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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  • rpmurray - Saturday, July 18, 2009 - link

    Awesome!!!

    Please point me to the webpage where I can spec out a system.
    Reply
  • BoboGO - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Two 3.2GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon "Nehalem" processors!
    12GB (6 x 2GB) DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600) memory
    1TB SATA 3.0Gb/s hard drive
    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: $6,073.92
    Reply
  • ddobrigk - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Here's my take on this:

    http://www.tomshardware.co.uk/forum/page-262853_10...">http://www.tomshardware.co.uk/forum/page-262853_10...

    Can't remember the exact price in USD, but it was around US$6000 too. And that's with a very-high-end cooling solution.
    Reply
  • Tesselator - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    I'm not sure what the author or others here are talking about when they say Apple's extremely outrageous prices are due to Intel's price hike. There is no price hike. There was no price hike. Either the author is misinformed or it's a straw-man technique being employed in order to justify and excuse Apple having gone off the deep end with their price scheduling. With so many of the comparisons in this article omitting the 2008 Mac Pro models all together and only comparing the 2009 to the 2006, I'm to believe the later.

    Here are the prices of the respective chips at the time the respective Mac Pro machines were released:

    2008 Models:
    1 x 2.80GHz E5462 Harpertown: $797 ($2299 overall Mac Pro price)
    2 x 2.80GHz E5462 Harpertown: $797 x 2 = $1594 ($2699 overall Mac Pro price)
    2 x 3.00GHz X5472 Harptertown: $958 x 2 = $1914 ($3599 overall Mac Pro price)
    2 x 3.20GHz X5482 Harpertown: $1279 x 2 = $2558 ($4399 overall Mac Pro price)

    2009 Models:
    1 x 2.66GHz W3520 Bloomfield: $284 ($2499 overall Mac Pro price)
    1 x 2.93GHz W3540 Bloomfield: $562 ($2999 overall Mac Pro price)
    2 x 2.26GHz E5520 Gainestown: $373 x 2 = $746 ($3299 overall Mac Pro price)
    2 x 2.66GHz X5550 Gainestown: $958 x 2 = $1916 ($4699 overall Mac Pro price)
    2 x 2.93GHz X5570 Gainestown: $1386 x 2 = $2772 ($5899 overall Mac Pro price)

    As you can see, there is no significant price hike and in fact Intel has provided a massive price REDUCTION in offering the Bloomfield line. This delivers a second more severe slap in the face from Apple to it's user base.

    Just look at this price scheduling:

    2006
    Mac Pro Quad 2.0GHz $2,199 NEW
    Mac Pro Quad 2.66GHz $2,499 NEW
    Mac Pro Quad 3.0GHz $3,299 NEW

    2007
    Mac Pro Quad 2.0GHz $2,199
    Mac Pro Quad 2.66GHz $2,499
    Mac Pro Quad 3.0GHz $3,299
    Mac Pro 8-core 3.0GHz $3,997 NEW

    2008
    Mac Pro Quad 2.8GHz (2008) $2,299 NEW
    Mac Pro 8-core 2.8GHz (2008) $2,799 NEW
    Mac Pro 8-core 3.0GHz (2008) $3,599 NEW
    Mac Pro 8-core 3.2GHz (2008) $4,399 NEW

    2009
    Mac Pro Quad 2.66GHz $2,499 NEW
    Mac Pro Quad 2.93GHz $2,999 NEW
    Mac Pro 8-core 2.26GHz $3,299 NEW
    Mac Pro 8-core 2.66GHz $4,699 NEW
    Mac Pro 8-core 2.93GHz $5,899 NEW

    That's a $1,000 to $2,000 price hike on Apple's part and the first of it's kind in the past 10 as I've researched it. It might be due to poor sales or future economic projections, I have no idea. But it's unprecedented and completely unjustified by looking at part prices and other offerings in the industry.

    I recently priced a DIY build and I could assemble a system with 18 DIMM slots, 6 PCIe slots, 36GB RAM, two quad-core 3.2GHz Nehalem, typical drives, cards, and case go for well under $5k. Apple wants $6K for much much less.

    Something isn't right in Denmark!
    Reply
  • winterspan - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link


    Thank you for posting this. I'm a frequent reader of Macrumors.com forums, and I actually made a similar chart showing the very similar launch prices of Xeon 5400/5500 when new and how the massive $1000+ increase in price of the new Mac Pros are totally unjustified and ridiculous.

    It would still be overpriced, but a far better deal if they tossed the 2.26Ghz in favor of the 2.53Ghz or 2.66Ghz as standard, with the 2.8Ghz and 2.93Ghz as the upgrades. (the 3.2Ghz is clearly too hot) This would be far more similar to the Mac Pro configurations in the past, where the base CPU + 2 upgrade levels usually represented the 3 fastest CPUs available (or nearly that).
    To show the huge discrepancy, there are 6!! CPU levels above the 2.26Ghz 5520. (2.4, 2.53, 2.66, 2.8, 2.9, 3.2)

    I was looking forward to maybe picking up a Mac Pro for the office, (software dev) but I'm not sure now. If the HAckintosh crew gets to a certain level of progress that offers no-hassle installation and complete compatibility with mainstream components, I can see many enthusiasts who want to dualboot OSX using high-clock speed Core i7 boxes, with loads of ram, SSDs, RAID'd drive storage, GTX285s, etc, and still spending far less than the single-cpu 2.93Ghz Mac Pro.


    Reply
  • mcoady - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Firewire 800 works with 400 and 200. You just need a cable with the appropriate connectors, it will auto-negotiate the connection.

    Firewire rocks.
    Reply
  • mesiah - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Too many sites get in mac vs pc battles any time a mac review goes up. I'm not going to bash apple and talk about how overpriced things are. But honestly, I've always been a pc person. In the past apple did have some innovations to tout and some people could justify the premium price. But looking at these 2009 models, it's a disgrace. for 3k+ we are getting 640gb HDDs, video cards with 512mb frame buffers, and 6gb of ram. And in return you get a xeon processor. For a company that tries to cut a niche out by offering the highest performance for a premium, this seems like a joke to me. Its like taking a chevy cobalt and putting a corvette engine in it, then trying to sell it for the price of a Ferrari. It seems to me when it comes to the desktop market these days, people are paying thousands of dollars because they like apples OS, and overlooking the hardware as long as the case looks cool and has a xeon sticker on it. Unfortunately most tech sites these days are in love with apple and just pretend that everything is fine and dandy. I am glad that you pointed out the deficiencies Anand, but I think all apple fans should be more vocal and actually show some disgust for your beloved company for once. If you are going to pay all that money, you should atleast get some innovation to show for it. Reply
  • TheFace - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Since when has apple been all about the performance of the hardware? Apple is about the performance of the hardware/software package. These aren't corvettes or ferraris for you to zip around fun-town with. These are peterbilts and mack trucks to get work done with. This is a PRO model. Just because it LOOKS like a regular pc with it's big boxy structure, doesn't mean it's your home PC. I will concede that the author of the article does make some valid points about the lack of SSD and video card options. The fact is though, the mac pro isn't for the l337 who build SLI OC'd gaming rigs.

    If you don't understand that Apple rarely makes an upgrade without having an unveiling party about it, then you just don't understand Apple. I'm not saying that that fact is a good thing, but they certainly generate more press and hype than other computer makers.
    Reply
  • Shadowself - Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - link

    Interesting that you state, " I'm not going to bash apple and talk about how overpriced things are." then you go on to do virtually noting but this.

    Are Apple's Mac Pro systems over priced? Yes. Are they more over priced than historically for Apple? Yes. However, as Anand points out this seems to be a trend with all tier one vendors. The equivalent machines out of HP and Dell are similarly or higher priced. Is this justifiable? No. They are all just gouging their high end users.
    Reply
  • mesiah - Wednesday, July 15, 2009 - link

    No, I did not bash apples price. I did not compare it to comperable PCs. I clearly pointed out that there is no innovation here to demand the premium price. But people like you are so used to having to defend your purchase based on this argument, thats all you've got. This is not a mack truck by any means. Real workstations have more than 3gb of ram standard. Real workstations have more than a measly 640gb HDD. Real workstations come with high speed SSD or SAS system disks. Yes, it is capable of high end graphics work. And yes, you can get a dell for $8000. But you are making that comparison not me. If you want to make it, go see what you get for 4k from dell. And those dells are not marketed at the main stream. If I walk into a dell store a salesman isn't going to try and sell me a workstation because I am a power user. When I walk into an apple store there is no hesitation to push me in the direction of a 3k+ purchase. But none of that was my point and not what was discussed in my comment. It was simply, where is my innovation that apple is supposed to be all about? I'm not talking about some quad sli water cooled system, I'm talking about simple things like 6GB of ram standard. SSD system drives. Atleast a TB of storage. Seriously, this is for power users and it comes standard with 640GB? I will admit apple gets some things right. And they are damned good at marketing. But please people, you don't have to kiss steves ass all the way to the bank. Don't make excuses for products that are clearly lacking. Otherwise your precious macs will just continue the long slide into bland vanilla every day systems and you will still be paying premium prices for everyday merchandise. Reply

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