‣ Gianmarco Gargiulo  ⁣⁣

Using a Mac Pro 5,1 as a modern Linux PC
A very cursed but cost effective setup

April 10, 2022 •  8 minutes  •  1623 words
 Tags:   mac pro   linux   hardware  

Since 2016 I’ve had as my main PC a custom machine with a dual core Intel Pentium, 8GB of DDR4 memory, no dedicated graphics card and a 1TB hard disk for both data and the OS, all because back then I was very broke and could only spend around €315 on this computer, not counting the first case I had which was reused from an old dead PC and then the second one which was a gift from a friend. With time I upgraded the RAM to 16GB, went through several graphics cards from both AMD and Nvidia and upgraded to a few SSDs for the OS and a 6TB hard disk for data. The biggest bottleneck was still the CPU, it just couldn’t do much of anything despite having more RAM and a good dedicated GPU. That all changed when I got my hands on an Apple Mac Pro 5,1 from mid 2010 at the beginning of this year, but you might say: “What!? A Mac as a PC!? Are you nuts!?!?”, the answer is no because it still works more or less like a PC and it’s from the days when Apple wasn’t super unfriendly with other operating systems and especially with hardware upgrades, since this is the Mac Pro with the original cheesegrater design (so don’t confuse it for that 2013 trashcan bullshit).

The computer itself

The Mac Pro 5,1 in all of its glory

Let’s start with the basics: it’s a tower style computer, just like any normal desktop PC, with a very Apple-ish minimalist design. This cheesegrater design was first introduced in 2003 with the PowerMac G5 line of computers and it still manages to look very fancy and modern in 2022. It has a lever on the back to release the side panel, much more convenient than a pair of screws. When you take the panel off it’s more beautiful than what you might expect, it really makes you wonder what happened to Apple after Steve Jobs’ death.

What it looks like inside

At the top it has two compartments, one for two optical drives and the other for the power supply. Under that the four hard drive caddys which make it more convenient to put and remove drives. 2.5" SSDs are much smaller than the intended drive size, so you gotta squeeze it into the SATA connector and it will hold by itself, but if that looks too janky for you there are 3.5" adapters around the web made specifically for these Mac Pros. Right under the bays you have four PCIe slots just like a normal desktop PC, very nice to put in graphics cards and stuff like that. Finally at the very bottom of the case lies the CPU board (this is where this machine starts to look less standard), a board that you can take out which holds the CPU with its cooler and the RAM slots.

The CPU board

So I paid around €100 for the machine with only a Xeon (I don’t remember the exact model) and 16GB of ECC memory, no graphics card. Luckily I had a Radeon RX 580 that was gifted to me a while back and that I was sure it would work on this computer and with both Linux and macOS. I had a little problem though: the CPU board seemed to be kinda defective, so I had to get a new one for a little less than €100 which came with a Xeon W3530. I had already planned to upgrade that to an X5680 which has 6 cores compared to the 4 of the other processor, so it’s the best compatible processor for this machine, paid only €50 for it. I later also found some very cheap compatible ECC RAM at €6 for each 8GB stick, so I bought two sticks to reach a total of 32GB of memory.

r/unixporn moment

After buying some 1TB Samsung SSD to install the OS on and after having some really dumb skill issues with installing Arch since I don’t do that everyday so I keep forgetting important steps despite me reading the wiki a hundred times at every step, I got a fully functional system with my apps and configs. The main issue was that I couldn’t get the Radeon card to work properly, at the startup of the system it would just hang the screen and if I had another GPU inside that I know worked fine with Arch together with the Radeon, the system would finish booting, but it wouldn’t be able to start a graphical session. If I only had the working GPU connected it would load my login manager and desktop just fine. It couldn’t possibly be a hardware issue because the card worked perfectly with macOS Mojave. I eventually discovered thanks to some dude on the Arch forums that I forgot to install the linux-firmware package which would let the AMDGPU driver properly interface with the graphics card. Another small issue I had is that audio wouldn’t work at all, until I found on the Arch Wiki some strange thing to echo into a file, but after that the audio output sounded as if it had weird interferences and the microphone jack (if it really has one I still don’t know exactly, in the software it’s always called “Line In” or “Digital stereo input”) doesn’t do jackshit. I’m planning to buy a proper dedicated sound card for cheap though.

Thank you Apple

So after spending almost €400 on this funky computer, what is it like? Does it perform better than the previous PC? Of course it does, a dual core Pentium against an exa core Xeon with twice the amount of RAM and a good recent GPU, all for a little more than the price of the previous machine. Here’s a Geekbench benchmark score, certainly not the most powerful thing in the world, but it does the job very nicely.

Geekbench score

Complaints

The front ports

For one it doesn’t have USB 3 ports, they’re all USB 2, so I should probably buy some kind of PCIe card that adds USB 3 ports and a hub that I can have on top of my desk for convenience, also because I usually plug stuff like USB sticks and drives on the front ports together with my earphones. The funny thing is that the front also has two FireWire 800 ports, I have no use for them what so ever and I have some more at the back of the computer anyway so I really wish I had more USB ports over at the front. But still all of those front ports are kinda hard to reach because they’re in an awkward place and the computer is sitting on the floor like a normal tower PC, hence my need for a desk USB hub in the future.

Another thing I’ve already mentioned is that the built-in audio is garbage: it sounds full of interferences and weird artifacts if you can call it that (listen to a little test here, barely audible though) and it doesn’t have a microphone jack which is a real problem for me since I might need to record my voice or to jump in a voice call every once in a while. Hopefully I can get my hands on that cheap dedicated PCIe sound card very soon.

OpenCore’s boot menu

There was kind of an annoying thing I had to go through while trying to get my Arch install USB to boot on this thing: since I had the non-Mac version of the RX 580 graphics card, the motherboard’s boot menu would not come up when holding Alt at startup. I had to install OpenCore in the EFI partition of my macOS Mojave drive, although I eventually moved it to the Arch drive so now I don’t need the other SSD to boot anymore. Now if I hold Escape at startup the OpenCore boot menu will show up, it looks pretty much the same as the actual Mac boot menu and does all I need to do: boot into Arch automatically or give me all boot devices if I ever need to boot into something else.

Doom 2016 at ultra settings and with MangoHud at the top

One sort of important problem that might be a hardware issue related to the GPU rather than the Mac Pro itself is that playing a very graphically intensive game such as Doom 2016, despite it performing absolutely great at ultra settings, makes the computer overheat and power off. I know that it’s a heat issue because every time I play Doom my legs start to feel very warm, even more so when I put my hand under the desk to feel the temperature of that space. Once the computer has abruptly shut off, it won’t turn on for several minutes until it has cooled down a bit, which confirms again that it’s a heat problem. I’m not sure how I can get around this, how I can keep the GPU cool enough so that this shutting down doesn’t happen anymore.

Conclusions

In the end I’m very happy with how it turned out and I got quite lucky with prices because this Mac Pro 5,1 and its parts aren’t usually cheap, so most people might get by with a chinese X99 motherboard, but that has to be imported and it might not be as reliable as something like this Mac. It’s a really well built machine with really good hardware and good upgradability (even though I probably maxed out everything except for the graphics card), it’s also very silent fan wise unless you start to really stress it of course. If you can get it for a good price it makes for a very nice semi-cheap computer, and as a Linux machine it seems to work just as good as a macOS or Windows machine, depending on the distro and the specific hardware configuration you have.

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