Updating Your G5 or Mac Pro for 64-bit? Yes? No? Go PC?

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So far, our ongoing look at transitioning to 64-bit has primarily focused on RAM. However, after counting up the 64-bit libraries in line to review in the coming weeks, I discovered that I’m running out of space (aka capacity) on the hard drives in my Mac G5 which is the system I’m using to review 64-bit programs.

When the EastWest Quantum Leap Pianos arrived for review, I was a little surprised to see that it needed a total space of 283GB (per the Soundsonline website).

“No big deal,” I thought, “I’ll just add another hard drive.”

“Sorry, P.A.,” replied my tech who is sympathetic with my move from the PC to Paradise, “with that level of thinking you’ve earned four Pinocchio’s. Not even the Washington Post or Matt Drudge goes higher.”

Left on my voice mail was a 3-minute encapsulated ride to reality. I could use an external Firewire drive. I could use an external USB 2.0 drive. I could use an eSATA card to which I could connect one to four eSATA drives in parallel or in a RAID configuration.

For speed, there is a ranked order of priorities for external connections:

· e-SATA
· Firewire 800
· USB 2.0
· Firewire 400

The best choice is an eSATA card and you can get one rated for the Mac from $29.95 up. Next, check to see if the G5 is PCI or Express. Mac Pro’s are all PCI-X.

Now, here’s the issue. On a computer, typically you have the C-drive for programs and the D-drive for samples and audio files. One folder handles the samples and the one folder handles the audio files.

So with 64-bit, you have to think not just about RAM, but equally about capacity and cases.

With either the G5 or Mac Pro, the best solution suggested by my tech, John Lithicum, was using the eSATA cards and eSATA drives. Here are three eSATA cards for the Mac I found listed at Newegg.com. I’m not recommending them because I haven’t tested them. I’m only listing them for you.

· IOGEAR eSATA 3Gbps External Dual Ports PCI -express Host with RAID Technology Model GICe702S3R5W6 – Retail

· SoNNeT TSATAII-X44 PCI-X SATA II Controller Card RAID 0 – Retail

· NORCO-4618 PCI-X / PCI eSATA / SATA II / SATA I Controller Card RAID 0/1/5/10/JBOD – Retail

In reading customer reviews posted on Newegg.com, it’s clear that you have to read the instructions carefully for installation as I saw a number of posts reflecting “pilot error” that could be avoided.

Before ordering any expansion card for the Power PC, you first need to verify which slot you have on your system. To do that, remove the side panel and read the ID label under the air deflector. If your system has a PCI-X slot, you’ll see PCI-X. If you don’t see PCI-X, that means your system handles PCI cards only.

Here’s an important table from the G5 manual.

Card Types Supported Slot Card speed
PCI Slots 2, 3, and 4 64-bit, 33MHz
PCI-X Slots 2 and 3 64-bit, 100MHz
PCI-X Slot 4 64-bit, 133MHz

The Apple manual warns not to use PCI cards that only function at 66MHz in a 33MHz slot as this can damage your Mac.

When ordering, there are some things you need to know. First, after you’ve determined if your G5 is PCI-X (all later Macs are PCI-X), you need the appropriate expansion card.

However, you also need the right cable which is an eSATA-to-eSATA cable. Except for the LaCie which comes with the eSATA cable, these cables are not included when purchasing. So you have to order them separately.

Given the new libraries coming out, for the actual drive, you’ll need 750GB or better. The price difference between 500GB and 750GB is a jump of about $100 depending on the company. At 1Terabyte, there is another jump, but I think it’s better to get either the 750GB or the 1T version. Remember, you need to keep 20% of the capacity free. So, on a 750GB drive, that’s 150GB. On a 500GB drive, that’s 100GB. So, when you compare price, you really need to compare based on the amount of space actually available if you follow the 20% rule. Although a bit more, I wouldn’t go less than 750GB.

For the money, the 2 Terabyte drive might be an even better answer. Right now they’re in the $569US range.

Here’s the Mac price comparison.
On a G5, you can upgrade to 8GB of RAM. That’s as far as you can go with RAM.

On a Mac Pro and a G5, you can upgrade to a single 1 Terabyte drive, interface card and cable for around $400 street price. For a 2 Terabyte drive the total upgrade cost is about $600.

Where to buy?

Well, in the States, I looked at several operations including Best Buy (who has the drives but not the cards or cable), CDW and Newegg.

Of the three, I liked CDW the best and decided to order from them. There were several reasons why.

You can actually get help on the phone to help you work out what you need. Maybe you’ve seen the CDW commercials with the fellow stranded on the island with a chimp. Well, I always thought that CDW was for big companies, but not so. Individuals and small businesses can use them too. Setup was very quick. And once done, you call in and get set up with an account manager.

I was assigned to Peter Glodz, who’s Apple certified. By the end of the year, all of the account managers at CDW will also be Apple certified since CDW is an authorized Apple dealer and service center. The great thing about this was that I was able to have a parts discussion I could not have at either Best Buy or Newegg. Newegg has it posted that their help line cannot answer compatibility questions or technical questions. For that, you have to go to the manufacturer website and contact support.

The pricing was very competitive. And in places where it may be $2-$5 or so more, it’s worth it to have someone to talk with, especially if you’re not in LA or New York.

After all this, is it worth it financially to upgrade an older system this way?

I think so. After all, there’s nothing wrong with the computer. Upgrading the RAM is a no-brainer.

But here’s my mental bottleneck: with all this power, you still need the freeware program Soundflower to run software instruments in standalone mode.

The realistic alternative is still showing up as one or two farm PCs. So besides a motherboard that can handle up to 32GB of RAM (in 4GB sticks), you need a case that can handle multiple drives. For a tower case, a real sweetie is the Antec P190 EATX matched with the Supermicro X7DA3 motherboard. The Antec case handles up to 11 drive bays and comes with its own 650w-550w dual power supply. The Supermicro X7DA3 can handle up to 32GB of RAM. Between the case, motherboard, CPU, and RAM, you’re up to about $1900. Now add hard drives in the 1 Terabyte range with 32MB of cache costing about $285 or so street, and I think you end up with a better solution with a farm system with minimal workarounds.

There are some audio/MIDI considerations. Since the suggested Supermicro motherboard has Gigabit LAN onboard, use MIDIoverLAN. There’s no Firewire on this motherboard. So you either need a Firewire card or pick an audio card that’s USB or fits into a PCI slot.

Since you can expand to 11 drive bays – holy smokes – ya got room to grow!

What I like about this solution is that I’m not locked into whether any company provides an audio-LAN setup between the Mac and the PC. As long as the MIDI is set up between the Mac and PC, the audio is a piece of cake, since many of us can successfully reuse cards we already have.

The idea of having a system that can potentially handle 128GB of RAM is certainly a Star-Trekian idea whose time has come. But unfortunately, no company has provided any significant testing beyond how many samples can be loaded.

That’s a start, but it still leaves the answer up to those composers willing to pay to be beta testers to find out the answer, and then graciously, report it to the rest of us.

On my calculator, here’s how the math works.

If you’ve got an older Mac you’re sequencing on, max out the RAM and the opportunity to expand via eSATA, then get a PC farm system with parts that let you upgrade as you need it. Start with 8GB of RAM and work your way up as you need it. The same is true for capacity and hard drives.

As I see it, that’s the way to go … this week.

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