Upgrading and Analyzing Apple's Nehalem Mac Proby Anand Lal Shimpi on July 13, 2009 5:00 PM EST
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In my line of work, I tend to get access to a lot of very fast hardware. Both our SSD and GPU testbeds use Intel’s new Core i7 processor. If you read my review of the i7 you may have left the review feeling slightly underwhelmed by the processor. Sure, it was fast, but it wasn’t that much faster than a speedy Core 2 Quad.
In the months since that review went live I’ve had the benefit of using the i7 a lot. And I might’ve grown a little attached. The processor itself isn’t overly expensive, it’s the motherboard that really puts it over the top; but if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.
This is my Mac Pro:
It may look modern, but this is actually the same Mac Pro I reviewed back in 2006. In it are the same two 3.0GHz dual-core Woodcrest based Xeons that I upgraded it with for part 3 of my Mac Pro coverage. Woodcrest was the server version of Conroe, the heart of the original Core 2 Duo.
You’ll remember that I was quite happy with Conroe when it launched in 2006, so by extension I was quite happy with my Mac Pro. That was then, this is now.
Apple released a newer Mac Pro with quad-core Clovertown parts (65nm Kentsfield equivalent), then once more with Harpertown (45nm Penryn equivalent). While you could stick Clovertown into the first generation Mac Pros, you couldn’t upgrade them to Harpertown without hardware modifications to the system (don’t ask me what they are :)..).
I stayed away from the Harpertown upgrade simply because it was a lot of money for a moderate increase in performance. My desktop tests showed that Penryn generally yielded a 0 - 10% performance increase over Conroe and I wasn’t about to spend $3K for 10%. Steve didn’t need another Benz that badly.
I found myself waiting for Apple to do the right thing and release a Mac based on the Core i7. Surely Apple wouldn’t wait and make a Xeon version, after all why would you need two processors? A single Core i7 can work on eight threads at the same time - most users have a tough time stressing four. Then reality set in: Apple wouldn’t put a Core i7 in the Mac Pro because Dell can do the same in a system for under $900. In order to justify the price point of the Mac Pro, it must use Xeons.
The Nehalem Xeons can be pretty fun. At the high end there’s the Nehalem-EX, that’s 8 cores on a single die. Apple could put two of those on a motherboard and have a 16-core, 32-thread monster that would probably cost over $8,000.
The 8-core Nehalem EX
Getting back to reality, we have the Nehalem-EP processor: effectively a server-version of Core i7. The other major change between Nehalem-EP and Core i7 is that each Nehalem-EP processor has two QPI links instead of one. Nehalem-EP can thus be used in dual-socket motherboards.
Nehalem-EP even uses the same socket as Intel’s Core i7: LGA-1366, implying that Intel artificially restricts its desktop Core i7s to operate in single-socket mode only. Boo.
Of course Nehalem-EP is sold under the Xeon brand; the product names and specs are as follows:
|CPU||Max Sockets||Clock Speed||Cores / Threads||QPI Speed||L3 Cache||Max Turbo (4C/3C/2C/1C)||TDP||Price|
|Intel Xeon W5580||2||3.20GHz||4 / 8||6.4 GT/s||8MB||1/1/1/2||130W||$1600|
|Intel Xeon X5570||2||2.93GHz||4 / 8||6.4 GT/s||8MB||2/2/3/3||95W||$1386|
|Intel Xeon X5560||2||2.80GHz||4 / 8||6.4 GT/s||8MB||2/2/3/3||95W||$1172|
|Intel Xeon X5550||2||2.66GHz||4 / 8||6.4 GT/s||8MB||2/2/3/3||95W||$958|
|Intel Xeon E5540||2||2.53GHz||4 / 8||5.86 GT/s||8MB||1/1/2/2||80W||$744|
|Intel Xeon E5530||2||2.40GHz||4 / 8||5.86 GT/s||8MB||1/1/2/2||80W||$530|
|Intel Xeon E5520||2||2.26GHz||4 / 8||5.86 GT/s||8MB||1/1/2/2||80W||$373|
|Intel Xeon W3570||1||3.20GHz||4 / 8||6.4 GT/s||8MB||1/1/1/2||130W||$999|
|Intel Xeon W3540||1||2.93GHz||4 / 8||4.8 GT/s||8MB||1/1/1/2||130W||$562|
|Intel Xeon W3520||1||2.66GHz||4 / 8||4.8 GT/s||8MB||1/1/1/2||130W||$284|
While Nehalem was originally supposed to have a simultaneous desktop and server/workstation release, the Xeon parts got pushed back due to OEM validation delays from what I heard. Core i7 launched last November and it was now mid-March with no Nehalem based Macs.
I couldn’t wait any longer and I ended up building a Hackintosh based on Intel’s Core i7. Literally a day after I got it up and running, Apple announced the new Nehalem-EP based Mac Pro.