A 2009 Mac Pro in 2020?

Is it worth it to buy a 2009 Mac Pro for use in 2020? The following article will detail the pros and cons of picking up a used, older Mac Pro.

When looking for a new Apple Computer the choice is not simple. Whilst the new Macs appeal with their high specs, looking for a used option is the best choice for most people, as the older MacBooks, Mac Minis and Mac Pros of the world are much cheaper, still relatively fast and can be upgraded with comparable ease.

For people that want to do something creative with their machines, some power is required. Sadly, this often cannot be provided by the 13“ MacBook Pros of yesteryear, and the 15“ models are more often than not plagued by dying system boards. However, thankfully there are still used desktop versions that are capable of meeting many of the demands, without compensating on price.

From the many options available, I have selected the Mac Pro as a test subject. The 2009 Mac Pro 4,1 that I now call my own has a Quad Core Xeon processor at 2.93GHz, 32GB of system memory, 256GB SSD and as a video card it has an AMD Radeon HD5770 1GB. The system as it ships from Apple is capable of running up to macOS El Capitan. Unfortunately, this is outdated by many years and needs to be upgraded to a newer macOS to use this computer in 2020 – more on that later.

Ordering and getting it delivered

The Mac Pro is a well built and sturdy machine, with my model weighing over 17kg (37lbs). This means that you can expect a significant price tag, if you want your Mac Pro shipped to your doorstep (depending on your location and personal requirements). To get the Mac Pro shipped to my location, I paid about 32€ (approx. $35USD), and it had to be undertaken by special movers (for example, Schenker in Germany), which also is an important factor bear in mind before purchasing.

A good tip is: when buying a Mac Pro from eBay, make sure to ask the seller to pack the Mac Pro lying flat, as when it is standing upright, it is quite common to damage the feet of the case – which is not repairable.

Unpacking it

When the machine is finally delivered to you, and you’ve managed to lug it out of the box, you are greeted by the stunning matte aluminium case with hundreds of holes in the front and back, two giant Apple logos left and right and the iconic, bulletproof appearance.
With two DVD bays, 5 expansion slots, 5 USB 2.0 ports, fire wire and many more ports the computer will be able to handle almost every attachment there is.

Compatibility

The Mac Pro is compatible with almost any USB keyboard or mouse including Apple’s own Magic Trackpad and Keyboard, as well as the Mouse. Auto interfaces, Wi-Fi adapters and other items can be compatible but may need special drivers. A general rule of thumb is that if a product is compatible with macOS it is generally stated on the box somewhere. It’s worth noting that it may require a certain operating system to work properly though.

Any DVD, hard drive or SSD that has a SATA interface will work on your Mac Pro. Generally 3.5” and 5.25” will fit in the Mac, but 2.5“ drives will need an adapter to fit securely.
If you want to get more involved in upgrading your Mac you can also put in more RAM, a better CPU and a better GPU. Compatibility can vary but generally for RAM you need DDR3 ECC memory which is a special kind of server memory that is now rather cheap on eBay. Make sure to check before you buy that it is the same kind of RAM to make sure that there are no incompatibilities. Upgrading the CPU on the Mac Pros is a bit of complicated topic and deserves its own article – make sure to do your research first. Upgrading the video card in Mac Pro is generally limited by the choices Apple made. Only AMD cards are supported by macOS Mojave and onward – the cheapest option will be an AMD RX560. Other video cards like the new AMD 5700 and so on will also work but only with macOS Catalina and onwards. In my Mac Pro, I installed a MSI AMD RX 560 video card which works perfectly.

Upgrading the Mac Pro

As mentioned previously, the Mac Pro need some simple work before being able to be used in 2020. With a simple, free tool that can be downloaded from the iFixit website the 2009 Mac Pro 4,1 can be made into a Mac Pro 5,1. This not only allows the use of macOS High Sierra natively but also enables upgrades to 6 core processors and more system memory.

After installing High Sierra, the system is now running a version that still gets security updates until November 2020. During or before the install of High Sierra, the system may prompt you to do another firmware upgrade, proceed as the computer tells you and you will be on the safe side. Further upgrades can be made because the 5,1 Mac Pros do support running on macOS Mojave, but there is a price, as you might expect: a so-called “Metal” supported video card is required. This means the use of at least a Radeon RX560 card or higher. While it is a bit difficult to find a new, boxed version of the card, eBay is full of them – my MSI RX560 cost me about 120€ (approx. $130 USD) new. Installing the card into the machine was simple and completely tool-less.
Also, upgrading the operating system is a simple process and can simply be done by looking up Catalina in the App Store and following the instructions.

Using the system for daily task

When doing day-to-day tasks like checking E-Mails, watching videos or reading the news, the Mac Pro is a flawless machine: not only is it quick and snappy when carrying out these tasks, but also stays cool and quiet. The cooling fans are almost inaudible and while watching videos, the temperature of the machine stays below 40°C. Even watching 4K videos comes without a problem. Naturally, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video work really well too. Even more arduous tasks are simple for the Mac. iMovie or GarageBand projects and (with an upgraded processor) even Final Cut and Logic Pro are not an issue. Simpler CAD drawings can be handled by the RX560 too but for more complicated drawings you may require a Radeon Pro W card.

Some programs that are available free for any Mac are: Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie and Garage Band. These are the Mac equivalents to Word, Excel, Power Point and Movie Maker respectively (there is no free audio workstation that comes with Windows). Pages, Keynote, iMovie and Garage Band are competent programs. Of course, for people that need the Office Suite for work or just prefer it, there is a Mac version of Office available to purchase, in addition to Photoshop and essentially every other Adobe product.

Who is this right for?

The Mac Pro was and still is a no-compromise machine for professionals and is still favoured over the newer “trash can” Mac Pro of 2013.
Talking about who the Mac Pro is for is the wrong approach here, instead I should mention who the Mac Pro is not for. The Mac Pro is not for people that want a machine they can just put down and use until it finally dies. The Mac Pro is not for people who like the modern Apple over the Apple how it was a few years ago.

This machine is something for people that are willing to put their screwdriver to the machine, spend some time and money on it to make it into what the Mac Pro always should have been. Running macOS, Windows or Linux, this machine will put up with everything that you can throw at it, maybe not as fast and power-efficient but steadily and reliably. This machine is definitely worth a consideration for any person that wants to set foot into the Apple eco system and for professionals that are looking for a machine that adapts to their workflows and not the other way around.

Special thanks go to my reviewer and idea giver for this post.

Any questions can be asked over on Twitter under the handle @blog_randomtech or in the comments down below.

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