29 Nov 2015

Building a Resolve 12 system for $500

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Thanksgiving Weekend Replay: Eric Escobar breaks down how you can turn a first generation Mac Pro and a collection of parts into a fully-fledged grading and finishing workstation for a mere $500.

With the performance enhancements in the release of Resolve 12 Public beta, a whole new class of computers now have the option of being workaday finishing systems. The class of machines I'm talking about are called 'e-waste': obsoleted, nine year-old computers that are practically being given away or sold for a couple hundred dollars. Do a Craigslist or eBay search and you will find machines as cheap as $100. Ask around and you may find one for free, like I did. A friend's company had just replaced an old workhorse MacPro 1,1 that was being used as a server. No one in the office wanted to lug home a 40lb machine, so I swooped in and grabbed it before it got sent to the recycler.

That's right, changes in software suddenly 'unobsolete' machines that are sitting in closets or being used for non media-creation duties.

What do I mean by inexpensive? Here's a basic shopping list:

Mac Pro Tower 1,1                $0-$150
16GB RAM                                 $60
Radeon HD7950                        $180
BlackMagic Decklink Mini          $140
System/ Application 80GB SSD   $80

So, for somewhere between $460-$610, you can have a box capable of doing some amazing GPU based work, specifically some amazing GPU-based Resolve editing and grading work. But first, you have to "unobsolete" the machine by hacking the Yosemite Installer so it will load on to your Mac Pro 1,1 – a machine that was never intended to run a 64 bit OS, but is totally capable of doing just that.

How can an old Mac run Yosemite?

The caveat: Apple does not support this, as it made the decision to leave the 2006/2007 Mac Pro's in the rear view mirror for reasons only Apple understands. When OSX went 64 bit, the early adopters that shelled out thousands of dollars for these machines were left stuck running OS 10.7 Lion, unable to join the ride to 64 bit land. Are the Intel processors in the MacPro 1,1's 32 bit?

Nope, only the EFI32 firmware is 32 bits. These machines have dual Xeon 5150, enterprise class 64 bit processors – rock solid 64 bit performers. But you can't load Yosemite without first creating a different boot loader. With a new boot loader, you can easily launch the Yosemite kernel and smoothly run the OS. It's a real install of Yosemite, so you can easily install and run Resolve 12 beta.  And thanks to a dedicated community of MacPro 1,1 hackers, your old Mac will continue to run the latest OS.

How can I get a Yosemite Installer?

The cheapest way to get a Yosemite installer is to make one yourself following these very clear instructions, stored poetically, on iCloud. Not only will this cost you just the price of an 8GB jump drive ($4), but you will also have the feeling of accomplishing a useful hacking job when you make an old machine, designated for the trash heap by a massive corporation, suddenly alive and running again. Hack an installer, save a computer. For me, it's really interesting to learn about things like boot efi's and all the things that live under the candy-glossy shell of the GUI, but I understand that for others this idea totally freaks you out.

If hacking a boot loader intimidates you, you can find them pre-built for about 50 bucks on Amazon. I can't vouch for the veracity of developer claims or functionality of such products (after all, it is a hacked copy of Apple's OS that someone is selling over the internet). So, buyer beware.

Compatible video card

At the most basic, you must have a Yosemite compatible card installed in your machine. The stock cards that ship in 2006/07 do not run under the OS, so at the minimum you'll need a newer PCIe-based graphics card, like the nVidia GeForce GT120 that's been "flashed" to run in a Mac.

However, if the point of your project is to build a truly effective Resolve 12 box, you'll want to get something speedier than that. The top of the line and most expensive is a Radeon R9 280X that's been properly flashed. This will run you $450, but then I'd have to re-title this post. Therefore, a great option that balances cost with performance is the Radeon HD 7950 Mac edition or Mac flashed like this one that is presently available on eBay for as low as $180.

Piles of cheap RAM

One of the great things about these old machines is that you can get a ridiculous amount of really fast RAM for very cheap. It has to be DDR2 PC2-5300 667MHz ECC and you have to buy the sticks in pairs, so if you want 8GBs, then get four 2GB or two 4GB sticks. My hand me down machine already had 5GB installed, so I put in an additional 16GB of memory which has proved to be plenty, although the machine can take up to 32GB of RAM (something Apple does not support, but it doesn't support hacking the boot installer, either).

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Eric Escobar

Eric Escobar has worked both sides of the compiler, as an award winning filmmaker and a member of software development teams at Apple and Adobe. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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