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Building a legit Mac Pro from parts


GeraldCole
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So, after screwing around with a G5 case-modded hackintosh and coming to the sad realization that it's no more stable or reliable than a Windows PC, and not much cheaper than a used Mac Pro, I have decided to try to build a Mac Pro from replacement parts.

 

After all, if any part of a Mac Pro can become faulty or damaged, and every part is available for sale somewhere, it follows that I could build a brand new Mac Pro entirely from scratch.

 

Let's test the theory.

 

First issue is which model to build. AFAIK, there is the 2006 MP, the 2007, 2008, 09, and now 2010 models. Some parts have compatibility across models, some don't. Main concern would be the case and logic board. Which case models are compatible with which board revisions?

 

Second would be costs. (I'm not against using used parts for a lot of non-essentials; fans, cables, optical drives, even ram. CPU and HDD are a bit more critical. ) If the small things nickel and dime the project to death, and if Xeon processors are too expensive to source then it derails the whole thing. So then is it possible to use "non-Apple" parts as an alternative?

 

People often use compatible 3rd party ram and hard drives in their Mac Pros, does the same go for optical drives? And I read somewhere that Xeons are basically the same as the i7's, is it possible to drop a compatible i7 or other intel chip onto the Mac Pro logic board?

 

So before I can do any ebay research to price out a build, my questions are basically this:

 

1. Which Mac Pro cases and logic boards are compatible together?

 

2. Can you use other processors, and if so, which?

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You could certainly build one from parts, but I suspect you would come very close to the price of a good used Pro doing it. The good news is that yes you can upgrade the processors in Pros, so with some detective work you can find out quite easily which processor/ Pro revision combination will work well. Be warned that the upgrade is quite involved and does require some new parts such as the front panel pcb. Here's a guy who has upgraded an early quad core to an eight core:

 

http://mastermixaudiomedia.com/photo_album...tocore-upgrade/

 

The most cost effective route might be to get an early Pro and upgrade that rather than going from the ground up with a box of parts. That way at least you know the whole thing is working before you start gutting it.

 

Optical drives aren't a problem, any SATA device should work. The usual upgrade is a Pioneer unit but you often find that the new drive is slightly taller than the original one. Apple make a set of short "feet" for just this scenario.

 

Whatever you choose, good luck with it. You're a brave man.

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About dropping a i7 in to a macpro... yes if it is a single socket macpro then it should be possibel...

 

dual socket... nope as the i7 dont support dual socket motherboards.. only xeon's do support motherboards with more then one socket, and then it is not all that do that in the xeons... the x series should as that is the same if i remember correct series as apple uses... w series are from what i remember for 2 sockets and up to 4 sockets. The rest (Normal the ones that cost around the same as the i7's) are single socket only...

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Thank you for the replies, that clears up a few things.

 

Ironically, the i7's are about as expensive as the xeons they would replace. It's only the six-core and 3ghz+ xeons that are $600-1000+. The early mac pro xeons like the 5150 are like 40 bucks apiece. I think they give them away in cereal boxes now.

 

So at this point the processor is pretty much not a deciding factor, especially with all the different compatible xeons you can use. The single largest cost appears to be, unsurprisingly, the logic board. The 2006 through 2008 models appear to have a single logic board at roughly $600-800, whereas the 2009 and later ones have both a backplane and processor card at around $300 each. The chassis is roughly consistent with a case with all the fans, cables and power supply at $300-400. These are all mostly quotes for new replacement parts, used ones would of course cost less but availability is pretty random.

 

Building a 2006 Mac Pro would save marginally on the CPU cost, but sacrifice upgradeability by basing the system on what is, lets face it, 5 year old technology. 2010 Westmere units are too rich for my blood, so what looks like the optimal model to build is the early 2009 Nehalem quad.

 

So here is my estimate so far:

 

Model 4,1 Mac Pro Quad 2.66 early 2009 Nehalem Xeon w3520 x1

 

$300 Xeon w3520 x1

$130 heatsink

$300 processor board

$300 backplane (logic)

$350 case with fans, cables, memory riser card, and power supply

 

Total: $1380

 

And that's just the base unit, not including memory, hard drive, optical, or graphics card (although you can spend as much or little on all these as you want and its mostly not model-specific).

 

Interestingly enough, while it may not be cheaper than buying a used older Mac Pro, it may be the cheapest way to get a brand new 2009/2010 Nehalem Mac Pro. And that's just compared to the baseline $2500 model; presumably, it would start to get dramatically less expensive for a higher-spec unit. And while the DIY aspect might seem off-putting, all the new parts would be covered under individual warranties (although its no applecare).

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the thing with the hackintosh pro is a lot of people dont work on stability for the xeons. on top of this info the core i7 is made with the same cores as a xeon it is cheaper and you dont need to buy unreasonably priced ram for it like you would a server motherboard so the core i7 goes toe to toe with dual xeons for a fraction of the price.

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So an i7 alone would allow me to use less expensive ram? Like non-ECC? DDR2 and DDR3 are physically incompatible, I couldn't swap them. But I hear that non-ECC is cheaper and really, only rocket scientists need error correction. Or something.

 

But again the point here is to price out a 100% legit mac pro build and compare it to the Apple price, no hackintoshing required. Is the i7 chip plus non-ecc ram going to work on a stock mac pro?

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About dropping a i7 in to a macpro... yes if it is a single socket macpro then it should be possibel...

 

dual socket... nope as the i7 dont support dual socket motherboards.. only xeon's do support motherboards with more then one socket, and then it is not all that do that in the xeons... the x series should as that is the same if i remember correct series as apple uses... w series are from what i remember for 2 sockets and up to 4 sockets. The rest (Normal the ones that cost around the same as the i7's) are single socket only...

 

Indeed, i7s are XEONs with one QPI (Quick path interconnect) which likes a processor to the North Bridge. As E and X and some W 5500 and 5600 Xeons have two QPIs they can "interconnect" with one another and the North Bridge at the same time. i7s are doped so they can only interconnect with one thing at a time hence only with the north bridge.

 

the 7000 series and 6000 series are deisgned for clouds and muli processor arrays so have 4 QPIs alowing you to make a gigantic array of processors. Few beta boards support them and I believe there is a server on or coming to market shortly as the processors are available to retail.

 

Apple could do with negotiating a bulk deal on i7s and xeons combined then they could bring down the price of their single socket pro systems by around $300. we know the arch is there as they use low power i7s in the macbooks!

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Has anyone successfully upgraded their mac pro with an i7 instead of a xeon? I read the upgrade guide on anandtech http://www.anandtech.com/show/2800/11 and the dude fried his processors and processor board. Typical Apple, their nehalem xeons are custom. No heat spreaders on the chips. They connect directly to the heatsink, and theres no clamps holding the cpu. Use a standard xeon and you risk shifting the chip out of place and shorting the pins. Unless you risk it by not using the apple heatsinks. So would an i7 plus a generic passive heatsink work instead?

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