Everything You Wanted To Know About Upgrading a Mac Pro But Were Afraid To Ask

I’ve been dicking around with the idea of using an old Mac Pro as my main computer. New Macs are too expensive and used ones are either just as expensive or can’t handle a 4K display or fast PCIe SSDs. I looked into what’s required to modernise a Mac Pro, the cost of doing so and then how it would compare to a modern Mac with a variety of benchmarks.

Storage Options

The Mac Pro has four drive bays where you can shove in 3.5″ drives, or 2.5″ drives with an adapater – but it’s probably best to get an SSD in one of those PCIe slots. From slowest to fastest, here’s the storage hierarchy:

1. 3.5″ HDDs. You can use one of these as a boot drive if you like, but come on, it’s 2016. Use 3.5″ HDDs for storing bulk amounts of junk like videos or photos. Even though the Mac Pro has a SATA-2 bus and most HDDs are SATA-3 these days, there’s very little real world difference when it comes to HDDs (unlike SSDs), so it’s not that big of a deal.

2. 2.5″ SATA-3 SSD installed in a 3.5″ SATA bay with an adapter. Macfixit sell the adaptor you need to make a 2.5″ drive fit on one of the Mac Pro’s sleds. The cheap adaptors (like this one, and this one, or even this one) won’t attach to the Pro’s sled properly, so the expensive adaptor is pretty much the only option. Whilst an SSD plugged in to the Mac Pro’s SATA-2 port will work fine and perform so much better than a HDD, it’s really bottlenecked compared to SATA-3 or PCIe.

3. 2.5″/mSATA SATA-3 SSD connected to a SATA-3 PCIe card. There actually aren’t many PCIe cards that are bootable on the Mac Pro. The ones that are, from joints like Sonnet or OCW, are expensive. So don’t even bother with this route.

4. M.2 SATA SSDs. These are “blade” SSDs with a SATA interface. Technically known as M.2 B Key. These still need to be hooked up to a SATA port, which on a Mac Pro is SATA-2. Waste of time.

5. M.2 PCIe SSDs. This is the good shit. This bypasses the slow SATA-2 bus on the Mac Pro and hooks up to the PCIe bus directly. All the speed and latency bottlenecks are bypassed too. Problem is, there aren’t a lot of these sorts of SSDs around.

I’m going to focus on explaining more about the M.2 PCIe SSDs and what the go is with the various models around out at the moment.

Unfortunately, the Mac Pro can only talk to AHCI based SSDs. The newer, faster, NVMe drives simply won’t work in Mac OS X as Apple’s implementation of it is slightly different to standard. It’d be nice if we could chuck in a Samsung 950 Pro, alas, maybe in Mac OS X 10.12 Apple will include NVMe support.

So, what PCIe AHCI SSDs are there to choose from? Not many… The Samsung XP941, Samsung SM951, Plextor M6e and Kingston HyperX Predator are ones readily found in Australia.

The Kingston SHPM2280P2H/240G is easy to find at a few PC stores around Australia and includes a PCIe to M.2 adaptor in the box for a total of ~$234 including postage. It kinda sits between the XP941 and SM951 performance wise according to this review.

The Samsung SM951 comes in NVMe and AHCI variants, so make sure you get the AHCI model for use in the Mac Pro. The SM951 is significantly faster than the XP941. Check these benchmarks out. It’s the most expensive, but it’s the fastest. Plextor and the XP941 aren’t worth it I reckon. I’d grab the Samsung SM951 over the other AHCI PCIe SSDs, considering the vast performance difference between it and the rest.

Ram City are the only place in AU selling the SM951, they’ve got new ones and refurbished ones. They’re also sold on Aliexpress, but a refurb from Ram City is cheaper. I’d suggest grabbing it from Ram City as if it fucks up, you’ve got somewhere easy to deal with and local to return it to for a refund or replacement. Plus Ram City will ship it to you next day, where as you’ll be waiting almost a month for postage from China via Aliexpress.

You need to get an adaptor for the SSD to go into a PCIe slot too.

Ram City has a guide nicely explaining all the “blade” SSD form factors. For the SM951, all we want is a simple ‘M’ key M.2 to PCIe adaptor. If you’re buying your SSD from Ram City, may as well get the Lycom DT-120 adaptor at the same time. If you want to save a few bucks, you can grab a similar adaptor off Aliexpress for ~$9 (again, will take a month to arrive).

I purchased the SM951 and chucked it into my Mac Pro 3,1 and unfortunately, it only operates at 2.5GT speeds. See my AppleTalk thread about it here for all the details. While it’s faster than SATA speeds, I’m not really exploiting the proper speeds on the SM951. It still takes advantage of its superior latency and random IO speeds though, so the SM951 is still worth it in the Mac Pro 3,1, just not as useful as it would be in a Mac PRo 4,1 or 5,1, where it can really shine.

My personally preferred storage setup for a Mac Pro is a 256GB SSD in the PCIe slot as a boot drive, a 2TB drive in a SATA bay for bulk storage (like photos or music or video) and another 3-4TB drive in a second SATA bay for Time Machine as a quick and dirty “ooh shit I deleted that file and I need it now” backup, that works in conjunction with my other backups. Having all that inside the machine as opposed to in external cases is a nice touch I reckon.

Video Cards

The vast majority of “PC” video cards work fine in a Mac Pro. There only catch is if you want the grey boot screen with the Apple logo when you turn the computer on, you need a “Mac” card. These are expensive, so people flash “PC” cards with the ROM from a Mac card and the boot screen works.

There’s a lot of poor info around on doing this and you can easily brick your card if you don’t flash it properly. Flashing an AMD 7950 or GTX680 seems to be relatively straight forward, as official Mac versions of these cards were released, so it’s just a matter of taking the ROM from a legit card and chucking it on another card that’s the same except for its ROM. Here are some YouTube videos that explain the process:

I’ve seen flashed cards with GPUs that never had Mac versions (e.g: GTX980, R9 280X), from joints like MacVideoCards and these two guys on eBay, but how they do it, I don’t know. It’s certainly not public info in a format that’s easy to follow. Probably so they can sell you cards jacked up in price. Most of the cards they flash are very similar to the 7950/GTX680, but they tweak the ROM to get it to work properly and don’t tell anyone how they did it. The GPU flashing “community” has some severe ego problems I reckon.

If you go down the path of not worrying about the grey boot screen and want to use any old PC card cheaply, the good news is that Nvidia make a driver for Mac OS X and keep it regularly updated. Virtually every Nvidia card works fine in a Mac once these drivers are installed. As of Mac OS X 10.11, the Nvidia drivers are no longer over-written by system updates, so once Nvidia release drivers for the latest version of Mac OS X, you can install the system update, then install the Nvidia drivers to match.

AMD don’t release drivers like Nvidia do, but Apple support a decent range of AMD cards out of the box, as part of Mac OS X. Not all cards are supported equally though. Generally, if the AMD card is the same GPU family as GPUs shipped with a Mac, it’ll work fine. Those are the cards you want to stick to.

Some dude on Mac rumours has posted lots of cool info on using Nvidia GPUs in a Mac Pro. For AMD fans, a similar thing is on TonyMacOSX86.

Which card to get? Personally, I wouldn’t bother with a graphics card that won’t support 4K@60Hz over DisplayPort. That’s about it for my requirements as I don’t game and I don’t need a bazillion CUDA cores or OpenCL support for FCPX or Adobe’s apps.

The AMD 7950 and Nvidia GTX680 are great cards to get if you can find them. They can be flashed to give you a boot screen and are solid performers. You just need to buy the appropriate power cables (e.g: mini 6-pin to 6-pin). The 7950 and GTX680 pop up for sale 2nd hand every now and then and sell for under $250 most of the time. They’re also faster than any GPU Apple ships in their Macs right now, except the Mac Pro.

If you’re happy to live without the boot screen (I am), the Nvidia Quadro K620 is great bang for buck. It’s only ~$200 brand new and performs a little bit faster than the Nvidia 750M in the MacBook Pro 11,3. It uses much less power than the 7950 and GTX680 and doesn’t require any additional power, so no need to buy the 6-pin cables. The K420 is also good if you can find it 2nd hand cheaply – I wouldn’t bother with it new as it’s not that cheap vs. the slightly faster K620.

The GTX950 is the next cheapest Nvidia-based card with DisplayPort output. Costs around $230, but needs one of those mini-PCIe cables for power – the upside over the Quadro K620 is performance. It’s significantly faster for not much more cash. For day to day use it might not make much difference, but anything slightly GPU intensive will appreciate the extra CUDA cores and faster memory bus on the GTX950.

Gamers might want to splash out and get a new Nvidia card, like a GTX980 or something – you can use it in Windows via Boot Camp for all your gaming stuff and then pop back into Mac OS X where it’ll be a monster for any GPU assisted stuff like Adobe CS or FCPX.

To summarise – virtually all graphics cards work in a Mac Pro. Unless you flash a video card’s ROM, you won’t get the grey Apple logo boot screen. Flashing a graphics card is generally a bad idea unless it’s an AMD 7950 or Nvidia GTX680. If you’re not gaming, grab the Quadro K620 or GTX950 if you can’t find a cheap used AMD 7950 or GTX680.

Mac Pro 3,1 (2008) Specific Upgrades

CPU Upgrades
There’s not much higher to go in that socket than what Apple shipped the Mac Pro with. The fastest quad core LGA771 CPU is the X5492, which came out in March 2008. It’s not much faster than the CPUs that shipped with the Mac Pro 3,1. Certainly not worth spending ~$120/CPU on I reckon. Maybe if you already owned a dual CPU Mac Pro 3,1 and want to sink a little more cash into it, you could get two X5270’s, which are dual core, but run at 3.5GHz and only cost $27 each. Even then, according to CPU Mark (which can be dubious at best), the X5270 is beaten by the M-5Y31 in the entry level MacBook and is severely beaten by the entry level Mac mini’s i5-4260U.

RAM Upgrades
DDR2-800 FB-DIMM RAM is fucking expensive in Australia. Yet if you buy it from overseas on eBay, you can get 16GB of the stuff for around ~$120 from the USA. If you had 4GB in your Mac Pro 3,1 and all you saw lacking was memory usage, I’d go for a cheap upgrade and get maybe another year or so out of it until the CPU becomes unbearable.

Mac Pro 4,1 and later (2009 and later) Specific Upgrades

CPU Upgrades

(EDIT: I’ve been told by various people who have tried, that the X5687 doesn’t work in the Mac Pro, bummer)

The FCLGA1366 socket had a long life, well into 2011, so there’s a range of CPUs that can slide right in to a Mac Pro 4,1. The kings of the hill are the X5687 and X5690. The X5687 has 12M cache, four cores running at 3.60GHz and a 130W TDP. The X5690 is the same, but runs at 3.46GHz and has 6 cores. There’s also the W3690, a single CPU version of the X5690.

You can see the entire list of LGA1366 CPUs on Intel ARK.

Good news is that there’s loads of these CPUs really cheap out of China. When they came out, you’d be paying over $1,000 a CPU, easily. Maybe even $2,000. The X5687 for example, is only $132. For all intents and purposes, just one of these CPUs is all you need unless you’re after a video encoding monster.

Now comes the catch (there’s always a catch) – installing these CPUs on a dual CPU Mac Pro 4,1 is a right pain in the arse. The chips off eBay have the metal lid on top, the chips Apple use in the Mac Pro, don’t. This 2mm gap means that when you screw the heatsink on fully, it will crack the CPU under the pressure. If you don’t screw it in tight enough, the CPU doesn’t make proper contact in the socket and obviously won’t work.

This video explains it:

As a workaround, you can play around with tightening the heatsink very slowly and trying the Mac Pro after each twist of the screw, e.g: Install CPU, install heatsink with 7 or 8 twists of the allen key, try it out – if it doesn’t work, do another twist – try again. There’s serious risk here of the pins on the CPU board being damaged if you go too tight. Or it might not happen at all. It happened to Anand!

The other option is to remove the lid off the CPU. An arduous task involving razor blades and irons. Just look at this video. I kinda want to avoid doing this if I don’t have to. I read some stuff about using a washer on the heatsink standoffs – that seems to be the least painful way of doing this. The thickness of the heat spreader is 2mm (apparently, I haven’t measured it, so a 2mm thick plastic washer placed over the heatsink standoffs could work fine).

Interestingly, the single CPU version of the Mac Pro 4,1 and all the Mac Pro 5,1 models ship with with heatspreaders included, so no modding is necessary. It’s just the dual CPU Mac Pro 4,1 with this heatspreader issue. On the Mac Pro 4,1 you need to upgrade the firmware to imitate a Mac Pro 5,1 so it’ll support the later CPUs. On the 5,1 you don’t have to do a thing to the firwmare.

RAM Upgrades
There’s so much cheap DDR3 ECC RAM on the market. 32GB of the DDR3-1333 ECC stuff for $80! Fucken load up mates! Just search eBay for 16GB (or 32GB) DDR3 ECC and you’ll find the cheap stuff from China. The single CPU versions have 4 RAM slots and the dual CPUs have 8. If you’ve got a dual CPU machine, you could chuck in 64GB of RAM for just $145. 64GB! Safari will still chew it all up though, hah.

Ideal Configs

Now that we know how to upgrade the Mac Pro, what’s it all cost? What’s the ideal config for me? If I can find a single core Mac Pro 4,1 or a Mac Pro 5,1, I’d shove the following into it:

  • Intel X5687 CPU – $130 (eBay)
  • 32GB DDR3 ECC RAM – $70 (eBay)
  • Nvidia Quadro K620 – $212 (Skycomp)
  • 256GB Samsung SM951 PCIe SSD & adaptor – $297 (Ram City)
  • $709

With this sort of config, the only gotcha is the fact you won’t see the grey boot screen. If it bothers you that much, pick up a second hand GTX680 or AMD 7950 and flash it. I can’t be arsed and the K620 is more than enough for me and for the odd occasion I need to boot off a different volume without changing the startup disk in Mac OS X, I’ll plug in the old original Mac graphics card.

Currently, single CPU Mac Pro 5,1’s are coming on to the 2nd hand market in Australia due to 5-year leases wrapping up at universities and businesses. There’s currently 10 up on Grays Online (damn NSW only pickup) and if you search for Mac Pro on eBay, you can find a couple.

If you can score a single CPU 4,1 or 5,1 for under $1000, spend $700 or so on upgrades, you’ve spent ~$1700 on a very flexible Mac that hypothetically performs better than most of the current Macs on the market except the 27″ iMacs, the top of the line 15″ Retina MacBook Pro and the Mac Pro (duh), whilst configuring it to your needs, unlike the iMac.

The other beauty of the Mac Pro is that it’s a gamer’s delight. Chuck in your high performance video card, boot into Windows and you’ve got a gaming rig and Mac OS X box in one, instead of two separate computers.

I’d love to do more benchmarks, comparing an X5687 laden Mac Pro with current Macs. If anyone has a upgraded a Mac Pro with a X5687 CPU, please get in touch so I can ask you to run some tests for me and I can properly compare the performance to price ratio of an upgraded Mac Pro to a current Mac. I plan to write a separate article comparing the price and performance of the current crop of Macs to used Macs and upgraded Mac Pros.

Oh, and the other thing to keep in mind here – Hackintosh. With 10.11, there’s wide hardware support and computer hardware has never been cheaper. I’ll explore Hackintoshing in 2016 in more detail in a separate post.