Two nights ago, I decided to put my thoughts I've had for months now about the classic Mac Pro into a video. I've personally moved on and retired my Mac Pro 5,1 after spending the last 13 years using a cheesegrater Mac Pro as my primary computer. The Mac Pro enabled me to achieve a lot of my creative and professional achievements: recording two albums, contract work on a few TV shows, and a career change into web development full-time.
BBuying a new computer would be a fairly non-significant life event for most people, but I've spent the last three years updating and maintaining a guide on the classic Mac Pro. If you'd like, watch the video below or continuing reading as I'll provide a written summary below as I understand many prefer written words over video, as I'm one of those people too. My perspective is coming from a practical standpoint as I'd gauge most of my readers to be in the practical camp as opposed to the hobbyist camp where the utility isn't as important.
Leaving the classic Mac Pro behind...
A few short months ago, I bought a 2019 Mac Pro, replacing my classic Mac Pro, a 2010 dual CPU Mac Pro, outfitted with 96 GB of RAM, two NVMe drives, a Radeon VII, and two Sonnet pro series USB cards (USB-A and USBc), as well as a lot of internal storage. Originally, I really didn't think I'd ever been able to justify owning a 2019 Mac Pro. I could certainly afford one, but it's an irresponsible purchase as my needs for a computer do not require a Mac Pro 2019 as a UX/Web Developer. For nearly the last decade, I've used a slew of 15-inch MacBook Pros: 2013 (Retina), 2015, and still currently 2017. Then, the pandemic happened... and things changed for the classic Mac Pro.
Prices went wacky. During the pandemic, used electronics (and cars) skyrocketed in price. For reference, I bought my dual CPU Mac Pro 2010 in late 2017 for $800. I sold it (granted with better specs) for $900 in 2021. GPU pricing went through the ceiling, tripling in value. As I watched the prices climb, I had a crazy idea: if I sold my Mac Pros (two 5,1s, one dual CPU, and one single CPU), the Radeon VII and Vega 56 separately, quick back of the napkin math put me at roughly $1500 shy. I'd pull the NVMe drives and large SSDs and HDDs. I inventoried hardware I hadn't used in ages and added a semi-functional dual CPU tray for a 5,1, studio preamp, a set of Beyerdynamic headphones, an Oculus Quest 2, to name a few things. All said and done; it'd get me only a hundred dollars shy.... except I was about 15 years from my last eBay sale, I failed to calculate the eBay commission, which is heavy, roughly 18%.
I listed and sold my items, many extremely fast (I probably could have charged more for many items, but I was interested in a quick turnaround). I managed to be about $500-$700 short. With the money in hand, I balked several times ordering 2019 as $6000 is.... well... $6000. Inevitably I pulled the trigger.
#1: The classic Mac Pros cannot boot the latest macOS
The Mac Pros have been in a hackintosh-like state ever since Apple dropped official support for the classic Mac Pros after Mojave. Installing Catalina required either using DOSDUDE1 or, better, OpenCore. OpenCore is an open-source bootloader that does many things. The Mac Pro's implementation of EFI is not UEFI as it predates UEFI by a few years. This means a few inconsistencies. Apple's EFI and UEFI use different basic drivers for the pre-boot menu/screen. For Mac Pro users, non-Apple EFI GPUs will not output video until the full drivers have been loaded, which is late in the boot process. OpenCore fixes this by loading the correct drivers. It also emulates other Mac's UEFI, meaning macOS runs transparently without requiring software hacks to the OS itself. This is preferable to patching like DOSDUDE1 as you apply OS updates as there isn't a patch that can be overwritten. OpenCore also allows for various drivers and low-level tweaks, thus making hot-swappable Thunderbolt 3 possible on the classic Mac Pros as well as enabling full video decoding/encoding support.
While all of these minor miracles have greatly benefitted the cMP, with Big Sur 11.3, the Mac Pro hit an unlikely impasse. Apple, in a point release changed the PCIe bus handling with downstream effects to the classic Mac Pro. The cMPs can and will boot above macOS 11.2.3, but the PCIe bus, under certain circumstances, will cause kernel panics. Eventually, it'll corrupt the boot drive and require restoring.
This singular change influenced more than anything else that the clock was ticking for the classic Mac Pro. Apple typically provides security updates for a year to previous releases, and many applications generally support at least the previous version of macOS. Pixelmator Pro, for example, supports 10.15 Catalina, but not 10.14 Mojave. Xcode and Final Cut Pro X generally only supports one OS behind the current. This means the Mac Pro will be left out on the latest versions of some popular/major apps in two years.
Another huge hit is that Big Sur 10.4 added support for the 6000 series AMD GPUs. While it may be somewhat absurd to think about sticking an expensive brand new GPU into such an old computer, an AMD Radeon 6800 was supposed $579, which is less than the Radeon VII was pre-pandemic pricing as the VII MSRPed at $700 (and usually sold on the aftermarket for more). The 6800 might not be fully realized in such an old computer, but it certainly would perform much better than the VII. Thus, today's best GPUs are still limited at the 5700 XT and the Radeon VII for macOS.
#2 Windows 11 requires TPM 2.0
Despite Microsoft calling Windows 10 "the last version of Windows", MS is releasing Windows 11. There's one monumental change that has many people upset and requires Trusted Platform Module 2.0, a security feature that requires late generation Intel and AMD CPUs. MS lists that 8th generation Intel or AMD Zen 2, although 7th Generation Intel CPUs are "partially supported". Microsoft hasn't made it very clear on such issues. You can install Windows 11 on unsupported hardware with a bit of hacking, but that places Windows 11 in a hacked state, and it's unclear if this is a maintainable route and puts any unsupported computer in a precarious unsupported state. MS could easily require later generation instruction sets like AVX, and this would effectively drop support for the classic Mac Pro. Windows 10 will be supported until 2025, so the timeline isn't nearly as imminent as macOS.
#3 The GPU crisis
The biggest selling point of the classic Mac Pro is that it can use GPUs natively in a PCIe slot, whereas all other Macs sans 2019 required eGPU solutions. While GPUs aren't severely bandwidth-intensive as PCIe 2.0 16x vs. PCIe 3.0 16x barely makes a difference, the bandwidth-restricted world of Thunderbolt 3 incurs a higher performance penalty. The outcome resulted in Mac Pros performing better in pure GPU benchmarks over an iMac Pro outfitted with the same GPU in an eGPU enclosure.
However, due to the pandemic/bitcoin/whatever, GPUs are still absurdly expensive (but dropping in price as I write this). This makes the most attractive feature of the Mac Pro out-of-reach or at least justifiable. The GPU crisis also has affected the used Mac Pro market. Most Mac Pros are sold with non-metal compatible GPUs, which are incredibly out-of-date, cannot run macOS 10.14 and above. For the cost of many GPUs, a user could buy the Mac Mini M1 and see better performance for many workflows. The M1's iGPU will run circles around the incredibly out-of-date GPUs like the pitiful GT 120 or more recent ATI Radeon 5770, which brings me to my final point.
#4 the Mac Pro 2019 and Apple Silicon
If you have the coin, Apple has a vector for people who need discrete GPUs, PCIe slots, or a metric assload of RAM. The 2019 Mac Pro took the wind out of the cMP sails as pros finally could retire their Mac Pros without compromise. The 2019 is better than the Mac Pro 5,1 in every single aspect except price. I don't feel like there's much of an argument here. The 2019 Mac Pro is easily the most elegantly designed and powerful computer Apple has ever designed, besting its previous most over-engineered computers like the PowerMac 9600 or the Mac Pro 4,1 2009. The only sad part is that Apple is ending x86 support at some point in the future, nor did it embrace AMD architecture.
It's also impossible not to talk about the Apple Silicon. While it's a tired argument, the M1 only represents the entry-level for the Apple Silicon universe, and it's already better in many workflows than the classic Mac Pros could ever hope to be, especially in the realm of 2D design, compiling code, and general use. It isn't a sure-fire win as there are plenty of limitations like the limited RAM, the limited I/O, the ability only to drive two displays, and of course, the integrated GPU isn't up to the task of competing with discrete GPUs. Still, the M1 is a better computer for many workflows than the classic Mac Pro. We're about to see what the first professional line of Apple Silicon looks like, and if you've been following the rumors, pretty much everything I listed sounds like it'll be addressed to some degree in the MacBook Pro. There won't be many use cases left when this happens where a classic Mac Pro is a better choice than Apple Silicon.
Closing thoughts: The Apple Silicon future
In my article about my thoughts on my M1 I noted that we're likely going to see a future where we see a schizophrenic performance divide between x86 and Apple Silicon. This even seems more true as I've spent more time with my M1. I fully expect to see iMacs able to edit 8k video flawlessly, fly through machine learning/tensor flow, but incredibly ill-suited for 3D modeling/animation, gaming, advanced compositing. I've always felt a bit constrained with laptops, and thus my classic Mac Pro remained my primary computer despite frequent laptop upgrades. The M1 was the first time I started using a laptop over my desktop for some of my creative pursuits, including writing and video editing. Some of this is raw convenience of a mobile writing and editing station, but it was also practical: The M1 was faster in Final Cut Pro X than my classic Mac pro despite the 2 TB Samsung 970 Evo NVMe drive, the 96 GBs of RAM, and a Radeon VII.
The Apple Silicon future still remains questionable for the desktops where thermal budgets are high, computers are modular, and the competition is tough, but if you're able to do everything professionally you want from a laptop, will you really care?
Am I advocating you sell your Mac Pro? Not really. For me, I'm low on hobbyist ambitions. I don't dream of owning a den of old computers spanning my childhood. I'd rather just have one nice desktop and one really nice laptop. I've always been less interested in the nuts and bolts of a computer than really what can it do for me? Though are fundamental to really getting to what a computer can do for the user, the nuts and bolts are fundamental to really getting to what a computer can do. Thus, I ended up self-educating myself and assisting others in the same journey. If you want one really nice computer and have several old Macs and GPUs lying around, selling sooner than later will benefit you.
The big shift though isn't necessarily the classic Mac Pros aren't workable machines, rather we've hit that point where investing further into them is probably not a wise move. At this point, I'd recommend doing the minimal upgrades and saving for a new computer, again from a practical standpoint.
I purposely avoided gaming in this even though I do play some games, and when I do, I prefer to do it on my computer. If you're hyper interested in gaming, the classic Mac Pro is still the best route without breaking the bank to be able to dual boot to Windows and use a dedicated GPU, and play the absolutely mind-boggling catalog of PC games from numerous services/stores.
Bonus: Check out the Reaction Video from several Mac community members, including Jay (House of the Moth) who I've leaned on heavily on in the Definitive Mac Pro Upgrade Guide.