Mac Pro (2.66 GHz): First impressions

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
October 14th, 2006 • 4:45 pm

The one good thing to come out of my on-going troubles with my G5 Quad is that my employer recently agreed to buy me a new machine to replace my four-year-old G4 MDD. (I bought the G5 Quad with my own money last year.)

In light of my bad experience with the “built-to-order” MacBook that I bought last June and had to fight hard to be able to return and get a refund for, I decided to order the stock machine this time with no customizations at all. I didn’t really feel that the difference between the stock Mac Pro (2.66 GHz) and the top-of-the-line model (3.0 GHz) was all that great, and I was definitely not going to buy extra RAM from Apple. I don’t really need the AirPort and Bluetooth connectivity in that machine either, since it’s located in the same room as my AirPort Base Station and I can connect the tower to it via Ethernet. (And I don’t see the point of wireless devices that require batteries that have to be replaced regularly, especially since it’s very easy to set the wired devices so that the wires do not get in the way at all.)

The machine was ordered from Apple Canada Education on September 29. It was shipped from California on October 2. And I finally received it by courier yesterday, October 13. (It didn’t help that the machine was stuck at the Canadian border during the October 7-9 week-end, which was a holiday week-end in Canada.)

While waiting for the machine, I ordered 4 modules of 1 GB of RAM from CanadaRAM, which arrived by XpressPost within a couple of days. The RAM for the Mac Pro is still rather expensive. (It cost me over $1,100 CDN.) I was initially only going to buy 2 GB to add to the stock 1 GB, thinking I would wait for a few months before buying the other two, in the case the price dropped. But then I figured that the price hadn’t really changed since the Mac Pro was first launched, so I doubted that it would change all that much in the near future. I had the money, so I thought, what the heck… (I didn’t ask my employer to pay for the extra RAM; I figured that it would be my contribution to the deal, seeing that the machine will get used as a home machine as much as a work machine, in my work-at-home environment.)

The machine was extremely well-packaged, as usual with Apple, and was very easy to set up. The enclosure is obviously nearly identical to the G5 Quad, but I immediately thought that the machine was a bit lighter. (It’s still on the heavy side, but I don’t think it’s as heavy as the G5 Quad.) I first started it with the stock 1 GB of RAM only, just to make sure it was not dead-on-arrival and it was working properly.

As has been reported elsewhere on the web, the machine came on as soon as I plugged the power cord in, even without pushing the Power button. I found that a bit strange, but it’s not a big deal. The power plug on the machine side is also the regular shape again, instead of the custom design used for the G5 Quad, presumably because of higher power requirements.

The first major shock was the noise level. I had read that the machine was really quiet, but I didn’t expect it to be that quiet. It is really quite amazing, especially considering the level of performance of the machine. It is significantly quieter than the G5 Quad, which itself was significantly quieter than the G4 MDD. As someone who is very sensitive to noise issue, I must admit that it was a very pleasant surprise. In fact, the machine is so quiet that I am not sure that, once I get the G5 Quad fixed, I will want to have it on in the same room all the time! The near-silence is really so nice that it would be a shame to spoil it with another machine.

The other pleasant aspect of the Mac Pro is, of course, the space available inside and the extra bays. I immediately added to the machine not just the extra RAM, but also the two 500 GB Seagate drives that I had in the G5 Quad. (I put the original 250 GB hard drive that came with the G5 Quad back in it, especially since the machine is dead right now.) Installing the extra hard drives was very simple. The RAM installation was simple as well. I was surprised to see that the heat sinks on the stock RAM modules that came with the machine were much bigger than the heat sinks on my third-party RAM modules. (The heat sinks on Apple’s RAM almost take up all the space between the RAM modules!) But hopefully that won’t make any difference.

I was also able to add the second SuperDrive that I still had in my old G4 MDD (and was not able to move to the G5 Quad since it didn’t have a second optical drive bay). It’s an older drive without support for dual-layer DVDs, but it still works just fine, and I have its region setting set to Region 2, so that I can also use DVDs from Europe. It is really nice to be able to add a two-year-old drive to a brand new machine, i.e. to have at least some level of stability in the technology that didn’t make that older SuperDrive already obsolete. As expected, there was no configuration required. I just installed the second SuperDrive, booted the machine, and the Eject menu extra on the right-hand side of the menu bar was there, allowing me to choose which drive to open.

Even with all this extra stuff inside (I now have “only” one hard drive bay and six RAM slots left), the machine is still super quiet as far as I can tell.

It is also a nice, fast machine. I haven’t used all my software with it, but what I have used is nice and snappy. The transition to the Intel architecture is relatively painless. Many of my applications were already updated to Universal versions, and I made sure all the other utilities and drivers that I needed were up to speed. Of course, the software that came with the machine was not the very latest (10.4.7, iTunes 6), but it was easy to update all this—although it’s obviously good that I have access to a broadband connection not too far from here, because I would never have been able to download the 10.4.8 Combo updater for Intel over dial-up. (It’s nearly 250 MB in size!)

I still have to use Microsoft Office and Adobe CS2 in emulation, of course. But hopefully it will not be too painful in regular use. For hard-core design work, I can always switch back to my G5 Quad—when it’s finally fixed.

Another thing worth noting, as far as I am concerned, is that the keyboard that came with the machine is the same white model, with no separation between the function keys at the top, as the one I got with my G5 Quad. Unlike the one I got with my G5 Quad, however, this one doesn’t seem to suffer from the problem with double keystrokes that forced me to get the G5 Quad keyboard replaced. (Apple ended up sending me a replacement keyboard that was not the same model.) So I am going to see if I want to keep this new keyboard or use the replacement one that I had for my G5 Quad.

The Mighty Mouse doesn’t appear to be any different from the one I got with the G5 Quad.

My dual-monitor set-up with the 30″ display and the 23″ display didn’t pose any problems, except that I did have to use the DVI-to-DVI adapter (included with the Mac Pro) to connect the second DVI cable, because there simply is not enough space between the two DVI ports on the video card. But I had read about this beforehand and knew what to expect.

I guess the next big step for me will be to try and use Windows on this machine. I don’t think I want to try Boot Camp until it’s out of beta. I have multiple hard drive partitions and I don’t want to take any risks. (I have seen some horror stories about Windows getting confused by hard drive partitions.) Besides, I am much more interested in being able to run some Windows applications from within Mac OS X, so I might give Parallels a try one of these days.

I am hoping I will be able to use the Windows XP (Home Edition) that came with my old copy of Virtual PC, that I am obviously no longer to use on my machines. I have seen links to pages about how to build a compatible Windows XP startup/installation CD from an older version, so I will have to give this a try.

I also have to figure out what to do about the partitions on my extra hard drives. The Mac Pro can use the hard drives just fine, but I cannot install the operating system on them, because they were formatted for a PowerPC machine (the G5 Quad) and not for the Mac Pro. So I might have to reformat them at some point. I have reformatted the hard drive that came with the Mac Pro with two 125 GB partitions, however, and have installed the operating system on one of those two, so there is no need to any reformatting of the other drives in the near future.

So all in all, it’s been a very pleasant experience in this first day with the new machine. The one biggest improvement as far as I am concerned is still the noise level. It’s just amazing how quiet this new machine is. It really is the quietest Mac tower that I have ever had. The fact that it is also the fastest that I have ever had makes this all the more remarkable. The horror days of the G4 MDD “wind-tunnel” fans and whining power supply are well and truly over. Just for that, the switch to the Intel processors was probably worth it.

Let’s just hope I am not going to have any nasty hardware surprises with this new machine down the road, as I have with all my Mac computers since 2001. Just to be safe, I did ask my employer to buy the model with the three-year warranty. These days, I don’t really want to take any chances.

10 Responses to “Mac Pro (2.66 GHz): First impressions”

  1. ssp says:

    Sounds like a good start! Good luck with that machine.

    If you really have to use Windows – I can recommend Parallels. It leaves the crappy software safely contained in a window, giving you both peace of mind and the ability to do chores like IE testing of web sites without needing a real Wintel box or a slow VLC connection.

  2. Mike Lauder says:

    If you want to install Windows via Bootcamp I’d recommend putting it on a separate drive. That way there is no way for the installer to get confused, especially if you remove all the other drives while installing window.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Although I might be interested in trying out some games down the road (which would require Boot Camp), it is more important for me to be able to test web sites in Internet Explorer, etc. So I would indeed prefer the Parallels approach.

    Mike: You mean separate drive, not separate partition? I guess I would have to get a cheap SATA hard drive somewhere then…

  4. Mike Lauder says:

    Yes, stick in an extra SATA drive that’s big enough for your needs and give that over in it’s entirety to Windows. Saves any problems with partitions getting messed up, and you can remove all your OSX drives while you perform the windows install to remove any chance of losing your data. Remember, Bootcamp doesn’t really do anything too smart – it creates a driver disk and the correct partitions for Windows. After you’ve installed it and run the partitioner it isn’t actually required any more.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    OK, Mike, thanks for the advice.

  6. danridley says:

    Parallels is fabulous. My only complaint is that it uses a ton of RAM even when the VM isn’t running; make sure you quit the application after you shut down (or hibernate) Windows to free up the RAM.

    Boot Camp is also rock-solid; the only reports I’ve seen about partition confusion have to do more with the users being confused than the Windows installer. You should always have a backup anyway; but I wouldn’t be frightened of Boot Camp.

    You actually *don’t need it* at all if you’re installing Windows to another drive; what Boot Camp’s partitioner does that’s special is that it will create *both* GPT and MBR partition tables on the same drive. However, if you just boot from a Windows CD and use it to format a completely separate drive, it’ll install just fine, and your Mac will know how to boot it. Just use the Boot Camp wizard to burn a driver CD.

    The nice thing about that is that, as Mike mentioned, you can physically remove your OS X drives to be absolutely sure about where the Windows install is going.

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions, Dan. At this point, my only remaining concern is that, if I want to try both Parallels and Windows on a separate partition, I have to have two Windows XP licences, right? I don’t know yet whether I can still use the one that came with Virtual PC… But then I would need another one as well.

  8. danridley says:

    In theory, yes. Remember that you can use Windows for a time (30 days? 7 days?) without activating, so in practical terms, if your plan was to try them both and pick one, you could simply avoid activation until you’d made the decision. However, running both Parallels and Boot Camp long-term would require two licenses.

  9. danridley says:

    Oh, and the VPC copy of Windows XP should work just fine. Check the license to see if it’s legal; they may have put something in the license to say you could only run it in VPC.

    For Boot Camp, if the disc doesn’t have SP2 on it already, you’d need to create an SP2 slipstreamed install disc, which can be done quite easily. There are numerous guides on the Web, although they tend to require an existing Windows install. That could be a Catch-22 (Catch-SP2?). For Parallels, you can install straight from your disc and just upgrade to SP2 after the fact.

  10. Pierre Igot says:

    I am afraid Parallels does not recognize the Windows XP CD that came with Virtual PC 5. I also have an old copy of Windows 98 (French) lying around, so I tried that as well, but it gets stuck right after the first step (where you have to choose whether you want to boot from a CD or a floppy disk). So right now I cannot make Parallels work at all.

    I guess the next step is to try and obtain a Windows XP Home SP2 CD and use it with my Windows XP serial number. (The serial number includes the ominous string “OEM,” but I have read reports that you can get Windows XP activated over the phone with Microsoft just the same, which makes sense, since you can no longer use Virtual PC on the Intel Macs!)

    Like you said, I cannot manufacture a Windows XP Home SP2 CD myself here with only Mac hardware, so I’ll have to try and find someone with a PC to do it.

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