CUDA, wide variety of Nvidia and AMD GPU options, numerous flash and SSD storage options & pure CPU power: Why the Mac Pro 5,1 is the creative professional’s choice
At Create Pro, the Mac Pro 5,1 is our system of choice and the same goes for a huge number of creative professionals. But why is this? Why do so many audio, video, 3D & still image professionals choose to employ the Mac Pro 5,1 workstation?
There are many reasons for the classic Mac Pro’s continued dominance of the professional market. We’ll explain them today in this post and discuss why the 5,1 is held in such high regard amongst creative users.
Mac Pro 5,1 History
Before looking at why the 5,1 is presently the professional system of choice. Lets look at where it came from, and the design features that allow it to dominate even in 2018.
Initially released in 2010 the Mac Pro 5,1 was the pinnacle of the classic Apple tower design. The 5,1 debuted with a 12 core 2.93GHz processor as the top spec option. By it’s final release in 2012 we saw a 3.06GHz 12 core system. With a custom Mac Pro build in 2018 you can install a staggering 3.46GHz 12 core CPU ensuring plenty of CPU grunt. The Mac Pro 5,1 despite its age still out performs its miniature successor in most professional workloads.
Mac Pro 5,1 workstations shipped with an ATI Radeon 5770 1GB GPU and could be upgraded to an ATI Radeon 5870 1GB GPU. Further down the line Nvidia GTX680 and AMD Radeon 7970 Mac editions were released. Nowadays we have a multitude of modern GPU options for the Mac Pro 5,1 encompassing both Nvidia and AMD.
The 5,1 could be configured with up to 48GB RAM on a single processor system and 96GB RAM on a dual processor Mac Pro when it was released. With the debut of 10.9, 10.10 and new CPUs we can now add up to 64GB RAM on a single processor system and 128GB RAM on a dual processor workstation.
The real strength of the 2010 and 2012 Mac Pro systems come from their internal expandability. The Mac Pro is equipped with 4 SATA drive bays and 4 PCI-E 2.0 slots. This means unrivalled customisation and a never ending supply of new components that make the Mac Pro 5,1 better every year.
The processing power of the Mac Pro 5,1 is highly scalable depending on your budget and can easily match the grunt of the 6,1 for just a fraction of the price. We personally stock 4 different CPU options that we believe can fulfil the needs of all users.
Mac Pro 5,1 CPU options:
- 3.46GHz 6 core Intel Xeon W3690
- 3.06GHz 12 core Intel Xeon X5675
- 3.46GHz 12 core Intel Xeon X5690
For those with a thirst for power the 3.46GHz 12 core processor will score similarly in benchmarking tests to the Mac Pro 6,1’s top spec processor at just a fraction of the cost. For those that have a smaller budget the 3.46GHz 6 core processor or 12 core 3.06GHz processor will provide impressive power, exceeding that of the Mac Pro 6,1 base models, and still leave change in your pocket.
For more information of processors, cores, GHz and CPUs check out our guide to them here.
The fact that the Mac Pro 5,1 has PCI-E 2.0 slots means that theoretically the system will keep getting brand new GPU options as new graphics cards are released. This is in contrast with the Mac Pro 6,1, which uses proprietary GPUs meaning you are tied to the option you choose when your system is assembled. It should also be noted that the Mac Pro 6,1 has no Nvidia GPU option, this means no CUDA functionality is available on that system.
Most PC cards are compatible with the Mac Pro 5,1 out of the box, they wont however have a boot screen and GPGPU functionality is missing in some cases. This being said, thanks to a number of Mac EFI developers, there is a continual stream of modern GPU ROMs being released that allow PC cards perform as well on a Mac as they do on their PC counterparts, boot screens and all. Below are just a few of the GPU options we offer for the Mac Pro 5,1, all of them run off internal power with no need for an extra PSU.
Internally powered Mac Pro 5,1 GPU options:
- AMD RX580 8GB
- Nvidia GTX 1080Ti 11GB
- Nvidia TITAN Xp
For many users Nvidia GPUs are essential to their workflow. CUDA acceleration provides huge performance boosts in many professional applications (detailed here), and is only available on Nvidia graphics cards. For Nvidia users the Mac Pro 5,1 has no competition.
For more information on AMD and Nvidia GPUs, GPGPU, OpenCL and CUDA check out our guide here.
Similarly to the GPU department, the Mac Pro 5,1 shines when it comes to storage options. This is due to the 4 SATA bays and 4 PCI-E 2.0 slots which allow installation of HDDs, SSDs and flash storage in multiple configurations.
In terms of traditional HDDs, you can install 5 in the Mac Pro 5,1 (4 in SATA drive bays and 2 in disk drive bay). With HDD capacities now reaching as high as 12TB one could theoretically install 72TB of HDD storage in a Mac Pro 5,1. RAID cards can also be installed which allow HDDs to be configured in a striped RAID, hugely increasing read & write speeds.
Looking at SSD drives, they can be installed on both the PCI-E 2.0 slots and SATA bays. Much faster and reliable than a traditional HDD, SSDs will reach considerably higher speeds than HDDs when in a SATA bay. If you install your SSD on a PCI-E 2.0 slot using an adapter, speeds start to get ridiculous at up to 3x that of a traditional HDD. PCI-E SSDs can be set up in a striped RAID configuration, without the need for a RAID card, if more than one is installed, this will lead to even higher read/write speeds.
Finally, the same flash storage that is installed in the Mac Pro 6,1 can also be installed in the Mac Pro 5,1. Flash storage is incredibly fast, reaching read and write speeds over twice as high as regular SSDs. Whereas the Mac Pro 6,1 is limited to a single flash storage blade, the Mac Pro 5,1 can install multiple flash storage drives as you have 4 total PCI-E 2.0 slots. Again these blades can be set up in a striped RAID configuration (without a RAID card), 2 1TB flash blades in a striped RAID can reach read and write speeds of beyond 2,000MB/s.
For more information of HDDs, SSDs, flash storage and RAIDs, check out our Mac Pro storage guide here.
But the 5,1 doesn’t have Thunderbolt?
Yes, the 5,1 cannot support Thunderbolt. Is this a big deal? To us, no. The reason why the 6,1,and many other Apple products tout Thunderbolt is that they lack PCI-E 2.0 expansion. The 5,1’s biggest strength is it’s PCI-E expandability and for this reason it does not need Thunderbolt, need extra storage? Install it on the PCI-E slots. Need more PCI-E slots? Install a PCI-E expander.
Thunderbolt is a great piece of technology but it still has a way to go until widespread adoption and with no Nvidia option in the 6,1, this is a deal breaker for many users. The 5,1 can thankfully have Nvidia GPUs installed internally & externally.
Value for Money
The best advice we can recommend to anybody currently looking to get an Apple workstation is to look at your budget, workflow and requirements. The Mac Pro 5,1 is a strong workstation with expandability and still holds its hands up against the likes of its newer baby brother the Mac Pro 6,1 or its cousin the iMac Pro.
The Mac Pro 5,1 starts off at £1,100 and for a user with a limited budget can be a great place to start. If getting the workstation enables you to complete more projects, faster then you can justify the initial expensive as you spend up the time you get a return on investment. You can then expand from that point on in areas you wish to improve. You cannot do this with the other systems as you are required to lay down a huge initial investment and its a massive pain if you want to upgrade anything at all, including the RAM in the iMac Pros case.
Even if you are not limited by budget the Mac Pro 5,1 is still a great choice. If you running pretty much any application other than Final Cut Pro X then you will actually get not only better performance but more bang for your buck. The Mac Pro 6,1 will stand you in currently at £2,999 from Apple at its base specification. Which is ridiculous. The only reason why you would choose the Mac Pro 6,1 currently is if thunderbolt is an absolute must.
What about the iMac Pro? Well thats a completely different animal entirely. Huge performance but a price tag to match. We also found that in testing our Mac Pro 5,1 still continued to beat the iMac Pros graphics compute performance in every test apart from Final Cut Pro. So if your pockets are deep enough and your applications are processor hungry then the iMac Pro may be a good choice for you.
If you would like any advice from our Apple Certified technicians please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mac Pro 5,1 2010/2012
- Great price vs performance
- Expandable and offers PCI-e expansion
- As technology is updated new components can be installed
Mac Pro 6,1 2013
- Thunderbolt enabled
- eGPU Compatible
- Imense processor performance.
- Dominates in a Final Cut Pro X workflow
- Latest ‘Pro’ Mac available