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I have an early 2008 Mac Pro that I use for research involving a lot of statistical computing. Some of this requires a decent amount of memory (storing hundreds of thousands of iterations of simulations, each having many parameter values…). It's fairly slow and seems to be swapping a ton on many of these runs.

My question is how easy and how cheap would it be to add memory and maybe a SSD to speed it up (I don't care about processing speed on its own that much). I don't want to invest a ton of money in a machine that might soon be obsolete (e.g. not supported by new OS versions), but I don't have a ton of money to blow on a completely new machine.

What about other options for a new Mac? Would a new iMac with lots of memory be comparable in cost to the total upgrade price for my current machine? I'm not super tech savvy so don't have a good sense for whether throwing many hundreds of dollars into a 7 year old computer is dumb. Advice would be greatly appreciated.

  • A good place to look for this sort of stuff is Other World Computing. They have a great selection of parts for all manner of old Macs (including your Mac Pro, probably version 1,1 or 2,1, check in "About this Mac…"). With that said, the processor and buses in a new Mac will be MUCH faster than the old Mac Pro, so you might want to take a good look at your needs. Can you push your memory-intensive operations off to an external machine or HPC cluster? – Dustin Wheeler May 21 '15 at 20:03
  • How much is a decent amount of memory - what was lots 7 years ago is not that much now – Mark May 21 '15 at 20:11
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Based on personal experience, the 08 Mac Pro is well worth squeezing that last bit of life out of.

It will take 64GB RAM, as 8 x 16 - even though Apple say it will only take 8GB sticks. Best source, other than OWC [which I think is US only] is eBay. There are specialists who sell old Mac parts & RAM; & mostly list with specific models items will run on. DDR2 is not cheap, though. I think I paid 300 quid for 16GB last year.

It's possible to add an SSD in one of the optical bays - without losing any existing drives in the main bays.
You will need a 2.5" > 5.25" mounting bracket, a PATA > SATA power cable & an SATA data cable [straight ends] maybe 9" long [don't get the shortest one, it won't reach]
The power you get from the optical bay itself.
The SATA connection comes from 2 'hidden' extra connectors - on the motherboard, behind the main fan assembly, which you can route behind the optical bay as you refit it.

Clone your existing boot drive with something like Carbon Copy Cloner & away you go.

The speed increase from the SSD alone is astonishing.

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I've asked myself this question numerous times but keep coming back to the idea that the MacPro3,1 (a.k.a. 2008) still has a bit of life left in it.

What is good:

  • You can install 32GB of RAM in this thing for approximately $400 (price is average between two options on Amazon and assumes replacing all memory slots).
  • You can replace the GPU with something far more modern in comparison to an iMac or "trash can" Mac Pro. I currently have a Radeon HD 6870 installed (PC BIOS, I didn't flash it) and has worked great. You only need to worry about the power connectors. Was an upgrade from the original 8800GT for ~$140 eBay over a year ago.
  • The performance of 8 cores makes it still somewhat competitive with hardware from as late as 2013.
  • SSD is a cheap way to make it feel like a new machine. Guides are available online on how to homebrew a Fusion drive as well.
  • Still supported by OS X, though you might have to replace WiFi/Bluetooth hardware to get the latest features like handoff/continuity (~$40-80).
  • In comparison to reports from friends, appears to be more stable than the '09 and '10 models (YMMV).

What is Bad:

  • Uses the older 'front side bus' technology Intel chips; access to RAM is much slower than the '09 and later which use the Core i7-class bus.
  • Single core performance is much slower than anything made in the last 5 years, even (for the most part) at the low end.
  • Only SATA II. As such, your SSD will max out at around 250-300MB/sec instead of SATA III's ~600MB/sec. However, you can work around this with a few hardware dollars.
  • Boot camp only officially provides drivers up to Windows 7. Perhaps Windows 8/8.1/10 will work, but I haven't tried it.
  • Given it is 7+ years old now, it is a matter of time before it is no longer supported by OSX.

The biggest problem I have is that OSX might stop supporting it soon. But from the technical side, it has 64-bit EFI which is a critical cut-off point for anything past OSX 10.7 Lion. The only reason I could see OSX no longer working on it is because it is no longer compiled for the older Core 2 Duo technology, however, Apple was selling that tech up until early 2012. As such, I would assume support until at least 2016/2017 to give those devices 4-5 years before obsolesence.

So if we assume that OSX 10.11 comes out in late 2015, it would most likely support those early 2012 sold products. As such, Apple will most likely support the release of OSX for 2-3 years before going end-of-life. Assuming 10.10 is the last, you're safe with patches until late 2017 or some time in 2018. If 10.11 supports it, add another year to that. For Apple, supporting an OS X product for 10 years isn't too shabby.

UPDATE: With 10.11 "El Capitan" being announced yesterday with support for the MacPro3,1 I'm guessing it is safe to say that your machine will continue to receive updates through at least 2018.

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A MacPro can hold a lot of RAM and in addition to the 4 HD bays and two Optical drive bays (that can be used with hard drives) there are two more SATA ports on the motherboard that are accessible with a bit of elbow grease.

RAM is fairly cheap these days and unless you need terabytes of storage SSDs are not that expensive either.

An SSD will give you a noticeable speed increase in daily operations that are disk bound (startup, launching applications, reading/writing to disk, etc.) and is what I usually recommend when people want to put some snap back in their Mac, and with that Mac you have lots of places to add a drive.

New RAM (depending on how much) and an SSD would be an order of magnitude cheaper than a new faster Mac. And beware as expansion options on the Mac Mini are non-existent and slim on an iMac. The new MacPro is reasonably expandable with RAM, but it is not an inexpensive unit and if you don't need the speed I would stick with the MacPro you have.

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