Got an ageing MacPro 5,1 / 4,1 kicking around your studio? Casting glances at Apple’s trashcan but reluctant to dump a lot of money into a 3-year old, closed box system with limited internal upgrade potential? Can’t wait for Apple to release the *new* MacPro (if they ever do) and not quite ready for Windows or a Hackintosh?

Welcome to my world.

I have both a mid-2010 MacPro 5,1 and early-2009 MacPro 4,1 serving here at SmashBlack and while they are both serviceable machines for low impact HD video work their lagging performance was stressing me out on heavy post / tight deadline jobs … especially when render times were nuzzling right up against delivery deadlines. Too close for comfort.

We need more power.

Spent a month researching various options – including Dell and HP workstations (shit, I was desperate) – and finally made up my mind that upgrading the existing MacPro’s was the best bang-for-buck as of January 2017. At some point in the future I might look into upgrading the CPU but as that route is quite costly I put that thought on hold and opted for the next best path: GPU and SSDs.

Pulled the PayPal trigger and waited for Fedex. Here’s how it all went down.

Memory

Both my Macs are modestly endowed with 48GB of RAM, and I didn’t feel this to be a sticking point. However, they are both running 7,200RPM hard-drives so slow access to data storage is a bottle neck. ProRes HD work was fine, 2K DPX/RAW was clunky-but-doable but forget about 4K anything.

I use DaVinci Resolve 12.5 plus my trusty copy of Nuke-X 6.3v8 (and getting more into Fusion) for just about everything, but it was my daily NLE, Davinci Resolve, that really struggled with a lack of hard-drive bandwidth.

Purchasing four OWC Accelsior S PCIe to SSD cards – two for each Mac – each tower was gifted with one OWC Mercury Electra 6G 480GB as boot drive, plus one Samsung 850 Pro 1TB for high speed video cache. Why the mix of SSD brands? The Mercury is cheap, reliable and will remain permanently installed in the computer. The Samsung 850 Pro’s are a bit more expensive but they are also compatible with the Convergent Design 7Q – and my projectile data vomiting high frame-rate 4K RAW Sony NEX-FS700 camera needs all the storage you can throw at it … anyway, I can quickly & easily pull both Samsung’s out whenever additional video capture storage is needed on set. Double duty is worth the premium to me.

Installing SSD via PCIe gives any old model MacPro access to a whopping 550MB/s read-write. In fact it’s the drive that maxes out bandwidth and not the PCIe connection; had I not needed the Samsung drives for the Convergent Design 7Q I would have opted for the E2 PCIe cards which are closer to 800MB/s read-write. RAID those up and you get 1600MB/s. By comparison, the DDR3-1066 RAM in the MacPro5,1 is around 8000MB/s peak transfer (I think) but trying buying 1TB of RAM let alone getting it to work, anyway…

Typical 7,200RPM HDDs on the MacPro5,1 SATA bus average around 100~150MB/s read-write depending on the condition of the drive, while SSDs installed on the same SATA bus top out around 250MB/s. Those PCIe cards are $50 each, and enable massive amounts of fast drive storage bypassing the MacPro5,1 SATA limits, plus future improvements in SSD technology can be swapped in and bandwidth improved yet again.

Having a 1TB SSD running at full speed and dedicated solely to video cache makes Resolve and Nuke-X a joy on this 7 year old computer.

Graphics

The old 2010 model ATI Radeon 5870 and 2009 model 4870 graphic cards had both been faithful workhorses but began showing their age when pitted against the demands of 2016 software – applications which seem intent on shoving data into every orifice available and screaming for more … Davinci Resolve in particular was not satisfied with a mere 1GB of video RAM, 4GB is the recommended minimum, 6GB optimal and anything more a luxury. I was also interested in having the option of CUDA on the Mac (for  my 360 VR video stitching pipeline, more on that in a future article) as well as being able to support the more common Open CL, so hunted down some options from  Nvidia.

Graphics cards are not my speciality so for the uninitiated the sheer breadth of similar sounding model numbers can be an utter stump. I know I wanted an Nvidia GTX980Ti with 6GB of video RAM but about a dozen manufacturers OEM this particular card and each manufacturer has a dozen variations on the same model, it seemed.

MacVidCards.com are famous for modifying the firmware of non-‘Apple certified’ Nvidia graphics cards, but they never seem to have any cards in stock! This firmware tweak is necessary to get any non-Apple graphics card to boot into OSX and thankfully plenty of Nvidia cards can be modified in this way.

The Nvidia GeForce GTX980Ti is the 4th fastest Nvidia card on the market (see above) and the 2nd fastest card available with hacked firmware (the other option is the $1400+ Titan X, double the RAM, double the price, same number of cores).

Did a clean install of OSX Yosemite 10.10.5 (the GTX980Ti won’t work with OSX Mavericks), installed the appropriate web driver from Nvidia (Nvidia issues very specific drivers for every iteration of OSX, so bear this in mind) and that was that. Oh, I also installed the necessary CUDA drivers as well, but the web driver was more important in terms of making the whole system boot.

USB 3.0

The only real headache during the move from Mavericks to Yosemite was my old China-brand PCIe USB3.0 cards no longer worked. At all. They use a Renesas-NEC chipset which, despite some people having success with tweaked kext files (kernel extensions; i.e: drivers) Yosemite on my Macs totally refused to acknowledge the bloody things. No matter, one hour on eBay later and I found the curiously named Debroglie 4-Port USB3.0 PCIe cards for $22 each … long story short, they use a Fresco Logic chipset which works with Yosemite through Sierra without any additional software or drivers. Job done.

One thing to note, the price range and quality of all PCIe components varies wildly. I tend to err on the side of cheap – Apple has a habit of making expansion cards obsolete (having to replace my ProTools Digi001 during the move from PC to Mac all those years ago was a massive sting in the butt, but I digress) – just do your research into which chipsets are natively (or easily) supported by OSX and you can save quite a few bucks. Some of the forum ‘recommended’ SATA and USB3.0 PCIe cards I looked at were almost 8x to 10x the price of what I actually bought. That kind of difference is just taking the piss.

Summary

So all that – plus clean installs of OSX Yosemite and some freshly formatted 6TB Toshiba 7,200RPM bulk data drives – and these 7-8 years old computers will give me at least another 2+ years of life. Time enough for Apple to bring out the next range of trashcans, or possibly rethink that dumb design decision and start making real workstations again. Or maybe I’ll pluck up the courage to abandon OSX. Who knows. My 2010 computer is now capable of handling 2017 client projects.

What did it all cost? Ignoring the initial purchase of the MacPro and ignoring the parts I’ve binned during the upgrade; each computer had about USD $1500 installed (GPU, SSDs, PCIe cards).

To buy a MacPro 5,1 8-core 2.4 Xeon – before any of the upgrades – in today’s refurb marketplace you’re looking at around $2200 for the base machine, add $1500 for the mods and so $3700 gets you 60% of the CPU performance and 160% the GPU performance of a medium spec $4800 2013 model trashcan. It’s worth noting that a 2.4GHz 8-core could be substantially boosted with an upgrade to 3.46GHz 12-core Xeon Westmere for around $1700 from OWC, the performance of which surpasses the lower spec trashcan GeekBench scores. DIY would be even cheaper.

Perhaps I’ll give the CPU upgrade a shot next year.

The main point is that I didn’t have to completely scrap two perfectly working machines. I didn’t have to wait for Apple to pull their finger out. For less than the price of one base model trashcan I upgraded two MacPro towers into comparable territory. And thank Lazarus I didn’t have to switch over to Windows.

Any questions? Contact me, am happy to go into more detail if necessary.