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 2–3 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 price all duly ticked! And these machines really do still perform today (Geekbench 4 Multi-Core Score of 24,751).

Lets get it out of the way, this thing is heavy — just shy of 20kg loaded! Miniaturisation was not a design consideration at this time. They are made from copious amounts of metal. 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 NVIDIA GTX 970 4GB graphics card (Open GL, CUDA, Open CL and Metal support), a very fast Samsung 512GB PCIe Flash drive (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 very quick Mac, with a Geekbench 4 Multi-Core Score performance only bettered by the new iMac Pro and a current top-of-the-range 12-core late 2013 Mac Pro! In other words, a very strong 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. A 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’ with files. Much works, but not everything. For me, that’s less of an issue as my workstation is my working platform and I don’t look to work on e-mails or other files across different devices. For me, mobile devices are no where near professional tools as yet.

Despite Apple’s clearly questionable design direction these days following the demise of Steve Jobs, these older models are gathering a following due to the relatively poor price/performance (not to mention design restrictions) of current models like the trashcan Mac Pro model. 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 Pro¹ looks a different proposition — though far too expensive – but for me, and for now, the Mac Pro 5,1 still has a long working life ahead.²


¹ 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. Apart from the provisos outlined below, an updated Mac Pro 5,1 or 6,1 are more attractive propositions, even in 2018/19. However, the new Mac Pro should arrive next year, so we could just wait and see. Sans screen, it should start cheaper than the iMac Pro

² Possibly not. The many High Sierra patches and upgrades have demonstrated to a large degree that Apple is reluctant to support older equipment, such as this eponymous ‘chessegrater’. I guess they want us all to have machines sealed and controlled only by Apple, except for the menial task of adding extra memory modules. It’s a shame. The updates have caused numerous issues with the graphics card and a few applications, though recently that has settled down. I’m currently running the latest version of High Sierra (10.13.6) of the macOS without issue. I’ve no intention of moving to Mojave as the improvements are negligible, but the problems created by graphics card and application compatibility seem extensive.

I’m pleased NVIDIA works hard to ensure it develops drivers to work with all it’s cards in any/most operating systems, providing updates a day or so after Apple. If it didn’t support the Apple OS like this, that probably would be the end of the road for machines like this. Today, support for non-flashed GPUs is better and it is perfectly feasible to put almost any GPU in these Mac Pros. As of October 2018, it seems that NVIDIA may be creating drivers (and firmware) that maintains a boot screen by default. This seems to be in advance of the new ‘modular’ Mac Pro to be launched in 2019, which must therefore be able to accept any GPU.

There seems to be a desire to start forcing users to update hardware nearly as frequently as software, though we do already see this with mobile phones. This environmentally-unfriendly and consumerist focus is insane, not to mention unsustainable. I am already seeing many software companies updating applications, and creating new applications, that have been set up only to work on new hardware regardless of whether an older machine could run that software without breaking in to a sweat! For instance, apparently this computer, whilst technologically only around 5–7 years old, and has a performance well in to the upper echelons of the current Mac Pro’s, cannot run the small imaging application, Pixelmator Pro; a machine that crunches through 1GB image files in Photoshop, not to mention 3D work in modelling and GIS applications. Madness! It just demonstrates what a malign industry it is becoming, forcing you in to a constant cycle of hardware and software upgrades for no better reason than satisfying shareholders with increased profits.

January, 2016

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