In rare pre-Macworld move, Apple unveils fastest-ever Macs

It springs Penryn-powered Mac Pro and Xserve a week before big show

A week before Macworld San Francisco -- the trade show where Apple usually trots out new headline-grabbing hardware -- the company Tuesday unveiled a retooled Mac Pro desktop machine and a new Xserve server, calling them the fastest Macintoshes ever.

Based on the new 45-nanometer quad-core Xeon processor from Intel, the top-end Mac Pro also features Advanced Micro Devices' ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card with 256MB of memory standard. It can be equipped with up to 32GB of RAM and as much as 4TB of internal storage, Apple said.

The Mac Pro is easily the most configurable of Apple's systems, with the new model offering build-to-order options that include one or two of the Penryn-family processors introduced by Intel last November; a variety of graphics cards, including Nvidia's Quadro FX 5600 with 1.5GB of memory; and an optional RAID card. The system can hold up to four graphics cards and drive as many as eight 30-in. displays.

Apple's newest Mac also features a 1,600-MHz front side bus, four Serial ATA internal drive bays, and one or two CPUs running at 2.8 GHz, 3.0 GHz or 3.2 GHz.

"The new Mac Pro is the fastest Mac we've ever made," said Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of product marketing, in a statement. This is the first major refresh of the Mac Pro line in 18 months.

Prices for the Mac Pro start at US$2,799 for a machine running two 2.8-GHz quad-core Xeons with 2GB of memory, the ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card and a 320GB SATA drive. At the top of the configuration line, a machine tricked out with two 3.2-GHz processors, 32GB of memory, the Nvidia Quadro FX 5600 graphics card, a RAID card and four 1TB internal drives prices out at a whopping US$18,199. (The extra RAM alone adds US$9,100 to the bottom line of that machine, given the prices Apple charges for memory.)

The Mac Pro comes with Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard," Apple's newest client operating system.

Also Tuesday, Apple refreshed its Xserve server to include the same 45nm Penryn-family Xeon processors, the first time since August 2006 that it has punched up its 1U rack-mounted server. The Xserve, which starts at the same US$2,999 as its base-line predecessor, comes with an unlimited client license edition of Leopard Server, boasts three drive bays and can be equipped with up to 32GB of memory. For US$2,999, buyers get a server running a single 2.8-GHz quad-core Xeon, 2GB of memory, an 80GB SATA drive and dual Gigabit Ethernet on board.

The new Xserve is actually the more important of the two systems, argued Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc., because it "draw[s] attention to the Leopard Server operating system's capabilities as a small-business or departmental server for organizations with limited IT support."

While both new models significantly improve on characteristics of the machines they replace, Gottheil said the Xserve and the Leopard Server operating system make a more compelling case. "[It's a] strong offering wherever IT services are limited," he said in an e-mailed research note. "Apple will use the value proposition of easy-to-use comprehensive services to broaden its market to small businesses and departments, where Xserve is an ideal first server."

Both the Mac Pro and Xserve are shipping now and will be available through the company's own retail chain as well as its reseller channel, Apple said.

Macworld Conference & Expo, the trade show that kicks off next Monday in San Francisco, is typically the platform Apple uses to introduce new products early each year. It's unusual for the company to announce lineup changes so close to the show, leading to speculation that Apple didn't want the refresh of the Mac Pro and Xserve lines to be buried by flashier news next week.

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