Inside the Mac Pro: Graphics cards

Apple offers three different graphics-card options for the Mac Pro, ranging from a general-purpose card to a high-end option intended for scientists and engineers.

The Mac Pro’s default card (which is also available as a $150 add-on if you want more than one) is the Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT. Intended for the average creative and business user, the GeForce 7300 GT has 256MB of video RAM and two DVI connectors. One of the DVI connectors is dual-link -capable—meaning that it can support a 30-inch Apple Cinema HD Display. The other DVI port supports monitors as large as Apple’s 23-inch Cinema HD Display.

For the Graphics Hog Hard-core gamers and creative pros who work with graphics-intense applications will want to consider upgrading to the ATI Radeon X1900 XT. This $250 upgrade option improves the performance of applications that use OpenGL graphics, such as Apple’s Motion, Autodesk’s Maya, and other 3-D-modeling apps. It includes 512MB of video RAM, and its two dual-link DVI connections allow it to drive two 30-inch Cinema HD Displays at once.

Because the X1900 XT comes with its own built-in fan and ventilation system, it’s twice as wide as a standard PCIe (PCI Express) card. The Mac Pro accommodates the card with a special double-wide slot on the motherboard. This keeps the card from blocking a neighboring PCIe slot—useful if you also need to add, say, a video-capture board or faster networking options (such as Apple’s Fibre Channel card, for connecting to the company’s Xsan storage system). If you go with the basic graphics card and later decide to upgrade to the Radeon X1900 XT, you can order the card as an upgrade kit from the Apple Store; just keep in mind that you may have to move other cards around to make it fit.

For Scientists The Nvidia Quadro 4500 FX card is the top-of-the-line graphics upgrade option. On paper, its performance is almost the same as the Radeon X1900 XT’s. So why would you want to pay $1,650 for it? This card has a little interface that lets you hook up stereoscopic displays—essentially, high-end (and expensive) 3-D glasses. Some scientific and technical applications rely on such displays—for example, molecular biologists use them to visualize their models in three real dimensions.

The Quadro card features 512MB of video RAM and has two dual-link DVI ports, so you can hook up two 30-inch Cinema HD Displays to it at once. Like the Radeon card, the Quadro 4500 FX is a double-wide. It has a fan that cools its microprocessor, and it discharges hot air through a vent made accessible by Apple’s double-wide PCIe slot. But unlike the Radeon, the Quadro 4500 FX isn’t available as a separate upgrade kit—you have to order it when you order your Mac Pro.

Mac Pro graphics card
Divide and Conquer The Mac Pro includes software that dynamically manages the way the PCIe interface divvies up its bandwidth. So if you add new graphics cards—say, multiple GeForce 7300 GT cards to drive additional monitors—the Mac Pro will automatically sense them and allocate its PCIe bandwidth accordingly. It’ll even check with you to make sure it’s set up optimally for what you’ll be doing.

By the way, if you’re thinking that you might like to pop one of these cards into your existing Power Mac G5, too bad: Apple says that they’re designed exclusively for the Mac Pro and won’t work in older machines, even Power Mac G5s with PCIe slots.— Peter Cohen

It’s in the cards

The vast majority of applications and tasks will run just fine on the Mac Pro’s stock graphics card, the NVIDIA GeForce 7300GT graphics card with 256MB of dedicated graphics memory. But if you’re really looking for the best graphics performance, Apple offers two higher-end graphics cards as build-to-order options. One, the 512MB ATI Radeon X1900 XT was not available in time for our testing for this story. We were able to get our hands on the NVIDIA FX 4500 with 512MB of dedicated graphics memory. It’s awfully pricey, but it did indeed give the Mac Pro a major performance boost.

Graphics: Four Resolutions

1024 x 768 1280 x 1024 1600 x 1200 1920 x 1200
FRAME RATE FRAME RATE FRAME RATE FRAME RATE
Mac Pro 3GHz -Nvidia 7300GT 256MB (Standard) 93.0 71.5 52.0 42.5
Mac Pro 3GHz - Nvidia FX 4500 512MB PCIe 107.3 109.2 109.2 92.6
>Better >Better >Better >Better

Best results in bold.

All scores are frames per second. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.7 with 1GB of RAM. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we ran the tests at four different resolutions at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

High-end games, such as Quake and Doom, rely less on a system’s CPU than on its GPU (graphical procession unit). Many of these power hungry games require the latest and greatest graphics engines just to run. That reliance becomes apparent when you look at our graphics test results. The 2.66GHz Mac Pro produced just as many frames per second as the stock 3GHz model, because they were using identical graphics cards. Installing the optional NVIDIA FX 4500 card boosted frame rates across the board, nearly doubling the amount of frames Doom could display per second and increasing the frame rates by 79 percent in Quake.

Graphics: Four Games

Doom Nanosaur Quake Unreal Tournament 2004
FRAME RATE FRAME RATE FRAME RATE FRAME RATE
Mac Pro 3GHz -Nvidia 7300GT 256MB (Standard) 60.9 88.4 51.8 93.0
Mac Pro 3GHz - Nvidia FX 4500 512MB PCIe 118.3 94.6 92.7 107.3
Mac Pro 2.66GHz -Nvidia 7300GT 256MB (Standard) 61.1 84.3 51.6 91.3
Power Mac G5 Quad 2.5 - Nvidia 6600 256MB (Standard) 42.5 80.4 38.5 62.2
Power Mac G5 Quad 2.5 - Nvidia FX 4500 512MB 53.5 93.1 65.8 61.7
>Better >Better >Better >Better

Best results in bold.

All scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.7 with 1GB of RAM. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

Nanosaur and Unreal Tournament’s frame rate increases were more modest, at least until we cranked up the resolution. While the frame rates of the stock NVIDIA 7300 GT took a major performance hit each time we bumped up the resolution in UT2004, the FX 4500’s frame rates remained unchanged until we hit 1920 x 1200—the native resolution of the Apple 23” Cinema HD display.— Jim Galbraith

[ Senior Editor Peter Cohen writes game news and reviews for Macworld ’s Game Room. James Galbraith is Macworld ’s Lab Director. ]

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