After an extended forced work-from-home mandated due to COVID19, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how best to optimise my work environment at home for optimal efficiency. I started with a sit/stand desk and found that connecting my MacBook Pro 13" via a CalDigit TS3+ allowed me to drive two 4K UHD displays at 60Hz and give me a huge amount of screen real-estate that was very useful for my job.
I retained the ability to disconnect and move into the office should I wish to, though in reality I only spent a total of 37 days physically in the office (not continuously, between various lockdown orders) in the past 12 months. When I was outside the office, I used my laptop occasionally but found the iPad Pro was good enough for most things I wanted to do and its battery life was better, plus I could sign documents - which is a common thing in my line of work.
It all wasn’t smooth sailing though. I found that the MBP was actually quite sluggish in the user interface when connected to the 4K screens, and that the internal fans would spin up to maximum all the time, many times without any obvious cause. I started to remove applications that were running in the background like iStat Menus, Dropbox, and a few others and that helped, but I still noticed that it was also spinning up now during Time Machine backups and Skype, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
This was a problem since I spent most of my workday on Teams calls and the microphone was picking up the annoying background grind of the cooling fans in the MBP. For this reason I started thinking about how to resolve the two issues: sluggish graphics and running the laptop hot all of the time, without sacrificing screen real-estate in HiDPi (of which I’d become rather dependent).
So I got to thinking: why am I still using a laptop when I’m spending 90% of my time at my home office desk? I wanted to keep using a Mac, and whilst I missed my 2009 Nehalem Mac Pro, I didn’t miss how noisy it also was, it’s power drain, the fact it was an effective space-heater all year round and frankly wasn’t currently officially supported by Apple1 anyway.
There are only a few currently supported Macs that can drive the amount of screen real-estate I wanted: the Mac Pros (2013, 2019), the iMac 5K (with discrete graphics) and the iMac Pro. There are, as yet, no M1 (Apple Silicon) Macs that can drive more than one external display. Buying a new Mac was out of the question with my budget strictly set at $1,400 AUD (about $1K USD at time of writing) it was down to used Macs. The goal was to get a powerful Mac that I could extend and upgrade as funds permitted. The more recent iMacs weren’t as upgradable and even a used iMac Pro was out of my budget and I won’t find a 2019 Mac Pro used since they’re too new and would also be too expensive (even used).
So call me crazy if you like, but I invested in a used 2013 Mac Pro - a Retro-Mac Pro if you like. It had spent its life in an office environment and for the past two years lay unused in a corner with its previous user leaving the company and they’d long since switched to Mac Minis. It had a damaged power cable, no box and no manuals and apart from some dust was in excellent condition.
I’ve now had a it for just under a week and I’m loving it! It’s the original entry-level model with twin FirePro D300s, 3.7GHz Quad-core Intel Xeon E5 with 16GB DDR3 RAM and a basic 256GB SSD. I can upgrade the SSD with a Sintech adaptor and a 2TB NVMe stick for $340 AUD, and go to 64GB RAM for about $390 AUD, but I’m in no hurry for the moment.
Admittedly the Mac Pro can only drive two of the 4k UHD screens at 60Hz with the third only at 30Hz but that amount of high-DPI screen real-estate is exactly what I’m looking for. Dragging a window between the 60Hz and 30Hz screens is a bit weird, but I have my oldest, cheapest 4K monitor as my static/cross-reference/parking screen anyway so that’s a limitation I can live with.
Yes, I could have built a Hackintosh.
Yes, I could run Windows on any old PC.
I wanted a currently supported Mac.
For those thinking, “But John, there’s Apple Silicon Macs with multi-display support just around the corner” well yes, that’s probably true. But I know Apple. They will leave multi-UHD monitor support only for their highest-end products which will still cost the Earth. So you might ALSO say, “But John, Intel Macs are about to die, melt, burn and become the neglected step-son that was once the golden-haired-child of the Apple family” and that’s true too, but I can still run Linux/Windows/ANYTHING on this thing, for a decade to come long after macOS ceases to be officially supported. That said, the fact you can still apply hacks to the 2009 Mac Pro and run Big Sur, it’s likely the 2013 Mac Pro will be running a slightly crippled but functional macOS for a long time yet, or at least until Apple give up on Intel support for Apple Silicon features, but that’s another story.
And you might also think, “John, why the hell would you buy a Mac that’s had so many reliability problems?” Well I did a lot of research given the Mac Pro 2013’s reputation, and based on what I found the original D300 model was relatively fine with very few issues. The D500 and D700 models had significantly worse reliability as they ran hotter (they were more powerful) and due to the thermal corner Apple built themselves into with the Mac Pro design at that point, ended up being unreliable with prolonged usage, due to excessive heat.
I can report the Mac Pro runs the two primary screens buttery smooth, it is effectively silent and doesn’t ever break a sweat. Being a geek however subjective measurements aren’t enough. The following GeekBench 5 scores for comparison:
|Metric||Mac Pro Score||MacBook Pro Score||% Difference|
|CPU Single-Core||837||1,026||- 22.5%|
|CPU Multi-Core||3,374||3,862||- 14.4%|
|OpenCL||20,482 / 21,366||8,539||+ 239%|
|Metal||23,165 / 23,758||7,883||+ 293%|
|Disk Read (MB/s)||926||2,412||- 260%|
|Disk Write (MB/s)||775||2,039||- 263%|
By all measurements above my Macbook Pro should be the better machine, and you’d hope so being 5 years newer than the Mac Pro 2013. My usage to date however hasn’t shown that - almost the opposite, which begs the question - for my use case where screen real-estate matters the most, the graphics power from a discrete FirePro is far more valuable than a significantly faster SSD. Not only that but with the same amount of RAM you’d think the Macbook Pro would perform as well, however it’s using an integrated graphics chipset, hence sharing that RAM and driving two 4K screens was killing its performance, whereas the Mac Pro doesn’t sacrifice any of its RAM and maintains full performance even when driving those screens.
I don’t often encode video in Handbrake anymore or audio but when I do the Mac Pro isn’t quite as fast but it’s pretty close to the Macbook Pro or certainly good enough for me. The interesting and surprising thing to note is that a 7 year old desktop machine was a better fit for my needs at the price than any current model on offer by Apple.
I’m looking forward to many years of use out of a stable desktop machine, noting that whilst my use-case was a bit niche, it’s been an effective choice for me.
An officially support Mac is one where Apple releases an Operating System version that will install without modification on that model of Mac. ↩︎