Talking about USB 3.0, SSDs versus SATA-II, and the Hackintosh
GPU purchases: choose wisely
There are two players in the GPU market -- Nvidia and AMD. The pair make a reference design, and license the technology out to other vendors. How divergent the other companies get to the standard is the question. Given that Nvidia provides drivers for Yosemite and El Capitan for its cards, if you're doing a strict build with the goal of having the hardware be as well-supported as possible, you're better off going with a Nvidia card.
Interestingly, though, performance with Final Cut Pro X and other OpenCL applications is better with an AMD card, given the company's architectural choices. There are ways to get an AMD card running on El Capitan and Yosemite, and we'll delve into them in the future. So, for now, pick a Nvidia card for any of the models we're upgrading, or stick with what you've got in the 2008 3,1 and the 2009 4,1. We'll talk more about AMD cards in the coming weeks.
USB 3.0 cards -- you get what you pay for
Once upon a time, with OS revisions before 10.10, a wide array of generic USB cards worked on the Mac Pro. Just about every NEC and Etron USB chipset worked, and some of them were driver-free, using Apple's own code. However, Apple made major changes to how drivers worked in 10.10, and did it again in 10.11. So now, most of the older, cheap cards don't work well, or at all.
So, if you're sticking with an older version of the OS, just about anything will do. Right now, our recommendation for USB 3.0 in 10.10 and 10.11 is the Inatek KT-4006. Retail for the card is $36, but it can be found for $20 routinely on Amazon.
If you're looking for wide OS support, Highpoint has a storage-only solution for hard drives and SSDs. The RocketU 1022AM USB 3.0 card supports Snow Leopard through El Capitan. The RocketU 1022AM retails for around $70. This card will not work for printers or similar devices -- only storage. But speaking of storage ...
SSDs, SATA speeds, and you
Serial AT Attachment, or SATA, is the connector type and protocol that mass storage attaches to in the Mac Pro. It comes in three speeds: SATA I maxes out at 1.5GBps, II hits 3.0GBps, with III coming in at 6.0GBps. Drives that are SATA-III are supposed to be able to negotiate the fastest speed possible.
The Mac Pros we're looking at upgrading are SATA-II machines, without a backplane upgrade (more on that in the last article in this series, as that's a pretty major update). So, you'd think that SSDs would automatically slow down to SATA-II speeds -- but many don't. A large amount of SSDs slow all the way to SATA-I speeds on the oldest Mac Pros because of a chipset incompatibility between the Mac Pro and the SSD itself.
Now, even at SATA-I speed, the speed of a SSD cannot be denied, as the random access is still stunning. However, lets not cheat ourself out of speed. We've had problems with the Samsung 840 and 850 Evo drives on the 1,1 Mac Pro, but not the 840 or 850 Pro, or any with the 4,1 Mac Pro. Our best results on the 1,1 have been with the Crucial series of drives, so for the rest of our build on the 1,1, that's what we're using.
If you're using this series as a springboard for upgrades on other models, Mac upgrade vendor Other World Computing (henceforth referred to as OWC), has also seen the problem on other Apple hardware with the Nvidia MCP79 SATA controller. The compatibility tab on one of the vendor's drive pages discusses this a bit.
There is a wide, wide range of Xeon processors: picking the right one is utterly crucial to the process. Processors that were originally used in the 1,1 are the X5150 in the quad-2.66, the X5160 in the quad-3.0, or the 3.0GHz X5365 in the the eight-core upgrade we're going to perform. Additionally, a pair of E5345 processors is an inexpensive 2.33 eight-core possibility for the 1,1, as is the X5355 for eight cores running at 2.66Ghz.
Our newly-acquired 3,1 has fewer options. The best choice is a pair of quad-core X5482 processors running at 3.2Ghz, which is what we will be doing.
The 4,1 "Nehalem" has the best future of the three models that we're working with. The speediest (if expensive) choice is the X5690 running at 3.46Ghz, with the X5680 coming in at 3.33Ghz. Other choices are the X5670 and X5650 at 2.93GHz and 2.67GHz, respectively. We're doing the X5690 upgrade.
All of the processors we've listed here work, with perhaps a firmware update to the Mac Pro that they're being put into, and that's all. Delve outside of them at your own peril -- it might work, but it might not!
Your best friends in this
The three primary vendors we've been using for projects like this for many years are OWC, MaxUpgrades, and Ebay. SSDs can be had about anywhere, and we nearly always have a deal on one model or another in our Daily Deals post.
If you want a seamless video card that works just like an Apple-provided one, your best choice is Macvidcards. While the Nvidia cards have drivers, you don't get the boot screen, and troubleshooting a malfunctioning computer with no other data than it never reaches the desktop is ... problematic, at best. So, if this is your first go-around, get what's called a "flashed" video card from them that will give you everything an Apple-supplied card will give you.
General compatibility issues, and other speeding-up tips can be had from XLR8YourMac.com. They've been at this almost as long as we have, since before G3 upgrade cards were a thing, and when we all had to worry if our RAM was 5v or 3.3v.
A note on "Hackintosh"
For those not in the know, a Hackintosh is a roughly-OS X compatible machine built from carefully selected motherboards and other peripherals. Apple's OS is then shoe-horned on the computer by one of about a half dozen methods. In the newsroom, we have debates about the entire Hackintosh concept. Some of us welcome it (and have made some), and some of us aren't happy that it exists at all. Whether or not we approve as a group doesn't change that it exists.
Yes, you can build a very capable machine from it, and expand it to your heart's content, but maintenance on what you've built is a lot of work. Apple doesn't seem to be going out of their way to stop the effort, but they aren't helping it either. Cupertino frequently makes changes that break compatibility of software and hardware for non-Hackintosh users, so the problem of changed kernels and other routines is at least 10 times worse for OS X running on non-Apple hardware.
The firmware updates that tell a Mac Pro 1,1 to act like a 2,1 and a 4,1 to take 5,1 upgrades were essentially born from this community. Flashed video cards, acting identically to Apple-provided cards, followed a similar genesis. The Mac OS X end user license agreement forbids installations of Mac OS X on a "non-Apple-branded computer." Obviously, our Mac Pros are Apple-branded.
We wouldn't want to give some of the people we support a Hackintosh, just because of non-routine maintenance. We'd have no problems giving them a Mac Pro boosted to more modern standards.
A note on the series in general
This series is intended for the user who's got a Pro, but doesn't quite know where to start with the upgrade process. If you've done it, you may get bored, or wonder why exactly this crazy person has done this upgrade in this method.
While I've been tinkering with Mac Pros since about 2010, and have owned one since the 2006 launch, I don't claim to know everything, and won't be doing everything possible to the machines! The last few posts have been replete with good comments, build-lists, and suggestions from other people who have gone down this road. If you've got a question, toss it out there, and we'll hash it out together!
Coming up on Thursday: Starting up with video cards, SSDs, and the operating system.
Previously, on This Old Mac Pro
Introduction to MacNN's Summer Project: This Old Mac Pro
Part 1: Evaluate what you've got, and what you want
Fidgety upgrade details and discussion points: You are here.
Part 2: RAM, SSDs, and El Capitan