Saturday, March 15, 2014

Early 2008 Mac Pro Mid-Life Upgrade

The Mac Pro we bought in 2008 has two 2.8 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon processors, and is really more than adequate for what we actually need. To extend its useful life, the first upgrade I made was to add 4 GB of RAM (PC6400 DDR2 ECC 800MHz 240 Pin FB-DIMM), which cost US$122 in January of 2012 and $65 today, for a total of 6 GB.

More recently, with SSDs becoming more affordable and the Mac's original drive now alarmingly in its seventh year of service, I decided to make a more ambitious set of upgrades to give the Mac a few more years. The Fusion Drive is Apple's marketing name for combining a SSD and a traditional hard drive into a single bigger volume, automatically moving more frequently used data to the faster SSD. This promises to be a good compromise between the increased speed of SSDs and the still superior storage capacities of magnetic disks.

I also wanted a new video card that could run Final Cut Pro X and maybe X-Plane (a flight simulator), since the original ATI Radeon HD 2600 was just a bit too weak now. Apple's officially-supported cards were rather old at this point, but still very expensive, so I decided to just get a PC card instead.

Finally, we'd recently switched from DSL to cable internet, and the access point had to move downstairs near the TV, so I needed to add WiFi capability to the Mac upstairs.

I decided to buy "local" and went to Central Computers in Fremont a few weeks ago. They have a good variety of computer parts, and a rather Asian habit of locking up the more expensive parts in glass cases, but I came home with the following bits:
  • 3 TB Seagate Barracuda SATA hard drive (the 2 TB was out of stock), US$113
  • 240 GB Crucial M500 SATA SSD, US$126
  • TP-Link USB WiFi adapter, US$30
  • 2.5" to 3.5" hard drive bracket, US$5
  • 2 GB Sapphire Radeon R7 260X, US$126
I haven't bought this many toys in a while, so I was moderately excited to get home to try things out. I encountered two problems immediately: one, the Sapphire card requires additional power, but the supplied cable used a "molex connector" that the Mac Pro motherboard does not support; and two, the Mac Pro has a proprietary bracket to attach drives to the computer without using any cables, and the normal drive brackets would not position the SSD in the right place for the connection.

Because the SSD was so light, I decided to just hang it off of the connector directly. Nothing bad happened to me this time, but you really shouldn't do that. Anyway, both drives were recognized by the OS, and the fusion drive instructions were pretty easy to follow. I then used Carbon Copy Cloner to clone my old drive. It couldn't clone over the recovery volume, unfortunately.

The confusing part here is that earlier versions of OS X only allowed you to make a logical drive out of the two, but didn't actually do the smart part of moving data to the faster SSD, so it's hard to know if you've just made a big logical drive or an actual fusion drive. I'm running OS X 10.8.5, which should work, but the command-line instructions I found weren't obviously conclusive, until I eventually found that  > About This Mac > More Info… > Storage is actually nice to enough to tell you outright:

under the icon on the left side. So I do have a fusion drive.

I went back the next day to return the drive brackets and pick up the power cable and an HDMI-to-DVI cable, since the Sapphire card only had one DVI output. They don't have the correct power cable, but I came home with an Icy Dock 2.5"-to-3.5" SATA bracket. Instead of the HDMI cable, I actually bought a DisplayPort-to-DVI cable, because I wasn't paying close enough attention. Luckily, the Sapphire card does have a DisplayPort output.

The Icy Dock was a bit confusing. It's made of flexible plastic, and there's a tab that I think is meant to help push the drive into the socket. Long story short, I tried several times and couldn't get the drive to be recognized by the computer. Good thing I didn't reformat the old drive yet, because a fusion drive would not work at all with the SSD part missing. So the SSD goes back to hanging off the connector, and I ordered the NewerTech AdaptaDrive 2.5"-to-3.5" converter bracket (US$15 from Other World Computing).

A few days later, I got the power cable (US$20 from OWC), but the Sapphire card just wouldn't work. After a lot more googling, I found out that the Radeon R7 doesn't actually work with OS X, even though a colleague told me that almost every video card should now work. This time I wanted to make sure, and found tonymacx86's guide to building Hackintoshes to be very useful. I had three criteria at this point: I didn't want to have to install third party drivers, I had a small (< US$150) budget, and X-Plane recommends at least 2 GB of video RAM. These helped me quickly narrow the choices to a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 650 based card.

Hoping that I could maybe avoid a restocking fee by buying another card from them, I went back to Central Computers, but they didn't have any GTX 650 cards, so I had to pay the 15% fee for the Sapphire card. I had also found out by accident that I had the foresight to customize the Mac with the built-in WiFi option when I bought it, just not the memory to remember that I did. So I returned the USB WiFi adapter as well. At this point, I'll admit that I wasn't feeling very smart anymore.

The AdaptaDrive was built with a solid but light metal frame, and the SSD fit easily and could be screwed securely into place. The frame can then be screwed onto the Mac Pro's bracket, and everything fit perfectly and worked great this time.

After comparing the very similar specs and prices of the various GTX 650 cards, I settled on the Gigabyte one (GV-N650OC-2GI, US$130 from NewEgg) because it had two DVI ports and seemed to have a slightly better reputation than PNY. When it arrived, it also worked the first time. I also belatedly found some very good information from MacRumors on upgrading Mac video cards.

In the end, I'm pretty pleased with the upgrade. Here's the hardware I actually kept:
  • 3 TB Seagate Barracuda SATA hard drive, US$113
  • 240 GB Crucial M500 SATA SSD, US$126
  • NewerTech AdaptaDrive 2.5"-to-3.5" converter bracket, US$15
  • 2 GB Gigabyte GeForce GTX 650, US$130
  • Apple video card power cable, US$20
for a grand total of US$404. The fusion drive is nice and fast, booting in just a few seconds, and is generally far more responsive than the old drive. I also ran some GPU benchmarks just for fun:

GpuTest 0.7.0
FurMark: from 3 fps to 17 fps (5.6x)
TessMark X8: from 3 fps to 291 fps (97x)
GiMark: from 7 fps to 16 fps (2.3x)
JuliaFP32: from 9 fps to 64 fps (7.1x)
Triangle: from 760 fps to 2,492 fps (3.3x)

OpenGL: from 9.97 fps to 37.19 fps (3.7x)

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 4.0 (Basic)
from 1.6-2.1 fps to 15-35 fps (7.1x-16.67x)

so it's probably safe to say that the GTX 650 is at least 3x faster than the Radeon HD 2600.

Two final kinks that I encountered were that Time Machine didn't seem to recognize the fusion drive as the same thing, and wanted to do a full backup, and that SketchUp no longer thought that the software was licensed. So there's something in the cloning that wasn't quite exact, but both problems were easily resolved.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


I think it's funny that the one thing that makes me feel grown up is booking flights. Flying in my childhood was this expensive thing, mainly reserved for Big Deals like visiting a sick relative, or something that requires physical presence like borrowing money from a relative. Needless to say, it was the adults who took all of these trips. When to fly was, in my little mind, the epitome of adult decision.

By the time I got to high school, the family's finances had improved somewhat, and reasons to fly started to include visiting family just because you haven't seen them in a while. I would fly back to Taiwan for the summer to spend time with my parents, for example.

The first flight I sort of decided for myself was visiting my then-girlfriend after finishing grad school. I was also visiting my parents in that victory lap of sorts on the same trip, so it wasn't really entirely mine. I also didn't quite pay for that flight, if memory serves. The next year I flew back to Manila to get married, but that was really also more of circumstances deciding for me, though I did pay for the flight.

I don't actually remember the first flight we decided to take without needing to, but to this day, I impress myself whenever I click that final button on an airline website.