Hands on with the Radeon 7000 Mac Edition

Radeon 7000 box
ATI Technology Inc.'s Radeon 7000 Mac Edition graphics card has been shipping for a couple of months now, so how does it stack up? Recently MacCentral got a chance to try one of the new retail graphics cards and put it through its paces.

ATI is the only game in town if you're looking for an inexpensive consumer add-on graphics card for your Mac. A couple of years ago you could have looked at a 3dfx Voodoo card or a few other options, but those prospects have dried up. Some vendors offer pro-level video cards with stratospheric prices, and some enterprising users have also figured out ways to get retail products based on Nvidia graphics technology working in their Macs. But for the average users looking for low cost, support and a warranty, ATI is for all intents and purposes the only vendor out there offering a Mac-native retail graphics card.

The Radeon 7000 Mac Edition represents the lower half of ATI's current retail offerings for Mac users. The Radeon 8500 Mac Edition offers much better 3D graphics acceleration than the 7000 does, but it's restricted to use in AGP-based Power Macs, while the 7000 works in Macs equipped with a PCI expansion slot.

The 7000 features three output sockets on its backplane: A DVI-I connector suitable for use with digital flat panel displays; an S-Video connector, for attaching the card to a TV; and a conventional 15-pin VGA connector.

Radeon 7000 Mac Edition

Setting it up

ATI includes a CD with Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X installers, documentation, a VGA-to-DB15 adapter (to let your old Apple monitor attach to the VGA connector, if you're so equipped), an S-Video to RCA composite video adapter, and a length of composite video cable. Essentially, everything you need to hook up any conceivable kind of monitor to your new video card is included in the package.

At any given time, the DVI connector can be used in conjunction with the two analog connectors to maintain two separate video signals, enabling you to use the Radeon 7000 as a "dual-head" video card. In fact, you can even output video on both analog connectors simultaneously, making it possible to hook up three video devices simultaneously -- as long as you don't mind your VGA monitor mirroring what's on the TV.

Installing the card is trivial: Insert the CD-ROM, run the installer, shut down your Mac, pop it open, remove the existing video card (or use a spare PCI slot, if you prefer), install the new card, hook up your monitor or monitors, and turn the Mac on. You'll need a Philips-head screwdriver and about fifteen minutes to get the new card in. Instructions are included with graphics that walk you through the process.

The Radeon 7000 Mac Edition is managed by ATI's own system and application software, which provides you with various capabilities such as viewing how the on-board memory is being used, which versions of system extensions are in place (under Mac OS 9) and whether the card is optimized for video playback or graphics acceleration. Separate installers handle Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X drivers. Since the card's initial release ATI has already offered updated drivers with some improvements, so make sure to look at ATI's Web site for the latest drivers before you install your card.

If you're looking for ADC connectivity to one of Apple's flat panel displays, you're not entirely out of luck, but it'll cost you. Because the Radeon 7000 Mac Edition is a PCI card, there's no way for it to carry enough juice across the bus to power an ADC monitor. Alas, that's a feature specific to AGP, or Accelerated Graphics Port -- the video card interface favored on Apple's newer Power Mac G4s. You can get around that limitation by buying a DVI to ADC adapter. Such interfaces are pricey and increase clutter since they must break out a separate power supply, but Apple and some third parties offer them as an alternative.

On performance

My test subject was a Power Mac G3/300, a "beige" G3 that still used stock ATI RAGE II graphics built onto the motherboard. As a hands on review, the intent of this is to give you a basic idea of the product's capabilities and usability, so I'll leave specific performance benchmarks to resources better suited to that task. What I will tell you is that the Radeon 7000 Mac Edition provided a very pleasant boost to my beige G3's graphics capabilities both in performance and resolution -- I was able to drive my monitor at significantly higher resolutions and run games that couldn't work before with the stock graphics chip.

In fact, the Radeon 7000 Mac Edition's performance lies somewhere between ATI's own RAGE 128 and its Radeon Mac Edition graphics cards. Unlike the Radeon Mac Edition, the 7000 lacks hardware transform and lighting capabilities, which gives newer 3D games a big edge. Still, the use of DDR RAM and the chip's overall architecture provides distinctly better performance than ATI's own RAGE 128 or its older chips. If you're using this card to replace a video system based on a RAGE 128 or older design, you can expect to see some overall improvements.

The Radeon 7000 Mac Edition worked quite reliably in a variety of tests and offered ample acceleration for QuickTime video. I didn't find any compatibility problems with a mix of productivity and Internet software, and even found new life for games that I wouldn't have been able to run otherwise. While the Radeon 7000 Mac Edition isn't a total overhaul for a Mac, it's a nice extension of what the Mac can do. And Apple's superlative built-in multiple monitor management combined with ATI's own software, provide a great combo for setting up a multi-screen system.

The 32MB of on-board DDR (Double Data Rate) RAM will also help, enabling your computer to display very high resolutions, up to 2048x1536 at 60Hz if your analog monitor supports it. Resolutions up to 1600 x 1200 are supported using digital flat-panel display, depending on the individual capabilities of your LCD monitor. The memory is divided between the digital and analog video subsystems if you're using two displays. As a result, running multiple monitors may reduce your performance or capabilities slightly, but it's a heck of a nice feature.

No video input

Unlike some of ATI's older retail graphics cards, the Radeon 7000 Mac Edition features no video input capabilities. ATI has now relegated that functionality to a device called the XClaim TV USB Edition, which enables users of USB-equipped Macs to input an analog video signal through the low-bandwidth USB interface.

In reality, FireWire has totally replaced analog video input as the preferred method for getting a video signal into the Mac. Apple's iMovie and Final Cut Pro strategy is based on that principle. There's still something to be said for watching a cable TV signal on your Mac or inputting video from an old camcorder or VHS deck -- I wish that ATI had found some way to handle this on board the Radeon 7000 Mac Edition.

In conclusion

There's one significant problem that users of "OldWorld" (beige) Macs should be aware of. Apparently there's a limitation in Mac OS X that prevents dual-monitor cards from working in these older machines, and it's something that ATI hasn't been able to work around as of yet with its drivers. It's unclear if or when this problem will be resolved, so if OS X compatibility for your beige system is vital to you, you might want to steer clear for now. This issue does not affect newer systems, however -- so if you have a blue and white Power Mac G3 or a more recent system, it should work fine.

At $125 or so and with a modest trade-in rebate available from ATI, the Radeon 7000 Mac Edition is definitely a wise investment if you wish to get a bit more life out of your older Mac, or if you'd benefit from being able to drive two (or three) monitors at once from your system. Beige Mac users need to remember about the OS X issue I mentioned, but other than that the card performs well and worked reliably.

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