Wringing the Life Out of an Old Mac Pro Tower

Like a good automobile it just keeps chugging along. And it is paid for.

There’s a whole lot of us who still have a big, old aluminum Mac Pro tower sitting around doing a lot of work. We haven’t moved to 5K iMacs, Macbook Pros (or PCs) just yet. We also haven’t spent the money on a new Mac Pro. A conversation early at NAB 2014 got me thinking about all the stuff one could add to an old Mac Pro to help extend its life. NAB was the perfect place to talk to vendors who make those products you can stuff inside, or attach to, an old Mac Pro. A bunch of emails, phone calls and boxes later I’ve tried most all the gear mentioned below with my machine. I think of this current tower like a good, reliable, paid for car: I’m going to drive this thing until the wheels fall off.

My old Mac Pro certainly isn’t the fastest of the towers that existed. It’s only a quad-core 2.66 GHz with 32 MB of RAM. It really has been a workhorse over the years though churning through a ton of data and generating lot of media. The expandability of a tower design like the old Mac Pro means it has lasted through a lot of jobs. Now that we finally have a new Mac Pro that is the polar opposite when it comes to design (it’s all based around USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt) you have to throw out a lot of your old gear and an old way of thinking to move to that new Mac Pro. But if you want to keep using your old Mac Pro here’s a list of what might help extend the life of that already paid for computer. Couple this post with a similar recent article by Oliver Peters and you’ve got a lot to think about when it comes to making an old Mac Pro last longer. If you’d like a bit of FCPX specific talk about using an old Mac Pro with FCPX and a big edit job listen to my recent talk on FCPX Grill where we discuss just that.

We’ll never forget the cheese grater design.

It’s so tempting to upgrade to a new machine, be it an 5K iMac or a new Mac Pro tube. Heck I have a top of the line Macbook Pro which I do a lot of work on but it’s small screen can’t compare to my full desktop setup with a 30 inch cinema display and 27 inch HP Dreamcolor. I do a lot of offline editing and this old Mac Pro tower still holds its own very well. It’s plenty fast for DSLR media, ProRes and media right off a C300. I’ve done native RED R3D work in Adobe Premiere Pro CC with the Mercury Playback engine and a good GPU. A lot of those DSLR and C300 jobs are finished right in that box and it doesn’t blink. Best of all it’s a system that is paid for and has paid for itself many times over. Like a used car you don’t want to spend a lot of money fixing something that is broken when you could put that money toward a new car (or new computer in this case) but if you have a working, reliable, paid for Mac Pro a few hundred dollars here and there might get you another year out of the thing, depending on what you’re asking it to do.  I have to admit that Retina 5K iMac is very, very tempting but that $3,000 price tag isn’t something that I have to spend right now. So here’s how I keep my old Mac Pro tower rolling along.

SSD boot drive

OWC’s SSD drives come with a bracket to mount them internally in an old Mac Pro.

The first thing one should do to an old Mac Pro is replace the old, spinning internal boot drive with an SSD. If nothing else you’ll save time on startup as the SSD takes seconds compared to minutes for the spinning drives that shipped in old Mac Pros. While capacities are smaller with an SSD they are plenty big these days to house the Mac OS, all the applications you’ll need and the usual random files that apps like to write into the Library folder. Just keep your Adobe cache located elsewhere.

Many years ago I put an Other World Computing SSD into my Mac Pro. It was expensive back then but these days you can get a 240 GB SSD for around $200 give or take. The SSD kits for an old Mac Pro come with a mounting bracket that makes it easy to install. It’s easily the best money you’ll spend on an old Mac Pro outside of a ton of RAM but OWC has you covered there as well.

Here’s the SSD and a larger spinning drive as a size comparison.

Installation of an SSD is easy. Put the tiny drive into the bracket and slide it in place of the old, larger spinning drive. Done. Then you just have to install all your apps again. I elected to put in a much larger spinning drive as a Document, Download and Dropbox storage space. I directed all my internet apps to send their downloads there. Dropbox might squawk a bit when you try to move its location from your boot drive but I haven’t had any problems with it.


Another of the most important additions to an old Mac Pro might just be a better GPU than the stock version that shipped. Most likely that means an upgrade to one of the NVIDIA cards. As far as the current NVIDIA cards that have a “For Mac” designation, it’s the K5000. This thing has 1536 cores (if that means anything to you other than it’s faster than the previous Mac NVIDIA GPUs) and is a full CUDA card meaning that any apps that take advantage of the CUDA architecture can take fully utilize it (as long as you have both drivers installed).

The K5000 is quite a beast (both in size and power) inside an old Mac Pro.

NVIDIA has made other Mac GPUs and you could also pick up an older Quadro 4000 or Quadro FX 4800 if the K5000 doesn’t fit into your budget. We’ve looked at both the 4000 and FX 4800 here in the past. They are all good cards that will serve an editor well especially if you’re tools are based around Adobe Premiere Pro which takes advantage of the CUDA acceleration. It’s important to note that PPro also has good open CL acceleration too but since a lot of old Mac Pros came with rather anemic GPUs these NVIDIA cards are great upgrades. On a recent episode of That Post Show I was on with an NVIDIA representative so if you’re into this kind of stuff give that show a listen as there’s lot of good GPU information in there.

Final Cut Pro X will even run well on this old Mac Pro as it supports these NVIDIA GPUs.

An old Mac Pro owner might also take advantage of other NVIDIA GPUs in the form of a GeForce GTX 680. Read onto the end of this post to see an extreme system built with NVIDIA Titan Blacks.

USB 3.0

Unfortunately there probably won’t ever be any way to get Thunderbolt on an old Mac Pro. Apparently HP can add Thunderbolt to some of their older towers but from what I was told they built this possibility in from the beginning. But you can get USB 3.0 which will definitely help with transfer speeds since most all drives you buy today are USB 3.0 equipped. Just because a drive has a USB 3 connection doesn’t mean you’re going to saturate the USB 3 pipe as some of these drives have slow mechanisms but at least it’s now an option.

It’s terribly convenient to have both eSATA and USB 3.0 in one card,

CalDigit makes the FASTA–6GU3 Pro. This $169 card is a dual usage card in that it includes both USB 3.0 and eSATA on the same card. If you have an old Mac Pro and haven’t already opted for eSATA over Firewire 800 when possible you’ve been leaving some speed on the table.

The NewerTech MACPower is another card PCIe card in the USB 3.0 PCI card game. This $119 offering also has an eSATA connection. The price is right for these USB 3.0 PCI cards so if you’re doing a lot of file transfers off of external drives then this investment is almost as important as the SSD boot drive. It’s silly not to have one when using an old Mac Pro tower.


Internal RAID

It’s a no-brainer to know that you need a fast RAID for more efficient editing and post-production. The old Mac Pro internal design means you can stuff several drives inside the unit and RAID them for much faster than Firewire 800 speeds but for true RAID performance a good external RAID is your best bet.

But before we talk external RAIDs let’s look at the internals of the old Mac Pro.

The easy access and internal expandability of the old Mac Pros can’t be beat.

With the four drive bays you can really get a lot of storage space right inside. My current setup is one bay for the SSD boot drive, one bay for a bigger spinning drive as mentioned above for documents and downloads and the other two drive bays stripped together for a faster, two-drive RAID. It’s not huge at only 4TB but I keep it at that size since quick backup can go to a single 4TB disk. Now with 8TB drives out there this constantly continues to rise.

That’s some nice speed coming off the internal two-drive RAID considering how cheap it was to create it.

External RAID

Beyond the internal RAID dedicated editors most likely need a big external RAID for storing the multitude of projects you’re working on. This current Mac Pro configuration is working with an Other World Computing Mercury Elite Pro Qx2 that was supplied for this article. This drive is in a RAID5 configuration and provides great speed at an affordable price. You can get into a 12 TB version for $800.

A good RAID is essential to the busy editing system.

OWC sells both “regular” RAIDs and Enterprise Class. The Enterprise Class runs $300 – $400 more so I asked OWC what exactly the difference between the two would be. I was told that “Enterprise models are for heavier duty enterprise users; warranty is a bit longer; which results in enterprise pricing being higher than consumer use models.” That’s a big vague as in the hardware difference but my guess is they offer a different class of hard drives internally since buying a bare 4-TB hard drive can result in a lot of different choices in exactly what you’re buying. The extra 2 years on the warranty is a nice extension.

Above is a speed test on the OWC Mercury Elite Pro Qx2 RAID0.

There are many different options out there for external RAID from OWC, G-Tech and CineRAID to name a few. It’s a rather interesting time to consider buying an older eSATA RAID what with Thunderbolt being all the rage and the only connection on new Macs but these old towers still have a lot of life left in them so this is storage worth considering.

Thunderbolt is easy and fast and all but there’s still something nice about the neatness of internal expandability. 

The old Mac Pro optical drive bay

It’s worth noting that the old Mac Pros have space in the optical drive bays to add a Blu-Ray player or even another hard drive. I think that goes to show the true versatility of the computer’s design in that you have so many options both internally and externally to tailor it to your needs as well as extend it’s life.

Of course Other World Computing comes to the rescue with mounting options to put hardware in the old Mac Pro optical bays. This article from EveryMac.com can give you an idea of what’s possible there as well.

Up Next: Extreme Expansion for running DaVinci Resolve

Extreme Expansion

One benefit of the PCI expansion of an old Mac Pro is you can attach an expansion chassis and end up with a real powerhouse machine. A very common use of this expansion would be to squeeze maximum performance out of a DaVinci Resolve system. I’ve never set up this type of system myself so I enlisted the help of Ben Hilton (@MrBenHelton) to describe his installation of multiple GPUs in his old Mac Pro. The information below is reprinted with Ben’s permission.

Upgrading a Mac Pro by Ben Hilton

August 25, 2014 Over the bank holiday weekend, I’ve completed an upgrade to the Mac Pro which I use for colour grading and mastering with DaVinci Resolve. Its a 12 CORE 2.4GHZ with 32GB RAM using the Tangent Elements control panel and a Sony Grading monitor.

Since the release of Apple’s ‘Mavericks’ OSX and the new “trash can” Mac Pro, these high end machines have become increasingly tricky to maintain, not just in its outdated ports but particularly in the way Apples OSX handles Graphics cards, in particular external GPUs, so selecting how to upgrade this machine to realize its full potential took some thought.

Here’s a breakdown of my upgrade choices:

SYSTEM DRIVE – PCI Express SSD With the newer “trash can” Mac Pro’s I’ve been really impressed by the speed which using a PCIe flash storage can bring to performance. So I opted to upgrade the system drive to a Mercury Accelsior E2 PCIe SSD. This really boosts software performance and increases boot speeds. Also, it handily has two eSata ports, which considering the Mac Pro’s downfall is its lack of fast IO ports, is a welcome addition.

EXTERNAL CHASSIS In order to house multiple GPUs and cards, I have been using a 4 slot Cubix Expansion chassis for over a year now. It now houses a Red Rocket and a Blackmagic Decklink. The GPUs in there though were rendered completely useless when I initially upgraded to Mavericks, but as of 10.9.4 it is now fully functional and adds some much needed room to increase the power of the Mac Pro. However, OSX 10.9.4 only allows for 2 external GPUs.

GPUs After much consideration, I opted to replace the 3 x 680 GPUs with 2 x Nvidia Titan Blacks. A speed increase which would surpass the original 3 cards. This is not without its complications. Apple really have let GPUs become a very precarious business and these cards only work with the following drivers: cudadriver–6.0.51 and WebDriver–334.01.02f02. Having the web driver is super important to these GPUs functioning correctly. Using any more recent updates to the drivers currently, for me, leads to OSX not recognizing them in the system correctly.

INTERNAL RAID I have fitted 5 x 3TB drives internally in the Mac Pro and striped them together to create a RAID0 Media drive. This gives the fastest speeds available to run media from. Although the Mac Pro only has 4 drive bays, by purchasing a drive caddy to mount a drive where the second DVD drive would be, you can add a 5th. Also moving the system drive to PCIe meant I could now utilize all 5 drives for media.

It should be noted that brilliantly, OSX 10.9 cannot format drives of 3TB and above for this use… its a bug in Disk Utility (in OSX 10.8 and 9) apparently. I managed to render all 5 drives unusable as ‘Logical Group Volume’ formatted drives. A neat work around is to use a version of disk utility from 10.7 or before. To do this, I found an old and incredibly cute USB boot disk (you could use an OSX CD also), inserted and booted the mac pro holding down the C key. this booted into the USB stick and after clicking cancel a couple of times I managed to get into the disk utility menu, from where I reformatted the 5 internal disks as regular OSX Extended (journaled) GUID disks. Booting back into Mavericks I could then stripe them as normal. Oh Apple, why are you such a faff.

NETWORK & IO PORTS One of the biggest issues for the older Mac Pros are the slow USB 2 and Firewire ports. They don’t cut it anymore when you’re working with faster data rates and large volumes of rushes, transferring by these ports is simply too time consuming. I’ve opted to set up a 10gE network in my studio, to transfer large amount of rushes and also to utilize a huge RAID5 network drive for storage and so with my last remaining PCI slot, I have popped a 10gE network port in there. This has the added luxury of being able to transfer rushes using another machine (such as the trash can mac pro) which has USB3 and Thunderbolt functionality at Thunderbolt speeds directly onto the machine via the network or connect directly with our shared storage. So in summary, in 8 PCI slots, I now have:


Everything now appears to be working well, I’ve loaded up Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 11 and I look forward to posting some system speeds as the machine is used.

So there ya go. A lot of options for things you can stuff in or attach to an old Mac Pro in order to wring every last bit of life out of the thing. Think of this article as an ode to that faithful design we have loved for many years. Or maybe this is its swan song. I don’t know how much longer my tower will chug along but as long as it continues to perform the post-production tasks I ask it to do, I’ll keep using it.

Scott Simmons

Scott Simmons

Scott Simmons was born in rural West Tennessee and didn’t really realize that movies and tv had to be made by actual people until he went to college. After getting degrees in both Television Production and Graphic Design he was in one of the early graduating classes at the Watkins Film School in Nashville, Tennessee. During that time at Watkins he discovered editing. While most of his classmates in film school wanted to be directors, Scott saw real career opportunities in post production and took a job as an assistant editor after completing film school. In 1999, Scott took the leap into freelancing and in 2007 accepted a position as an editor at Filmworkers – Nashville. In 2005 Scott created The Editblog a website dedicated to all things editing and post-production which is now housed here at PVC. Someday he hopes to edit on a beach with a touch screen device, a wireless hard drive and a Red Stripe.

  • Steve Hullfish

    Just discovered this great article. Really nice write up Scott. Loved reading this. I’ve got a couple of these towers. As I started to read I figured – hoped – that your first suggestion would be SSD. I installed one in an older MacBookPro and it turned it into a completely new machine. This is all great advice

    • scottsimmons

      Thanks. I’m still amazed at how fast my old Mac Pro start with the SSD.

      • Great article indeed. Just found it while researching Thunderbolt solutions and crazy enough I made the same SSD, GPU and Caldigit upgrades. The Caldigit was awhile ago and for the GPU I went with a Sapphire HD 7950. Have you at all considered a PCI to SATA card with something like the Samsung SSD 850 EVO?

        I know it looks like your space is pretty much already filled and you’d have to move some stuff around. As much as I love the thought of Thunderbolt I have to agree with you 100%. I already have a Synology DS212 and ICY DOCK Icy Cube on a very very clean desk. Let me know if you’ve tried or your thoughts on the PCI to SATA. Thx.

        • scottsimmons

          Hi Steve. I don’t quite get the Samsung SSD 850 EVO… is it a PCI card? Looking at the Samsung website I can’t tell. Looks to me like it just goes into a normal drive bay? Yep my space is full but I guess I could put something in the unused optical bay but to be honest, at this point with everything working well I hesitate to muck around with it much more. I wonder every day how much longer it will last!

          • Hey Scott. The Samsung SSD 850 EVO is a Solid State Drive that I ended up putting onto a OWC Accelsior PCIe card fitted into lane 1. I agree that once the machine is running beautifully mucking around can provide some truly unpleasant results. I often have those same thoughts about my older equipment 🙂

            Let’s hope for the best.

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