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The Mac Hardware Report: A Look at the Eight-Core Value Equation

Over the next few weeks, you’ll be seeing lots and lots of benchmarks for Apple’s eight-core, 3GHz Mac Pro. Perhaps the fundamental question to be answered is whether it’s really worth paying a $1,498 surcharge over a pair of dual-core 2GHz Intel Xeons to get one.

Call this a preliminary and largely cursory analysis, based on very little external evidence, but my gut feeling is that it’s not.

Am I serious? Indeed, I am. You see, there has to be an incredibly large performance improvement to justify paying such a princely sum for a beefier processor pair. And there’s the rub.

Take, for example, the preliminary tests Rob-Art Morgan has posted over at Bare Feats, a Web site devoted to heavy-duty benchmarking. In some respects, the results are predictable. Both Cinebench and GeekBench show typically large performance increases when you go from four-cores to eight. However, the improvement is extremely modest — make that hardly noticeable — with the Public Beta version of Adobe Photoshop CS3 and the latest edition of Apple’s Aperture.

I suppose this mixed bag of results might be be highly disappointing for graphic artists, who were no doubt hoping that Photoshop would deliver blazingly fast performance, more than sufficient to justify the migration from four to eight cores. No such luck, although content creators specializing in 3D work will be delighted.

So why the disparity? Well, Rob-Art quotes long-time Mac programmer Lloyd Chambers (one of the creators of the legendary DiskDoubler years ago) as blaming the eight-core Mac Pro’s performance limitations on an overtaxed memory bus. In other words, the RAM isn’t capable of keeping up with the capability of the processors when they’re operating at fill tilt.

In addition, few applications can even handle two processor cores, so even going to four-core may be a waste of time and money. In fact, I suspect most of you would be perfectly satisfied with the standard-issue 2.66GHz Mac Pro, since the performance boost going to a pair of dual-core 3GHz Xeons would be far more modest than the price price increase.

Going Quad-core may be a terrific idea if you crave bragging rights, of course, but the expense would be seldom justified, except for that small subset of applications that can take advantage of all that mass CPU horsepower.

So why did Apple release such an upgrade in the first place?

Well, for one thing, I’m sure that the demand was there, created when Intel’s first four-core “Clovertown” processors first appeared last fall. However, that first batch topped out at 2.66GHz, which would actually be slower than the 3GHz dual-cores in many instances.

The 3GHz version of Clovertown is apparently the result of a limited production run that Intel designed for Apple. The likes of Dell and HP won’t get their hands on such processors until later, although it may not matter all that much.

Clearly Apple hasn’t made a huge deal of it either. You see, the eight-core Mac Pro option was only introduced with a press release. As of the time this story was written, Apple had yet to post benchmarks for an eight-core system.

In an interview for this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, Macworld’s Editorial Director, Jason Snell, said Apple seemed pretty low-key about the potential for the new Mac Pro with them as well. Apple suggested it would be ideal for programmers, in fact, who are developing applications that will take advantage of multi-core processors.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Leopard is being optimized for four cores or even additional cores. By next year, such processors will be more and more commonplace, and will likely appear in note-book computers as well.

So it may well be that the eight-core Mac Pro is, right now, simply an expensive vision of the future. If you’re up to spending a bundle to acquire one of these beasts, you’ll have a personal computer with a huge amount of potential, but you may also be chasing a rainbow with little hope of finding its end.