Mac Pro 5,1 resurrected?

I decided to raise the bar on my workstation and go for something with a little more grunt, and that would be up to the job for the next 3–5 years (from the date of this original article). Having considered lots of options based around a top of the range iMac, with it’s incredible 5K screen, and the current ‘trashcan’ Mac Pro, I ended up travelling back in time to 2009–12, so to speak, and purchasing a custom-built and refurbished Mac Pro 5,1 from Create Pro. Why? Well, it was quite an easy decision in the end. Performance, expandability and value all duly ticked! And these machines really do still perform today (Geekbench 4 Multi-Core Score of 26,963).

Lets get it out of the way, this thing is heavy—around 20kg loaded! Miniaturisation was not a design consideration at this time. They are made from copious amounts of aluminium. It feels like it will last a very long time — and clearly has! It is easy to expand the capabilities of this machine. The side panel is easily removed to allow easy access to all the important stuff inside.

Basically, my workstation has twin 6-core 3.46GHz Xeon (Westmere) X5690 processors (12-cores/24-threads), 96GB of 1333MHz DDR3 ECC memory, an AMD RX 580 8GB GPU¹ (OpenGL, OpenCL and Metal support), a very fast Samsung 512GB PCIe Flash drive (upto 1,500MB/s read and write speeds), and two dedicated ‘conventional’ WD Black HDDs for archived work and TimeMachine. Not cutting edge, but this is a quick Mac, with an excellent Geekbench 4 Multi-Core Score performance of 26,963! In other words, a very strong and relevant performance at a much lower price point. That said, the relatively poor level of application programming these days means that these multi-core machines are rarely fully utilised. Another shameful situation.

It, of course, continues to be easy to expand and re-configure with two spare hard drive bays and a PCIe slot. I certainly don’t feel I’m missing anything at present and feel reassured by its physical presence. The older USB 2.0 ports are still fine for many peripherals, but for faster data transfer, there is a four port USB 3.0 PCIe adapter card. Simples. The only software feature that is not fully implemented, that I’m aware of, is Apple’s ‘handoff’. Much works, but not everything. For me, that’s less of an issue as my workstation is my working platform and I don’t use other devices for work, with the exception of e-mails.

Despite Apple’s questionable design direction following the demise of Steve Jobs, these older models are gathering a (cult) following. This is due to the relatively poor price/performance (not to mention design restrictions) of current models like the trashcan Mac Pro. It’s nickname is not without merit. One could readily imagine someone trying to chuck their banana skin in to the top, or eye it up as a plant pot. The new iMac Pro² looks a different proposition, though far too expensive. For me, and for now, the Mac Pro 5,1 still has a long working life ahead. As of this latest revision (July 2019), I am confident I still have another couple of years in my cMP5,1.

What is interesting now is Apple’s adoption and support for eGPUs. This opens up the possibility of using a ‘basic’ Mac as a real workhorse, with the eGPU doing all the heavy lifting. These provide more (creative) options for professionals. Apart from the more obvious MacBook Pro models, the Mac mini or new MacBook Air could also be used with an eGPU, creating an effective little workstation! Thank you, Apple.

¹ The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 was replaced so that I could upgrade to Mojave. The current Apple/NVIDIA spat means there are no Web Drivers from NVIDIA for Mojave. The AMD card used has native support from Apple and actually provides surprisingly good performance as a result. It was an Apple recommended GPU. Furthermore, Apple, starting with Mojave, have moved to Metal for all graphics acceleration. They have dropped support for OpenGL as used with previous OSes, though the GPU still supports that along with OpenCL. They are also pushing developers of applications to develop just for Metal, so this suggests that AMD cards are the only option for Macs moving forward at this time. This was a little bit of a concern until recently, but having made the change and upgraded to Mojave, I have seen a welcome improvement in system speed and responsiveness.

² On 14 December 2017, the iMac Pro was launched. With a starting price of just shy of £4,900 and rising to in excess of £12,000 (yes, that is not a typo!!) for a fully tricked out machine. I think professionals will think twice about this!! After all, that’s been reflected in recent years with many professional studios opting for the iMac rather than the previous Mac Pro. I very much doubt the performance/cost ratio justifies anything more than a well-specified iMac in most work environments—and pocket yourself £2,000+ in savings on the basic iMac Pro. That’s a shame. Despite the massive and impressive specification, this looks like a model for those with money burning a hole in their pocket rather than professionals. Perhaps best suited to those undertaking massive computational work, such as NASA.

Postscript

June 2019: Finally, a new Mac Pro is launched. The relevance of the (aged) 5,1 couldn’t be reinforced further! Yes, the new Mac Pro is incredibly powerful, but you still seem to be locked in to Apple’s proprietary acceleration technologies to get the most out of it… not to mention exceptionally deep pockets! The real options and choices for configuration seem yet to be demonstrated. For something that looks more at home in an IKEA catalogue (personal opinion), this new machine is destined only for large video/movie companies and not the ‘wider’ professional market. Another opportunity missed by Apple. Another product that belies the loss of Steve Jobs. Shame.

January, 2016

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