Mac Pro 5,1 resurrected?

January, 2016—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. 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 27,665). That’s on a par with the top of the range Mac Pro 6,1! It should be noted, however, the single-core score of 3,005 is not great. For some applications and tasks, this will be no quicker than a lot of ‘basic’ Macs.

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 MSI Radeon RX Vega 56 ‘Air Boost’ 8GB graphics card¹ (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. TimeMachine is handled by an external USB 3.0 drive. Not cutting edge, but this is a decent Mac, with an excellent Geekbench 4 Multi-Core Score performance of 27,665! In other words, a strong performance at a much lower price point. I do have software that utilises both GPU and multi-cores for certain tasks. That said, the relatively poor level of application programming these days means that these multi-core machines are rarely fully utilised in most software. 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 current design direction following the demise of Steve Jobs, these older models still have a strong (cult) following. This is due, in part, to the relatively poor performance/price (not to mention design restrictions) of recent 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, again, for the performance you achieve. For me, the Mac Pro 5,1 still has more life left in yet—I hope it sees me through to the end of 2020, at least. The only reason it is becoming less viable is down to the CPU. Whilst more than adequate for most tasks, new software is being written using (data) instruction set extensions only found on newer CPUs, for example, AVX, which is not supported by these CPUs. Other instruction extensions, such as SSE–SSE4.2, often implemented, are included. That’s why I feel there is still a couple of years left in this form factor.

As an aside, Apple’s recent (2019) adoption and support for eGPUs opens up the possibility of using other Mac’s as lightweight ‘workstations’, 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 could also be used with an eGPU, creating a very effective little workstation! It already has proved to have surprisingly good single- and multi-core performance, in the upper echelons of Mac performance. Thank you, Apple. It has been reported through some online testing, that Thunderbolt 2 shows little degradation in speed over Thunderbolt 3, so with the appropriate Apple Thunderbolt 3 (USB‑C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter, perhaps even older MacBook Pros’ can be rejuvenated with an eGPU?

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, or likely to be now that Catalina is soon to be released. The AMD card used has native driver support from Apple and actually provides surprisingly good performance as a result. It was an Apple recommended GPU. It also provides a 30-bit colour signal to my monitor, which I never expected. However, note that whilst Apple fully recognises these cards and provides the driver, there is no boot screen. I am still able to use an old NViDIA GT 120 for that purpose, however, though as it is not supported in Mojave, it only works in an unaccelerated form. 

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 if the GPU still supports that, along with OpenCL, apps that make use of those frameworks will continue to do so. They are 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 of around 15%, which is noticeable. As a a final aside, even if you want to stick with High Sierra and NVIDIA, run the firmware update that the Mojave installer wants to do before the OS update. This firmware upgrade to BIOS provides a full 5GT/s speed on all PCIe slots! Oddly, my Mac reports 8GT/s on the graphics card slot. It’s worthwhile just for that. You don’t have to run the subsequent update to Mojave after the firmware update. There is a lot of mis-information about the slot 1 speed was limited to 2.5GT/s on these machines with unflashed cards. This was never true, period. Don’t you just love forums—places you rarely get the correct answer. 

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.


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 ridiculously deep pockets, even for an under-specified entry machine! 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. Notwithstanding the pointless banishment of NVIDIA, this is yet another opportunity missed by Apple. The original ‘cheesgrater’ Mac Pro still looks much better in my opinion. Another product that belies the loss of Steve Jobs. Shame.

January, 2016

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