Expansion and I/O Challenges with Older Macs
Imagine the average 8-12 year old Mac sitting on your desk today.. Many are getting long in the tooth and have limited external upgrade potential or simply can’t even keep up with the best options offered today in terms of approaching optimal throughput for external graphics (also known as eGPU) or getting the most out of blazing fast NVMe storage. In most Macs of this vintage, you’re looking at Thunderbolt 1 as your best option for external devices (in 2011 and 2012 Macs) and are thus limited to bi-directional 10 Gb/s, which indeed is nearly double the 6 Gb/s offered by SATA III and these Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge Macs. If you look at the majority of 2008-2010 Macs, you then step down to SATA II and 3 Gb/s data rates and max out at 800 Mb/s data rates for external devices with FireWire-800 ports.
No matter what, all of these options are a far cry from the 40 Gb/s data path offered by modern Macs equipped with Thunderbolt III, but what about the cMP (known commonly as the classic Mac Pro)? Is there any black cauldron, dark magic wizardry add-in Thunderbolt 3 cards?? As a matter of fact there are!
The Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1 Continues Strong Thanks to the GC Titan Ridge and Alpine Ridge
Feast your eyes on a couple amazing devices from the hardware manufacturer Gigabyte.
Enter the GC Titan Ridge and the GC Alpine Ridge…
Recent Advancements Make the GC Titan Ridge and GC Alpine Ridge a Boon for Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1 Users
These devices have been around a couple of years, but unfortunately (until this year), obtaining one and planning to use with your Mac required you to have Windows installed in Boot Camp alongside MacOS. Previously, booting into Windows first (with the proper Thunderbolt Drivers installed for the card) and modifying the supplied USB type C header cable or adding a jumper was needed. Then you had to switch back to Mac OS via boot screen or via the Boot Camp startup disk selector in Windows to get the card working on the Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1 (the drivers would stay alive when warm booting back to MacOS and voila – Thunderbolt 3 on you Mac Pro). That was a bit of a turnoff for Mac users who did not want Windows, but had to deal with the inconvenience simply for the sake of having this card installed on their Mac (there were also some glitchy behaviors noted). In the last 6 months or so however, firmware and hardware modders have found ways to get the Titan Ridge and Alpine Ridge working with full functionality in MacOS with no dependency on Windows at all and have nearly ironed out all the bugs. There are even full step-by-step instructions out there for those who want to do it themselves!
This is truly amazing and opens up all kinds of doors for the Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1 once again.
The GC Titan Ridge Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1 DIY Route
There’s some good info on the entire process to get the Titan Ridge working on the Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1 on GitHub, but this will require you to have an EEPROM programmer and the version 23 custom firmware found on MacRumors, which allows you to run this card in the Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1. You must be cognizant of voltages of your EEPROM programmer, understand risks and follow the entire process correctly or it won’t work. Failure to perform any step incorrectly could result in headaches, repeated flashing attempts and in a worse case scenario – a bricked card and a wasted $150 or so.
Get your GC Titan Ridge or GC Alpine Ridge Card Flashed or buy Pre-Flashed from an Professional
You could just buy a pre-flashed card from an amazing asset to our Low End Mac community on eBay, who sells under the name “Superchief9”:
See Superchief9 items for sale here
Search for “Titan Ridge” or “Alpine Ridge” (depending on what you need from Superchief9) – see the differences of hardware noted below. You will not be disappointed! A pre-flashed card is simply plug and play (don’t forget to plug your header cable into the card – the other end does not need to go anywhere). Superchief9 also sells the flashing services for either card if you find a great deal on one on the open market and want to send it in for service (see items list link above for current pricing).
GC Titan Ridge vs GC Alpine Ridge
There are a couple minor differences to note between the GC Titan Ridge and GC Alpine Ridge in terms of the ports offered and overall capabilities (the only immediate obvious one besides the packaging and label on the unit is the difference of a DisplayPort output on the Titan Ridge versus an HDMI output on the Alpine Ridge):
The biggest differences however are really “under the hood”. The video throughput that can be passed from your GPU to the DisplayPort connections on the Alpine Ridge versus the Titan Ridge are quite different and so are the link speeds (as well as power supplied), as a result of the different chipsets used:
The Alpine Ridge uses Intel chipset DSL6540, and the video links are negotiated at DisplayPort 1.2 speeds and sent down over either HDMI 1.4 or Thunderbolt 3. The manual states to officially allow for a maximum resolution of 4K 24Hz over the HDMI port, but the Thunderbolt ports allow for up to 4K 60Hz (a single 5K Thunderbolt display can allegedly work on the Alpine Ridge as well). Only bus power is provided with the Alpine Ridge unfortunately and the card is supplied with a total of 38W, which allows you to power typical USB devices, but does not provide enough power for device fast charging (such as a MacBook Pro).
The GC Alpine Ridge is not a GPU. You need a GPU to pass video signals to it. It’s primary purpose is providing Thunderbolt 3 connectivity.
The Titan Ridge on the other hand uses the Intel chipset DSL7540 and negotiates over DisplayPort 1.4. You can use a combination of 2 of the 3 outputs (DisplayPort or the two Thunderbolt 3 ports) at up to 8K 60Hz or allegedly can drive a single 4K display at 120Hz that is FreeSync/G-Sync/VRR or native 120Hz capable! This could be a game changer (no pun intended). Depending on the requirements of the device, with the Thunderbolt 3 ports on the Titan Ridge, you may also be able to fast charge your devices right out of the box without adding additional power, as you get up to 75W of bus power. A current 16″ MacBook Pro will require 87W, and thus, at least one of the 3-pin PCIe power taps on the card need to be connected up to something (powering both taps is probably a good idea to give the card its full 100W).
The GC Titan Ridge is not a GPU. You need a GPU to pass video signals to it. It’s primary purpose is providing Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, but it does provides some advancements and advantages over the Alpine Ridge at just a small premium in price.
I have personally installed the Titan Ridge and at first had ordered the card accepting the old method of booting into Windows first since I was using Boot Camp anyway and then found out about Superchief9’s services. The service was an incredible value – especially if I ever decide to move away from Windows altogether one day (I use it mainly for gaming and Oculus Rift right now). Buying a pre-flashed card frankly to me is the only way to go now.
Fellow LEM Staffer, Mark Sokolovsky also has the Titan Ridge installed in his Mac Pro 5,1 and the Alpine Ridge installed in two of his Mac Pro 3,1 units. These cards are awesome since they let you connect modern peripherals such as Thunderbolt 3 docks (like the Wavlink Thunderdock v2 I obtained shown below), eGPU solutions and much more, truly adding all sorts of new capabilities to the cMP. The manuals for the Alpine Ridge and Titan Ridge do state these cards as being PCIe v3 4x, so that should theoretically be the same as PCIe v2 8x. I need to run some further test to verify overall throughput in my Mac Pro 5,1, but will need a blazing fast NVMe solution to really put it to the test. Nonetheless, this thing works beautifully once you have it going.
Here’s proof of the card being recognized:
Here’s the dock I got:
And lastly, here’s the Wavlink dock being recognized in MacOS:
As a final note, you may need to reboot your Mac Pro a second time after a cold boot if you shut down your Mac when using the flashed card. I’ve had mixed experiences so far, but things actually seem to be more consistent if you have something connected to a dock you are using. Even if I wind up needing to reboot once, it’s a small price to pay (of maybe 20 seconds or so – and that’s just with a cheap SATA 2.5 SSD running in SATA II right now) to get Thunderbolt 3 on my Mac Pro 5,1. I just can’t say enough good things about Superchief9’s service and how well this product functions even if there is a small quirk here and there. Once the card is active and recognized by your Mac, you can hot plug/unplug devices connected to a Thunderbolt 3 Dock from what I have seen so far and you can boot back in forth between MacOS and Windows. I have tested this in MacOS High Sierra, Mojave and Windows 10 so far. It has been stated that this card works in Mavericks on up.
Unfortunately, it’s a no-go for the Mac Pro 1,1 and 2,1 (no one has figured out yet and confirmed what the actual hardware limitation is), but I have a hunch this device requires processors that have SSE v4 execution or greater, which in turn is why it likely works on the Mac Pro 3,1 on up.
Rating Breakdown (Titan Ridge):
In closing, I will give a quick review of the Titan Ridge. I don’t have the Alpine Ridge personally, so I don’t feel it fair to review, but frankly, the Titan Ridge is only $40 more than the Alpine Ridge and is definitely worth it for the extra features it provides, so here it goes..
“Bang for the Buck”: 5/5
These cards can currently be had for around $166 pre-flashed as of July 2020. Prices are always subject to change. Revision 1 and Revision 2 cards work the same, but it will be unknown if future versions of these cards change anything (if brought to market) in terms of functionality or ability to flash to a known working firmware for MacOS. Nontheless, the value is incredible for what it can add to a Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1. The cards also work in the Mac Pro 7,1.
The amount of devices you are capable of plugging into a Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1 exponentially increases after installing a GC Titan Ridge or GC Alpine Ridge. There are a few quirks here and there such as the need to sometimes reboot your Mac from a cold boot at times and you might find that all devices don’t work (and some may not have exactly 100% functionality of all features), but based on community sentiment, I’d feel confident saying that at least 97-98% of Thunderbolt 3 certified devices work with these cards and overall that 97-98% of all features across those devices work fine with both cards. You will need to take it with a grain of salt that this is custom firmware and that it won’t be 100% perfect, but it’s going to be pretty darn close and that’s good enough for me if you stick to known working devices.
A Facebook forum is available that is dedicated to the Flashed Titan Ridge and it’s use on the cMP (currently named: Mac 5,1 Titan Ridge TB3 Custom Firmware).
Overall Rating: 9.5/10
Of all the hardware add-ons I’ve purchased and used with my Macs over the years, the GC Titan Ridge perhaps might be the one that has added the most value and capability yet. This takes your Mac Pro 3,1 to 5,1 up to date with modern I/O courtesy of an add-on card it was never intended to be able to use natively and gives you so many options you never could have had before. The enduring power of these old 3,1 to 5,1 cMPs will never cease to disappoint. Perhaps the new “Low End” will be a 20 year old Mac Pro 3,1 in 8 years running some fairly recent software and add-on devices???
LEM Editors Choice Award – Totally Worth It!