Plotting the Mac Pro’s GPU Performance Over Time

The Mac Pro’s CPU options have ballooned at times during its 7 year history. What started with four CPU options grew to six for the early 2009 - mid 2010 models. It was also during that time period that we saw an expansion of the number of total core counts from 4 up to the current mix of 4, 6, 8 and 12 core configurations.

What’s particularly unique about this year’s Mac Pro is that all configurations are accomplished with a single socket. Moore’s Law and the process cadence it characterizes leave us in a place where Intel can effectively ship a single die with 12 big x86 cores. It wasn’t that long ago where you’d need multiple sockets to achieve the same thing.

While the CPU moved to a single socket configuration this year, the Mac Pro’s GPU went the opposite direction. For the first time in Mac Pro history, the new system ships with two GPUs in all configurations. I turned to Ryan Smith, our Senior GPU Editor, for his help in roughly characterizing Mac Pro GPU options over the years.

Mac Pro - GPU Upgrade Path
  Mid 2006 Early 2008 Early 2009 Mid 2010 Mid 2012 Late 2013
Slowest GPU Option NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 ATI Radeon HD 5770 ATI Radeon HD 5770 Dual AMD FirePro D300
Fastest GPU Option NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 NVIDIA Quadro FX 5600 ATI Radeon HD 4870 ATI Radeon HD 5870 ATI Radeon HD 5870 Dual AMD FirePro D700

Since the Mac Pro GPU offerings were limited to 2 - 3 cards per generation, it was pretty easy to put together comparisons. We eliminated the mid range configuration for this comparison and only looked at scaling with the cheapest and most expensive GPU options each generation.

Now we’re talking. At the low end, Mac Pro GPU performance improved by 20x over the past 7 years. Even if you always bought the fastest GPU possible you'd be looking at a 6x increase in performance, and that's not taking into account the move to multiple GPUs this last round (if you assume 50% multi-GPU scaling then even the high end path would net you 9x better GPU performance over 7 years).

Ryan recommended presenting the data with a log scale as well to more accurately depict the gains over time:

Here you see convergence, at a high level, between the slowest and fastest GPU options in the Mac Pro. Another way of putting it is that Apple values GPU performance more today than it did back in 2006, so even the cheapest GPU is a much higher performing part than it would be.

If you’re a GPU company (or a Senior GPU Editor), this next chart should make you very happy. Here I’m comparing relative increases in performance for both CPU and GPU on the same graph:

This is exactly why Apple (and AMD) is so fond of ramping up GPU performance: it’s the only way to get serious performance gains each generation. Ultimately we’ll see GPU performance gains level off as well, but if you want to scale compute in a serious way you need to heavily leverage faster GPUs.

This is the crux of the Mac Pro story. It’s not just about a faster CPU, but rather a true shift towards GPU compute. In a little over a year, Apple increased the GPU horsepower of the cheapest Mac Pro by as great of a margin as it did from 2006 - 2012. The fastest GPU option didn’t improve by quite as much, but it’s close.

Looking at the same data on a log scale you’ll see that the percentage increase in GPU performance is slowing down over time, much like what we saw with CPUs, just to a much lesser extent. Note that this graph doesn't take into account that the Late 2013 Mac Pro has a second GPU. If we take that into account, GPU performance scaling obviously looks even better. Scaling silicon performance is tough regardless of what space you’re playing in these days. If you’re looking for big performance gains though, you’ll need to exploit the GPU.

The similarities between what I’m saying here about GPU performance and AMD’s mantra over the past few years aren’t lost. The key difference between Apple’s approach and those of every other GPU company is that Apple spends handsomely to ensure it has close to the best single threaded CPU performance as well as the best GPU performance. This is an important distinction, and ultimately the right approach.

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View All Comments

  • akdj - Wednesday, January 1, 2014 - link

    This is what you gleaned from such an insightful review....of a revolutionized desktop computer from Apple? Seriously? He was running a GPU and CPU 'poison' in order to find the ceiling. NOTHING in his real world testing including editing, rendering and transcoding 4k video increased core temps dangerously, nor did they spin the fans up audibly (a quiet room is typically 40-45dB). Wow. Amazing comprehension. Guess it fits with your 'name' Reply
  • Morawka - Wednesday, January 1, 2014 - link

    the very next paragraph he reached the same power use and same thermal throtteling using a "normal 4k workload", he just didnt go back and correct his first paragraph about it not being able to hit that ceiling on normal workloads. Reply
  • damianrobertjones - Thursday, January 2, 2014 - link

    "of a revolutionized desktop "

    Oh please stop. It's just a desktop with x or y and nothing amazingly special.
  • akdj - Friday, January 3, 2014 - link

    "It's just a desktop with x or y and nothing amazingly special." Are you 16? I'm 43....and THIS is a revolution in desktop technology, power, size, speed, aesthetics, storage, expandability and power efficiency. 'X' and 'Y' are pretty F'ing 'significant' IMHO.'s Rev A. A baby. As a user of ridiculously large boxes, servers and heavy monitors over the years----to call it anything BUT revolutionary is ignorant. Revolutionary doesn't always have to equal success immediately---but with the decline in desktop sales...but still the 'need' to have desktop power, it's pretty cool someone thought outside of the 'box' Reply
  • tyaty1 - Wednesday, April 1, 2015 - link

    While the design is intuitive, any kind throttling is unforgivable in this price range. The old Mac Pro did not do that, even a skillfully home-built desktop computer wont to that either.

    It is not desktop computer , but a workstation. It needs to serve its purpose without fault, no more no less.

    Apple stepped into the consumer line too much, and it works them well, but it negatively impacts the business/professional customers.
  • Morawka - Wednesday, January 1, 2014 - link

    hell i dont think the cooler surface area is a problem, i think the Black Chassis, Black Cooler, Black PCB are all whats causing the high temps. they should have left the thermal core pure copper and not used any anodizing. Black keeps heat in! Reply
  • name99 - Wednesday, January 1, 2014 - link

    I guess you're unfamiliar with the concept of black body radiation... Reply
  • jasonelmore - Thursday, January 2, 2014 - link

    i am, but reading the wiki on "black body radiation" i fail to see how it applies to this Mac Pro. Reply
  • wallysb01 - Friday, January 3, 2014 - link

    Things colored black radiate (and absorb) heat faster than other colors. Black body radiation has nothing to do with things actually being black. Reply
  • Ppietra - Friday, January 3, 2014 - link

    black body radiation refers to the kind of radiation that a body emits due to its temperature.
    Most thermal radiation (at this kind of temperatures) is infrared, so it doesn’t matter what is the visible color of the objects surrounding the "hot" object.
    But even if the "hot" body emitted significant visible light, the black color of the surrounding objects would actually help absorb that energy which would then be dissipated as infrared radiation or by heat transfer to the air or other objects

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