Making that older Mac Pro zippy

After a long wait, Apple has finally produced a new Mac Pro workstation. While these machines are no-doubt awesome, they are clearly designed for hard-core video production. They offer not only the fastest processors, but dual GPU graphics cards. The most significant feature of the new Mac Pros is its size. They are very small. Gone are any internal storage or expansion options. There is one internal drive, which is flash-based (SSD). There are no PCIe expansion ports. This machine is tiny, but it means you’ll need to utilize external storage options for your data; either via USB 3 or Thunderbolt (there are no eSATA ports on the new Mac Pro).

Despite delivering what I’m sure is a fantastic machine, I’m not quite ready to drop $3500-$4000 into a new computer and then have to spend additional money to migrate my existing internal drives into external enclosures. My 2010 Mac Pro is a robust machine, and one reason why I got it was its expansion options. I’m able to add PCI cards and more memory into my existing machine. With that in mind, here are a few upgrades I did that significantly improved my overall computing experience using Lightroom and Photoshop.

Add RAM

These days, you can never have enough memory. If you don’t have a lot of memory, your computer starts using hard disk space to compensate. Hard drives are notoriously slow compared to solid-state memory, so adding RAM can help a lot when you’re working with image files.

How do you know if you need more memory? Mac users can go into their Utilities folder and launch a program called Activity Monitor. From there, click the Memory tab and look at how much RAM is being used while you’re running your common applications. If the amount used is close to or matches the total memory, and if there is a non-zero value for “Swap Used,” you should probably upgrade your RAM. I’m running 24GB of memory and I don’t have any issues with my normal Lightroom/Photoshop workflow.

Use the Activity Monitor application to see if you're using Swap files (virtual memory). If so, you might want to add RAM.
Use the Activity Monitor application to see if you’re using Swap files (virtual memory). If so, you might want to add RAM.

Upgrade to a Solid-State Drive

If you want to really make applications launch faster, consider using a solid-state drive (SSD) for your operating system and applications. Most SSDs come in a 2.5″ (laptop size) form factor, so you’ll need an adapter to mount it in an empty drive bay in your Mac Pro. Alternatively, you can really get screaming performance by using a PCIe-based SSD “blade,” such as the OWC Accelsior. I put a 480GB Accelsior blade into a free PCIe slot and I use it as my boot drive and for my Lightroom catalog. Putting your LR catalog on a fast drive really speeds things up. I also have Photoshop set to use the SSD as the scratch disk, maximizing performance. Because the SSD uses a PCIe interface, you don’t give up a drive bay and the performance is significantly faster than standard SATA drives. On my computer, Photoshop CC launches in under 3 seconds.

A solid-state drive (SSD) speeds up boot times and application performance. They are also ideal for use as scratch disks.
A solid-state drive (SSD) speeds up boot times and application performance. They are also ideal for use as scratch disks.

If you do get an SSD, you’ll want to keep your main data files on larger drives and just use the SSD for the system and applications. SSDs are not particularly cost-effective for mass-storage; I use normal 3.5″ SATA drives for my images and other data. For a boot partition, a 120GB SSD is usually ok, but 240GB would be optimal.

Upgrade Your Graphics Card

My Mac Pro shipped with an ATI Radeon graphics card with 1GB of DDR5 memory. Up until recently, there were not many options for Mac users to upgrade their cards, other than a few extremely expensive ones. However, there are a few new options out there that are affordable and can boost performance. By adding a faster graphics card, you’ll not only be able to drive multiple monitors, but some features in Photoshop (like blur effects) will render faster. Many plug-ins, including the Nik Collection, utilize the GPU to speed up image processing. I installed a Sapphire HD 7950 card with 3GB of GDDR5 memory and it is compatible with everything I’ve tested so far, including the Nik Collection.

Add USB 3.0

All previous models of Mac Pro do not offer USB 3.0, nor do they offer Thunderbolt, Apple’s proprietary interface for super-fast data transfers. While you can’t add a Thunderbolt card, you can add USB 3.0. I added a CalDigit PCI card that also has two 6G eSATA ports. This allows me to use USB 3.0 external drives like the one I attach to my laptop and also USB 3 card-readers. Having USB 3.0 on my machine increases my options for external devices going forward.

One weird caveat about USB 3.0 is that it generates “noise” in the 2.4GHz range. This can interfere with the internal bluetooth module in your Mac Pro, which uses the same frequency. To solve this problem, I disconnected the cable on my internal bluetooth module and installed a $19 bluetooth adapter in a free USB 2.0 port on my display. I’ve had zero interference issues using my bluetooth mouse since.

Final Thoughts

Depending on how much you choose to upgrade, you can add all of these components for around $1000; much less than a new computer.

As much as I’d like a new Mac Pro, I think these upgrades will keep everything running smoothly for a few more years. By that time, I expect the market for Mac Pro accessories to have matured, making the transition to the new form-factor easier and cheaper.

6 thoughts on “Making that older Mac Pro zippy”

  1. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for this post. I own a 2009 Mac Pro that’s my primary photography workstation (I also use a 2013 MacBook Air when in the field). Like you, I just can’t justify buying a new 2014 Mac Pro just yet, but need to improve my performance/efficiency. In particular, I simply must speed up the processing of NIK filters in Photoshop CS6/Lightroom 4. They are by far the biggest bottleneck in my workflow (I observed that when NIK changed ColorEfex Pro 3 to 4, its performance halved). So, can you report with any certainty that the OWC Accelsior and/or the Sapphire graphics card dramatically improved NIK processing speeds? I currently have an Intel 160GB SSD boot drive (in the slower than PCIe slot 3GB/sec second optical drive bay) loaded with OSX and apps, 24 GB of RAM, a 4-core 2.66 GHz Xeon CPU, and an ATI Radeon HD 4870 with 512MB of vRAM.

    I don’t want to overbuy. It’s my understanding that faster video cards like the Sapphire are aimed at gamers in need of speedy frame-rates and do little to help Photoshop. Can you isolate the performance gains in your Mac Pro between the Accelsior and the Sapphire card? Are both necessary? Has the combination of what you’ve upgraded make your Mac Pro a whole new machine? And, most importantly, does this combination rip through NIK filters?

    I’d really appreciate your real-world feedback. Thanks!

  2. The Sapphire video card has drastically improved performance of certain features, like spot visualization in Lightroom and Nik Plug-in rendering, but it has no effect on file save speeds. My observation is that the latest version of the Nik Collection made a significant improvement in rendering times from Color Efex Pro 4. The video card helps render effect previews more quickly in both Photoshop and your plug-ins.

  3. Thanks, Jason!

    I’m not sure what you mean by “spot visualization” in Lightroom; do you mean 1:1 zoom speed?

    NIK’s CEP 4 is the latest version and it is half as fast as v3 was on any computer; there’s much discussion about this on the web. CEP 4 added some nice features, but the “new” engine is horribly slow.

    Regardless, CEP 4 is a GPU enabled plug-in. Assuming you have GPU enabled in your NIK settings, I’d love to know more specifically how your Radius card speeds up the process. When you’re in Photoshop and open CEP how quickly does a CEP layer appear? Mine takes quite some time. Then, after stacking 4 or 5 CEP filters and clicking OK, how long does it take to Save? My “Saving” progress bar inches across the screen painfully slow. I suspect CEP first computes the filter merge then saves the result to a new PS layer–so “saving” is not the only thing going on. Does the Radius significantly speed up this process?

    I know this is all subjective, but short of demoing a Radius card (something venders don’t allow) all I can do is ask someone who already has one and is using it the way I would. Thanks again!

  4. Oops, sorry Jason. I can’t edit my last post and realized too late that I refer to your Sapphire card as a “Radius” card.

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