Upgrading the CPUs in the Nehalem Mac Pro

Let’s say you get over the $3299 price tag of the 8-core Mac Pro but aren’t really happy with the paltry 2.26GHz clock speed of the quad-core Nehalems in the box. Apple offers two upgrades: a pair of 2.66GHz or 2.93GHz Nehalems, how nice of them. The 2.66GHz upgrade will set you back $1400, while the 2.93GHz upgrade will basically cost you another Mac Pro at $2600.

To Apple’s credit, these CPUs are expensive. Here is Intel’s pricing:

CPU Intel's Price for Two CPUs What Apple Charges for Two (BTO Upgrade)
Intel Xeon X5570 $2772 $2600
Intel Xeon X5550 $1916 $1400
Intel Xeon E5520 $746  
Intel Xeon W3540 $1124 $1000
Intel Xeon W3520 $568  


A single Xeon X5570 costs $1386, Apple is charging you $2600 for two - but that’s on top of the base cost of the 8-core Mac Pro; you’re effectively paying for the two Xeon E5520 chips and the two X5570s, but only getting the latter.

The same applies to the single-chip Mac Pro. The only CPU upgrade offered there is the Xeon W3450; retail cost is $562, Apple’s benevolent self will only charge you $500.

I should also point out the sheer ridiculousness of Apple putting a pair of $373 CPUs in a $3300 machine. I get that Apple wants to commoditize everything that they don’t make, but that’s just ridiculous.

Do you smell motivation? Because I do.

If you don’t mind voiding your warranty, you are better off buying the base Mac Pro (4 or 8 core) configuration, upgrading the CPUs yourself and ebaying the originals.

The even more sensible option would be to wait a while and upgrade the Xeons once these ones fall in price.

Regardless of when or why you want to do it, I figured we should give it a try. They built sockets for a reason after all.

Voiding the Warranty

Getting inside the new Mac Pro is much easier than the old one. Remove the side panel then unlatch and remove the processor tray and you’ve got this:

Two towering heatsinks, eight DIMM slots an X58 chipset are the main attractions. Remember all of the hoopla a few pages ago about Turbo Mode? That’s the reason for these beefy heatsinks; there’s actually a fan inside each heatsink, as well as two large fans moving air across the entire board in the case.

The heatsinks have an integrated fan and thermal sensor (black cable)

There are four screw holes at the top of the heatsink. Apple actually made removing the heatsinks very easy, all you need is a long 3mm hex key - about 3” long (plus a handle) should suffice.

Stick the hex key in any one of the holes, move it around until it grabs, and then unscrew. Rinse and repeat. The screws are attached to the heatsink and spring loaded; you don’t have to physically remove any, just wait until they pop up.

With all four screws removed you can just lift the heatsink straight up. The CPU sockets don’t have clamps, so the chip will most likely lift out of the LGA socket attached to the heatsink.

Carefully twist and pull the CPU until it comes off of the heatsink and you’ll be greeted with the first surprise from Apple: the 8-core Mac Pro ships with lidless Nehalems.

Normally a Core i7 or Xeon processor will look like this:

But the 8-core Mac Pro uses specially sourced parts from Intel that have no integrated heat spreader (IHS):

No lid, all Nehalem.

This is obviously a cooling play. The IHS is useful in preventing cracked cores from improperly installed heatsinks, but it does make cooling more difficult. With the heatsink flush against the bottom of the Nehalem die, it can remove heat faster from the chip. More efficient cooling results in lower CPU temperatures and lower fan speeds.

The lidless Nehalems are only used in the 8-core version as far as I can tell. The standard quad-core Nehalem Mac Pro uses regular Xeons with an integrated heat spreader.

The lidless Nehalems do provide a challenge: you can’t buy them. You have to buy a standard, lidded Nehalem Xeon and either remove the IHS or leave it intact and hope it works well. The first option isn’t a very good one; while removing a heat spreader isn’t impossible, you do run the risk of destroying your $1400 CPU. The second option, if it works, is the safest route.

We got a pair of Xeon X5570s and tried to install them, with heat spreaders and all, in our 8-core Mac Pro. Simply pull one chip out, replace it, apply thermal grease, remount the heatsink and screw it back in...or so we thought.

The lidless Nehalems were out, the new lidded processors should work - they should just be a bit more difficult to cool

The Alternative: SSD in an Older Mac Pro? Frying a Mac Pro


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  • TonkaTuff - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Hello Mr Anandtech,

    My name is Alfredo and I am from Denmarksland.
    I have recently started a computer company called Lemon computers.
    I wish to send you my top of the line LemonPro for review.

    LemonPro Specs.

    1xLemonPro superwhizzbanger professional motherboard (series 2)
    Supports up to superfast DDR3 1066mhz ram. Has 2! Yes you read it right the first time 2! PCIE slots for the true computing professional.

    1xLemonPro Core i7 920 cpu at 2.66ghz
    Custom built by intel for lemon computers, you maybe able to get this cpu in other computers but ours are very "special" i7 920 cpu's.

    3 Gig of Lemon DDR3 1066mhz ram
    Super high performance memory hand picked from corsairs finest value select batchs.

    1x Lemon 640gig 5400rpm High Performance Hard drive
    Theres not enough porn on the net to fill this puppy up. Ultimate storage for the true professional.

    1x Lemon/Nvidea 9500GT Graphics
    Experience awesome crysis in ultra high detail at blazingly fast frame rates of up to 3 (a minute). It just doesnt get better than this.

    1x LemonRay 18x Read 1x Write DVD player
    For the true computing professional

    Lemon computers, for the true computing professional, professional's need only apply. P.S. PROFESSIONAL!

    *LemonPro pc's are fitted with the trademark LemonDP display connection, Unfortunately there is only one Monitor on the planet that has this style of connection (where that far ahead of the competition its SCARY!) and is available through Lemon for RRP $1200 (20inch display). Or a special custom built adapter can be used, available through Lemon RRP $100.

    Hopefully you will supply my system with as good a review as those MacPro's. Also My system is 50 dollers cheaper than the Apple system, only $2449 RRP

    Yours Professionally, Alfredo

    Ok, I am not going to go down the biased track here, I am not a fanboi and never have been, I judge something on what it delivers at its given price.

    But Honestly if this bloke from Lemon computers gave you the above system with a vista o/s for review with a $2500 price tag we all know what the resulting article would have to say about it.

    Do I think your biased? No I don't. Do I think there are very large double standards at play? Absolutely.

    I mean honestly what apple is providing is the equivalent of an $1000 PC. FOR $2500. This is a hardware analysis site is it not?
    How can you possibly justify paying that sort of coin over and above an equivalent PC? Where is that extra $1500 worth of justification?
    Answer me that question and I will eat my words.

  • gorbag - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    There's a difference between tossing a bunch of parts in a bag and calling it a $1000 'system', and the kind of components and design you get from Apple (or other prime tier vendors for that matter). So let's not compare what you buy from the showroom floor with what you can do with the back room sweepings OK? Reply
  • JimmiG - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    I wouldn't exactly define an i7 920 and an Asus or Gigabyte mobo "back room sweepings" though.

    You must be talking about the housing, because the actual components (you know, those boards and chips that make up the computer) are the same (minus the heat spreader).

    So yeah, for your own home built i7 system to match the Mac Pro in terms of "design", you might have to add a couple of hundred to your budget for a quality case and a quiet aftermarket CPU cooler, then spend 30 minutes doing some cable management after the built is finished. But a $1000 PC will *do* all the things the Mac Pro does, except look shiny and "professional" on the outside, which is not worth a $1000 - $1500 premium + no easy upgrade path, IMO.
  • erple2 - Wednesday, July 15, 2009 - link

    The problem is that you can't actually buy a Core i7 computer from apple. You MUST buy the Xeon equivalent. Which drives the cost of the home built computer up significantly. That means that the Apple tax is no longer 1000+ dollars, and closer to about 750 dollars.

    The other problem is that you're probably also the person who will complain that Alienware computers are overpriced. Or Falcon Northwest. Of COURSE they cost more - they're for a particular niche of the population that wants to run a fast computer and wants someone else to put them together and support them. In my experience, the support you get from Falcon Northwest or Alienware IS worth the cost if you aren't the type that likes to crack open your case.

    The other problem is that the Apple hardware is also the only hardware that you can "easily" run OSX (after fighting trying to get OSX running with an i7 920, I can't say that it's easy at all).

    You are essentially arguing that all high end workstations are the same. This is, unfortunately, not entirely true - the integrated package does matter to a significant number of businesses that want to run hardware. The initial cost of hardware is insignificant relatively to the support costs. Maybe Apple is cheaper than a home built computer that you'll have to employ someone to support the home builts. maybe it's cheaper to buy a bunch of Apples, and have a "dumber" tech to administer them with Apple's help.
  • Hxx - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    theres no difference service/quality between "prime tier vendors" and a DIY built except for the warraty, which is useless in most cases. As far as Apple goes, they target a niche market which is why they can afford to charge this much for a box. Nobody in their right mind would pay this kind of money just to have a fast computer for everyday use. Reply
  • BushLin - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Yep, the difference is $1500 and no amount of shininess, (almost) proprietary connectors or badges saying "Designed in California" (Made in China) can add enough value to justify the cost of what is relatively cheap hardware. Still, if you've got the money to burn and love Apple regardless...

    I'd like to see if a $1000 Hackintosh would offer such a reduced experience, those who swear by Apple's OS shouldn't have to be so routinely taken from behind by a company they apparently love to the point of promoting the products for free (and ignore all the shortcomings).
  • zsdersw - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    How dare you criticize Apple for not including SSDs! Apple is perfect. Apple is God!

    All must genuflect to Pope Steve Jobs and all must buy his Jesus Phone.

    Those who speak anything negative about Apple and/or those who do not recognize their supreme awesomeness will be excommunicated.
  • michal1980 - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link


    how is it awesome, for the most part you have to use an adaptor, at a cost of 100 bucks.

    oh and if you need to run a high res, since apple is 'cute' (why a mini display port on a desktop? why?) you need 2 cables just to get it connected? LOL

    and if you need to use the adaptor you still have screws for dvi & vga.

    Finally, do people really hate the screw contections? personally I love them, since there is almost zero chance of them falling out
  • MrPIppy - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Two questions:

    1) You suggest that for someone wanting higher clocked processors in a Mac Pro, it's a better value to buy the base model, upgrade the processors, and eBay the old ones. But on the 8-core models, the stock CPUs don't have IHSs. Is there any market for these chips on eBay (besides other Nehalem Mac Pro owners who have fried their original processors ;-)?

    2) Can a single socket Mac Pro be upgraded to a dual socket just by replacing the CPU board?
    Starting from the base single-socket ($2500), you could get another W3520 off of eBay cheap ($~350) (possibly one already de-lidded), a dual-socket CPU board ($400), another heatsink ($?) and RAM ($~100), and it would come out far cheaper than Apple charges ($4700) for a Mac Pro with dual X5550s at 2.66 GHz. The total system TDP would be higher, but the already over-specced cooling system would just have to run a little louder.
    The hard part of this plan is convincing a reseller or Apple Store to sell you a 2-socket CPU board and a heatsink, with only a 1-socket CPU board to trade. But, even if some cash had to be discreetly slipped into pockets to make it happen, you still stand to save $1000, which could buy a nice SSD and 24" monitor.
  • BoboGO - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Two 2.26GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon "Nehalem" processors
    12GB (6 x 2GB) DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600) memory
    1TB SATA 3.0Gb/s hard drives
    250GB SATA II MLC Internal Solid state disk (SSD)
    22X DVD/CD double-layer writer with LightScribe support
    8X Blu-Ray DVD Burner
    X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Champion Series 7.1 Channels PCI-Express Sound Card
    NVIDIA GeForce GTX 285 with 2GB GDDR3 memory
    Thermaltake Xaser VI Black Aluminum Computer Case
    Piano-black 22" 2ms HDMI Widescreen w/LED Backlight LCD Monitor - w/webcam & speakers
    Bonus! Virtual 7.1 Surround Sound Light Weight Circumaural USB Gaming Headset

    Ships: 3 days
    Total Cost: $3,429.92

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