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Not terribly long ago, Mac users could purchase any add-on graphics card they liked--as long as it was made by ATI Technologies. All that is changing: while you still lack the wealth of graphics card options your PC-packing contemporaries enjoy, you now have viable alternatives to the graphics card that shipped with your Mac.

To determine just how viable those alternatives are, Macworld Lab tested six offerings: 3dfx's Voodoo4 4500 PCI and Voodoo5 5500 PCI, Appian Graphics' Jeronimo 2000, ATI's Radeon Mac Edition, Formac's ProFormance 3 Plus, and ProMax Systems' DH-Max. Although none of the cards delivered the kind of performance you see from their counterparts running on a fast PC, our tests indicate that selecting the proper graphics card--which typically costs around $200--can significantly improve your Mac's performance.

Slots and Specs

The current crop of desktop G4s includes AGP slots, but graphics card manufacturers have hardly abandoned the venerable PCI slot. After all, the Mac users most likely to benefit from fast 3-D graphics cards are those with older PCI Macs. Of the cards we tested, only the Radeon and the DH-Max are AGP compatible; the rest are PCI cards. And of the AGP cards, only the DH-Max fits inside a Power Mac G4 Cube.

The cards also differ in their dual-monitor capabilities, output connectors, support for 3-D hardware-acceleration standards, and DVD-player support. Both the Jeronimo and the DH-Max sport two video ports, allowing you to run two monitors from a single card; the other cards support one monitor. The DH-Max also includes a cable with Composite and S-Video outputs for sending your Mac's video to a television or VCR, although only one of the card's ports supports those outputs, via an included add-on cable. Likewise, the Radeon supports Composite and S-Video output. The ATI and 3dfx cards include both VGA and DVI connectors, but none of the cards include the Apple Desktop Connector found on all current Apple monitors. (None of the cards support video capture, so they lack video-input ports.)

The ProFormance also has a port for connecting the bundled ProCyber 3D Glasses  --  the only glasses we've seen that produce convincing 3-D (without producing a crashing headache) in games such as Pangea's Bugdom and MacSoft's Unreal Tournament.

Regrettably, neither the Jeronimo nor the DH-Max card offers 3-D hardware acceleration, making them inappropriate choices for gamers. However, the ATI and Formac cards support the OpenGL and Rave 3-D standards, while the 3dfx cards support those and 3dfx's own Glide standard. Because Apple refuses to release the information necessary for third parties to support DVD playback on a Mac, only ATI--an Apple partner--offers DVD-player compatibility.

By the Numbers

To test 2-D performance, we timed how quickly we could scroll through Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Word 98 documents on our 500MHz Power Mac G4. In both tests, the Radeon and the ProFormance were the best of the bunch; the ProFormance performed particularly well in the Word 98 test. The DH-Max, due to its unoptimized drivers, performed poorly--though not as poorly as the underpowered, expensive Jeronimo. The 3dfx cards turned in less-impressive results in our 2-D tests than the ATI Radeon and our baseline ATI Rage 128 AGP card, but the difference was barely noticeable in actual use.

The results of our Quake III tests indicate that gamers with AGP-compatible Macs may want to consider ATI rather than 3dfx.

Clockwise from left: the 3dfx Voodoo5 5500 PCI, ATI Technologies Radeon Mac Edition, and 3dfx Voodoo4 4500 PCI.
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