The Mac Pro 5,1 has rode a heck of a wave thanks to a talented team of developers who have worked hard to keep these old machines running smoothly with OpenCore/OpenCore Legacy Patcher (and some other tools/patchers that were developed earlier such as the dosdude1 patchers) and has allowed the Mac Pro 5,1 (as well as other machines) run well beyond their planned years of use that Apple intended.
Additional thanks to Martin Lo’s OpenCore package, which has taken much of the tricky programming and settings that would otherwise need to be manually tweaked in an easy to deploy package that even the average user can handle. In some of the latest developments for keeping the Mac Pro 5,1 humming along a few very powerful (recently released) GPUs have even become possible to use with the Mac Pro 5,1 (something believed to be impossible previously) thanks to MacRumors guru “Syncretic” unraveling the reason why these cards would not work in a Mac Pro 5,1 before and developing a patch for the Bios to flash (more on that in a bit). Syncretic was also instrumental in solving the infamous “race condition” that stopped versions of MacOS working properly with OpenCore beyond Big Sur 11.2.3 (more on that below) through the most recent build of Monterey.
On a side note, as much as we get annoyed with Apple and some of their planned obsolescence tactics for various generations of Macs, I do have to give them some credit where credit is due. The Mac Pro 4,1 can be flashed to a Mac Pro 5,1 rather easily after upgrading to Westmere CPUs (a 4,1 must use “delidded” CPUs – so pay attention to that when buying a used machine if you want to upgrade). The Mac Pro 5,1 was officially supported from Snow Leopard through High Sierra with Apple shipping EFI GPUs. That’s 8 OSes alone! Apple even extended support one more generation if you had moved on to a Metal capable GPU and by running through the upgrades from a High Sierra install to a Mojave install while running a Metal GPU (such as a Radeon RX 560 or later), you got a big bonus in a firmware update (version 22.214.171.124.0). This final firmware Apple released for the Mac Pro allows you to use NVMe storage on the Mac Pro 5,1 as a bootable drive! That’s 9 OSes officially, plus adding support for a multitude of GPUs throughout each generation and then super fast NVMe storage! Not bad Apple… not bad at all!
History Repeating Itself
Things played out in similar fashion with the Mac Pro 1,1 and 2,1 thanks to a bootloader developed by “Piker Alpha” which enabled 4 more versions up to to El Capitan on those machines (minus the last security update), when Apple had drawn the line at Mac OS X Lion (due to removing support for 32-bit EFI Macs). With the Piker Alpha bootloader, the machine could be tricked to ignore the 64-bit EFI requirements. Again, that was 4 operating system versions these machines weren’t supposed to be able to run.. literally extending the potential lives of them almost another full hardware lifecycle in terms of the world of computing (the Mac Pro 5,1 is now 3 revisions beyond it’s official last supported version of MacOS Mojave. Check out our article for some historical reference on this.
What Upgrades are out there to Truly Turbo-Charge the Mac Pro 5,1 (or an upgraded 4,1)?
While patchers enabling additional operating systems beyond the intended life-span of a machine is exciting, the most exciting things happen when those patchers and OSes actually unlock new capabilities that would otherwise have never existed for those machines or when other hacks find new and exciting ways to add more utility to the Mac.
With the most recent full build of OpenCore, the following key features have been enabled or re-enabled so far:
- Return of a Boot Screen (when using a supported Metal GPU such as a Radeon RX 560 or later)
- Full hardware h.264/HEVC acceleration for encoding on virtually all AMD GPUs since the Polaris series (such as the RX 480, RX 560, RX 580, etc.
- Patching possible to provide support for legacy WiFi and Bluetooth that shipped with the Mac Pro 4,1/5,1 (Big Sur and earlier only)
- Ability to run MacOS 11 “Big Sur” and MacOS 12 “Monterey”
Note: The ability to run versions of MacOS beyond 11.2.3 (and Monterey) required the OpenCore community to defeat an issue known as a “race condition” that was caused by CPU instructions running out of sequence due to randomized CPU instruction booting introduced with MacOS 11.3 and later. Patches were created nicknamed “SurPlus” for Big Sur and “MonteRand” for Monterey, which are now included in the latest versions of Martin Lo’s OpenCore package referenced above.
GPU Upgrade Options with Big Sur and Montery
As a result of gaining the ability to install stable versions of MacOS Big Sur via OpenCore (particularly version 11.4 and later) or MacOS Montery (particularly version 12.1 and later), thanks to the OpenCore community solving the race condition, two new generations of select GPUs were unlocked from the Navi 21 and Navi 23 families (which required later versions of MacOS beyond 11.2.3) with a couple caveats:
– Navi 21 compatible GPUs (enabled with MacOS 11.4 Big Sur or later): Radeon 6800, 6800XT, 6900XT
– Navi 23 compatible GPUs (enabled with MacOS 12.1 Monterey or later): Radeon 6600, 6600XT
Caveat 1: Installing any of the above GPUs requires a patched ROM to be flashed to the GPU and requires a separate Windows computer with a PCIe v3 slot or later with an adequate power supply (not another Mac running Boot Camp). Here’s a good video on the overall flashing process thanks to Lansing McVickar of Mac Sound Solutions, Inc. Others have made videos too, but Lance does a good job of keeping things short, to the point and has all the links you need in his video description to get your hands on the patched ROM from Syncretic and further instructions.
Caveat 2: Some third party cards are simply too long to fit in the Mac Pro 5,1 (stick to reference models sold direct from AMD such as the Radeon 6800 pictured below):
Caveat 3: Some of these cards, while not necessarily too long, will unfortunately be extra wide (such as the reference Radeon 6800 XT and 6900 XT which are what we know as a 2.5x wide card). The cards that are more than 2 slots wide will actually cover slot 2 (second from the bottom) on the Mac Pro 4,1/5,1 and make it impossible to utilize that slot, which is the only other 16x slot available on the Mac Pro 5,1 – extremely important if you want to run a PCIe NVMe RAID card (as slots 3 and 4 are 4x only and slot 1 can only operate at 16x with a GPU, so placing the GPU in slot 2 to try to defeat this limitation is also a dead-end unfortunately). The Radeon 6800 reference model that was sold direct from AMD (pictured above) is a true 2x wide slot card and will not block slot 2 on the Mac Pro 5,1.
Caveat 4: The Radeon 6800 XT and 6900 XT draw too much power than the Mac Pro 5,1 can provide typically from the PCIe bus and auxiliary power from the logic board (in the form of 2x mini 6-pin power connectors). If you want to use one of these extra powerful Big Navi GPUs and don’t care about blocking slot 2, you can do so, but you must tap into some extra power or add an external power supply. Tapping into some extra power is the most elegant solution and totally possible thanks to a modification known as Pixlas.
All models of the Mac Pro (from the 1,1 to the 5,1) shipped with a 980W power supply – plenty to run even dual high-powered GPUs, but GPUs when the Mac Pro 5,1 was shipping from 2010 (until 2013 when the Mac Pro 6,1 was released and the 5,1 was discontinued) simply were just not that power hungry. The Radeon 5870 was the most powerful and last official OEM Apple EFI card that shipped with the machine and drew around 228 watts total (there was an official Mac Edition Radeon 7950 that later was sold separately). The Pixlas power supply modification has helped the Mac Pro 5,1 for quite some time actually though to run more power GPUs. Cards such as the Vega 64, Vega Frontier Edition and Radeon VII have all suck down between 300W and 350W of power and have required the Pixlas modification to work (or again – at very least an external power supply must be used). The Radeon 6800 XT and 6900 XT also pull around 300W.
Note: The Radeon 6800 reference card pictured above pulls between 225W and 250W and does not require the Pixlas modification to work. It’s typically drawing around 200 to 220W during peak gaming and is truly the perfect blend of performance per watt out of a GPU that you can run in later versions of Big Sur and all versions Monterey. The Radeon 6600 and 6600XT are additional 2x slot options that don’t draw a lot of power either, but again – require Monetery. If you want to use Big Sur for anything and want a big GPU boost, a flashed 6800 is the way to to go.
What else for one last push on these machines?
As mentioned earlier, if you at least go to any Metal GPU and have moved on to Mojave and later with firmware version 126.96.36.199.0, you can then also install NVMe storage. These storage devices have their pluses and minuses on the Mac Pro 5,1 and some have greater compatibility and ease of use compared to others. Some have big speed advantages over others. The biggest problem with the Mac Pro 5,1 in terms of adding NVMe storage into the PCI Express slots is that the PCI Express slots on the Mac Pro 5,1 are version 2 and run at 5.0 GT/s (or 5 Gb/s) per lane.
A 4x slot on the Mac Pro 5,1 is capable of moving up to 20 Gb/s of data, but with overhead considered and a small performance penalty for using PCIe v3 and v4 devices in a v2 slot you typically get 70-80% of this or closer to 3.5 to 4 Gb/s per lane or 14-16 Gb/s of total throughput on a 4x slot. The other 16x slot (slot 2) can give you 4 times that or more like to 56-64 Gb/s of real world performance. Translating that to storage performance numbers (measured in Megabytes typically), you can theoretically wind up with read and write performance around 1250-1375 MB/s on a 4x device in any slot, up to around 2750 on an 8x device in slot 2 (16x interface) or up to a theoretical maximum of around 5500 MB/s on slot 2 at 16x with a device capable of pushing 16x lanes of storage data in each direction.
So how do you get storage that runs faster than 4x when all NVMe blades are designed as 4x by default? Simple – RAID cards. What’s not so simple is choosing the right one. While the Mac Pro 5,1 can boot from a RAID NVMe card when upgraded to firmware 188.8.131.52.0 (or a spoofed firmware with OpenCore in Big Sur or Monterey), you must run a RAID card WITHOUT bifurcation. If you run a RAID card with Bifurcation, the Mac Pro 5,1 won’t know what to do with it and it will either be not bootable at all or only one of the blade slots of a bifurcation RAID riser card will work, eliminating the benefit that a faster 8x or 16x RAID riser card can offer, so do your research first!!!
An example of a non-bifurcation card I have found that works very well is the pre-built Western Digital AN1500:
These come in 1 TB, 2 TB and 4 TB varieties and combine the power of two PCIe v3 cards and run on an 8x interface, so you will get double the performance compared to a single blade given this pre-built, non-bifurcation hardware RAID, but it is throttled back to PCIe v2 speeds as mentioned earlier, so you can expect performance north of 2500 MB/s and up to around 2750 MB/s at max given overhead and slight performance hit going from a PCIe v3 to a v2 interface. Overall though, this card is a resounding success, but it is somewhat expensive (although consider the fact that you are essentially buying 2 drives and getting the capacity of 1 for the RAID configuration). The 1 TB has ranged between $150 and $220 these days. The 2 TB can be found between $300 and $450 and the 4 TB can be found anywhere between $450 and $999. Prices are all over the place and Amazon pricing fluctuates almost daily on them, so just watch for a good deal and pounce (I regret not buying another for my other Mac Pro 5,1 or upgrading recently when I saw a 4 TB for $447 and 1 TB for $107 at Microcenter). After upgrading the firmware to 184.108.40.206.0 with Mojave though, even High Sierra can boot from this drive (and up through the current build of Monterey), so you have a wide variety of support with this device in terms of what GPU you want to use with it. I have not tested it in OSes before High Sierra, so it may even be bootable in earlier versions of MacOS.
Word of caution with storage upgrades:
Some of the Samsung EVO drives tend to perform poorly with OpenCore after hitting a weird glitch. Do your homework, but the safe bet is to not use Samsung EVO drives like the 980 with OpenCore. Outside of OpenCore they are fine.
There’s also the matter of Input/Output upgrades. The most common upgrade one can approach is to get a USB 3 card of some sort. USB 3 has come now in many flavors.. USB 3.0, USB 3.1, USB 3.2 Gen 1, USB 3.2 Gen 2, and must recently USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. USB 3.0 and later renamed USB 3.1 and even later renamed USB 3.2 Gen 1 all run at 5.0 Gb/s per controller. USB 3.2 Gen 2 runs at up to 10.0 Gbps per controller and lastly USB Gen 3.2×2 runs at up to 20 Gb/s per controller. Some cards have dual controllers, but remember that all add-in USB 3 cards will be 4x at most with a few rare exceptions that will run up to 8x, but if you are planning to use your secondary 16x slot for a storage upgrade like the Western Digital AN1500 shown above, just stick to a 4x card.
Some cards have type A ports, which is what has been common on most devices since USB first came around in the mid to late 90s. Some cards just have the newer type C ports and some have a mix. Cards with multiple controllers are generally more expensive. Cards that are USB 3.2 Gen 2 or USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 are also generally more expensive. Do your research as always and not all are always compatible with MacOS, so be mindful of that as well.
Another option that can go in slot 3 or 4 is a flashed GC Titan Ridge (or Alpine Ridge), which adds Thunderbolt 3 (but due to speed limitations of the 4x PCIe interface), you’ll get a max of around 16 Gb/s of throughput, which puts it closer to Thunderbolt 2 speeds, but faster than USB 3.2 Gen 2 and Thunderbolt v1, so that too is another way to go. Many of the OpenCore configurations account for the GC Titan Ridge and will work nicely. Stick to pre-flashed cards for plug and play ease of use unless you are handy with an EEPROM programmer and know what you are doing, but in any case know all the caveats of using one of these cards. Read my article on the GC Titan Ridge here. The quick two caveats though would be to not use sleep with these cards installed and to always remember that if you shut down or reboot, you’ll typically need to reboot the same number of times of devices in the chain to regain it all back. The Mac Pro 5,1 tends to either not wake from sleep with a flashed GC Titan Ridge (or Alpine Ridge) installed and if it does wake, the chain of all devices will be lost and you’ll need to reboot the number of times for devices chained to regain the card. So if you have 3 devices downstream from the Thunderbolt card, you’ll need to reboot 3 times if you shut down to get the last device in the chain back up. It’s a pain, but if you need Thunderbolt on your Mac Pro 5,1 it’s all we’ve got.
An all-in-one solution is the Sonnet MacFiver. It combines several things all in one card. You get a dual slot NVMe non-bifurcation RAID riser card AND dual USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports at 10 Gb/s each AND a 10 Gb Ethernet port. This thing is incredible and will run at 8x like the WD AN1500. Considering that you probably aren’t going to be able to get Internet that fast for a while and unless you have upgraded your home network to handle 10 Gb yet, the 10 Gb port might not be a game changer, but it’s there to future proof you somewhat as fiber is getting upgraded every day and you might wind up making use of this sooner than you think. Having the storage and the I/O on one card like this will also help by freeing up another 4x slot for an extra single NVMe card. It also lets you expand the storage easily as needed. You could decide to start with a couple 1 TB blades for fast 1 TB performance and later go all the way up to 16 TB blades for huge capacity when things start coming down a bit more in price.
The drawback of the McFiver… it’s expensive.. very expensive and REQUIRES Monterey to have full functionality (the USB ports and possibly the 10 GB Ethernet port don’t work prior to Monterey). It’s a $399 card and doesn’t come with any storage to get you started, so you’ll be into it for at least another $150-$200 or so for a couple 1 TB blades. Investing $550 or so into a 10-13 year old machine might not be as palatable as getting a WD AN1500 1 TB for around $150 to $220 and then getting a USB 3.2 Gen 2 card for $50 or so. Bottom line is that if you don’t foresee needing 10 Gb Ethernet and if you are good with a 1 TB NVMe drive for your main drive (if that’s enough ultra fast storage for your needs), you can always add a larger 2 or 4 TB SATA SSD or spinning drive and move unneeded files there and will have spent a lot less $. If you want USB 3.2 Gen 2 and a fast storage upgrade that can later be expanded on and would like to preserve an extra PCIe 4x slot free slot for something else instead of using it up on a USB 3 card (such as a PCIe WiFi/Bluetooth 4.2 card) and would also like the bonus of getting a 10 Gb Ethernet port, this is the card for you!
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one, as this information has been around for a while, but the Mac Pro 5,1 can easily be upgraded to Bluetooth 4.0/4.2 and 802.11ac WiFi. This allows handoff/continuity to work with your iOS devices and provides significantly better performance than what was provided by the old 802.11n cards that are now over a decade old. You will realize much improved speeds and range on both WiFi and Bluetooth as well with these cards. Just look for listings on “Mac Pro 5,1 Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac” on eBay and you’ll find many listings. Typical no solder turnkey add-in cards with external antenna can be had for around $120. You will use one of your 4x slots, so keep that in mind when considering what I/O you want to add.
What about MacOS Ventura (and later)?
As of this writing, MacOS Ventura is not fully viable yet on the Mac Pro 5,1 due to limitations with AVX instruction execution. The CPUs that are possible to insert into the sockets of Mac Pro 4,1 and 5,1 do not have these instruction sets, but the 2013 Mac Pro 6,1 (aka – trash can) does as well as the 2019 Mac Pro 7,1. The OpenCore team is looking at various potential solutions to get Ventura running on the Mac Pro 5,1 so stay tuned – but assume Monterey is the end of the road for the Mac Pro 5,1. Even if that’s the case, it’s been quite a ride.
The Mac Pro 5,1 has come a long, long way. With what dosdude1 started with the patchers (which let Catalina be installed on the Mac Pro 5,1 and many other Macs) and what the OpenCore team has accomplished extending that up to Monterey, while allowing numerous upgrades to be installed that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible, these old Macs have had a final push to be super-charged as much as possible that will get us by until the final security updates drop for Monterey and the final browser support drops for these machines.
As of right now, a flashed Mac Pro 4,1 (with Westmere CPU upgrade) that came out in 2009 is now a 13 year old Mac (soon to be 14) that can run a year old OS, many current apps as well as current browsers. Monterey should get security updates for another couple years and browser support for another 4-5 years, so these machines will still be relevant for that long.
Are they nearly as powerful as new M1 Macs? In most cases, no, but in some cases with Metal intensive tasks, a powerful GPU like the Radeon 6800 has its merits, even if throttled by a PCIe v2 bus, slower memory, etc. Faster storage upgrades, I/O upgrades, WiFi/Bluetooth upgrades and more can take these old Macs well into the 2020s.
You can run Boot Camp (with some caveats when using OpenCore) or can simply run a full UEFI version of Windows 10 Pro, which will be fully supported and patched through October 2025, and antivirus software should be fine for at least another 4-5 years from now. With a full Windows install you can easily run VR through Steam and other platforms. That’s something else an M1 Mac can’t do yet and with Apple’s VR experience expected to cost north of $2000, running VR in Windows on a tricked out Mac Pro 5,1 is a much more affordable solution. You’ll spend less than $2000 on a Mac Pro 5,1 with dual hex-core CPU setup, GPU upgrade (Vega 56 or flashed Radeon 6800 for instance), storage and I/O upgrades, Windows 10 Professional key as well as a VR headset like the Meta Quest 2 and will be able to play far more games than you’ll expect to see at Apple’s VR launch.
The Mac Pro 5,1 may seriously have the most longevity of any machine Apple has every made. Enjoy these wonders while you can and enjoy doing all the upgrades (something you can no longer do with new Mac hardware).