Why the Mac Pro 5,1 is the best system for Creative Professionals: Internal expandability and unparalleled workstation customisation

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

Mac Pro 5,1 historyBefore 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 2015.
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 2015 you can install a staggering 3.46GHz 12 core CPU ensuring unparalleled CPU grunt.
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, thanks to the efforts of various EFI programmers around the world, 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.

CPU Options

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
  • 2.66GHz 12 core Intel Xeon X5650
  • 3.06GHz 12 core Intel Xeon X5675
  • 3.46GHz 12 core Intel Xeon X5690

For those with a thirst for unparalleled 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 2.66GHz 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.

GPU Options

AMD NVIDIA OPENCL CUDAThe 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 Radeon R9 280X 3GB (2 can be installed internally)
  • Nvidia GTX 780 3GB
  • Nvidia TITAN Black 6GB

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.

Storage Options

Mac Pro 5,1 storage options, HDD, SSD & Flash StorageSimilarly 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.
HDD:
In terms of traditional HDDs, you can install 5 in the Mac Pro 5,1 (4 in SATA drive bays and 1 in the secondary disk drive). With HDD capacities now reaching as high as 6TB one could theoretically install 30TB 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.
SSD:
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.
Flash storage:
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.

Further PCI-E 2.0 expansion

cubix xpander elite
4 PCI-E 2.0 slots not enough? No problem, PCI-E expanders are available allowing you to trade a x16 lane for 4 x4 lanes. This means more GPUs, more SSDs, more flash storage, and overall, just incredible performance potential.
We stock CUBIX expanders which, for us, are the best on the market.

But the 5,1 doesn’t have Thunderbolt?

PCI-E vs 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 few flaws. It cannot support an external GPU, 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.

2020 Update: The Mac Pro 5,1 can now use thunderbolt with OpenCore and a Titanridge PCI-e card. Click here for more.

Value for Money

Value for moneyLet’s face it, the only real alternative to the 5,1, the 6,1, is just plain expensive. The 3.7GHz quad core Mac Pro 6,1 model starts at £2,499. At Create Pro, our 3.46GHz 6 core Mac Pro 5,1 starts at just £1,355.
The 5,1 can also be upgraded in the future with new GPUs, extra RAM, more & faster storage, and whatever comes out next. The 6,1 is locked into the spec you choose when you order. This means if you want an upgrade, you need to shell out for another brand new system. Not the case with the 5,1 which can be internally upgraded as and when you like, without the need to purchase a new system.

Summary

Size matters Mac Pro 5,1In the end, it rings true that size does matter. The Mac Pro 6,1 relies on Thunderbolt for expansion, but the tech isn’t quite there yet. External GPUs are not yet possible meaning no CUDA/Nvidia.
The 5,1, however, has bags of room on the inside and can accommodate multiple AMD/Nvidia GPUs, flash storage/SSD RAIDs and a host of traditional SSDs. Regardless of price, the 5,1 simply has greater potential as a workstation due to it’s internal expandability. Bring price into the equation and it’s a no brainer. The 5,1 is highly customisable and great value compared to the current Apple offering.
To build your Create Pro Mac Pro today head over to our ‘Configure your Mac Pro’ page now.

You may also be interested in our article were we put a custom 4K Mac Pro 5,1 system against the new iMac Retina, check it out here.