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Reader Question: Upgrading Video Card for Adobe Lightroom in 2009 Mac Pro

Gavin C writes:

I have a 2009 8 x 2.93 GHz MacPro - it has SSD / 32GB memory - was wondering what you think the best video card would be for it with Lightroom mostly in mind?

This is a attempt to put off buying a new MacPro for another year or so.

MPG: the premise that a faster video card will speed up Lightroom (or any other program) by now is an internet legend, but is definitely not one that should be assumed. Yes, there are situations where a fast GPU can help.

Whether a video card helps a particular application is not even the question—it’s which task or tasks (or no tasks) within that application a faster video card would help. Moreover, even if an application uses the video card (GPU), it’s not a given that a card that is 2X or 3X or 10X faster will make a meaningful difference for any particular operation (or any at all). That’s because a program might already be bottlenecked (serialized) on some computational step such that even a 100X faster video would not run any faster in the context of that particular task.

Put another way , if 90% of the runtime is already non-GPU time and 10% is GPU time and the GPU is 10X faster, one would see about a 9% reduction in runtime. Unfortunately, this is often the case. For example, the decoding of compressed NEF files (Nikon raw) is a serialized step (bottleneck) that dominates the runtime. The GPU flies through the rest of the process (once decoded), but the raw conversion process cannot run faster than the time to decode each file (with the CPU).

So it all depends.

The key point is to assess the workflow, and examine what is actually being done and where the bottlenecks are*. Even simple statements such as “has SSD” do not mean that the SSD is being used optimally for the workfow (or that it has or could have any meaningful influence).

* Consulting is how I help clients work through the workflow situation, then target areas that ought to help, but also clarify where spending money is likely to achieve nothing.

Upgrade existing Mac or new? OWC offers a wide variety of upgrades for all Macs. The 2009-2012 Mac Pro remains particularly relevant for upgrades to memory, ultra-fast PCIe SSD, regular SSDs, hard drives, graphics cards, etc.

Video card

The last video card tested here at MPG for the prior Mac Pro was the Sapphire HD 7950. As can be seen, in Photoshop it speeds up one task (Sharpen) in a meaningful way versus the 5870 (the fastest card Apple shipped), but has no benefit in Photoshop otherwise. This gets to the specificity of use discussed above.

In the 2009 Mac Pro, the video card is not nearly so fast, so benefits might be much more significant, but there’s no way to know in advance. The only accurate answer for any particular workflow is “install it and see”.

GPU performance on 2010 Mac Pro with Radeon 5870 vs Sapphire HD 7950
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