How to Buy G4 Upgrades

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Are you tired of waiting for your tired old Mac to finish the commands you give it? Do you have to take a coffee break every time you resize a Photoshop image?

Let's face it. Your once-zippy Mac may now seem slower than an old man walking his poodle. But whether you desperately need more speed or just have a healthy desire to be part of the latest thing, we've got solid, level-headed advice on how to buy a G4 upgrade and avoid a G-poor product.

Every time Apple releases Macs that use a new processor, the makers of upgrade cards try to create upgrades based upon the same chip technology. These upgrades are meant to boost your older Mac's performance to levels near those of Apple's new systems for less money than you'd need to spend on a whole new Mac. With Apple's latest processor generation, the G4, upgrade manufacturers have the same goal. But before you even think of upgrading your current Mac or buying a whole new system, you should get to know the G4 processor itself.

The G4 chip has a good deal in common with the G3, but it does some things far, far more efficiently. For example, the G4 can complete many Photoshop tasks two to three times as quickly. The reason for this major speed jump is that the G4 can process information differently than the G3 could, thanks to additions to the G4 chip that Apple calls Velocity Engine.

There is a catch, however. Programs can't take advantage of Velocity Engine unless they're modified to use it. Additionally, Velocity Engine only works well at processing certain kinds of data -- it's good at processing graphics, rendering images in three and two dimensions, working with audio (including encoding MP3s), and encrypting data.

Applications are slowly being revised to support Velocity Engine. Right now Adobe Photoshop, Casady and Greene's SoundJam MP, and other MP3 and graphics applications have been optimized for Velocity Engine.

Before you buy a G4 upgrade card -- or a new G4 Mac for that matter -- think about how you use your computer. Are you a Photoshop or 3-D image jockey and desperately need all of the processing power and memory that you can get your hands on? Do you use one of the kinds of programs that can benefit from the G4 processor? And finally, have your required applications been optimized for the G4? If the answers to some of these questions are 'yes,' then you may have need of a G4 upgrade. If you are not doing anything that a G4 can take advantage of, then you may be better served by a less expensive G3 upgrade.

The G4 has a faster Floating Point Unit (FPU) than a G3, but the main processors are about the same. That means that, for applications that are not Velocity Engine-enabled, a 400MHz G4 is only slightly faster than a 400MHz G3. Also, a 500MHz G3 is faster than a 400MHz G4 for non-Velocity Engine-enabled applications.

This brings up another point that goes for all upgrade cards everywhere. The latest generation of processors are usually the most expensive. Additionally, the fastest chips carry a high premium. This means that, right now, a 450MHz G4 is the most expensive upgrade that you can buy -- costing almost double what a 500MHz G3 upgrade costs, and four to six times what a 300MHz G3 upgrade costs. Before you buy, take a look at the performance increase that you'll be getting for the price that you're going to pay. The difference between a 400MHz G4 upgrade and a 450MHz G4 upgrade is only about 10 percent in terms of speed, but you may be paying a 50 percent premium for the faster chip.

The very best advice that we can give to someone buying any upgrade for their Mac is this: do your homework. Know beforehand how you use your Mac and what this hardware will do to help you. Additionally, shop around. The upgrade market is competitive and prices generally fluctuate. Also, ask about technical support and check with others who have purchased upgrades. Finally, know what a G4 can and cannot do for you and buy accordingly. If you are buying a G4 just because you have a bad case of G4 envy, that's okay -- just know exactly why you're buying it.

Macworld.com Editorial Assistant DAVID READ ( david_read@macworld.com ) sometimes sheds his mundane clothing and becomes the Hardware Helper after dark.

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