Born-Again Macs

"20 G3 Speed Demons"

Not anymore.

On most PCI-based Power Macs, that old PowerPC 604 processor sits on a removable card. Replace that card with one that houses a modern G3 processor, and you'll make your Mac young again. The last time we looked at these upgrade cards, they were relatively new on the market and were both quirky and costly (see ""Quantum Leap"," July 1998). But these days, G3 upgrade cards have come of age. They're faster, more stable, and much more affordable than they were just a few months ago.

To get the details about just how much of a speed boost an upgrade card can give your Mac, Macworld Lab tested 20 upgrade cards ranging in speed from 300MHz to 400MHz and found impressive performance boosts and some remarkable bargains.

So don't feel bad about that old Mac you're using. It's about to get a new spring in its step.

Upgrading a Mac by adding a new processor card isn't really a new idea–Macs that are upgradable via new processor cards have been around for some time (see the table "Processor-Slot-Upgradable Macs"). But it wasn't until the G3 processor arrived that upgrades became a big deal. The G3 (also called the PowerPC 750) is the first PowerPC chip designed specifically to work with the strengths and weaknesses of the Mac OS–resulting in a huge difference in performance. A G3 processor is clearly faster than a 604 processor running at the same megahertz, and as new chips come out, the speed of the G3 keeps growing by leaps and bounds.

When Macworld last looked at G3 upgrade cards, 333MHz chips were just on the horizon. Now 400MHz chips are all the rage, with even faster ones to come. Benefiting from a copper-based production process pioneered by IBM, this new generation of ultrafast G3's can run at high speeds while using much less energy. The result: A 400MHz card dropped into a standard Power Mac 9500/132 can triple that vintage Mac's speed.

In the Details

Transforming an old Macintosh into a G3 powerhouse may seem like black magic, so here's a quick refresher on some basic concepts. Upgrade cards involve three different parts of your computer: the processor, the cache, and the system bus. The processor–the PowerPC chip–is your Mac's brain. This brain communicates with the rest of your Mac–including the RAM, ROM, and peripherals–via the system bus. The processor stores frequently used software instructions in the cache, a block of high-speed RAM, where those instructions can be accessed much more quickly (at a rate determined by the speed of the cache bus) than if the processor had to retrieve them from RAM via the system bus.

Upgrade cards work by accelerating all three parts of this hardware relationship. Manufacturers begin with a faster processor and add a speedier–and sometimes larger–cache. Card manufacturers also add controller chips that accelerate the entire system bus to run in tune with the faster CPU. Mount the new CPU, cache, and controller chips on a circuit board, and you've got an upgrade card.

So you want a faster Mac. Who doesn't? But before you buy, you should consider if buying an upgrade card is the right decision for your particular situation.

Of course, buying an upgrade card should always be a less costly option than buying a new Power Mac with a processor of the same speed. But price and speed aren't the only factors in the equation.

Deathbed Conversions

Upgrade cards are great at giving current hardware a new lease on life, but they don't actually make your Mac a new system. When you buy a new G3 Mac from Apple, you're not just getting more megahertz. You're also getting the latest technology–fast CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drives, faster hard drives with greater capacity, and a slew of internal improvements that enhance the speed of the G3 processor in ways your old Mac simply can't. (For ways of improving your old Mac beyond upgrading the processor, see the sidebar "Megahertz Isn't Everything.") And if you buy a new Mac, you'll still have your old system to use somewhere else.

Software compatibility is also a major issue when it comes to buying upgrade cards–just ask the owners of PowerPC-upgrade-equipped Quadras who can't switch to Mac OS 8.5. Apple has also refused to guarantee that Mac OS X will run on any Mac not originally based on the G3 chip. If you're counting on running that version of the Mac OS once it's available, in a year or so, don't count on using an upgraded Mac to do so.

On the other hand, speed now may be all that matters to you. After all, by the time Mac OS X is released, even today's Power Mac G3's may be considered slowpokes. If so, buying a G3 upgrade card now might give you enough speed to hold off on buying a new Mac until OS X appears.

Perhaps the most important technical issue that you need to weigh when deciding between an upgrade card and a new system is reliability. It doesn't matter how much time a faster Mac will save you if you end up wasting that time rebooting or troubleshooting.

The good news is that upgrade-card manufacturers have gotten a lot better at producing easy-to-install cards. Although the physical installation process has always been fairly straightforward (see the sidebar "Brain Transplant, Not Brain Surgery"), the last time we tested upgrade cards, we had to jump through flaming compatibility hoops to get several of them to work properly.

This time around, our testing went more smoothly than ever before. We installed each card and its accompanying software without a fuss, and our upgraded Power Mac 9500 ran all our performance tests with nary a hitch. However, there still appear to be some incompatibilities between certain upgrade cards and particular products, especially peripheral cards such as Adaptec's SCSI cards and Dantz Development's Retrospect backup software. Macworld Lab attempted to replicate these incompatibilities by running a 300MB backup session with Retrospect. When we used internal SCSI, all the cards functioned normally. But when we used Adaptec's AHA-2940 Ultra Wide SCSI card, only upgrade cards from Newer and Vimage completed the backup successfully.

Resist Temptation

Another issue that can affect your souped-up computer's stability is overclocking–pushing the processor on an upgrade card to faster than its rated speed. By using the switches found on many of these cards, it's possible to increase the chip and system-bus speeds until a 366MHz card–for instance–runs at 375MHz. Card manufacturers have often held this option out to users, all the while disclaiming responsibility for data loss or compatibility problems.

We can't stress this enough: Don't give in to the temptation to overclock. Computer components come with built-in margins of safe operation, and overclocking pushes your system right up to the edge of those margins. Overclocking may make you feel like you're getting something for nothing, but the resulting performance increases are usually only about 5 to 10 percent. Is that extra fraction of speed worth risking irreplaceable creative efforts or your family's or business's financial data?

Macworld Lab tested 20 cards from six companies: Mactell ( ), Newer Technology ( ), PowerLogix ( ), Sonnet Technologies ( ), Vimage ( ), and XLR8 ( ).

As usual, Newer Technology emerged as the 800-pound gorilla of the accelerator-card field (see the benchmark, " 400MHz and Climbing "). At most speed levels, this company's Maxpowr G3 cards are faster than their competitors. And Newer's software and documentation set the standard for the industry. The cards also appear to be free of the compatibility problems that affect some other companies' cards, thanks to a built-in hardware-based fix. Perhaps as a result of such diligence, Maxpowr cards tend to cost more than the competition–but the peace of mind they provide may be worth it.

When it comes to getting bang for your buck, it's hard to argue with the price and performance of PowerLogix's PowerForce G3 cards. These cards are among the fastest at every chip-speed level, and their prices are quite competitive. PowerLogix's PowerForce G3 300/120 card–although it has only a 512K cache–offers the best value of any card we tested. The PowerForce package has remained largely unchanged since our last roundup, with the exception of an extra DIP switch on the cards themselves. The cards could also use better documentation.

Other companies' cards were less impressive: XLR8's cards are based on PowerLogix's designs, but the Mach Speed G3 boards didn't fare as well in terms of price and performance. Some of Mactell's cards come with extra fans–a nonessential extra (unless you ignore our advice and overclock the processor), and to install the fan, you've got to connect a separate power line to your Mac's motherboard. Mactell's cards, with the exception of the G3 PowerJolt 300/300, hold up fairly well in terms of price and performance, but the company offers mediocre documentation.

Newcomer Vimage also places a fan on its cleanly designed 300MHz board, but in contrast to Mactell, Vimage replaces the gigantic heat sink typically found on Mac processor cards and designs its card to draw power directly through the processor slot. Regardless of this innovation, Vimage's Vpower offers only average performance and value.

Sonnet Technologies has revised its manual since our last tests, and the new documentation is much improved. Unfortunately we can't say the same thing for the company's hardware. Sonnet's Crescendo G3 boards landed at or near the bottom of every performance test, and their prices were about average. However, Sonnet was the only company other than Newer to directly address incompatibility issues–in its case, with a software fix.

If there's anything we learned from our revisiting of G3 upgrade cards, it's this: The fastest available upgrade cards are always too expensive for most users. The slower the card, the better the value.

Only the most dedicated speed freaks should even consider 400MHz processors. Unless you simply can't upgrade to a Power Mac G3 for compatibility reasons, spending $2,000 instead on a 400MHz upgrade card doesn't make sense. If you're not saddled with compatibility concerns, you're better off spending a few hundred dollars more and buying a speedy new Mac. Even the 366MHz cards we tested are just too expensive for us to recommend to most users.

However, neither do we recommend that you rush out to buy a 220MHz upgrade card. Although such a card would provide a sure speed boost, the result would still be a Mac that's slower than any current Power Mac G3. Instead, consider a low-cost 300MHz or 333MHz card.

PowerLogix's PowerForce G3 300/150 offers good speed at a price comparable to that of 250MHz G3 upgrade cards on the market. When we went to press, it was clearly the best buy of the bunch. But beware–the price of upgrade cards is extremely volatile. Smart buyers will want to visit the Web sites of all the companies whose cards we tested to find the latest prices immediately before buying.

No matter what reason you have for speeding up that old Mac of yours, the good news is this: You can breathe new life into your old Mac for a reasonable price. Gone are the days when you bought a computer and then stood helplessly by as it aged and became obsolete. Thanks to the latest crop of fast and affordable G3 upgrade cards, your old Mac might just have a new lease on life.


February 1999 page: 64

Installing a g3 processor in your old Mac will certainly add pop to your processing. But although it's the most dramatic enhancement you can currently make to your Mac, it's only one of the improvements that can make your old mac feel young.

In fact, you may not be able to make the most of that new G3 processor if the rest of your system is still factory-issue. For a few dollars more, you can squeeze better performance out of your Power Mac by adding these simple upgrades.

Hard Drive How quickly applications launch, windows and documents open, and documents are saved depends not only on your processor but also on the speed of your hard drive. The faster your hard drive, the more quickly these operations occur. In fact, a G3 upgrade in an extremely old Power Mac may be severely hampered by a slow hard drive, with the processor having to constantly wait for the hard drive to catch up to it.

SCSI drives come in a variety of speeds. Slower drives run at 5,400 rpm. Faster, AV drives operate at 7,200 rpm and higher. Adding one of these faster drives to your Mac will increase overall performance.

Also, most midrange-to-high-end Power Macs–the 7300, 7500, 7600, 8100, 8500, 8600, 9500, 9600, and many 604- and 604e-based clones–have an internal SCSI-2 bus and an external SCSI-1 connection. Macs with internal SCSI-2 offer a transfer rate of 10 MBps, compared to the 5 MBps transfer rate of Macs with SCSI-1. If you plan to add a hard drive to one of the former, consider an additional internal SCSI-2 drive that takes advantage of the faster bus.

RAM In and of itself, RAM doesn't speed up your Mac. In most cases, for example, having 64MB of RAM won't make Microsoft Word run any faster than if you had 32MB of RAM. However, there are some areas where additional RAM can be of assistance.

Adobe Photoshop first processes and stores images in RAM. When it runs out of RAM, it stores information on your hard disk. Because your machine can transfer information into and out of RAM much more quickly than it can to and from a hard disk, it's a good idea to have as much of this information stored in RAM as possible. More RAM equals more RAM storage, which leads to much faster Photoshop processing.

Apple's virtual memory and Connectix's RAM Doubler may be modern miracles, but they don't offer the greatest speed. As with Photoshop, if you can store information in RAM rather than virtual memory, your Mac will be more responsive.

CD-ROM Drive Through the years, you've seen CD-ROM speeds increase from 2 x to 4 x to 16 x to 24 x . But do these increases in speed really make your Mac faster? If your current drive is only 2 x or 4 x , you'll notice a difference by upgrading to a new CD-ROM (or DVD-ROM) drive–QuickTime movies won't skip frames or drop their audio tracks. But if you already have an 8 x CD-ROM drive, making the move to 24 x isn't going to radically transform your CD-ROM experience. The main advantage of having a fast CD-ROM drive is that you can copy data from a CD-ROM disc to your Mac more quickly, a boon if you tend to install a lot of software or routinely copy large chunks of data from disc to disk.

Faster SCSI Although adding an internal SCSI-2 drive to your Power Mac provides you with sprightlier data-transfer rates, there are a few limitations. Your Mac has only so much space for internal devices, and your external devices are limited by the slower external bus. To get truly fast external SCSI, add a fast SCSI card to your PCI Mac. Adaptec's PowerDomain series of PCI SCSI cards, for example, provides transfer rates of up to 40 MBps–four times the transfer rate of SCSI-2. Some of these cards also allow you to attach more than seven SCSI devices to your Mac. (But you should be wary of potential incompatibilities between some G3 upgrade cards and fast peripheral devices such as SCSI cards.)

Video Card An accelerated video card can dramatically increase display speeds on your monitor. Many of these video cards not only speed up screen redraws and offer greater color depth and resolution but also accelerate QuickTime playback and provide smoother 3-D-graphics display. These video cards usually carry between 4MB and 8MB of memory.

If you're a gamer and wish to boost the speed of such games as MacSoft's Quake and Unreal, which support 3-D-acceleration hardware, you can add a video card that additionally supports this kind of acceleration. Micro Conversions' Game Wizard and ATI's Xclaim VR support the two competing acceleration standards: Glide and RAVE, respectively.–CHRISTOPHER BREEN

Upgrading your Mac is a do-it-yourselfer's dream: the materials are relatively inexpensive, and the procedure is simple. Here are a few tips to help you along the way.

Preparation The most important hardware components are your Mac (unplugged) and your upgrade card. Don't take the card out of the bag before you put on a static-grounding strap, a device you wear on your hand to protect the card from static-electricity damage. If your card doesn't come with one, buy one. A small screwdriver may also come in handy. On the software side, you'll need the disk that came with your upgrade card.

Once you have your equipment in place, prepare yourself for the installation by carefully reading the manual–the whole thing. Many companies provide helpful illustrations or pictures that clarify the installation process. Don't risk damaging your computer or card by skipping the manual and trying to figure out the process on the fly.

Software Before you start unplugging your computer, be sure to install the software that came with your card. If you don't do this up front, you may have trouble later–your upgraded Mac might not boot without the proper software in place.

Old Card Once you are properly grounded, you can open your Mac (following the instructions in the upgrade-card manual). The processor card's location varies depending on what system you have, but the card's size and shape are always the same. The card is 3 inches high and is plugged into a slot near the center of the motherboard, covered by a bulky metal attachment called a heat sink, which aids in keeping the processor cool.

New Card Now you can take your new processor card out of its antistatic bag and install it. The edge of the card should have a notch for proper alignment. Pop the card into the slot gently–don't ever force it. Be sure that the card seats evenly all the way into the slot, covering the gold edge contacts.

Reset Switch After you have installed your new processor card, look on the motherboard for a small circular button in a square housing–it's the processor-reset switch, and it should be near one of the ends of the processor slot. Press the button, and hold it for a few seconds. (When you reboot, your Macintosh clock will need to be reset–that's the price of upgrading.) Then close your Mac, hook it back up, and boot up your new G3 Power Mac.

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