Upgrading the processors in a Mac Pro isn't a trivial task. No matter how often you may have heard that new processors can just be popped in, in reality, it can be a difficult process. This is especially true with the 2009 model of the Mac Pro, which uses processors that don't have top cases or heat spreaders. The 2010 and 2012 models, however, are much more conventional, and a seasoned DIYer should be able to complete the process.
Before you decide whether or not to upgrade your processors, you must decide if preforming an upgrade, including the chance of a failed upgrade, is worth the cost and risk.
There are quite a few Mac Pro upgrades projects you may want to consider before you undertake a processor upgrade:
2009 Mac Pro Processor Upgrade
You can upgrade a 2009 Mac Pro's processors, however, you may find it isn't practical to do so. The problem is that the processors that can be used for easy upgrades are no longer being sold new. It's possible to find used processors on the salvage market, on eBay, and in other places, but they are usually sold as is, or with very limited guarantees, such as "pulled from a known working computer."
Nevertheless, here are links to guides that detail the upgrade process:
- Step by Step: Mac Pro Processor Upgrade (Mac Observer)
- Upgrading and Analyzing Apple's Nehalem Mac Pro (AnandTech)
Both of the above guides assume that you're upgrading to a faster version of the same Quad-Core Nehalem processor. As I mentioned, the faster processor may be difficult to find.
Firmware Hack and 6-Core Westmere
Another option is to upgrade to a 6-core Westmere processor, like the ones used in the 2010 and 2012 Mac Pros. Normally, the 2009 Mac Pro wouldn't work with the 6-core Westmere processor, due to the limitation of the EFI firmware included in the 2009 Mac Pro.
There are, however, hacked versions of the firmware that can be installed to enable support for the 6-core processor. But once again, DIYer beware; a firmware install that goes wrong can turn your Mac Pro into a very expensive paperweight. This unsupported hack also may not work with future OS X releases.
Still, using the much more readily available 6-core Westmere processors in the 2009 Mac Pro may be worth the risk. The Mac Pro EFI upgrade was created by MacEFIRom, a member of the Netkas forums. Be sure to read the entire forum thread at the above site. Besides the firmware hack from MacEFIRom, you will also need the actual Mac Pro EFI firmware from Apple.
You can find additional information about performing the update from this Ars Technica article: Firmware hack can transform a 2009 Mac Pro into a 12-core monster.
2010 - 2012 Mac Pro Processor Upgrades
Upgrading the processor in a 2010 - 2012 Mac Pro is much easier than the 2009 model, mainly because of the changes Apple made to the processor socket and the types of processors it chose to use. Instead of a heat sink assembly to hold the CPU in the LGA-1366 socket, Apple changed to the more commonplace LGA socket, with the conventional clamshell clip to hold the processor in place.
In addition, the 2010 - 2012 Mac Pro processors are standard models from Intel that include a heat spreader/case, unlike the 2009 Mac Pros, which use open processors with no top case or heat spreader.
This means the processor upgrade process is fairly conventional, other than contending with the humongous heat sinks that Apple uses.
In addition, it's fairly easy to find processors for upgrading these later Mac Pros.
The 2010 and 2012 Mac Pros were originally available in single-processor models that used either quad-core Xeon processors or 6-core processors. The dual-processor models incorporated a pair of quad-core processors for 8 total cores, or a pair of 6-core processors for 12 total cores.
The most common upgrade is to jump from using quad-core processors to 6-core models. Adding two (single-processor models) or four (dual-processor models) processors makes a lot of sense, and definitely provides the best bang for your buck. Remember that all of the processors you can use for upgrading the 2010 - 2012 Mac Pros make use of hyper-threading, so that a two core upgrade will be able to run four processing threads, not just two.
Merely upgrading processor speed while staying with the same number of processor cores probably isn't a good use of your budget.
If you're thinking about going from a single-processor to a dual-processor configuration, I would probably advise against it, because it's not cost effective. While it can be done, you will need to replace your Mac's existing single processor tray with a dual tray. You will also have to purchase two processors, not one, because the single-processor Xeons won't work in a dual configuration; you'll need Xeons designed for use with multiple processors.
Processors for Upgrading Single-Processor 2010 - 2012 Mac Pros
- 3.2 GHz Quad-Core Nehalem W3565
- 3.2 GHz Quad-Core Nehalem X3570
- 3.33 GHz 6-Core Westmere X3680
- 3.46 GHz 6-Core Westmere X3690
Processors for Upgrading Dual-Processor 2010 - 2012 Mac Pros
- 2.66 GHz Quad-Core Westmere E5640
- 2.66 GHz 6-Core Westmere E5650
- 2.93 GHz 6-Core Westmere E5670
- 3.33 GHz 6-Core Westmere E5680
- 3.46 GHz 6-Core Westmere E5690
2010 - 2012 Processor Upgrade Guides
Our last link isn't to an upgrade guide, but to a service that will upgrade the processor for you.
My Mac Pro Upgrade Advice
It's much easier to upgrade the processors in the 2010 and 2012 Mac Pros than the 2009 models. Bumping up from a quad-core to a 6-core can be an effective way to get a few more years out of your Mac before you need to consider replacing it.
If you're not that handy, or you simply don't have the time or patience to tackle the upgrade yourself, there are services, such as the one from OWC, that will perform the upgrade for you. I linked to OWC because the service is available to anyone who can receive UPS delivery, but it's very likely that your local Mac-savvy computer service shop can perform the same type of upgrade for you.