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4K Video on 2010/2012 Mac Pro?

Will R writes:

I love the site and your exhaustive reviews!

I can’t find an answer to this question and wonder if I haven’t looked in the right place. If I wanted to buy one of the NEC or Dell wide-gamut 4K monitors, AND wanted to purchase a pre-2013 Mac Pro … did any of them come with GPUs that could support 4k? If not, do you have any recommendations?

MPG: Please consider buying stuff through ads on this site or at diglloyd.com, or subscribing to diglloyd publications, thank you—this helps.

Regarding 4K video on a 2010/2012 Mac Pro—several things are at issue:

  • Apple does not offer any video card with support, so it would have to be an aftermarket card. There are a few, but none are properly supported for Macs.
  • The issue is not the GPU but the connector and display bus, which would have to support the 4K video standards, e.g. Mini DisplayPort meeting the same specs as on the latest Macs.
  • Compatibility and reliability are concerns (display drivers). There are cards which “work” in a Mac Pro, but even Apple’s own GPU support has had serious bugs (witness the 2013 Mac Pro crash bugs in Photoshop, which were the result of driver bugs).

In general, MPG is reluctant to recommend any retrofit solution for these reasons.

Glenn K writes:

I have spent the last two days diagnosing Photoshop CC 2014 problems on two of my Dell Precision workstations. Turns out the problem is incompatibilities with AMD graphics card drivers.

The web is full of threads discussing BEX64 errors involving Adobe software and AMD drivers. I don't know which of Adobe or AMD is more at fault, but it is clearly a trans-Apple problem.

MPG believes it mainly related to the AMD drivers, regardless of platform (AMD chips were/are in the 2013 Mac Pro, and MPG worked with AMD and Adobe on the inital round of crash bugs, Adobe actually had to un-release support for GPU sharpening in Feb 2014!). But bugs are found in all software, who can say for sure except the involved parties. But “whose fault” is irrelevant to end users in the end.

GPU value in general

MPG is in general is not a fan of GPU technology unless and only if a specific task is proven to benefit from it (such tasks are few and far between in mainstream computing, games and eye candy user interface aside). And it has to be rock solid, and free of problematic display bugs. Such real-world considerations are never tested in benchmarks, yet they are critical to getting work done. So invest in a “faster” GPU if and only if there is solid evidence of value and reliability for your own work. Or to dispel the buyer’s remorse factor?!

To this day, very little software uses the dual GPUs in the 2013 Mac Pro effectively; one need only compare the disappointing performance of the dual GPU 2013 Mac Pro to an iMac. A year after introduction, the dual GPU approach of the 2013 Mac Pro is a practical failure in terms of performance delivered with real software, especially when set against the value of a 2nd CPU and/or 2nd internal SSD. Rather, the GPU has become a technology in search of a problem to solve, perhaps so as to degrade the user interface (even as it enhances other user interface elements). Practically speaking, the main value of the GPU for most users is to support screen scaling and basic drawing operations with 4K and 5K displays (the huge number of pixels to shovel around).

A GPU can shine only with highly efficient and robust graphics drivers, and at least on the Mac that has never been the case (ever). Taking just one example, Mac graphics drivers have long been inferior for game performance. Moreover, more straightforward technologies useful for professionals go unimplemented in graphics drivers: Mac users still live with 8-bit color, instead of 10-bit. But that’s up to Apple to deliver, and not a GPU issue per se.

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