Monthly Archives: January 2014

Scribbles on the New Mac Pro

Posted by mitch on January 26, 2014
hardware

A significant number of folks have asked about my thoughts on the new Mac Pro… so here we go. I promise not to tell you the same nonsense you have already read everywhere else (lighted ports, etc.).

Some background: I bought an 8-core 2008 Mac Pro on the day they were available for pre-order. It was my main workstation for years, until September 2012, when the speed and RAM ceiling became painful enough to upgrade to the “2012” Mac Pro, a 12 core 2.4 GHz machine. Clock for clock, that upgrade yielded compute performance roughly double the 2008 Mac Pro.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with that upgrade, nor was I sure what to expect with the new 2013 Mac Pro. Because of price, I elected to try a 6-core machine with the D500 video, 1 TB flash, and 64 GB of OWC RAM.

I recently ran some performance tests to see how things are going with the types of computing I do. One test is a unit test of some code I am writing. The code talks to several VMs on a third Dell VMware ESXi box and spends most of its time in select() loops. There was almost no performance difference between the old and new Macs–about 3%, which isn’t surprising.

However, I have some code that runs on local disk and does heavier CPU work. One of the pieces of code shoves a lot of data through a commercial database package inside of a VM. The VM is configured with 8 cores and 16 GB of RAM on both machines. We’ll call this Test A.

Another test does extensive CPU calculations on a multi-gigabyte dataset. The dataset is read once, computations are done and correlated. This runs on native hardware and not inside of a VM. We’ll call this Test B.

old Mac Pro1 new Mac Pro2 Retina 13″ MacBook Pro3
Test A: 65.6 seconds 38.1 seconds N/A (not enough RAM)
Test B: 82.3 seconds 52.9 seconds 67.8 seconds

1 2012 Mac Pro, 12-core 2.4 GHz, 64 GB of RAM, OWC PCIe flash
2 2013 Mac Pro, 6-core 3.5 GHz, 64 GB of RAM, Apple flash
3 2013 Retina MacBook Pro 13″, 2-core 3 GHz i7, 8 GB of RAM, Apple flash

As you can see, the new Mac does the same work in about 40% less time. The CPU work here is in the range of 1-3 cores; it doesn’t scale up to use all the available cores. To keep the tests as fair as possible, the old Mac Pro is booting from a 4-SSD RAID 0+1 and the test data lived on a OWC PCIe flash card. None of these utilize the GPUs of the old or new Macs in any fashion, nor is the code particularly optimized one way or the other. I ran the tests 3 times per machine and flushed the buffer caches before each run.

Does the Mac feel faster day to day? Maybe. In applications like Aperture, where I have 30,000 photos, scrolling and manipulation “seems” a heck of a lot better. (For reference, the old Mac has the Sapphire 3 GB 7950 Mac card. I don’t have an original Radeon 5770 to test with, having sold it.)

The cable mess behind the new Mac is the same as the old Mac. In fact, it’s really Apple’s active DVI adapters for my old Apple monitors that contribute to most of the cable mess. Once the Apple monitors start to die, that mess will go away, but until then I see little reason to upgrade.

The physical space of the new Mac pro is a significant advantage. The old Pro uses 4 sq ft of floor space w/ its external disk array. The new Pro by itself actually consumes a footprint smaller than a Mac Mini (see photo at end of this post)!

The fan is quiet, even under heavy CPU load. The top surface seems to range from 110 F — 130 F; the old Mac has a surface exhaust range from 95 — 99 F at the time I measured it. So it’s hotter to the touch, and indeed the sides of the chassis range from 91 F at the very bottom to about 96 F on average. For reference, the top of my closed Retina MacBook at the time I’m writing this is about 90 F and the metal surface of the 30″ Cinema display runs around 88 F to 90 F in my measurements (all measured with an IR non-contact thermometer).

Because there is no “front” of the new Mac Pro, you can turn it at any angle that reduces cable mess without feeling like you’ve got it out of alignment with, say, the edge of a desk. This turns out to be useful if you’re a bit particular about such things.

On storage expansion, there’s been a lot of concern about the lack of putting drives into the new Pro. Frankly, I ran my 2008 machine without any internal disks for years, instead using an Areca 1680x SAS RAID. I’m glad to see this change. There’s lots of consumer-level RAIDs out there under $1000, but I’ve given up on using them–performance is poor and integrity is often questionable.

I am backing up to a pair of 18 TB Thunderbolt Pegasus systems connected to a Mini in my basement, and bought an Areca ARC-8050 Thunderbolt RAID 8-Bay enclosure and put in 24 TB of disks for the new Pro. Sadly, while it’s fine in a closet or basement, it turns out to be too loud to sit on a desk, so I bit the bullet and ordered a 10 meter Thunderbolt cable. I haven’t received the cable yet, so I haven’t moved my data off my Areca SAS RAID in my old Pro yet. But once that is done, I expect to stop using the old 8 TB SAS RAID and just use the new RAID. These are expensive storage options, but the cheap stuff is even more expensive when it fails.

So, should you buy the new Mac Pro?

I don’t know.

For me, buying this Pro was never about upgrading from my old Pro, but rather upgrading my second workstation–a maxed out 2012 Mac Mini that struggled to drive 30″ displays and crashed regularly while doing so (it’s stable with smaller displays, but in the sample size of four or five Minis I’ve had over the years, none of them could reliably drive a 30″–Apple should really not pretend that they can). In the tests above, I’ve ignored the 900 MHz clock difference, but clearly that contributes to the performance for these kinds of tests.

What about price? This new Mac Pro ran me about $6100 with tax, shipping, and the OWC RAM upgrade. The old Mac Pro cost about $6300 for the system, PCIe flash, SSDs, brackets, video card upgrade, and OWC RAM upgrade. (The disk systems are essential to either Mac as a main workstation, but also about the same price as each other.) I don’t view the new Mac Pro as materially different in price. Pretty much every main workstation I’ve had in the last 12 yrs has run into the low five-figures. In the grand scheme of things, it’s still cheaper than, say, premium kitchen appliances, though perhaps it doesn’t last as long! On the other hand, I’m not good enough at cooking that my kitchen appliances are tools that enable income. If I wasn’t using my Macs to make money, I doubt I’d be buying such costly machines.

While I am not a video editor, and just do some 3d modeling for fun as part of furniture design or remodeling projects, I feel this machine is warranted for my use in heavy CPU work and/or a desire for a lot of monitors. I’m not in the target GPU-compute market (yet?), but I do want a big workspace. There’s no other Mac that offers this (I get headaches from the glossy displays Apple offers, though the smaller laptops screens are ok).

So now on my desk, I have a pair of Pros, each driving a set 3×30″ displays, which matches the work I am doing right now. I haven’t had a video lock up for 12 days and counting, which has proven a huge time saver and frustration reducer, so I’m happy that I jumped on this earlier than later.

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30 Years of Mac

Posted by mitch on January 24, 2014
hardware

My parents bought a Mac 128K in 1984 (pictured below). The screen stopped working in 1993, and it hadn’t been reliable at that point for a number of years–my dad upgraded to a pair of Mac Pluses when they came out and then later he upgraded again to the Mac II.

There were lots of frustrating things about the Mac 128. Almost no software worked on it, since it was outdated almost immediately with the Mac 512. MacWrite didn’t have a spell check or much of anything else. Only one program could run at a time–no Multi-Finder. A 1mb Mac Plus was a significantly better computer, especially if you had an external hard disk that conveniently fit under the Mac–thus increasing speed, storage capacity, and the height of the monitor. Even the headphone port on the 128 was mono, if I recall correctly.

Yet there was something deeply magical about computing in that era. I spent hours goofing off in MacDraw and MS Basic. At one point, my dad had the system “maxed out” with an Apple 300 baud modem, an external floppy drive, and the ImageWriter I printer. At some point, the modem went away and we were modemless for a number of years, but one day he brought home an extra 1200 baud modem he had at his office and I spent hours sorting out the Hayes AT command set to get it to work–a lot of registers had to be set on that modem; it wasn’t just a simple matter of ATDT555-1212.

That reminds me, I need to call Comcast. It seems that they cut their pricing on 100 Mbit connections.

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Moving AV Gear to the Basement

Posted by mitch on January 04, 2014
audio, home

When I bought my house in Boston, I gutted most of it and did extensive rewiring, including speaker wires in the living room. Recently, I had a large built-in cabinet/bookcase built for the living room and had to move some of those wires and outlets in preparation for it. Since the electricians had to come out anyway, I decided to move all my AV components into the basement. The goal was just to have the TV, speakers, and subwoofer in the living room.

There are now 5 drops down to the basement for the surround speakers. I soldered RCA keystone jacks onto one of the old speaker drops for the subwoofer–the only place I could find solderable keystone RCA jacks was, strangely enough, Radio Shack (for 57 cents each). Behind the TV, I had the electricians pull 8 new Cat6 drops and a single HDMI cable. I also had the electricians run two 15 amp dead runs that go into a 2-gang box and terminate in AC inlets (male connectors) so that the TV and sub in the living room are plugged into the same surge protection system as the basement, thus avoiding any ground loop issues, and also eliminating the need for surge protectors in the living room for this gear.

Four of the Cat6 drops terminate at the AV shelving. I planned to use 2 of these for serial and IR lines and 2 are held for spares in case of future video-over-Cat6 or other needs. The other four Cat6 lines run to the basement patch panel. Of course, some of these could also be patched back to the AV shelves if needed for uses other than Ethernet.

I’m using a cheap IR repeater from Amazon to control the components from my Harmony remote. This works fine with my Onkyo receiver, HDMI switch, Apple TV, and Roku. It doesn’t work with my Oppo bluray player–apparently there’s something different about the IR pulse Oppo uses, and I couldn’t figure out which general repeaters would work from various forum posts. Fortunately, Oppo sells their own IR repeater system for about $25, and I’ve modified it to run over Cat6 as well. This means I have two IR sensors hidden under the TV that plug into 1/8″ mono jacks in the wall using Leviton keystone modules.

The Playstation 4 and Wii use Bluetooth controllers, which work fine through the floor. Nothing fancy was needed to extend these. It turns out that the Wii sensor bar is an “IR flashlight”–the bar itself doesn’t send any data to the Wii. So I bought one with a USB connector on it so it can plug into any USB power supply. (The original Wii bar had weird 3-tooth screws and I didn’t want to tear it up.)

I also finally got around to building a 12v trigger solution for my amplifier–my 7 yr old Onkyo receiver doesn’t have a 12v trigger for the main zone, but a 10v wall wart plugged into the Onkyo does the trick, now that I’ve soldered a 1/8″ mono plug onto the end and plugged it into the Outlaw amp. (My front speakers are 4 ohm and the Onkyo would probably overheat trying to drive them.)

The final missing piece was a volume display. I missed knowing what the volume was on the receiver, the selected input, and the listening mode, so I built a simple serial device that plugs into the Onkyo’s serial port over Cat6 cables. I have a 20×2 large screen display that queries the Onkyo for status a few times a second (powered by Arduino–firmware code is here). Muting, powered off, volume, listening mode (e.g., THX, Stereo, Pure Audio‚Ķ) are displayed, as well as the input source. My next step is to add a second serial interface to the display so that I can query the Oppo and show time into the disc, playing state, etc. (Many newer receivers support their serial protocols over Ethernet, albeit at a higher standby power usage, and as far as I can tell, Oppo has not opened up their Ethernet protocol, though their serial protocol is well documented.) The enclosure is a rather ugly, but works for the moment until I build something better:

Note that another option is just to buy a receiver/pre-amp that puts the volume out over HDMI. My receiver is older and leaves the HDMI signal unmolested. Most modern gear will just put the volume up on the screen, but my next processor is going to be a big purchase, and this was a lot cheaper for now.

I did make a few mistakes:

  • The quad coming off the inlets should have been a 4-gang (8 outlets).
  • I almost only had 4 Cat6 drops behind the entertainment center, mostly due to the length of Cat6 cable I had on hand. Happily my electrician went and bought another 1000 ft spool and said, “Mitch, what do you really want?”
  • I probably should have run a second HDMI cable, just in case I ever need it.
  • The 8 Cat6 cables, a coax line (in case I ever want another sub or need a coax line), and the HDMI cable all go into a 3-gang box in the living room. This is a bit tight for this many wires, especially when one of the Cat6 lines splits into two 1/8″ connectors.
  • Not really a mistake, but if you’re doing this and buying new shelving for the rack, buy shelves with wheels. I am just using an old shelf I already had, but wheels would be very handy.

If you have a small living room with a basement or closet nearby, this might be a good way to go if you don’t want to get rid of AV components. With more room to keep things organized, more air flow around the electronics, I’m really happy with how this turned out. Since the bluray player is in the basement, the DVD and blurays are now in the basement, and this has freed up ~50 linear feet of shelving upstairs. (I’ve ripped a lot of my movies, but it’s a pain and I haven’t done them all.)

And best of all, there is now a lot less crap in the living room.

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