Upgrading an old Mac Pro

I currently use a 2008 Mac Pro as my main development machine at home. The old war horse has been the best computer I’ve ever purchased (even better than my beloved Amiga 1200 that I still have in a cupboard). It’s memory was upgraded to 10GBs not long after I bought it and I’ve gradually filled up the storage bays with extra hard disks to hold my photos. But it’s starting to show it’s age. Mavericks stretched it, but Yosemite really pushed the setup too far with heavy IO and large memory usuage. Startup times were excruciatingly slow as where opening applications. Once open they were okay. But switching to another app, would slow everything down. Clearly both disk and memory were a bottleneck. 

I had been thinking about upgrading. I have a new Mac Pro at work and it’s a wonderful machine. But I can’t justify the cost for home. When I bought mine, the education prices were significantly lower. I’ve been considering upgrading to the new Retina iMac. I edit a lot of photos in RAW which stretches the computer. I played around editing some on a Retina iMac in an Apple Store. Although the photos looked fantastic on the Retina screen, changing sliders didn’t feel significantly quicker than my current machine. So in the end I decided I’d try and get another year out of my current setup by increasing the memory and adding an SSD, hoping that the dual quad core processors were still up to the job figuring that they should be as my 8GB Macbook Air with SSD doesn’t seem to struggle.

The 2008 Mac Pro uses 800MHz ECC Fully Buffered FB-DIMM (240 PIN) DDR2. While RAM prices have dropped. The price of this error checked memory hasn’t dropped significantly. However, I found Amazon offer an 8GB upgrade kit from Komputerbay for only £120. This is half the price of the same memory from Crucial and it had received some good reviews. 

For the SSD, I decided on the simplest and cheapest approach, purchasing an 2.5 inch Samsung 840 EVO SSD drive and mounting it in one of the main bays. I initially purchased a Icy Dock 2.5 to 3.5 mount. But found it was poor quality and the drive wasn’t recognised. So at the moment the SSD, is just sitting on the connectors in the drive bay, rather than mounted in a drive sled. Not ideal. 

As you would expect from a 7 year old computer. It’s collected a lot of software that is no longer needed and has seen four or five OS updates. So I took the opportunity to start from scratch. I had recently deleted my bootcamp partition as I have Fusion and Parallels licenses, so run windows as a VM, All my data’s on the other drives and my iTunes library has long ago migrated to an external drive by setting up filesystem soft links (from the days before you could easily move your iTunes directory) and much of my software is available through the Apple Store. So it’s far less stressful setting up a new Mac from scratch. So there was no need to clone the drive. 

Unfortunately, this does lead to a problem. This is an old Mac so it’s firmware doesn’t support the option to restore from the Internet. You have to boot into drive select mode and select the restore partition. However, as I was removing the main drive, it would mean that I wouldn’t have a restore partition available. I really didn’t want to go through the hassle of installing Lion and upgrading, or creating a boot disk for Mavericks. So I decided to try and install from using another Mac and ‘target mode’. 

Plugging my Macbook Pro into the Mac Pro via a firewire cable. I first started my Mac Pro while holding ‘T’. I then booted my MacBook Pro using the ‘Alt’ key and selected the ‘Restore partition’. I then told it to restore the OS, not to the main disk of the MacBook but to the new SSD in the Mac Pro. A few hours later, everything had been setup from scratch and could boot from the Mac Pro. Just to make sure everything was okay, I ran the permission checks from disk utility.

Now this is where I should have just left everything,……. but I didn’t.

Good practice when using SSD is to enable TRIM support. It increases the life of your SSD and can improve read and write speeds. So off I went to the internet. Found a TRIM guide, enabled it and bang! Everything stopped working.

On booing I was presented with an uhappy Mac. After much investigation it seems the security model in Yosemite has changed. System files are checked to see if they’ve been tampered with. This is to stop trojans, viruses, NSA, GCHQ, etc from injecting their own software into the OS. TRIM support is only officially supported on Mac hardware, So to enable TRIM support, you have to update the OS to break this lock. Yosemite realises a system file’s been altered and stops the computer from starting.

I found this guide which helped me get everything back up and running by switching off the new security. This is obviously something a future upgrade might re-enable. 

SSD Yosemite FAQ

So if you move to using an SSD drive you want to think carefully about enabling TRIM, or at the very least keep a copy of this page to fix any issues after a future upgrade.

So was it worth it? Well including the Mac Pro’s extended startup time as it checks four drives and 18GB of memory, the boot time is down to 25 seconds. Most applications open instantly. In fact, it doesn’t feel much slower than my more modern Mac Pro at work. For 250 I feel like I’ve purchased a new machine. One that I think will last me at least until the next OSX upgrade. The Mac Pro – what an amazing investment! 

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