Should I buy a second-hand Mac Pro?
November 16, 2016 12:55 PM   Subscribe

I use a 2006 Mac Pro. It's so old that I'm stuck with OS X 10.6.8 and lots of apps (even Firefox!) won't update any more. If I buy a second-hand Mac, am I at risk of (say) 2009 Macs falling out of OS support life while 2013 Macs are still supported, or is the architecture effectively identical from the OS' perspective?

Note: I am reluctant to try upgrading the CPU or hacking the OS to use a later version, in case I get left with a bricked computer.

Also, any tips you can give about migration and what specs I need to run current Steam games would be great.
posted by Joe in Australia to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
To run current generation Steam games you mostly need a big GPU which is harder to get in a Mac than it should be. Buy a mid-tier PC with Windows 10 and a big GPU if you want good performance for 3D games.

And yes, eventually older Macs will stop getting OS updates. I have a 2009 Mac Mini and it stopped getting OS updates a while ago (Lion I think). It's not an architecture issue, it's drivers and their lack of interest in a huge testing cycle across so much hardware.
posted by GuyZero at 1:06 PM on November 16, 2016

I think the 2009 Mac Pro is already out of OS support. So the odds are not great that even 2010 and 2011 Pros will be in support for many more releases.
posted by wotsac at 1:10 PM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

(Actually - there will be support for OS 10.11 for a while longer, but 10.12 isn't supported and so they're a dead end).
posted by wotsac at 1:11 PM on November 16, 2016

Have you look at the prices for refurbished recent models on the Apple Store site? You can knock several hundred dollars off that way.
posted by praemunire at 1:14 PM on November 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

Well whatever you do, don't buy a new Mac Mini. I have one, it's fine for everything except... new AAA Steam games. There's it's a sad joke. You'd need to buy at least a 27" iMac which has a discrete GPU that's passable.
posted by GuyZero at 1:19 PM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a 2015 Mac mini and a 2015 Macbook pro. Both are very similar specs, except hard drive space. I haven't tried running steam on the macbook, but I have on the Mini, and it SUCKS. On TF2. And by the way, doesn't do that great with Lightroom.

If Steam is important to you, I'd go with Linux or Windows and put the money into a graphics card, as others are suggesting.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:32 PM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

My 2013 black-cylinder Mac Pro can handle any AAA Steam game I've ever tried at 1920x1080 when running Windows 10, but then again it's a dual-D500 video model with 32Gb of RAM, so... kind of overkill.

The last tower-style cheese-grater Mac Pro, the Mid-2012 version, can handle some pretty serious video cards if you don't mind wrestling with drivers, so that's probably the best horsepower option, though it won't be cheap.

The last Mac mini (piggybacking GuyZero) that had discrete graphics was the 2011 version with the Radeon HD 6630, which isn't awful, but can't handle the latest games by any stretch. Works for Skyrim and (barely) for Fallout 4, though, which was my use case when I put on under the TV.

The best option to maintain a Mac home or office is probably a cheap and beefy PC hidden in a closet somewhere. Let it whirr and beep away in its ugly fashion, and play any games you like via SteamLink, which works really, really well, especially if you hardwire the ethernet. WiFi chokes pretty quick on HD graphics.
posted by rokusan at 1:43 PM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just picked up a 2008 Mac Pro for less than $200 on Craigslist. After popping a SATA III SSD in there and upgrading the RAM, you'd never guess it was an almost 9 year old coputer, most of the time. It supports El Capitan so pretty much anything you'll want to run on it will be supported. And while I was able to flash a GTX 680 video card I had laying around with a Mac-compatible ROM and install that, I wouldn't recommend trying to run current or recent games on it. I installed Civ VI and tried it with everything turned up and it did not run well at all.
posted by Venadium at 3:16 PM on November 16, 2016

I've bought someone's used MBP, bought from Apple refurb and bought from a third party refurb (Graphite in Madison) and each time worked really well.

I definitely wouldn't buy one for gaming, though. Even the best MBPs choke on certain Unity assets, let alone high performance and resolution games. But if you just want to run graphically simpler games, any MBP since 2012 or so should be supported long enough.
posted by michaelh at 3:46 PM on November 16, 2016

So sorry for misreading. Still, I wouldn't change my answer. Refurb and used for great options for Mac Pros, but they aren't gaming machines. You'll do much better with a used gaming PC and a refurb Mac Mini or iMac.
posted by michaelh at 3:56 PM on November 16, 2016

10.6.8 is still the best version of OS X Apple ever released. Don't upgrade!

...yeah, yeah, I know. Oh well.
posted by crotchety old git at 6:37 PM on November 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree with michaelh; buy or build a dedicated Windows PC for gaming.

I have that same 2006 MacPro 1,1 that you do, OP, and it's still in heavy use. It's my most dependable workhorse out of all of my computers -- everything just works, no muss, no fuss -- and I plan on running it as long as possible. When I run into an app that won't run on it, I just use my updated laptop instead (or, more likely, stay on the un-updated version of whatever app it is, i.e. Adobe CS6 apps instead of CC, on my MacPro). I don't bother trying to game on it, even with my upgraded videocard. I think you'll enjoy gaming on a PC much more than trying to force a MacPro to do something which it was never designed for or good at in the first place.

Incidentally, you can use Firefox Extended Support Release on your MacPro instead of the very latest version of Firefox. That'll buy you some time before you have to make a decision. As long as you practice safe computing, keep a current backup of your system, and stay away from shady sites and torrents, you'll probably be ok. Nothing's guaranteed though, so stay on top of those backups!
posted by LuckySeven~ at 6:44 PM on November 16, 2016

Yes, Mac Pros will eventually drop out of support, but now is a good time to buy a late tower Mac Pro, say 2011-2012, either one that's been upgraded or one that you intend to upgrade yourself in the future. A decent video card, plenty of SSD storage, and appropriate upgrades if need be for the latest Bluetooth and USB3 and you'll be set for years.

Don't get a current (cylindrical) Mac Pro, you won't be able to upgrade it easily.
posted by tillsbury at 7:51 PM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm still running on a 2009 mac pro, and I feel your pain. If you want the machine to just work, you're not going to be entirely happy unless you spend serious money or are willing to tinker.

The 2009 is already unsupported in 10.12, but the 2010-12 models still are.

FWIW, the 2009 mac pro (4,1) is practically the same as the 2010-12 (5,1) versions (you can even firmware hack it to run later westmere processors). 10.12 is supposed to run fine on it, without needing any OS patching. Unfortunately, with Apple, there are no guarantees.

Since you want to keep it simple, I would look for a 2010-12 model.

2013 Mac Pro is a tough buy right now. It hasn't been updated in 3 years, and is still selling for the same price. It's at the point where people are wondering if the whole mac pro line is going to be discontinued.

You biggest issue with a 2010-12 model, given that you want to game on this, will be the video card. The last plug-n-play compatible card was the Sapphire 7950 Mac edition. Assuming you can find one in stock, you'll be paying ~$500 for a relatively old card. It looks like a lot of other PC based cards will work, but you will lose boot screen support unless you firmware hack the card. It doesn't sound like you want to deal with this.

The Mac Pro forum on has a lot of good information, but you will have to wade through a lot of angst over the current state.

Also, there is a site that sell firmware patched PC cards. I haven't used them, and they look expensive, but they are another option.

I'm running on a heavily upgraded 2009 model. While it's been a rock solid running 7 years 24/7, within a year or three, Apple is going to stop supporting the 2012 model. I'm hoping Apple releases something decent soon, but right now I just don't have anything to upgrade to. After upgrades, my 2009 model is about 80% of a 2013 model. I can't justify $5K to get the same thing have now.
posted by volition at 10:00 PM on November 16, 2016

Thanks everyone. I think I'm coming around to the realisation that it's time to move on from the Mac Pro world. I love the cheesegraters' machined aluminium. It is seriously the best-designed computer I have ever owned, by far, but there's not much point getting a Frankensteined version of it that will be slower than a current PC and still face a problematic upgrade path. And the gap between OS X 6.8 and current OS X is so great that I'd effectively be learning a new OS, anyway.

I'm sad now.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:48 AM on November 17, 2016

I feel your pain but at this point the only remaining good thing about the cheesegrater is the case.

I'm not sure what your main use cases are but my current home setup is a Mac Mini which is basically a computer appliance at this point, but it's fine. It drives two monitors and does all the normal Mac stuff I need. And I have a second-hand Alienware Alpha for running games, which was pretty good value for the money. And I think together they cost maybe $1200? I think that it works better for me than if I had spent $1200 on a better Mac. Plus I get to experience the joy of Windows 10 which is both so much better and so much worse than Window 7. Refurb low-end Alpha R2s are a decent deal. They're basically Steam consoles. They're not GTX 1080 performance but they're fine. And they're small although perhaps you like huge cases. Does the Mac PSU have standard connectors? Maybe just buy new mobo and a video card and use that for gaming and get whatever works for a new actual work Mac.
posted by GuyZero at 8:07 AM on November 17, 2016

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