I originally wrote this in August of 2013 and it still remains one of the most read items on my blog. Like my Mac Pro, I’ve continually updated this page and will continue to do so until my Mac Pro retires.
My opinion of the redesigned Mac Pro still remains negative as I type this from a heavily upgraded 2008 Mac Pro. That said, the fact 7+ years later my Mac Pro remains a viable computer is a testament both how well engineered the Mac Pro was, and to the benefits modular computer design.
Whether you may have economical reasons or a disdain for the new less upgradable/hackable Mac Pro, this guide seeks to illustrate upgrades that are feasible upgrades beyond your typical RAM and Hard drive upgrades.
Please, contact me if there’s anything I’m missing.
So you have a Mac Pro and perhaps the latest Mac Pro isn’t exactly what you’re hoping for… It wasn’t for me.
Screenshot from WWDC. The 2013 Mac Pro doesn’t leave much for upgrades.
Thanks to the wonders of upgrades and hacks, any Mac Pro is still a viable box, some more so than others. You can always upgrade the RAM and the HDDs, but there’s plenty more interesting upgrades you can do, and most on the cheap. You’d be surprised at the performance a 2008 Mac Pro has in GTA V.
Notably RAM isn’t getting cheaper and if you’re not running 16 GB+ of RAM, you’re missing out on one of the best features of the Mac Pros, the ability to have more than 16 GB of ram. Apple has yet to make a laptop support greater than 16 GB of RAM and only very recently have the iMacs been able to support up to 32 GB of RAM.
Upgrade #1: OS X 10.11+
Photo Credit: Apple Inc
Skill Level: Novice/Intermediate
This is a “Well duh” upgrade, except for 2006 Mac Pro owners, which are officially unsupported, but when has official really been a barrier? You can install 10.8+ on unsupported Macs. Follow the guide here.
Mavericks even on an old Mac Pro breathes new life into it thanks to the much more efficient memory management. El Capitan fixes the Yosemite UI lag by trading a little battery life for the same responsiveness of Mavericks, but you’re a Mac Pro user! Batteries be damned! Enjoy El Capitan!
At the top of the list comes USB 3.0 as its cheap and effective.
USB 3.0 isn’t the newest kid on the block, but you’ll never be able to add Thunderbolt via upgrades. USB 3.0 is nearly the speed of eSATA and its much more widely supported. With the advent of USB 3.0 thumb drives, you can get some impressive speeds. If you’ve already filled your 4 drive bays, USB 3.0 4 TB drives are as little as $120 at NewEgg.com.
For as little as $18, you can add USB 3.0 to any Mac Pro (running 10.8.3). It’ll take some hackage, as you’ll need to provide Molex power to the PCI chamber. With the 2006/2008 Mac Pros, you can easily feed off the Molex power cable in the optical drive. 2010 Mac Pro owners will need to get a SATA Power to Molex Power Adapter
Note: Sonnet (Long time Mac hardware/upgrade manufacturer) also sells USB 3.0, more spendy but they carry the trust that comes with the Sonnet name. There’s others on the market, I recommend Macrumor’s forums.
Upgrade #3 Make your own Fusion drive by installing an SSD
Cost: $100-$700 (SSDs prices are vary greatly based on make/size).
Skill Level: Expert
Yes, SSD is the future. Most modern SSDs are as reliable as HDDs (initially they weren’t).
Installing an SSD might not be as straight forward as you think. Most SSDs are 2.5 inch, the Mac Pro drive bases are 5.25 inch for optical and 3.5 inch for HDDs.
… Skipping the Fusion Drive probably is a more viable option as 1 TB SSDs entered below the $500 mark some time ago. I skipped the Fusion drive for a 750 GB SSD last year. The Mac Pros are SATA2 only so you won’t be making full use of the SSD without a SATA3 card, see upgrade #6 for more details.
Upgrade #4: Flash an AMD (Formerly ATI) Radeon 6870 or 6970
Photo Credit: Amazon.com
(I’m leaving this up for posterity’s sake, as the information is still valid although the nVidia route is the superior option)
Skill Level: Intermediate to Expert (Not difficult but requires patience locate an EFI rom and careful reading)
Mac graphics cards are really expensive, but fortunately with a little TLC you can flash Radeon 6870s and 6970s in your Mac Pro, I retired my GeForce 8800 GT a year ago and haven’t regretted it. Out of the box, the 6870s will output picture after fully booting. However, you’ll get some weird issues (Quicktime does not work, games may not work, mac will not output video via graphics card until fully booted). To correct this, you’ll need to flash the firmware with the Mac rom for full EFI compatibility.
Don’t worry, it’ll still work great in in Windows. However, the Mac roms usually only support 3 video outputs so be prepared that likely one of the DVI ports will be rendered unsupported. You’ll be limited to driving 3 monitors instead of 4. :)
If eSATA isn’t your style, you can easily add in two more drives into your free 5.25 drive bay using a OWC Multi-Mount
Photo Credit: macsales.com
Upgrade #6: Turbo speed your storage: Use PCIe Storage or Upgrade to SATA3 for SSD
Photo Credit: macsales.com
Skill Level: Novice/Intermediate
The latest MacBook Airs and the upcoming Mac Pro boast PCIe storage. Its oodles faster than SATA and every Mac Pro 2006-2012 is limited to SATA2… but don’t think you’re exactly limited buying a new Mac Pro.
With the Samsung 840 / 850 models hovering around 500+ MB/s a second, going to SATA 3 for many SSDs will nearly double the the sustained reads/writes over the internal SATA 2.
Upgrade #7: Macs Fan Control
Skill Level: Intermediate
Why does Macs Fan Control count as an upgrade?
My Mac Pro has always had a fan glitch where my Mac goes into leaf blower mode under any distress.
Having used it to record two full length LPs, this has been rather problematic. However, you can bypass the thermometers default settings using Macs Fan Control. The Mac Pros have an impressive amount of fan chambers, and if your Mac is overly sensitive, you can easily reduce the Fan RPMs using temperature ranges for different zones. Also as a major bonus, there’s even a Windows version that lets you turn down your fans when booting Windows 7-8.
Its been a life saver for me, although if you’re not careful you can damage your computer. Just keep an eye on the temperatures and learn what’s normal. I’ve been using it for years now, and its my Mac Pro no longer runs in leaf blower mode while playing games in Windows. I can’t recommend it enough.
There are guides you can follow like the Anandtech one linked here and everymac has a lot of great info. Any oldschool PC user probably isn’t afraid of a little thermal paste. Its not the most difficult (swapping out a busted flat panel on a MacBook requires more nimble fingers) but its not for the faint of heart or the shallow of wallet.
The upgrade options become a lot less compelling for the 2008 Mac Pro which the base model largely was octo-core. For $500, one could go from 2.8 GHz to 3.0 Ghz, but there isn’t much room for upgrades as the best CPU for the LGA771 is the X5492 (with the improve 1600 Mhz FSB), the few places that carry them run over $700 per CPU and second-best X5482 sells for $400 per CPU. The best of the 1200 Mhz FSB LGA771s, the 3.33 Ghz, X5470 runs for around $200 per CPU. The question is, is 533 Mhz per CPU worth $400?
NOTE: 2009 Mac Pros can accept the same CPUs as a 2010 CPU with a firmware hack, see below
The 2010/2012 Mac Pros have more flexibility ranging from 6, 10 and 12 core configurations. Bringing a 4 core 2010 to a 12 core X5650 may cost $500 per CPU, but its cheaper than buying a new Mac Pro. Be warned: Of all the upgrades listed, this the only one I’ve yet attempt.
While you won’t be able to attain the amazing 5k resolution of the iMac, you can come relatively close with your aging Mac Pro with 4k.
There’s a few things to understand right out of the gate, First thing first, need a graphics card that’s 4k compatible such as the nVidia GeForce 760GTX and preferably one with a DisplayPort connector.
Second, you’ll need 10.9.3+ for the UI scaling installed for UI scaling, otherwise be prepared to squint.
Third, you’ll need a 4k Display.
Sounds easy right? You need to carefully consider your purchase as not all 4k displays are equal. Many low end 4k displays are 30 Hz only. This means you’ll get a maximum of 30 FPS. Doesn’t sound bad right? Almost undoubtedly the LCD monitor you’re using right now is 60 Hz, meaning 60 FPS. 30 Hz is a huge step (and I mean huge) for tracking your mouse movements. I find it nearly unusable. Second, with the current crop of monitors and graphics cards HDMI, you’ll be limited to 30 Hz, so you’ll need a display port compatible monitor for 60 Hz
Photo Credit: amazon.com
Currently the best price to performance can be had on the Samsung 28 Ultra High Definition LED Monitor (U28D590D) which can be found often for under $500. Its 60 Hz when using DisplayPort.
You’ll be getting 157.35 PPI (Pixels per inch) which means you’ll be getting in-between “retina” and “standard. Previously a higher end 27 inch display normally would carry a 2560 x 1440 resolution, for a grand total of 104.9 PPI. The iMac 5k has an incredible 218 PPI, nearly the same as the Retina MacBook Pros.
Upgrade #11: 2009 firmware flash to enable Westmere Xeon CPUs and faster ram
This is one of those times times where a software upgrade makes all the difference.
Ars Technica reported on the success of the 2009 Mac Pros being flashed by Netkas forum members, the same tribe of digital badasses who figured out how to flash ATI graphics cards before nVIdia did us a big favor and started loading its graphics cards with OS X compatible bios, and writing its own drivers.
Notably this will not provide any improvements beyond enabling you to upgrade your CPUs and RAM.
Upgrade #12: Hackintosh?
Skill Level: Expert+
Hackintoshes are ever present but make for a very shaky OS X experience. You’ll be wading kext files and diving into the deep in the pool. I highly do not recommend it unless you’re a seasoned OS X user who’s not afraid of the terminal, and doesn’t mind waiting for major OS updates.
How to tell if you’re right for a Hackintosh.
Use Bit Torrent
Use or have used another OS than OS X
Knowingly voided a warranty on a computer
Successfully wired a motherboard’s LED lights to a motherboard
Modified a PC’s Bios
Successfully troubleshooted a Mac suffering repeat Kernel Panics
Know what the phrase "Show Package Contents” in OS X means
Installed Kext files manually
sudo nanoed a plist or other OS file in OS X
Visited one of the websites: InsanelyMac, TonyMacX86, iATKOS, osx86project and already considered a Hackintosh prior to reading this list
If you answer yes to all of the following questions, you just might be right for a Hackintosh.
Having installed 10.5 on a Pentium-D system years ago and trying it out, it made me realize that a Hackintosh wasn’t a viable option for me at the time. It worked… (mostly) but the lack of stability was unnerving. I was stuck waiting on compatible updates, and the lack of graphic support made for a rough experience.
In the spring of 2014 I got the Hackintosh bug again and tried the Hackintosh route and mostly succeeded.
Protip: Experienced Linux users will be more adapted to working on Hackintosh problems that the average Mac user.
LifeHacker’s guide is probably the best jump off point, followed by InsanelyMac and TonyMacX86.
Personally, most of the upgrades I can vouch for personally. My Mac Pro has seen many upgrades, some small, like the inevitable RAM upgrades, and some large, like a monstrous eSATA case that contained 4 HDs.