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27 June 2009 @ 03:11 pm
Geek help requested: RAID and Macintosh  

Hey gang!

I'm hoping to purchase a new Mac before the end of the year, but I have a boatload of questions about configuration and hard disc storage, and so on that I could really use some expert help on.

Fundamental assumption/thought: I am currently using a B&W G3 which is something over 10-11 years old but is still quite useful (with some limitations of course—it's a bit too slow to handle streaming video or video files that aren't tiny, for example). I would like to think that the new box could be expected to serve a similarly-robust lifetime (assuming/allowing for increasing limitations as the technology advances and even more astonishing things than streaming video can be handled by a computer). So in cost/functionality/length-of-useful-service trade-offs, I want to put more weight on the latter than I might normally.

This leads us to the technical questions that I'm hoping that somebody (or some of you in tandem) can answer, since I seem to be unable to ferret out answers on my own … even with The Power of The Inter-Web Search Engines at my command.

1. The reviews I've read indicate that the current quad-core platform is actually better than the 8-core.

    a. However, it appears that at least part of that judgment is based on the fact that very little current software is able to take full advantage of four cores, much less eight; therefore, over the long term might the eight-core option be better as software "catches up" to the hardware (unless hardware spirals off into an entirely different sort of direction thus making the eight-core methodology an evolutionary dead-end)?

    b. It also occurs to me that while it's probably not that important at first, having eight rather than four memory slots might be better over time, as apps require more and more core memory. Hm?

    c. If I do go with the 2 quad-core configurations, I presume the best choice would be the "middle" path—two 2.66GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon processers—rather than either the base or "bleeding edge" options (2.26GHz and 2.93GHz, respectively). Yes? No? Answer cloudy, ask again later?

2. Memory. In either case, I presume it makes more sense to configure it from Apple with memory in 2GB units (either 3x2GB or 4x2GB) rather than 1GB. Correct? Or does it make the most sense to configure memory minimally? Or even configure it minimally and immediately trade in the 1GB units in for 3rd party 2GB or even 4GB?

3. Drives. I have heard and believe that 3rd-party drives are always at least as good and significantly less expensive than what Apple offers. So do I configure it with a 1TB drive and then purchase one to three 3rd-party 1TB (or even 2TB!!!) drives to round it out? Do I buy the 640GB drive and purchase one to three 3rd-party drives to round it out? Or do I buy the 640GB drive and immediately trade it in on two to four 3rd-party drives?

4. RAID. What's all this then?

    a. Does mirrored RAID mean never having to say, "Back me up, Scotty"? Susan has made the excellent point that backups will sometimes allow you to recover from user stupidity (e.g., deleting the wrong file), but, you know, other than =that= Mrs. Lincoln...?

    b. If RAID actually makes sense (to one in my position—not honkin' big commercial concerns), internal or external? Hardware or software? I note that it looks as if I were to go with factory-configured hardware RAID, I'd have to buy at least two drives from Apple.

    c. Help! I am only an egg.

5. Am I right in assuming that since I'm neither a gamer nor a video producer there are really no advantages for me to the optional ATI Radeon HD 4870 512MB card over the standard NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 512MB … even though I do and will want to do some heavy lifting with Photoshop?

6. Ooooh. My B&WG3 has a factory-installed internal ZIP drive (remember them?). Might I be able to swap it in into the "second optical drive slot" of the new box? I assume there's no reason on earth to purchase a second internal optical from Apple—although at some point in the future either an external or internal blue-ray burner might make some sense.

7. Display. I drool at 30" displays. I yearn for a 30" display. I dream of a 30" display. But.... I note that the Apple Cinema HD Display (30" flat panel) is getting extremely long-in-the tooth and therefore may be suffering from outdated technology. Is it any good? Are there rumblings of an Apple replacement I should hold my breath for? Am I better off spending $2400 on a NEC 30" display, even though that's, you know, more expensive. (I =won't= have a Dell-labeled product in my house). Are there other 30" options? Or am I in fact better served by "lowering my sights" and buying something smaller—maybe an HP 25.5"?

8. Is there something I should know that I haven't thought to mention here?

THANKS EVER SO!

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guppiecatguppiecat on June 27th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)
I'm not an Apple expert, but I'll answer the ones I can.

2) Yes, 2Gb units are better (and faster) than 1Gb. Importantly, make sure that they all match. Just max them all out. Not only will this give you a good amount of RAM, but it will make the whole system more responsive as it will effectively "stripe" the RAM. (More on this in (4)). If you can afford it, 4Gb would be better over the long haul, but maxing out with 4Gb sticks can be very pricey.

3) This depends on if you want Apple to cover the drive in the warranty. Third party drives are cheaper, but wouldn't be covered.

4a) No, mirrored RAID does not mean never having to back up. In fact, in many cases, I have seen a mirror fail because both drives die. It sorta makes sense, since they were often made at the same time and have exactly the same life, they'll fail at about the same time.

4b) Hardware RAID is faster. If you go with software, a portion of your CPU and RAM will always be spent handling your RAID.

4c) If you were doing a lot of video editing, I would recommend four drives in a hardware RAID 10 configuration. That would max out drive speed and reliability. If you just want reliability, you're better off with a RAID mirror, but given point 4a, it may make sense to buy with a minimal 640GB drive, replace it with an aftermarket 1Tb drive and use the 640 as a manual backup drive for three months. After three months, buy another 1Tb drive and rebuild your system with a RAID mirror. That way, the drives will have a lifespan that's an average of 3 months apart, which should give you time to replace one should it fail in the intervening 10 years.

5) You are mostly right. There is some interesting work being done that allows software to leverage the extra CPUs in the video cards to do non-video work. It is likely that future versions of OSX will leverage this ability. However, if you need that, you can always upgrade the card later.

6) I doubt it. I suspect that the ZIP drive is either IDE or SCSI, and that your new Mac may only support SATA.

8) Personally, I doubt that this new machine will last you 10 years. Simply put, though Mac hardware is still better than most, they don't make them like they used to.
Geof Stonesoarhead on June 27th, 2009 11:04 pm (UTC)
Here are my thoughts on some of your questions based on using a Mac Pro for a couple years.

Memory & Drives - buy the minimum and get third-party stuff for WAY cheaper. I have 12 GB of memory in my system, all but 2 GB from third parties and I've had zero problems. I also added third party drives with no troubles. The chassis design makes it a snap to pop in new memory and drives.

Processor speed - In my opinion, the amount Apple charges for the faster chips is outrageous. For that matter, I think this about most every add-in/upgrade Apple sells. For most purposes, I suspect you get a lot more bang for the buck buying additional memory, especially when taking into consideration the Apple prices for faster processors. I recall reading articles by people who build up several systems and performed measurements for a range of applications that concur with this opinion but I don't have a reference handy. I imagine google can locate them.

Quad vs 8-core - I have a dual-processor 8-core machine. While there are some applications that can actually utilize all eight core fairly effectively, most do not. Photoshop appears to use them all for certain functions but I speculate that they quickly become memory-bound so there may not be much of a performance difference. That said, it does seem that the application vendors are getting better about making use of multiple cores.

Disclaimers: my machine is almost two years old, so things may be different with the newer chipsets. I also have nothing to make comparisons against, so this is mostly speculation based on my experience in the computer industry.

Fancy graphics - I mostly use my machine for photoshop and lightroom purposes along with some other specialized number-crunching applications. I have the standard card and it seems to work fine for me.

Displays - I just couldn't bring myself to pay what Apple wants for the 30" monster so I've been using a 3rd-party 27" widescreen along with an "oldie-but-goodie" Sony Trinitron flat-screen CRT in a dual-display configuration. I've felt no need to go bigger. I do find that dual displays are very useful for editing images even though the CRT is smaller. It allows me to put palettes on the second screen, freeing up real estate for the image I'm editing. If you use Lightroom, it is designed to make good use of a second display.

Just my 2 cents... YMMV
The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You90_percent_sure on June 28th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
Agree, yes, yes, uh-huh. And yes.
Daniel B. Holzman-Tweedholzman on June 27th, 2009 11:09 pm (UTC)
On question 1, if you're planning to own this machine for 10 years, you may well see a benefit to more processors. Also, if you tend to run multiple (CPU intensive, e.g. Photoshop, iTunes, etc.) applications, you'll see a benefit to more processors, but if you run only a few applications you'll see benefit from fewer fast processors.

You may also find with the new computer that you like doing what you haven't been able to quickly do, which may shorten your computer life expectancy. I just bought a rplacement for my PC, which I had for 5 years.
Laurel Krahn: computers - yum.laurel on June 27th, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC)
RAM is usually a lot cheaper from third parties and works just as well-- at least that's been my experience with Macs. I have sometimes ordered the upgrades from Apple when I was already getting a discount (by buying a refurb or something) and/or I knew it was harder to swap in RAM on a particular machine. I'd go and check out RAM prices at crucial.com-- it's easy there to find out just what RAM you need for a particular machine and how much it would cost you. I believe Apple's been making it easier and easier to swap out things like RAM and hard drives.

My experience is with iBooks, iMacs, and MacBook Pros-- the last time I did work on other types of Mac boxes was probably on B&W G3s or maybe a generation later when I worked at a prepress shop.

When it comes to RAID, I'm inclined to think an external solution is better, but I don't remember why I think that. Maybe seeing positive reviews of things like Drobos at Macworld.com?

Another factor to consider, since we're talking OSX, is that you'll probably want to use Time Machine for incremental backups. I'm not clear on what the best setup is-- as usual, I'd probably just head over to macworld.com to do some research. I'm sure mileage varies. I've heard of people who use Time Machine, but also use a program like SuperDuper to back up their whole drive to a separate harddrive every so often.

I have a 24" iMac, one of the white ones with the matte screen, and I love it, but I don't really know much about Apple displays. Well, I do know that I don't care for the glossy screens they have on MacBooks and iMacs these days and on most MacBookPros. The matte vs. glossy is something to think about as you shop around.
The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You90_percent_sure on June 28th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
Step 1) Get the biggest, sexiest dual G5 you can afford. You're right about quad core: The only apps I have seen that are fully utilizing the 8 core Xenon is Final Cut pro. If you're not editing feature length films, skip it.

Step 2) buy as much RAM as you can afford. Apple's RAM is notoriously expensive and crappy. You can have Apple config at the factory, or save some dough here, buy your own RAM from NewEgg or elsewhere, and pop it in yourself. I put RAM in a G5 just this week. Took maybe 1 minute, total, including opening the side panel.

Step 3) If you're not networked with multiple users, get a simple one-touch back up system. Back up to a external drive. Put all your really cherished photos on a DVD as well. This should be easy.

Guppiecat's 4a=Very true.

I have a Maxtor one touch external drive. I back up fairly regularly, and also split it into partitions so my music and client files are off my main harddrive. It is USB 2.0, so no difference that I note for speed/file transfers.

I have a 23" Cinema display at home and a 21" Cinema display at work. Work is the newer aluminum one. Home display is older plastic version. meh. It suffers from screen burn-in. No one believes me. I invite non-belivers to come lay witness. This thing burns. Work display is *beautiful*. I have it professionally calibrated every 6 months. Renders colors perfectly. 21" is not enough real estate though, so I also have a little 17" Dell something-something set up as a dual monitor. Not color calibrated--I use it to park dialogs and palettes.

Apple LCD displays: Garbage. Horrible. Do Not Want. I have a new Mac Book Pro, the reflections it throws are a disaster. If you are doing photo work, color work, art of any kind--stay far far away.

If you go to the Apple store to check out monitors, be mindful of the lighting in the store. Take your own lighting set up into consideration. At work I get natural light and some offset overheads. At home I have a full spectrum task lamp, but otherwise work in the dark... like a mole.
Geof Stonesoarhead on June 28th, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)
I've got the glossy LED backlit screen on my Mac Book Pro and like it a lot. It calibrates well with Coloreyes and an old Xrite sensor. Others think I'm nuts though and can't stand the reflections. It probably has to do with where I use the thing.

For backup I use a time machine for general things. I have an insane amount of image data so for that I use a different strategy using multiple drives, one internal and one external. The internal drive is in addition to my 'working' copy. I also occasionally put a subset of the data on DVDs.

In time, I end up with three backups. When new drives get sufficiently larger and I'm starting to get cramped for space I replace all three drives, migrating the 'working' data to a new drive. The original 'working' drive becomes a third backup.

So far, drive capacity growth is keeping pace with my image creation rate so I'm able to keep all the data on-line.
The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You90_percent_sure on June 29th, 2009 03:57 am (UTC)
You're more tolerant than I. I'm someone who goes in the grocery, hears the music playing, cannot ignore or unhear it; am driven out of the store. Same with the reflections. See them, can't get past it. Can watch videos or surf the net generally, but can't get any real work done.

You're a photographer, right? Do you shoot in RAW or JPG? If RAW, do you save those plus the sidecars for all time? What's your workflow after you've started post production?

Good thing disk space is cheap these days, eh?
(Anonymous) on June 29th, 2009 11:34 am (UTC)
I'm not so much a photographer as an engineer who plays at being a one!

I shoot exclusively in RAW and save everything for all time. With my tools, its much less work than actually deleting files. Another factor is that I often find that my initial impressions of which images I like best changes, sometimes drastically, after some time passes. Its probably due to the way I work. The passage of some time creates some emotional distance that helps me be more objective when editing.

My primary tool for working with images is Lightroom which is an asset management tool with image manipulation capabilities bolted on. One of its virtues is that it does not modify the original image files. Rather, it stores a record of the desired modifications in its database and renders the manipulated image on demand. Depending on configuration, it may also put some information in sidecar files.

1. Ingest images using Lightroom, adding keywords and other metadata in the process. A backup copy of the image data is placed on the internal backup drive as part of the ingestion process.

2. Copy data to external backup drive.

3. Make shoot-wide global corrections as needed. (white balance, camera calibration, perhaps exposure)

4a. If a studio session and there are initial picks, download the pick data off the laptop into Lightroom.

4b. Go through all images in order and mark possibles. This is an extremely fast process using the Lightroom 'pick' flag. Iterate on the 'picks' until down to a reasonable selection.

5. For the final picks, make local corrections and manipulations as desired. I may use Lightroom, Photoshop or both depending on what I decide to do. Lightroom integrates with Photoshop, making a copy in Photoshop format as part of the process. The manipulated versions of the files are added to Lightroom's asset database automatically. The Photoshop files end up in the same place as the original RAWs.

6. Generate output. This might be a CD with JPG files, an upload to a website, prints, etc.

7. For personal work, I tend to go back to step 4b or thereabouts and start over after some time passes.

There is some additional futzing with Lightroom database backups, photoshop file backups and image collection management that also goes on.
Geof Stonesoarhead on June 29th, 2009 11:42 pm (UTC)
Oops.. Didn't notice I wasn't logged in for that last reply.

Sorry about that.
Laurel Krahn: computers - flower power logolaurel on July 5th, 2009 03:28 am (UTC)
I hate the glossy screens that are on most everything Apple these days. Grrr. Glad I bought my 24" iMac with matte screen when I did (it's one of the white/G5 intels). Also glad I grabbed a 15" MacBookPro when I could get a matte screen, though I kinda wish I'd waited a little longer so could have the better trackpad and such. The only MBP that would tempt me anymore is the 17" hi def matte screen one, but those are huge. I really really would like Apple to come out with a tablet PC or netbook sort of thing (that had a matte screen option), but I believe I'm living in a fantasy world there.
madtrukmadtruk on June 29th, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
1. I always buy the 'middle' mac and then upgrade it myself with parts bought from OWC (Other World Computing). This has saved me thousands of dollars over the years. Apple charges too much for hard drives and RAM-OWC has been reliable and the customer service is extraordinary (and they have video and PDF stills showing how to do things...). Buying your Mac for the future makes sense, so if you can swing the 8-core, buy it.

2. Buy your RAM from OWC or NewEgg or wherever and save hundreds of dollars. OWC has online Q&A to determine exactly which RAM set you need.

3. Same as 2. Go to OWC, find some drives you like, and read some reviews. Sometimes faster RPM drives actually perform slower, so don't go all giddy for the shiny :). You will save hundreds over an Apple install.

4. I try not to use pesticides on my Mac.

5. No-as you mention video processing power as a future want, the better card will give you a better frame rate, HD options, and less "drop-out" probability.

6. Probably. Check the connections. ZIPs need to be backed up to CD, DVD, Flash drive, or Google at this time, Fred :).

7. The hi-gloss screens on most Macs can cause issues for art-I know Carrie had to adjust the lighting in the room to compensate. I disagree with Mo, though, about overall quality. Still, the best thing to do is see different monitors side by side under similar light conditions to your work environment. I've always liked Sony monitors if I can't have an Apple.

8. Probably, but you've got a good set of techie friend responding here :).

Kurt
madtrukmadtruk on June 29th, 2009 02:39 pm (UTC)
Oops dang...

Under "Things I may have forgotten."

Don't be afraid to buy a refurbished unit directly from Apple. You get the exact same warranty and options, and save hundreds of dollars. As a bonus, whatever was wrong with it when it was new is now fixed :).