Upgrading the GPU in your old Mac Pro! Is it worth it?

As computer components get faster and more powerful, you may find yourself wondering if your once top-of-the-line Mac Pro can be king again with a little help from a hardware component upgrade. I decided to take an early 2009 Mac Pro and see if a GPU upgrade could bring this once beastly computer back to being on top once more. My inspiration came from NVIDIA's announcement (opens in new tab) for Mac support for their latest and greatest GPU lineup. The 10xx series, with the uber powerful Titan Xp (opens in new tab) as its flagship, is the fastest gaming GPU on the market today. Even if macOS isn't considered a gaming OS, could I make it hardware-ready enough to play some Mac-native games decently and perhaps run Bootcamp to setup an impromptu VR gaming rig? Let's find out!

Aiming for the sky!

The plan was to go big or go home. I wanted to get a super powerful GPU in the aged Mac Pro and I wanted to be able to compare capabilities with my Windows gaming PC. I use my Windows PC for VR gaming as it's paired with an HTC Vive (opens in new tab). Since my home PC has a monstrous NVIDIA 1080 ti, the Mac Pro was destined for the same GPU. I purchased a Founders Edition version of the 1080 ti from MSI. Although the Mac Pro has 2 old but venerable 2.26GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon 5500 series processors, I figured that even if they weren't powerful enough to keep the 1080 ti fed with data, the 8 cores could make up for some of the performance deficiencies. More on that later. Here are the complete system specs of the Mac Pro.

  • Early 2009 Mac Pro running OS X El Capitan
  • 2 x 2.26GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon 5500 series processors
  • 12GB 1066MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM
  • ATI Radeon HD 5770 1024 MB
  • 160GB SSD, 640GB sata HDD

Just plug in the hardware and go! Right?

Wrong. There are a bunch of requirements to be met to get new hardware working on a Mac. Unlike Windows or Linux that can accept hardware ubiquitously, Macs can only use hardware specifically designed for Mac OSes and with Apple's blessing (kind of — again, more on that later). In this instance, NVIDIA has already worked with Apple to create drivers for the 1080 ti in beta form. Just double-click the installer and away we go!

Or not. The beta drivers from NVIDIA require macOS Sierra. Not a problem! Just head to the App store. Search for macOS Sierra. Click download and…

Looks like my Mac Pro is too old for macOS Sierra. I could have just done a search on iMore to discover that the cut off date for Sierra on Mac Pros was 2010.

Never give up!

Not to be deterred, I found a number of tutorials on how to install Sierra on an unsupported Mac! This involves disabling SIP or System Integrity Protection and makes your Mac less secure. Therefore, I do not recommend you doing this if you have sensitive data on your Mac. I, however, decided to press on and after some time… success!

Install the drivers and swap in the GPU. What could go wrong?

Plenty. With my new macOS Sierra freshly installed, I was able to successfully install the NVIDIA beta drivers without issue. I shut down the Mac Pro and proceeded with the hardware installation.

  1. Flip up the lock.
  2. Remove the side panel.

  1. Disconnect the 6-pin power cable from the old GPU.
  2. Unscrew the expansion card retainer plate.

  1. Carefully pull out the old GPU.
  2. Slide in the new GPU.

  1. Re-attach the retainer plate.
  2. Plug in the 6-pin and the 8-pin power cables.

Except the 2009 Mac Pro doesn't have an 8-pin power cable. It only has two 6-pin cables. Each 6-pin power cable provides 75W plus the PCI connector bus provides another 75W for a total of 225W. The 1080 ti needs 250W. No matter! It's only missing a measly 25W. I plugged in the two 6-pin power cables anyway and closed the side panel and fired up the Mac Pro and I waited for the login screen… and waited. Nothing but black. The Mac Pro powered on, but it didn't make the familiar Mac "bing" on start up.

Really. Never give up!

I powered off the Mac Pro and put the old GPU back in and it booted up without issue. I made further google searches and there were a few things I could try, but, frankly, I think that this Mac Pro is just too old to properly power the 1080 ti. After a bit more googling, I came across an excellent tutorial on installing an AMD RX 480. The AMD RX 480 is a recent generation mid-range GPU that is good for 1080p gaming and entry-level VR. This GPU is also not supported on macOS, but at this point I figured I'd try to exhaust all of my options. So instead of going "big" with the NVIDIA GPU, I pivoted to go "medium" with an AMD RX 480. I have a second gaming PC on which I run an Oculus Rift (opens in new tab) running two MSI Rumor RX 480 4GB. I took one of the RX 480's and placed it into the Mac Pro as per a www.theITsage.com tutorial.

Even though the MSI RX 480 needs an 8-pin port, I know that the reference RX 480 from AMD only uses a 6-pin port, so there shouldn't be any problem powering the GPU.

It's alive! Alive!

Although the Mac Pro boots up without the familiar Apple logo boot screen, the login screen popped up and I was able to log in and run a few before and after benchmarks comparing the old ATI Radeon HD 5770 to the new AMD RX 480. Some benchmarks are synthetic while other's are canned benchmarks from games that run natively on macOS. All benchmarks were run at the most complex graphical settings.

Heaven - 1080p

Valley - 1080p

Tomb Raider 2013 - 1200p

Batman Arkham City - 1200p

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor - 1200p

As you can see, there are some very strange results here. Although the RX 480 has some much better frame rates, the variation of FPS was very high. This means that the Xeon CPUs from the Mac Pro are far too weak to properly supply data to the RX 480 GPU. It would have been worse with the 1080 ti.

Was it worth it?

Hell no! Even though I got a new GPU to work in the Mac Pro, the other components being so weak make this a moot point. There is a reason why Apple decided not support some older hardware from being able to be upgraded to newer OS revisions. Even though the 2009 Mac Pro is capable of running macOS Sierra (as proven by me hacking it onto the system), there are myriad other aspects that also have to be up to spec for full functionality. The lack of proper power cables and the weak Xeon CPUs on this Mac Pro make upgrading the GPU nearly pointless, since gaming with such a highly variable frame rate would prove maddening. This is not to say that upgrading your GPU on other Mac hardware is a lost cause. In fact, I've decided to order an eGPU (likely the AKiTio) so that I can pair it up with a modern MacBook Pro and remove the issues of CPU bottlenecks and power delivery.

So, my attempt at bringing new life into an old Mac Pro wasn't a complete failure. At the very least, I now have the latest version of macOS running on the box.

Have you tried to upgrade your Mac Pro? How'd it go? Let me know in the comments below!

  • 2010 six core @ 3.46GHz.
    Now has a Samsung Evo SSD and a 4GB RX470 running a 34UC98 at >1440p. Works very well and I can game on high settings in Alien Isolation and Tomb Raider. I’ll try middle earth too later.
    What did you use to get the Min/max readouts during gaming?
  • Nice! The higher IPC on your CPUs would have been a better candidate for this experiment. I only used built in benchmarks for my frame rate results but during actual gameplay, the frame rate dips were so great, it was readily apparent.
  • So for example with Tomb Raider, you mean by choosing the, ‘Start Benchmark’, option from the main game menu?
  • Ok, so yes. I found it. What I did notice though is that I don't have a 1920 x 1200, (1200p), resolution available.
    Why did you pick that instead of 1080p?
  • That's the screen resolution of my Cinema Display
  • Oh right. Well I’m going to bed now but I’ll try it at 1080p tomorrow for comparison.
  • Which manufacture RX470 did you use? I was hoping to put this card into my 2010 Mac Pro http://www.memoryexpress.com/Products/MX63575. What requirements did you need for your card?
  • A Sapphire model, (got it from eBay for £140). I don't like the idea of cards that blow extra hot air around inside the case. As for requirements - none really as I already had the 6 pin power connector powering my 5770.
    MacRumors has a WEALTH of info for this;
    https://forums.macrumors.com/threads/rx-480-470-owners-do-not-update-to-... Do your updates via terminal. Also it’s a good idea to keep a supported card around just in case of unexpected trouble. You may be Ok but I found that if I had installed more than one GPU, (or maybe even the combo of cards I had - GT120/5770/470 - I had trouble).
  • I've got a 2009 Mac Pro with 2 2.66GHz CPUs. I was going to upgrade the CPUs, as the price for later chips has fallen drastically. But I decided not to. Instead, I bought from a vendor of refurbished Macs, a 2012 model with 2 Westmore 6 core chips running at 3.47 GHz, and 64GB RAM. This also has the 5.1 firmware, and easily works with 10.12, and I expect, with this year's upgrade as well, at least. I'm also looking to upgrade the card. My old machine has a 7850, which was a great card for the time. My "new" one came with the Nvidia 120. I'm noticing that this machine is much faster than my old one. I mean MUCH faster. It doesn't have USB 3, but I have a board for that and SATA E 6, so I use that. Supposedly, the new Titan will work with this. I called Nvidia for advice. They told me that it should work fine. But my plan of getting this expensive board and putting it into the new Mac Pro that will be out, hopefully next year, may not work. Nvidia said that they didn't know anything more about that machine than we do, so they don't know what Apple means by modular. It could be that Apple will have proprietary slots, or whatever. So, that board is out of the running. I just spent $2,000 on this one, to which I've added all my own drives, including a BlueRay writer, and a 1TB SSD for start-up. I was hoping that another $1,200 would be a good investment, but it seems as though it's not. What would you think the best board for this would be? I'm being told that the 7970 3GB card would be. But I was hoping for,somethimg more modern. I'm not a gamer. I do photoshop, FCX and CAD. Also, Apple doesn't officially support 4K on these older machines, so any problems with that, and we're on our own.
  • If you require cuda you can get a nvidia gtx 1060. Similar performance as the amd rx 480 and similar power requirements.
  • Running an Early 2009 Mac Pro 4,1 with Quad-Core Xeon 2.66Ghz here. I have 12GB of RAM in it as well. A few years ago I upgraded the HD to an SSD Samsung 840 and that made a big difference and still running today. I have it hacked to run 10.12.4 and a little disappointed in Apple for now allowing it to run Sierra. But if it wasn't upgraded and using the spinning hard drive then Apple may be correct in it being to slow. But that is the whole idea of having easy access to everything to upgrade the components! Hopefully the next Mac Pro will be better and I can upgrade. If not, I may have to move to a PC because having an iMac or Mini won't cut it.
  • The problem is that the 2009 machine is 8 years old. It's not Apple's fault. Time moves on. Try adding Windows 10 to an 8 year old pc. You might get it to work if you finagle around, but it's not worth it. There comes a time when we just have to suck it up, and buy something new if we want the latest software and add-ins. Just think on this, the 2011 and 2012 are faster, with two 3.47GHz Westmore chips than the 2013 model with one 12 core chip.
  • Why not upgrade the power supply to a beefier one?
  • It's not the power supply. My models have 950 watt supplies, which is pretty big. But the power cables from the Mobo doesn't carry enough juice. As he mentioned, they just have two 6 wire wires, not 8. That's the problem. I thought I saw an 8 wire cable from a vendor that would work, but it's been some time, so I don't know if it did.
  • You can get a converter can you not? Also I believe that there are a number of places you can get power from in the 5,1.
    Might be worth researching to see how much wattage the optical bay cables can provide too.
  • I was curious about that. Now I have my answer. :) +1
  • Last summer I upgraded my late 2009 Mac Pro, but I went a bit further. -- First step was to upgrade the firmware to 5,1 instead of 4,1, so it handles faster bus speeds (among other things). There are simple executables available that will accomplish this.
    -- Second step was to get an NVidia 970-based card (there were no 10xx drivers yet); I chose one with two 6-pin power connectors so that wasn't an issue.
    -- Third step was an eBay CPU upgrade. From a single quad-core Xeon 2.4 GHz, I upgraded to a hexacore Xeon @ 3.46 GHz, preinstalled on a tray. The vendor I chose did not require returning my old CPU tray as a core and also included some RAM (though I already had 32g installed). I could have gone with a dual-hexacore, but that was outside my budget. I've kept my original NVidia GT-120 card because of one important point the article didn't mention -- the graphics drivers need to be updated with every (EVERY!) OS release, and you have a blank screen until you do so. I need to swap cables to the older card, update the drivers, then swap back to the 970. This past January I also bought a CPU-less 2009 Mac Pro for my son, put in my old tray, and got a 970 for him as well. That one had a different connector setup, which required some internet searching, but I found a site (modDIY.com) that carries pretty much any kind of cable -- in this case, a dual-6-pin PCIe motherboard to single 8-pin card connector, so I take power from both motherboard connectors. They also have cables from SATA to card connector, in case you want to run multiple cards and need to tap into an additional power source. My CPU and GPU upgrade cost me under $800; buying the GPU and Mac Pro for my son was another $500 (and let me re-use my old CPU). This also gives me a basis for comparison... we both play World of Warcraft, and while his CPU is slower, his card is actually faster -- and he gets consistently better frame rates in-game than I do, even though my Heaven benchmarks are higher. These are my Heaven numbers (I think this was the most recent test): FPS: 73.4
    Score: 1849
    Min FPS: 13.9
    Max FPS: 151.3 There have been a few driver improvements since this was run; I should re-do them. Among other things, these cards let you run Apple's METAL graphics API, which is a big improvement over the OpenGL used in Heaven. I have one METAL benchmark program, but with no other numbers to compare to it's rather meaningless. [RICHR]
  • Thank you for sharing!
  • You’ve not told us what settings were in place for these benchmarks.
  • It wasn't a scientific test so I set every thing to highest options so that gpu is taxed the most other than resolution.
  • I too had everything set to maximum. Render: OpenGL
    Mode: 1920x1080 fullscreen
    Preset Custom
    Quality Ultra
    Tessellation: Disabled
  • Ok, so your scores are a lot higher than mine, (what you get for Geekbench 4.1.0 BTW?). FPS: 43.9
    Score: 1106
    Min FPS: 10.8
    Max FPS: 71.6
  • Geekbench 4.1 CPU scores: MacPro5,1
    Single-Core Score Multi-Core Score
    3152 14766 I can't actually run the graphics test; it fails during the second module under OpenCL, and I'm running under trial mode so I can't do the Metal tests (for the record, I own v3 but just haven't yet felt the need to upgrade to v4).
  • I’ve just edged ahead now………
    Single-Core Score Multi-Core Score
    3180 15292
  • What did you change for the improvement?
  • Nothing, they are CPU scores remember. My graphics scores are, (I don;t have V3 so can’t test that);
    OCL - 120288.
    Metal - 36483. Also, never noticed before but there is a comparison button on the sidebar of the results page, interesting stuff on it.
    It places me behind the R9 Fury (138025), RX480 (124909), and GTX1070 (121498), but ahead of everything that has been posted.
  • 2010 Mac Pro 12-Core
    32GB of ram
    2TB SSD
    12GB Titan X Pascal
    OS X Sierra 10.12 check out my youtube channel User name 34skyline
    This 7yrs old Mac Pro still runs great like the day I bought it but I'm planning to purchase the new Mac Pro in 2018, check out my youtube videos i had the 1080 GTX and Titan working successfully in my Mac Pro
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