac Pro lights up around the connectors.   As cool as this is, I found it actually to be a kind of hindrance. In a darkened studio, my eyes try to adjust to the rather bright-white outline around the connector area, but I cannot actually ‘see’ the connector inputs because they are so black! I chuckled about this as I know that Apple must be assuming you’ll be in a well-lit room when you plug cables in.  No biggie here; just saying it was odd at first as I couldn’t actually find the right hole to plug in cables quickly in my studio.
Hope you found this useful. It was revealing to me, and the only downside was having to give the little guy back.
Now back to work!
ADDENDUM 1 – One additional point I want to make is that your decision to purchase a Mac Pro is that for some people the new 27″ iMacs with SSD RAM and NIVIDA  graphics coprocessor(optional) are an excellent buy. In fact I suspect that most businesses will find this a better solution unless you’re truly needing all the power of a Mac Pro and you’re willing to spend the extra coin.  My two year old iMac still works very well for HD projects and as I said I’ve completed a 5k RED full length movie on it. It was slow at at times but the running at 1/8 resolution brought me 24fps playback. Although audio the addition of audio was a problem.  The other issue with the older iMac is that noise reduction is very very slow. Doable just slow.  So if you’re looking for a best fit solution for your  budget I would encourage readers to look at getting an iMac.   For a more detailed discussion of needs versus power  versus dollars let me encourage you to listen to this podcast  by Juan Salvo Jason Myers and Josh Petok as they give an extremely thoughtful perspective on whether or not to buy a new Mac Pro on their latest Coloristo’s #15 Podcasts “The new Mac Pro“.


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