In this article, we are going to explore the range of options open to those considering replacing our Apple Mac Pro 5.1 "cheese-grater" computers. On the team, Mike and Dan still own and run Mac Pro 5.1 Pro Tools computers, with James having recently changed his cheese-grater Mac Pro for a Windows machine.
In 2006 Apple introduced a new flagship powerhouse desktop computer - the Mac Pro. This was a big step up in computer power compared to the outgoing Apple Mac G5. At the time I was using a G4 Mirror Door which wasn't quite powerful enough for my Pro Tools LE system so I purchased one of the new Mac Pros. I used this first gen Mac Pro for four years until the logic board failed. I replaced it with a newer Mac Pro in 2011 and it is still my main Pro Tools computer and I must say it has served me pretty well. Over the years I've upgraded the RAM, swapped the hard drives for SSDs, and it also houses my Pro Tools HDX & UAD-2 cards.
Sadly though, my Mac Pro's service will have to come to an end soon. Over the last 12 months, it has started to show some serious signs of ageing, not necessarily in computing power but in everyday performance and reliability. At some point, it will be detrimental to my studio business, if I continue to ignore the clear signs of a failing Mac. In the very near future, I will have to replace this Mac Pro before it fails and leaves me compromised.
I currently have a Mac Pro cheese-grater - 2 x 2.4GHz Quad-core Intel Xeon. It is a Mid-2010 Mac Pro which I bought in December 2011 when I went HDX as my previous machine would not support HDX cards. You can read my story about how I came to choose this system here in the story My Pro Tools 10 HD2 To HDX Upgrade Story. Since then I have undertaken a number of upgrades...
In April 2013 I added an SSD drive in this machine. I installed a Crucial M4 512GB SSD on a special Akasa SSD & HDD Adapter bracket. You can read all about it in my story Mike Installs SSD Into His Mac Pro.
In February 2014 I upgraded the RAM and another 8GB to bring it up to 24GB.
In January 2016 I replaced the Crucial SSD drive with an Angelbird drive having researched the issue of the TRIM command and that on a Mac platform, not all SSD drives are the same. You can read more about the research in my article Review Of Angelbird SSD Drives - Part 1 - Introduction and then how I went about the upgrade process in my article Review Of Angelbird - Part 2 - SSD Wrk For Mac Pro Drive.
In February 2016 I upgraded the RAM in my Mac Pro to bring it up to 32GB.
In April 2016 I upgraded the video card which you can read about in Installing A New Graphics Card In My Mac Pro. So, all in all, I have a fairly pimped Mac Pro Cheese-grater, all be it not taking it as far as James...
My cheese-grater Mac Pro was an early 2009 Mac Pro, which originally shipped as a single quad-core machine. About 2 years ago with the help of the guys at Create Pro, it was upgraded to 2 x 3.46GHz 6-Core Intel Xeon processors and 32GB of RAM. It is fully loaded with 3 x 4TB Western Digital Black drives for media and a 1TB Crucial SSD for the OS.
The other major addition to this machine was a second DVD / Blu-Ray burner to allow me to backup very large amounts of data and audio in one go (Up to 24GB on a single-sided Blu-Ray).
This machine was rock solid since I got it from the Apple Refurbished store, never skipping a beat during a session. However, lately, the USB ports on the back are at becoming picky at best about what I connect them to so I installed a USB-3 PCIe card to get around this issue. So about 6 months ago, it was time to consider a replacement and I chose to go for a Windows-based Pro Tools computer and you can read more about this further down this article.
Option 1 - Upgrading & Refurbishing Your Mac Pro 5.1
As James mentioned he introduced us to a concept that he describes as "pimping" a Mac Pro 5.1.
In fact, the outcome from this pimping gave his Mac Pro 5.1 a specification not too dissimilar to the Mac Pro 6.1. While this upgrade option could be a good solution for getting extra mileage out of an ageing Mac Pro one would need to consider if it might be a false economy, especially in 2017 (James pimped his machine back in 2015). We also don't know when Apple will decide to stop supporting Mac Pro 5.1 in future operating system releases, although we understand at the time of writing that they are to be supported in the initial release of High Sierra.
The cost of the upgrading the processor and other crucial components to the level James chose is not inconsequential, in fact, the costs of "pimping" an old Mac Pro to match the spec of a current Mac Pro can be not that different to buying a new entry-level Mac Pro 6.1 with 3 year AppleCare, if you go for all the bells and whistles, but a simpler pimping exercise like Mike undertook was a more cost-effective solution, but Mike's machine was more powerful to start with and 2 years newer than James' Pro Tools computer, so timeframe and your starting point are important considerations here.
We suggest that any piece of hardware, including a computer, should be considered a disposable equipment write-off when its value depreciates to a certain point with potential costs of upgrading or fixing it exceeding that second value.
Option 2 - Purchase A Mac Mini
There are two Mac Mini machines on Avid's Mac compatibility charts for Pro Tools...
- The current model is in fact based on a late 2014 Mac Mini 7,1 Core i7 'Haswell' 3.0 GHz. You can buy a brand new one for around £949 excl taxes plus Applecare.
- The other Mac Mini is only available secondhand and is a late 2012 MacMini 6,2 Quad-Core i7 'Ivy Bridge' 2.3 GHz. Typically these are going for around £600 for one with a 1TB drive and 16GB of RAM.
In both cases you are buying older technology, all be it more recent than the Mac Pro 5.1. On the other hand, the Mac Mini's do have new features like Thunderbolt unlike the Mac Pro cheese-grater and it is possible to buy the late 2014 model new and take out Applecare with it, whereas it would be pot-luck with a secondhand 2.3GHz quad-core Mac Mini but it does have 4 cores which the current models don't have.
As we all are HDX users we would also need a PCI-e expansion chassis. More about these further down this article.
Option 3 - Purchase an iMac
There are 3 iMacs on the Avid Compatibility list...
- The current model is a Mid 2015 Retina 5K 27" iMac 15,1 Core i7 'Haswell' 4.0 GHz. You can buy a brand new one for another £2,324 excl taxes plus Applecare
- Late 2014 27" iMac 15,1 Core i7 'Haswell' 4.0 GHz
- Late 2013 iMac 14,2 Core i7 'Haswell' 3.5 GHz
For Pro Tools Native and Pro Tools HD Native users, the iMac range could be one worth exploring. However, for HDX users it may be more problematic as the computer and screen are in one box and may not be a viable solution. For example, Mike has his computer in a separate cupboard to keep the noise down, with the keyboard and monitors on extension cables. Not being able to split the monitor and keyboard would be an issue, with Mike either having to invest in an expensive fibre Thunderbolt cable, so the chassis with the cards can be in the cupboard with the hard drives, or bring everything out of the cupboard and suffer the noise issues.
The iMac is not a cheap solution either and the form factor probably rules it out for most HDX users as you are more than likely need to have the Pro tools computer, expansion chassis and storage in the room with you.
What About The iMac Pro?
The iMac Pro machines are due out this year but initially, they won't be approved by Avid so until they are and we have more detail on the pricing we will need to park this option. Although looking at the provisional spec they do have a lot going for them...
- Up to 18 cores, also available with an 8-core and 10 core.
- RAM configurable up to 128gb of ECC RAM
- 1TB SSD
- Radeon Vega graphics with up to 16GB of VRAM
- 4 Thunderbolt 3 ports.
- Built-in 10Gb Ethernet port.
- iMac Pro starts at $4,999.
So if the iMac form factor suits you then it might be worth waiting until the iMac Pro comes out, hopefully before the end of 2017.
Option 4 - Purchase A Mac Pro 6.1
In 2013 Apple announced the latest Mac Pro, what is usually referred to as the Trashcan. This bold new Mac Pro design ditched internal expandability, and although it is ideal for a wide range of professional users, the world nearly ended for us audio guys. We could no longer install cards such from brands such as UAD or Avid without some kind of third-party Thunderbolt chassis attached.
There are 4 Mac Pro 6.1 trashcans on the Avid Compatibility list...
- Late 2013 MacPro 6,1 12-core 'Ivy Bridge' 2.7 GHz is available new from Apple and a basic model with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD will cost £5000
- Late 2013 MacPro 6,1 8-core 'Ivy Bridge' 3.0 GHz is available new from Apple and a basic model with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD will cost £3900
- Late 2013 MacPro 6,1 6-core 'Ivy Bridge' 3.5 GHz is available new from Apple and a basic model with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD will cost £3000
- Late 2013 MacPro 6,1 4-core 'Ivy Bridge' 3.7 GHz
The one thing to consider with the current Mac Pro 6.1 trashcan is spec. In 2017, the Mac Pro 6.1 could be seen as a bit long in the tooth and the price doesn't reflect its position in the current powerhouse desktop computer market. That said, Russ ran a trashcan Mac Pro with an expansion chassis from when he bought it in 2013 until he sold his HDX system in 2016 when he went Pro Tools Native with his Apogee Ensemble interface.
But in 2017 would you consider buying a 2013 model Mac Pro, especially with the 2018 Mac Pro just over the horizon? Is investing in a current Mac Pro today as silly as buying a new iPhone in August - no one does it because new iPhones are usually announced in September, or this case two new iPhones, the iPhone 8 and iPhone X!
Option 5 - Lease Or Rent A Mac Pro 6.1
If it isn't smart purchasing a new Mac Pro 6.1 in 2017, then maybe leasing one could be? Dan investigated this option as he believes that short-term leasing could be a smart move for the professional, but this probably wouldn't be a viable solution for music producer hobbyist or enthusiast. Maybe the iMac or iMac Pro might be better for them if they want to stay on the Apple Mac platform.
Apple has stated that a new Mac Pro is on the horizon in 2018, so why not wait for it? Why not have a stepping stone that can bridge the gap affordably between now and then? We have found two UK based companies that lease current Mac Pro 6.1 with 8 cores, 64 Gig Ram, 512 flash storage for around £192 a month, an annual cost in the area of £2,300. These services include software and hardware support. If the computer fails for any reason you get another delivered immediately. If you lease a Mac Pro 6.1 now you can wait until a new Mac Pro launches in the future and cancel the leasing agreement and either purchase a new Mac Pro or switch to one under a new leasing agreement.
The cost of buying a Mac Pro 6.1 (8 core, 64 Gig Ram, 512 Flash) is £5,159, so a 1-year lease would save £2,855. A temporary Mac Pro lease could be a pretty good option for the professional. Leasing saves investing thousands in purchasing a current Mac Pro 6.1 outright and is a tax-deductible expense too, although you should take the resale value of a one-year-old trashcan into consideration. Would anyone want to buy a 1-year-old trashcan with 2013 technology when the new modular Mac Pros are available? Maybe not, and it is likely that will have a negative impact on the resale value of a Mac Pro 6.1 trashcan once the 2018 Mac Pros have been released.
If you went down this lease route and wanted to retain your HDX cards then you will need to buy a PCIe expansion chassis. If this a stop-gap whilst waiting for the new 2108 Mac Pro, then you are almost certainly still going to need an expansion chassis so you can use your HDX cards with the 2018 Mac Pro so that will not be a wasted investment.
Option 6 - Wait For a New 2018 Mac Pro 7.1 Modular Computer
Another option is to hold on and wait for the new modular Mac Pro that Apple is planning to release in 2018. if your Mac Pro cheese-grater is working fine this may be a good option especially if you want to stay on the Mac Platform, but as Dan nearly found out recently, your ageing Mac Pro cheese-grater may fail at any moment.
We have very little information on the new 2018 Mac Pro. Everything seems to be based on one statement from Apple's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller...
We think it’s really important to create something great for our pro customers who want a Mac Pro modular system, and that’ll take longer than this year  to do.
We do know from the Apple discussions, that were made public about the limitations of the existing trashcan, that the 2018 Mac Pro will have one larger GPU and we think we can surmise that elements, especially the GPU, will be replaceable but it is Mike's view that this modular design will be mainly to make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis including high-end CPUs and GPUs, rather than a Mac Pro that will have a lot of user-upgradeable elements to it, as the Mac Pro cheese-grater had. In his opinion, as much as it pains him to say it, this concept would sit much better with Apple's design ethos, as it seems that the only reason they are looking at a new Mac Pro is the way that GPU usage has changed which means the existing Mac Pro 6.1 doesn't suit a number of pro users, like some high-end cinema production tasks referred to by Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of Software Engineering.
Being realistic we would expect it to have Thunderbolt 3 capability. Surely it would be bonkers to produce a new version of the Mac Pro which only supported Thunderbolt 2?
Moving onto processors, it needs to support the latest processors so that Mac users can get the same bang for our buck as Windows users who have access to the current generation of processors. It should have memory slots with plenty of expansion space, rather than soldered in memory, so we can extend the machine's memory as software and the OS develop.
It would be lovely if it was rack mounted but we suspect that the new Mac Pro will still be a 'designer machine' rather than a workhorse, so the best we can hope for is that it will be equally at home in a machine room and in the studio.
As to price, it's not going to be cheap. Apple is going to be looking for a swift return on their investment from this single digit percentage market of Mac users. That said, hopefully, the modular design will provide Apple with a product with a longer life and so a better ROI but we will have to see.
What About The PCI-e Expansion Chassis?
All the above Mac options will require an Expansion Chassis to take the Pro Tools HDX card. Sonnet makes a number of expansion chassis solutions that all connect to the Mac computer using Thunderbolt.
Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Single PCIe Expansion Chassis - Sonnet recently announced the eGFX Breakaway™ Box, a Thunderbolt™ 3-to-PCI Express®(PCIe®) expansion chassis with a single slot for connecting any size Thunderbolt-compatible PCIe card, including an Avid HDX card as well as high-performance graphics (GPU) cards to a Thunderbolt 3-equipped computer.
Sonnet offers two eGFX Breakaway Box models...
- The eGFX Breakaway Box 350 includes one 8-pin and one 6-pin auxiliary power connector, (needed for the Avid HDX card) and supports cards requiring 300W or less of power, and provides 15W of upstream power.
- The eGFX Breakaway Box 550 includes dual 8-pin auxiliary power connectors, supports cards requiring 375W+ of power, and provides 87W of upstream power, useful for charging a notebook computer.
Each eGFX Breakaway Box model is equipped with a 40Gbps Thunderbolt 3 port and Sonnet claim that the Breakaway Box is the quietest eGFX box on the market and works with any Thunderbolt 3-compatible PCIe card regardless of length. If their existing units are anything to go by they are very quiet so here is hoping that claim is good.
The pricing frankly is amazing, for PCIe expansion chassis.
eGFX Breakaway Box 350 is expected to be available in early July 2017 with an MSRP of $299.
- eGFX Breakaway Box 550 is expected to be available late in the third quarter of 2017 with an MSRP of $349
Note that you will need an adaptor cable for the aux power cable if you want to use an HDX card in this model. See our community tips article Tip - When Fitting an Avid Pro Tools HDX Card In A Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Thunderbolt Chassis.
Sonnet’s Echo Express III Triple Slot PCIe Expansion Chassis - If you need more than one PCIe slot then check out the Sonnet Echo Express III expansion chassis. It is available in Desktop and rackmount form factors and can take up to Three Full-Length PCIe Cards and supports three full-height, single-width cards, or one double-width card plus one single-width card.
As to pricing, the Sonnet Echo Express III-D Desktop chassis is around $980 and the rackmount version is around $1200.
Check our review of the Sonnet Echo Express III-D expansion chassis.
How About A Windows Based Pro Tools Computer?
One of the drawbacks of going for any Apple Mac computer at the moment is that they all are using older computer technology, even the current models, whereas the Windows options give you access to much more up to date processors and memory options. Team member Alan Sallabank expanded on this in his article Mac or Windows? - Why Processor Speed Isn't The Only Factor When Measuring Performance.
Option 7 - Purchase A Custom Built Windows Pro Tools Computer
A number of Dan's music producer friends have switched from Macs and built their own Windows computers for Pro Tools. It's easy to see why. It costs significantly less to build a custom Pro Tools Windows computer compared to the cost of a Mac Pro 6.1.
In his article Pro Tools - Is 2017 The Year Of The Windows Self Build? team member Alan Sallabank explains that it is indeed possible to put together a reliable, high-performance Windows system, for a fraction of the cost - both initial outlay and running/service, of the equivalent spec Mac "on paper". Alan explains...
Here's my system...
- Asus X99-A DDR4 Motherboard
- Asus ThunderboltEX II/DUAL PCI Express Dual Port Thunderbolt 2 PCI Controller
- Intel Core i7 5820K s2011 6 (12) core CPU 4GHz
- Thermalright True Spirit 140 Air CPU Cooler
- Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB 2400MHz DDR4 RAM 4x4GB (4 of 8 available slots)
- NVidia GTX660Ti Cuda 2GB DDR5 GPU
- 600w be quiet Straight Power PSU
- Samsung 850 Evo Pro SSDs x 4 - 1 system and 3 media
- Fractal Designs Arc Midi Case
- Icydock MB324SP 4 x 2.5" Hot Swap Caddie for 5.25" bay
The GPU, case, RME and a couple of the SSDs were from an existing system, so I made the leap up to this beast for under £1000. To build from scratch would have been around £1,300. I chose the motherboard carefully so it had both Thunderbolt 2 and USB-C support, but also supported the newer 8 and 10 core processors coming on the market. I also took my time to choose the right power supply as I needed one that would adequately supply all those CPU and GPU cores running at full tilt and still have enough to spare to reliably serve SSDs and cooling.
If you are interested in a self-build Windows-based Pro Tools computer then you can read Alan's article Pro Tools - Is 2017 The Year Of The Windows Self Build? and his follow-up article Top Tips For A Successful Windows Pro Tools Computer Self Build.
Could you build your own custom Pro Tools Computer? If the answer is no then perhaps there may be someone that could build it for you? You should also consider the issues of support and warranty when running a custom built computer. There are saving to be had if you build your own Pro Tools computer but what if it breaks? What if you need support? Would the cost savings be worth it?
Option 8 - Purchase A Purpose Built Pro Tools Computer
Companies such as SCAN build custom desktop computers for Pro Audio applications. Scan's computer customise tool on their website makes it very easy to specify a machine and the costs appear to be very reasonable. One option that Dan is considering is a computer with 10 cores, 128GB RAM, powerful graphics card for video editing and more storage than he will ever need for around £4,000 with a three-year warranty. A current maxed out Mac Pro 6.1 is around £2,500 more expensive and doesn't even get close to the SCAN computer spec. The downside is he would have to switch from Mac OS to Windows but is that a deal-breaker anymore? We have got work to do and need a reliable machine that is good value for money and powerful.
For more information on building a purpose-built Pro Tools computer, check out Alan Sallabanks' detailed 3 part review of the Scan 3XS FWX99 PowerDAW Digital Audio Workstation Pro Tools Computer.
Option 9 - Purchase An Avid Approved Windows Pro Tools Computer
James' pimped Apple Mac Pro 5.1 ran Pro Tools perfectly well for 90% of his audio work, but he was finding it getting very sluggish, especially when he was dealing with video productions, graphics and other heavy lifting jobs. He decided that the only real option left to him was a new machine and what some people would call drastic choice to move over to "the dark side" and switch to a Windows Machine. James takes up the story...
If I was going to swap to PC I knew that I was not going to pop down to the local "big box" warehouse and pick up something for a couple of hundred quid. I wanted a machine that has the same build quality as my Mac Pro but with today's specification and the upgradeability.
There are two serious options, Dell or Hewlett Packard (HP). I could have gone the self-build route but, only the top end of the Dell and HP ranges are supported by Avid for use with Pro Tools and the HP Z840 would give me all the expandability I want in the machine right now and give me the best chance of being able to stay up to date in the future.
The HP Z840 chassis was a logical choice for me. It has 4 x 3.5" drive bays for my Audio, Video, Samples and Sound Libraries as well as six PCIe slots, which I have filled with my 2x UAD-2 Octo cards, Avid HDX card, a 256Gb Flash storage card for the Windows OS and a Thunderbolt 2 card to allow my new machine to talk to the massive number of new audio and video interfaces that I have been and will continue to test for Pro Tools Expert.
The main processors are 2x 6 core (12C) 2.4Ghz Xeon E5 V3. Moving onto RAM, 64GB 2133Mhz ECC Reg RAM across 8 x 8GB sticks still leaves 8 RAM slots for future expansion.
We originally specified a Nvidia GTX1070 8GB GPU, but a new card has just come onto the market which would allow me to run up to 4 x 4K monitors so we swapped the graphics card to an AMD Radeon Pro WX 5100.
You can read more about James choices and the journey he took through the changeover in his From Mac To Windows series.
Option 10 - Go To Pro Tools Native or HD Native
There are fewer and fewer reasons to stay with an HDX system, especially as a number of HD only features have been rolled into Pro Tools Native, or Pro Tools Vanilla as Mike calls it, over recent Pro Tools releases. Study your workflows and consider if you ready need an HDX system. If you need more than 32 channels of interface I/O then you will need to consider an HD Native or HDX Pro Tools system.
If 32 channels of I/O are more than enough then consider going for the Pro Tools HD standalone software option and selling your HDX system with its software. As long as you have HD software then you will have access to most of the remaining HD only features like multi-channel support for formats like Ambisonics, 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos. Alan Sallabank uses an RME interface with Pro Tools HD software and can handle large track count sessions in this post workflow.
An Avid Thunderbolt HD Native system comes in one box and does away with the need for a separate PCIe expansion chassis, the HD Native PCIe card comes in its own Avid manufactured Thunderbolt equipped box. Just add your chosen HD interface, Avid or 3rd party and you are good to go with any of the Avid approved Apple Mac computers. If you no longer need DSP plug-ins then an HD Native solution might be an ideal solution for you.
If like Russ, you need lots of virtual instruments then a Pro Tools Native solution built around a Thunderbolt interface might be the right answer for you moving forward.
Which One Of These 10 Options Works For You?
So there you have a range of 10 options currently open to owners of Apple Mac Pro 5.1 cheese-grater Pro Tools computers running Avid Pro Tools HDX. Study the facts, weigh up the pros and cons and then make the right choice for you. We can't make the decision for you, what we can do is present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works for you. Do share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.