My article, "Why Do Over 50% Of Mac Owners We Polled Intend To Drop Apple?" highlighted the differences between off-the-shelf processor technology and what's available to specify for the current range of Apple Mac Pro machines. It sparked a healthy debate about what other factors affect Pro Tools users.
In the comments it was quite rightly pointed out that processor capability alone is not the only factor, so here are a few other things that can really affect your Pro Tools experience.
You may remember Mike Thornton's series of articles, "Review Of Angelbird SSD Drives". When reading that article, I was struck at how poor the Mac drive access speeds were, in comparison to the "off-the-shelf" drives in my Windows system. Here's a reminder of the test results -
|Drive||Read Speed MB/Sec||Write Speed MB/Sec||Comments|
|Angelbird SSD work for Mac Pro 512G||254||266||Installed in a SATA2 caddy in my Mid 2010 Mac Pro|
|Crucial M4 512G||243||269||Installed in the top SATA2 slot above the DVD in my Mid 2010 Mac Pro|
|Work Drive – 4TB Western Digital||150||159||Installed in a SATA2 caddy in my Mid 2010 Mac Pro|
|Work Drive 3 – 250Gb Seagate Barracuda||30||35||Installed in an external Firewire 800 enclosure connected by FW800 to my Mid 2010 Mac Pro|
|SATA Drive 2 – Seagate ST315003 1.5TB||98||108||Installed in an external SATA2 enclosure connected to a Sonnet ESATA pci-e card in my 2010 Mac Pro|
|Angelbird SSD2go pocket drive 256G||31||36||Connected by USB2 into the front of my 2010 Mac Pro|
|Angelbird SSD2go pocket drive 256G||358||433||Connected by USB3 to my Mid 2012 MacBook Pro|
|Toshiba 500G system drive||65||51||The factory fitted Apple Toshiba drive connected by internal SATA2 inside my Mid 2012 MacBook Pro|
To give you some idea, my motherboard, which is now running a two generation old i7 chip, but on the latest X99 motherboard, gets these results, from an off-the-shelf Samsung Evo connected via SATA3 - the equivalent of putting it in the drive caddy on a Cheese-grater Mac Pro, all be it that the cheese-grater is only capable of SATA2.
As you can see, it totally spanks everything the MacPro can muster. It can go even faster when using PCIe or M2 drives - a format that's not even available on Macs. The latest MacPro has PCIe SSDs, which are very fast but are also very expensive and not easily upgradeable. M2 drives combine fast access speeds with a simple standardised interface, which does not take up one of your PCIe slots.
A M2 Samsung 960 Evo SSD can read at 3200 MB/s and write at 1800MB/s, with 330K/330K IOPS (Input/output operations per second) - much faster than the equivalent SATA3 Samsung SSD, which can read at 540MB/s and write at 520MB/s, with an IOPS of 98k/90k. You do of course have to pay for this leap in performance, but at least with a modern Windows system, it's an option you can easily consider.
Despite popular opinion, the capability of your graphics card can have a huge impact on your Pro Tools performance.
This is the Gigabyte NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB WINDFORCE GPU, as fitted to the Scan 3XS FWX99 PowerDAW - Digital Audio Workstation. It has 4GB of its own GDDR5 RAM, and 768 cores, running at up to 1442 MHz.
This means that graphics performance doesn't detract from the host CPU. Tests using the GPU-Z GPU Information Utility by TechPowerUp, show that Pro Tools still places quite a draw on the GPU, especially when displaying graphics intensive plug-ins. Pro Tools users who have their host system in the studio might be alarmed at the multiple fans on this GPU, but don't be - in practice these fans are whisper quiet. Unless you have a PCIe expansion chassis, it is practically impossible to fit one of these beasts in to a Mac.
I would always recommend installing a NVidia based GPU rather than an AMD, as the former has proven compatibility with Pro Tools and Adobe software. NVidia cards have far better Windows drivers than AMD as well - I've found NVidia to be far more professional application orientated than AMD, who tend to concentrate on gaming, and whose control software is full of bloatware. Also think what Avid specify for their Media Composer Systems - you'll find it's always NVidia. Software like Adobe Premiere Pro and Media Encoder are also tuned to work best with NVidia GPUs - a Full HD export using the NVidia GPU cores instead of the host CPU literally takes seconds. It really is true multi-tasking.
A common issue I read about on the DUC is how to get power to all the PCIe cards you can host in a Mac system. Modern interfaces such as NVidia GPUs and Avid HDX require extra power alongside what they can draw from the PCIe power rail, to properly power the extra processing. The standard PSU on a "cheesegrater" MacPro does not have enough physical power outlets to supply a fully populated machine. Y-adapters are available which can help solve the problem, but even then the PSU can't magic the all important volts and amps out of thin air.
This is the be quiet! Straight Power 10 600W Hybrid Modular Power Supply, as fitted to the Scan 3XS FWX99 PowerDAW - Digital Audio Workstation. Note the abundance of multiple power rail outputs, in a modular form that can be easily customised to your installation.
If your GPU and HDX cards up the current draw beyond what the PSU can supply, it denies other devices, such as the CPU and drives, of that all important power. It may be happy when ticking over, but put the system under stress and you could end up with disk write errors or worse. On a Windows system, if you find yourself running low on available power, you can easily upgrade your PSU. This option simply doesn't exist for Mac owners.
Standard specification for RAM on modern i7 boards is DDR4. This is currently the fastest memory available and is specifically tuned to take advantage of the i7's architecture, and allow rapid transfer of data to and from other parts of the system. There's no point having an incredibly fast processor or SSD, if the system has a bottleneck with its memory.
The "Cheese-grater" Mac Pro was originally specified with DDR2 memory and the latest MacPro has DDR3 memory. As you can see from the table below, there are important performance considerations -
|Bus Clock||Transfer Rate||Channel Bandwidth|
|DDR2||200-533 MHz||0.40-1.06 GT/s||3.20-8.50 GBps|
|DDR3||400-1066 MHz||0.80-2.13 GT/s||6.40-17.0 GBps|
|DDR4||1066-2133 MHz||2.13-4.26 GT/s||12.80-25.60 GBps|
The faster your memory, and the more channels it can work simultaneously, the faster the CPU and your drives can shuffle data around, in and out of the host system's memory "current account" as it were. When looking at these access speed and bandwidth figures, think of it like having to breath through a narrow tube, instead of being able to take deep breaths through a wider aperture. It's exactly the same for host systems - the easier you make it for the CPU to "breathe", the better the performance will be.
This Is Not Mac Bashing
Discussions involving comparing the performance of Apple kit verses custom built Windows machines can get very heated. I've found that the only way forward is to detach your emotional investment in your system and instead look at the cold hard facts.
It appears to me that a lot of Mac owners have quite an emotional attachment to their machines. It's totally understandable - in most cases they've had to make a significant investment to own one. Nobody likes to hear that the machine they've recently spent more than a second hand car on, is rapidly approaching obsolescence. However, all of us, at some point in our lives, have to take hard decisions, that might involve parting company with loved ones.
What I love about Windows self-build systems is that you don't have to make a huge capital investment right at the outset. As long as you choose wisely, you can put together a very respectable "base" system, which has enough future proofing to last you many generations of hardware.
For example, two years ago I jumped on the X99 motherboard train, with a 6 core (12 thread) i7 processor. If I so wished, I could easily upgrade that to the latest 8 core (16 thread) i7, or maybe even the 10 core (20 thread) i7. I can expand my RAM easily up to more than 128GB. I already have dual Thunderbolt 2, but for around £65 can easily upgrade that to Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C. The same applies to my GPU and PSU. I can also run M2 SSDs to take full advantage of the latest SSD technology.
Some computer suppliers, such as the Scan Computers' 3XS brand, even offer an "upgrade" service, where you can send your system back to them and get them to upgrade whatever components you require, get them all set up, and return your system to you, good as new.
Are you currently speccing a replacement for your Mac? Please let us know your experiences in the comments.
Best of Luck! Remember, we're here to help.
Since writing the bulk of this article, Apple have made the slightly astonishing but welcome admission that the Mac Pro "trashcan" design was I quote, "a bad bet". They've also announced that they're having a radical rethink of the Mac Pro architecture and are looking at "modular design". The only fly in the ointment is that they're not able to include things like USB-C on the Mac Pro refresh as the outdated motherboard / CPU / GPU configuration that the case design enforces, simply won't allow it.
I really welcome this news, as much as I welcomed Apple's decision to use USB-C in their new machines - it's a universal standard - not exclusively licensed to anyone. It also makes great steps towards re-levelling the playing field.
Come on Apple - do what you did with the cheesegrater - use reasonably "off the shelf" components, mount them in such a way that they can be upgraded, and let your software do the talking. You've always been good at software, operating systems and providing good tools for developers. The Hackintosh is a testament to this. Beat the Hacks at their own game.