When Apple launched its redesigned Mac Pro in late 2013, it alienated a significant percentage of its professional user base. The then-new systems emphasized multi-GPU configurations and offered a large number of Thunderbolt ports, but the diminutive form factor limited users to a single CPU socket and very little internal storage. While the new design and capabilities worked for some professional users, it failed to address the needs of others. Five years later, third-party firms have taken it on themselves to offer the upgrades and capabilities Apple hasn’t added, and they’re using Apple’s older chassis to do it. The question is, will this meaningfully benefit professional users — and can a third-party vendor beat the 2013 Mac Pro or the newer iMac Pro using Apple’s Mac Pro 5.1 from back in 2012?
It’s not hard to see why some users would prefer to upgrade the old “cheese grater” Macs rather than buying a 2013 system, and there’s even a Danish vendor, Big Little Frank, dedicated to reselling machines built around the older CPU platform. There’s no doubt the classic Mac Pro tower can offer certain capabilities that the new iMac Pro and 2013 Mac Pro trash can both lack — like multiple internal drive bays, and the (unsupported) option to use modern GPUs in a multi-GPU configuration, as opposed to being limited to AMD’s ancient GCN 1.0 technology. If you know your workloads are entirely GPU-limited, it might be worth investing in a tower Mac Pro with a pair of modern graphics cards. But this is far from a sure thing and we’d generally recommend against it.
Big Little Frank’s custom “cheese grater” Mac Pro
While it’s absolutely true that CPU performance improvements have slowed in recent years, 2011’s Sandy Bridge was a significant improvement over Westmere. The fastest CPU configuration officially supported by a 2012-era Mac Pro is a pair of Xeon X5690’s, a six-core chip with a 3.46GHz base and 3.73GHz turbo clock. As this comparison from Anandtech shows, SNB was ~15 percent faster than Westmere at the same clock speed. Even if we assume that Haswell and Skylake added just five percent on average on top of that, a modern Xeon CPU would still be 1.27x faster than Westmere, clock-for-clock.
That’s before we factor in any performance improvements from AVX, AVX2, or AVX-512 support. It also ignores the fact that modern CPUs offer substantially more cores. A 12-core Mac Pro is still respectable, but a modern dual-socket workstation system could contain as many as 56 CPU cores in a top-end configuration.
Here’s how the Xeon X5690 (2012 Mac Pro), Xeon E5-2697 v2 (2013 Mac Pro) and a Xeon Gold 6146 compare against each other. These are the top-end chips you can buy for their respective platforms and the highest-end 12-core CPU Intel currently sells:
There’s no universe in which even a pair of X5690’s are competition for a modern Xeon. Even at equivalent core count, the modern CPU has a significant efficiency advantage and more clock headroom, to say nothing of maximum memory bandwidth (the 6146 supports six memory channels, compared to four on Westmere and Ivy Bridge).
Then there are the features and support you aren’t getting, from Thunderbolt to USB 3.1. Some of these can be added via aftermarket cards or Hackintosh configurations. But professionals that want an out-of-the-box solution that ‘just works’ are going to be stuck paying a company like Big Little Frank to perform the integration themselves.
The existence of companies like BLF and the hunger for a new Mac Pro solution are a symptom of how badly Apple screwed up with the 2013 Mac Pro. The company failed to pivot to a GPU-centric ecosystem. It didn’t even bother to deliver upgrades for its own “cutting-edge” form factor. But while we sympathize with professional Macintosh users who want the company to offer an official solution to their woes, we can’t really recommend an alternative that’s so firmly anchored to out-of-date hardware and the platform limitations, increased power consumption, and lack of official support that comes along with it. The idea of buying a “new” Mac tower in a six-year-old form factor may appeal, but Mac professionals will be better served by waiting or buying a PC than buying into an obsolete system design.
Top image credit: Uadro/Wikimedia Commons