Updating Your Mac Pro — Getting Prepped

Previously, on “This Old Mac”

I recently updated an old Mac Pro and set it up as a VR and gaming machine. There’s been some interest in how I went about it, so I’m going to try and document the process here.

Here’s the configuration I was able to get running:

- 2009 Mac Pro (4,1), flashed to 5,1
- CPU upgraded to 12 cores running at 3.3 GHz.
- 32GB RAM
- One 2.5” 480 GB SSD Drive
- One PCIe Sata 3 card with a 980 GB SSD drive
- Windows 10
- macOS Sierra
- NVIDIA 1080 Ti graphics card

The base machine cost $1375 on eBay and came flashed with the CPU and memory update. I added in the SSD drives, the operating system and the graphics card.

People have been flashing 2009 (4,1) Mac Pros to 5,1. The 2009 machines are fairly inexpensive these days and I wanted to see what I could do with one.

“Is that supported?”

I’ve had multiple people approach me since I announced that I’d beefed up an old Mac Pro into a VR rig and say “I thought that <some aspect of the project> wasn’t supported.”

Well, that is perfectly true. But “supported” is a funny term. It can mean “this won’t work and will totally invalidate your warranty and you should feel like a bad person, or at least a foolish one, for even trying it”. It can also mean “this may work just fine, but we’re not going to deal with the opportunity cost of supporting your weird fringe edge cases when we have other paying customers to deal with.”

Something can work perfectly well and still not be supported. In fact, the 2009 Mac Pro isn’t actually supported by Apple anymore at all. So if using the machine itself isn’t supported, everything else is pretty much downhill from there.

But it works — I got wrapped around an axle dealing with some Windows-related issues but the machine is up and running and works well under both Windows and macOS.

It’s also less hacky than a Hackintosh. For what that’s worth.

What you’ll need

A 5,1 Mac Pro

By this I mean either a Mac Pro built between 2010 and 2012 or a 2009 model that has been flashed to 5,1 already. I got mine that way, so I’m not covering how to do the actual 5,1 flash here. This article covers the specifics if you need to do it yourself.

A decent video card

NVIDIA 1080 Ti — the current new hotness

If you want to use the Apple’s boot options (for things like picking which operating system to boot to, etc), you’ll need a card that has been flashed to support Macs. Things get interesting here as flashed versions of the really new cards aren’t available just yet.

I worked around this by keeping the card that came with the Mac Pro and using it alongside the NVIDIA 1080 Ti I’d purchased. The old card was plugged into one display and the new card was plugged into another.

I’m using an Apple Cinema Display plugged into the top, older card, and an Acer 4k display plugged into the 1080 Ti

This worked like a charm for boot options and general dual display operation on either operating system. The 1080 Ti is still running at PCIe 1.1 speeds for now, but I’ll cross that bridge in a week or two. I’m happy enough with the performance and functionality I’m already getting for now: as it stands, I can run Fallout 4 in Ultra Mode at 4k, with high resolution textures, and I’m still pulling a solid 60fps for general game play (I haven’t tried running through the Bazaar or anything yet because I just started the game from scratch again).

If you don’t want to use two cards or displays or simply can’t handle running at PCIe 1.1, I’d contact http://www.macvidcards.com and find out what they currently offer in terms of flashed cards or what the ETA is on whatever model you’re interested in. You can also send in an existing card and get it flashed, if they support it.

Power cables

The Mac Pro has enough power for the 1080 Ti, but you still have to plug it into the PCIe auxillary power supplies in addition to the power it will draw from the PCIe slot itself.

The 1080 Ti has two plugs, one for a regular six pin cable and another for an 8 pin cable.

6 and 8 pin power plugs for the NVIDIA 1080 Ti

The Mac Pro has two 6-pin mini plugs near the bottom of the logic board. Here’s a close up where you can see them clearly in the back and to the left of the card.

The MacVidCards folks said they were able to power two 1080's using one each but with the 1080 Ti I have to use them both to get mine going. In order to power both sockets I used two mini 6 pin to full sized six pin cables and a full sized 6 pin cable to 6 + 2 pin cable. Or you could just get one mini to full sized 6 pin cable and a mini 6 to 8 cable instead.

One of the two mini- to full-sized 6 pin cables I used for this project
A full-sized 6-pin to 8 (6 + 2) pin cable I used to power the 8 pin socket on the card. Mac Pro mini plug->mini 6 pin to full 6 pin->6 pin to 6+2 pin cable->NVIDIA 1080 Ti’s 8 pin socket

Thumb Drives

I would have saved myself a lot of time if I’d just started with these.

I tried burning some DVDs first because I wasn’t sure if USB drives would actually work for installing Windows 10 on a Mac. I had enough false starts with the DVD installs that I eventually opted for USB thumb drives.

First I tried partitioning one for the Windows 10, Sierra, and Bootcamp installers. Eventually I just gave up and shot for simplicity: three 16 GB drives (the smallest I could find near my house), one for each installer.

Hard drives

I messed around with partitioning one SSD drive for both operating systems and eventually just got a second drive so I’d have one dedicated for each of them.

One was a 480 GB 2.5 SATA drive I stowed where the second SuperDrive would normally be. The other was a PCIe card containing an SSD drive I ordered from OWC.

See my comments regarding Windows further down in this article.

Keyboard, mouse, and display(s)

I used a wired mouse and a keyboard for the setup procedure in order to make sure things would work. I’ll go wireless later but still haven’t yet. Look, I’ve been busy, see? 😀

You’ll need one display if you have you have a Mac flashed video card, two displays if you are using a flashed old and busted card with an unflashed new hotness card, or if you just like the extra real estate. I’m using an Acer H277HK with the 1080 Ti and an old Apple Cinema Display with my GT 120.

In terms of ports: the 1080 Ti has three displayport outputs and one HDMI port. Plan on keeping one of these available if you’re getting a HTC Vive.

Also: Both the MSI and ASUS 1080 Ti distributions include a single HDMI to DVI adaptor.

VR Gear!

If that’s why you’re here today, you’re going to want to get some gear. The HTC Vive works great with this setup. I haven’t tested it with an Oculus Rift yet but it sounds like that should work fine, too.

Windows 10 (maybe)

I went after Windows 10 (and Sierra, for that matter) because I wanted to know whether or not the 2009 Mac Pro could deal with the latest operating systems or not. It turns out that they can (Sierra works great in this configuration).

On the other hand, Windows 10 was a bear to deal with for awhile (in fact, 100% of my issues so far have involved Windows 😑). If you already have Windows 7 you might just want to stick with it instead.

If you get Windows 10, don’t cheap out like I did and get the Home edition. At face value it doesn’t look like there’s anything in Pro that you need, but there is: Windows 10 installs OS and driver updates with impunity, automatically and without notification, and there’s no good way to stop it in the Home edition.

This really sucks, because it’s also an idiot about what constitutes a reasonable update (it tried to install a Windows-7 only NVIDIA drive update, for instance). This resulted in irreparable damage and starting from scratch many, many times.

So if you’re going to Windows 10, go Pro.

Also, I can’t find anything online to substantiate this, but I never had any luck unless I had Windows installed on the first hard drive to show up in the device enumeration. Nor was it happy if it got moved from being the first drive to the second drive. This also resulted in Windows falling over, bursting into flames, and taking all of the joy and wonder of this experience down with it.

I may be mistaken about the “first drive only” issue, but I’m not going to risk it anymore. Life’s too short.

Time and Patience

That’s pretty much everything you’ll need. I’m going to start writing up the steps for actually getting everything up and running next.

Addendum: MORE POWER

In the time since my last post on this I decided to upgrade from using internal PCI power outputs to a dedicated, external power supply.

Internal power has been totally sufficient for VR and general usage and gaming. The only exception to this was Fallout 4, which I am running at 4k in Ultra mode. The performance for this was a smooth 60fps but I started experiencing some shutdowns during gameplay. The power draw was too much for the two pcie plugs and slot to keep up with by themselves.

Again, I haven’t seen this anywhere else, but, ego being what it was, this was suddenly unbearable. I consequently picked up an EVGA Supernova 750 external power supply so that I could not game very often with absolutely the best performance and visual splendor possible.

It may be possible to use a few spare SSD power outputs and some y-connectors to supply the power without an external PSU, but I haven’t tried it yet (I wanted to test with the PSU to confirm that power draw was the actual root cause of the shutdowns — it was).

All of this said, Fallout 4 in 4k is nice but I think the ultra realistic mods make a bigger impact than the jump from 2560x1440 (Quad HD) to 3840x2160 (4k).

Continued in Part II

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