Making the Mac Pro valid in 2013


Being a Pro Mac user is not a barrel of laughs at the moment, the writing has been on the wall ever since the Xserve went the way of the Dodo, and then there was Final Cut Pro X, which while an inspiring new direction had a lot of people worried that Apple was going it’s own way and that was that.

Then there was the Mac Pro, no significant update in years, and as of now you can’t buy them in Europe. :sigh:.

So in the current climate, I am now the proud owner of a New (old) Mac Pro, why? Well for the simple fact that for the outlay, right now, I couldn’t find a better built, quiet and reliable workstation to see me through the next couple of years. I could wait until the fabled next great Pro Mac that Tim Cook has promised, but I have no idea when this promise will ship. As a very proud owner of a Macbook Pro Retina, which despite being the best laptop I have ever owned, after nearly a year of use, I could start to feel the compromises that have been made for what Apple deems are Pro use needs right now, for example a graphics card which can struggle with driving all those pixels, and the very annoying non upgradeability of the hardware.

So as I needed a workstation, ideally before the end of my tax year, so what where my options? 

Option A was a hackintosh, I have had experience of making my own hackintosh netbook, and whenever I talk to someone who uses a hackintosh tower for Pro work, you can see the sweat build on their botton lip worrying if Apple has just issued an update which will bork their OS, so as this machine was going to be one of my primary means of making money, I don’t want a machine that gives me a sweaty top lip!

The second option was switch to Windows. Thankfully, most of my apps are cross platform, so that big hangup of switching has disappeared. However, from a hardware perspective, although the machines from Dell, HP, Workstations Specialists, etc where all very enticing, to get a machine that was near where I wanted with suitable grunt, I was looking at spending a lot of money for OK hardware. What you really seem to pay for with PC workstations is the service agreement. The third option, was build my own PC, this would be my preferred method with windows, and it is a lot cheaper, but I wasn’t massively comfortable switching all my power over to windows just yet. As a second machine purely for rendering, I think this will be a viable option.

Which left me with the outdated Apple option, but I have found a couple of ways that can bring the Mac Pro grudgingly into 2013, which I would like to share. There’s not much you can do about the fact that Mac Pro’s come with last years chips, but on the plus side, you get one of the best designed cases for upgrades. Also Mac Pro’s run practically silent, which doesn’t seem to be an option on the PC workstation side, unless you build your own. Personally this is a massive deal, and was one of the key factors in my purchasing decision. Apple has spent (literally) years making the interior of a Mac Pro better looking than the exterior, and makes any hardware upgrade of drives, ram and GPU a cinch.

This care to the case design is handy as you need to spend a bit of time inside shoving stuff in. 

So what did I shove in? 

Well lets talk about the Mac Pro I chose to adopt. I am a great believer in Apple Refurbs, they are as good as new Macs, and Apple bless them with the same warranty level as a new mac. Potential ‘bargains’ can be had, in my case I picked up a 12 core 2.4 Mac Pro from 2012 for £450 less than it’s cost new. My intention was to use that saving and plough that into the Mac Pro in the way of upgrades. 

First was 16gb of RAM from crucial, this takes the mac up to a reasonable 28gb with much more scope to upgrade to a potential 64gb, as and when needed. I also picked up a 128g SSD and 500gb 5400 rpm drive, the platter drive was for short term time machine backups and the SSD, well I intended to pair that with a 750gb WD Caviar Black I had spare and make a Fusion Drive……..yup, you can make one of Apples key reasons for making you want a new mac with a couple lines in terminal, and it works like a charm. 

The fusion drive merges the SSD and the platter drive into one volume which feels just like an SSD with over 800gb of space. This is where my system sits, I use the 1tb 7200rpm drive which came with the mac for caching and spare capacity for render sequences, etc, as I use Dropbox pro to keep my work files safe. Its best to have a decent backup for your Fusion drive, as if either of the constituent drives goes, you lose everything. Also a Fusion drive isn’t as fast as fast a standalone SSD, but in my tests’s its faster than a RAID, and ‘feels’ as snappy as an SSD, due to the way that it handles files where it keeps the system and most used files on the SSD for quick access, and moves everything else (in the background) to the platter. 

I used a couple of 3.5” drive boxes to make the SSD and the WD caviar black sit in the pro, as both were 2.5” size, and these work great and stop the drives rattling about. 

The other thing that needed an upgrade was the Graphics card, the ATI 5770 which comes with the Mac Pro, is just rubbish, and the upgrade options that Apple offers are just as bad. The graphic card issues have become especially galling since CUDA came along on the Nvidia platform, which apps like After Effects etc, love. But here’s a thing, (thanks to Tim from Plastic Pictures for putting me onto this) you can install stock PC Nvidia Gaming Cards into a Mac Pro, as long as your running at least Lion and have installed the necessary Nvidia Driver. If you want CUDA, you can install the CUDA drivers, and with another quick bit of terminal magic make After Effects and Premiere use your Nvidia Card for CUDA acceleration.

Here is what you lose when you install a stock PC card, your boot screen, this isn’t a massive deal, but to play safe, I installed an Nvidia GTX 660 as it was a powerful but cheap card, and only needed one power lead, (the more powerful cards require two). This meant I can keep the stock ATI installed, so I have access to a boot screen if required as well as drive a second screen when I am out in the Creativebloke Shed.

All told, this cost about £100 more than the stock Mac Pro new, and now I have a 12 core workstation (24 core using hyperthreaded apps) which is fully enabled for CUDA, runs OSX with the option of running windows, and is still within warranty and rates at just over 20k on geekbench. The Mac Pro barely ever makes a sound, the only thing that sets the fans off so far is using raytracing in After Effects, even fan happy ZBrush runs in silence. The best bit, this configuration still has a ton of upgrading which I can do to it. 

For those waiting for the next Pro Mac, don’t dismiss the current Mac pro, it’s still a beast, and most importantly it is a beast we know and can upgrade to practically our hearts content.

Here’s a list of links I used to get the Mac Pro up to 2013(ish) spec:

Mac Pro:

Apple Refurbished Macs (gets updated every day) 

Crucial RAM

Fusion Drive:

Make your own Fusion Drive (any SSD and platter drive will do) 

2.5” to 3.5” Mac Pro Drive convertors 

Nvidia GPU upgrade:

What you need to know about installing PC Nvidia cards into a Mac Pro, including driver links

Nvidia Card (only needs one power lead)

Extra Power cable for extra GPU for Mac Pro

Enable CUDA on Adobe Apps

CUDA Drivers

How to Enable CUDA for CS6

If you want to know more question away!