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.

Two Models, Neither Perfect
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  • wackazong - Wednesday, September 09, 2009 - link

    Hello,

    this may be the right place to ask: What's the difference between the Xeon and the (much cheaper) i7 processors? Couldn't you put an i7 into a Mac Pro?
    Reply
  • sdevenshire - Saturday, August 29, 2009 - link

    Hi,

    I purchased a 2xQuad core mac in Jan 2008 and I would like to upgrade the cpu to the new Nehalem. Apple suggested it could be done but they don't do it. I contacted a number of Mac repair places and they said it can't be done. I realize that upgrading the cpu probably means upgrading the motherboard, but that's fine with me.

    Any suggestions on where I could get this done or where I might get instructions for doing it myself?

    TIA,
    Shane
    Reply
  • 529th - Thursday, July 30, 2009 - link

    If you’ve read our Nehalem articles you’ll know that each chip has three 64-bit wide memory controllers, thus you’ll want to install DIMMs in triplets. You can install four DIMMs, but accessing memory in the fourth module will be slower - something you’ll never notice if you’re wondering. ???

    This is hindering me from buying a 4 channel UD3R X58 board. My main goal of an i7 build is for editing AVCHD files through Premiere Pro CS4. Being that tri channel will get me 6g and PP CS4 likes more memory, will adding memory to the 4th module screw things up?
    Reply
  • newrigel - Tuesday, July 28, 2009 - link

    Man, take your hackysack and go buy some laundry soap to clean the crap out of your drawers! You guy's talk about a couple thousand dollars like it's buying a damn house or some huge purchase LOL!
    Macs are really cost efficient and yes... PC's are cheaper but who gives a damn! If you want to be cheap... be cheap! Hackintoshes (LOL) are just that... a POS and your getting what you pay for! You cheap asses probably hit your ol' ladies up for gas money to get to work hehe...
    MACS RULE!
    Reply
  • ditchmagnet - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    Just for fun I went to apples site and customized the mac pro, I just maxed out the hardware choices and then went to newegg and priced out an equivalent PC (Server board, with the same CPUs and everything except more RAM)
    Total for the apple including shipping and tax is over $20,000
    the newegg build is under $9,000
    I bet my 920 build at 4.5ghz is faster than the mac pro though, and all for under $1000
    Reply
  • moltentofu - Tuesday, July 21, 2009 - link

    wander over to the egg and buy a lian li. No flashy lights really, no idiot clear side panels. For some reason the hard drive access light and the power light are different colors on mine though.

    You can get a combo case with a seasonic 550W power supply with it. I put a phenom II x4 3.2Ghz 16 Gigs of RAM and a 1 Gig 4870 in there with aftermarket cooling all around (air not liquid) and it cost me 900 bucks - all from the egg.

    If you think you're going to find performance arbitrage basically anywhere in the market you couldn't be wrong-er. Just pick your price/performance point and stick to it.

    Thanks for the awesome reviews as usual Anand!
    Reply
  • moltentofu - Tuesday, July 21, 2009 - link

    With one big 'ol caveat to the arbitrage thing and that is: building your own system really does seem to be cheaper right now, and also I can't find component setups in the big name companies right now that make me quite happy.

    I miss when Dell Outlet used to be affordable. I'm afraid these Macs are just waaay out of range of my meagre salary.
    Reply
  • fmaste - Monday, July 20, 2009 - link

    Everybody talks about how expensive the Mac Pro is, but, has somebody compared with other brands? Look at this:

    I customize two Dell Precision Workstations with the same components as the base configurations Apple offers for the Mac Pro.
    The results!!

    Mac Pro Quad-Core: $2,499.00
    Dell Precision T5500: $3,427

    Mac Pro 8-Core: $3,299.00
    Dell Precision T7500: $3,427

    BOTH APPLE OFFERS ARE BETTER!!!!!
    Both with the same processors, same amounts of memory at the same speed.
    The only difference is instead of a NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 with 512MB you get a 256MB NVIDIA® Quadro® NVS 295. And that Dell options have hard drives with less capacity, 500GB vs 640GB. I also added the second Gigabit Ethernet card to both Dells. Dell has no bluetooth option and you may need to add a sound card to them.
    Remember, you get a more expensive PC with windows Vista and an ugly chasis.
    Reply
  • fmaste - Tuesday, July 21, 2009 - link

    And here is HP

    Mac Pro Quad-Core: $2,499.00
    Same specs configurable HP Z800 Workstation: $3,942.00

    Mac Pro 8-Core: $3,299.00
    Same specs configurable HP Z800 Workstation: $3,702.00
    Reply
  • excalibur3 - Friday, July 17, 2009 - link

    So when you hypothetically created your i7 hackintosh, what were it's specs? I'm thinking about doing this (as a thought experiment only of course) and I'm wondering what such a system would price out. How would I know what motherboard to use to be compatible? Reply

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