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Cosmetic Cores

The TedLand Lab addresses the emotional needs of its computers

You know how it is.  Your acquaintances at the gym look askance when you're on the elliptical trainer.  They know you can do better, but in your heart you know that a little surgical intervention is all that you need to get past this malaise.  The TedLand Lab manager saw this sad dynamic among its computers, and applied the power of its Universal Healthcare Policy to make everything better for everyone. The computers think they got moved to Norway, but all that happened is that each had 'a little work done' in the right spots.


First up was the super deal $200 2010 Mac Pro that leaped out at me from Craigslist.  [Really, officer, I was minding my own business when, wham, this single-socket machine with 6GB of RAM and a 4-core 2.8Ghz processor leaped into my path, screaming into my consciousness.  I was helpless. ] It had a noisy rear exhaust fan (fixed for $18), and desperately needed to be more than 4-cores in order to have any respect among the other computers who would have otherwise just laughed at her.  I had pity, and ordered a $34, 2.93 Ghz 6-core processor.  A little RAM augmentation is a matter of better soft-synth performance and self-esteem, so $32 for 16GB of DDR3 RAM was justified. The 250GB boot SSD is in the optical bay, and now, with all that ‘work’, she’s feeling much better, making new friends every day in the TedLand Lab.  Cue the heartfelt orchestral strings, and plaintive piano flourish that resolves as the sunset fades.


The second upgrade was rather long in coming to be.  As near as I can remember, I bought the 12-core 2.66 Ghz 2010 Mac Pro in the middle of 2014. It had 8GB of RAM, and little else to commend it as a member of the Lab.  It too, was a super deal.  I got it for $900, including a 30-inch Apple Cinema Display.  Several hundred dollars later, it had 48GB of RAM, a hardware RAID controller, multiple RAID-0 SSD’s and a plethora of 3TB HDDs in its orbit.  The boot SSD drives for Sierra and Win7 are in the optical bay.  All of this largesse was actually a testament to my self-discipline.  At the time, a pair of x5680 processors (3.33 Ghz 6-core) would set you back $400.  I controlled myself because I know that it’s rather hard to experience responsiveness improvements strictly through CPU upgrades, while improvement in I/O speed via SSD, and RAM-based throughput upticks are relatively obvious.


Nevertheless, the hot-rod mentality is strong in the TedLand Lab Manager.  You can deny it, you can defer it, but it will eventually build up a price/performance sweet spot that cannot be ignored.  [Really, officer, I was minding my own business, when wham, the price of a pair of x5680 6-core 3.33Ghz processors went down to $120 including shipping!  I was helpless…]


It had to be done.  Not that 2.66 Ghz versus 3.33 Ghz can’t get good work done, but it’s so much more compelling to get that last bit of snappy GUI response, and the additional smoothness in a video editor that comes from another 8.04 Ghz of processing power spread across 12 cores.  It’s a weak excuse, but the TedLand Lab Manager feels so much better, and the Computing Machine Neighborhood Connectivity Committee is especially happy at the prospects for a 20Gbps dedicated link for bragging rights… er, for enhanced latency management to external NAS and remote VST processing. 


It’s worth commenting on how many YouTube videos out there describe the process for swapping out the CPUs within the Mac Pro sockets. A couple of notable ones have a guy agonizing about the number of turns he needs to loosen the screws; attempting to match the number during reassembly.  Others spend 10 minutes talking through the process of cleaning the surfaces of the CPU heat spreader and the heat sink’s copper surface.


Since I’ve built perhaps 30 PC’s over the years, it didn’t seem too much of a chore to work through the disassembly, cleaning, insert and reassembly.  In fact, the single 6-core machine took about 20 minutes, including the trip to the garage to blow the dust off of the heatsink fins.  A 3mm hex wrench is all that’s needed to pop off the heat sink, and the spring-loaded screws will put the perfect amount of pressure on the CPU socket as soon as the screws bottom out in their travel. Done.  No dickering around is necessary.  Replacement of the rear fan assembly was far more challenging than changing the CPU.


The second Mac Pro with its twin sockets took about 25 minutes, because there was relatively more dust to remove.  Everything else was equally straightforward, and free of drama. I like a little hobby drama as much as the next guy, but this really isn’t a place to find any.  Everything worked fine the first time, and that was that.  


You can see in the disassembly photos that the Apple techs were somewhat too generous with the grey heatsink paste when they first assembled the 2010 Mac Pro machines,  A paper towel and some 91% isopropyl alcohol is all that was needed to make it clean and ready for fresh heatsink paste. I found a nick on the copper surface of the heatsink but I resisted the urge to ‘lap’ the mating surfaces to a mirror finish, imitating the neurotic ministrations you’ll find among the devotees.  All that polishing is worth about 2-degrees C if you do it perfectly, and that’s not enough to ever matter in any way. 

So, here we are. Faster, more beautiful, and ready for the challenges of 2018.  I did it for you, honey!

- Ted Gary of TedLand

January 12, 2017

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