Graphics Accelerators

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Whether you're viewing a QuickTime movie, zooming in on a big Adobe Photoshop image, or playing the latest shoot-'em-up adventure game, it takes lots of horsepower to push all those pixels across your display. Apple's blue-and-white Power Mac G3 systems, driven by ATI Technology's Rage 128 graphics-acceleration chips, provide excellent graphics performance, but what if you have an older Mac system?

Macworld Lab tested three shipping graphics-accelerator cards designed for use with any PCI-equipped Power Mac: ATI Technology's Rage Orion, Formac Electronic's ProFormance 3, and IXMicro's ix3D Game Rocket. We also looked at a potential competitor in the graphics-accelerator arena: 3dfx's Voodoo3 2000 PCI card, using an unsupported beta version of its Mac driver. In the end, both the Formac and ATI cards are great choices for boosting graphics acceleration in beige G3s. But if you're looking to get more performance out of your blue-and-white G3, the cost doesn't justify the minor performance boost.

All of the tested cards use new-generation processors designed to boost the speed and display quality of 2-D and 3-D graphics. The $199 ATI Rage Orion features the same Rage 128 chip that drives the graphics accelerator in blue-and-white G3 systems. Sporting 16MB of nonupgradable video memory, it's designed primarily for gamers, but it will also accelerate systemwide graphics display. Formac's ProFormance 3, targeted at design professionals, uses the Permedia3 graphics processor from 3Dlabs. We tested the $259, 16MB version; Formac also offers a $189, 8MB model.

Two cards are powered by 3dfx technology: IXMicro's $249 ix3D Game Rocket uses the Banshee chip set, and the 3dfx card has the newer, Voodoo3 design. We tested both with 16MB of video RAM. The chip developer, whose Voodoo processors have become the standard for game acceleration in the PC market, is working with Mactell on a Voodoo3 card, due out this fall. The card we tested used an unsupported beta driver; we tested it only as a preview of what's to come.

Using our test beds–a 300MHz beige Power Mac G3 and a 400MHz blue-and-white Power Mac G3 (the latter is not shown in the benchmark, "Boosting Beige G3 Graphics")–we timed common 2-D and 3-D graphics tasks, and a jury evaluated the quality of QuickTime movies played on the systems. For our 2-D tests, we used large QuarkXPress and Photoshop documents. We also timed video frame rates in Puffin Designs' Commotion. In the 3-D tests, we timed frame rates in Activision's Quake II; MacSoft's Unreal; and LightWork Design's Walker, a real-time 3-D-rendering application.

If you have an older Power Mac system, all of these cards will give you a significant boost in graphics performance–depending on which applications you use. We saw marked improvement when running Photoshop on our 300MHz system with each of the four cards, but hardly any with QuarkXPress. The ProFormance 3's Photoshop acceleration was especially impressive.

All three shipping cards offer built-in QuickTime acceleration. Here, the Rage Orion is the hands-down winner; our jury rated its QuickTime movie quality as excellent and that of the Game Rocket and ProFormance 3 as only fair. The 3dfx card did a poor job of displaying QuickTime movies.

After we ran our 3-D tests, the benefits of the graphics accelerators were much clearer. As you can see in the benchmark, all four cards substantially boosted performance for Unreal. With Quake, the Rage Orion (in RAVE mode) and Game Rocket (in Glide mode) turned in excellent scores. But only the 3dfx Voodoo3 card passed the 30-frames-per-second plateau–the holy grail for gamers. On the other hand, the ProFormance 3–the performance leader in some of our other tests–barely kept up with the system's built-in graphics adapter because it lacks an OpenGL driver (coming this fall, according to Formac).

Although upgrading the graphics card in older systems is an easy choice, for most users of blue-and-white G3 systems, it doesn't make much sense. The ProFormance 3 outpaced the Power Mac G3's built-in Rage 128 chip for Unreal play and Photoshop document scrolling, but there wasn't enough difference to justify the $259 outlay.

The Rage Orion and ProFormance 3 support RAVE, the hardware acceleration component of Apple's QuickDraw 3D software. Any game or 3-D authoring application that supports RAVE acceleration should see some speed increase when these cards are installed in a system. IXMicro promises RAVE support for the Game Rocket in the near future. The Game Rocket and 3dfx cards support Glide, a 3-D gaming API developed by 3dfx. A handful of popular games, most notably Bungie Software's Myth, are limited to Glide support; you'll need a Voodoo-based graphics card for the fastest and best-looking 3-D action.

A third standard, OpenGL, represents the future of 3-D graphics on the Mac. Only a few Mac applications support OpenGL at present, but Apple's decision to embrace the standard means OpenGL compatibility will soon be a common software feature. The Rage Orion and Voodoo3 cards currently offer built-in OpenGL support; Formac and IXMicro both promise OpenGL support in the near future.

The Rage Orion and ProFormance 3 both earned high scores in our performance tests. The Rage Orion was a more balanced performer, scoring reasonably well in all of our tests; it also provided the best QuickTime display quality. The ProFormance 3 outpaced the other cards in a few tests, but in our Quake benchmark it barely kept up with the reference system. Gamers may want to wait for the upcoming Mactell Voodoo3 card and its promised excellent frame rates. For general use in older Power Macs, the Rage Orion offers the best combination of price and performance, while the ProFormance 3 gives Photoshop users a boost.

Graphics Accelerators Compared
Company Product Mouse
Contact Pros Cons
ATI Technology Rage Orion 4.0 mice $199 905/882-2600
Excellent price/performance;
good software bundle; excellent QuickTime
quality; supports OpenGL.
Average 2-D acceleration.
Formac Electronic ProFormance 3 4.0 mice $259 925/251-0100
Generally excellent performance;
option for digital LCD and 3-D goggles.
Poor Quake acceleration;
no OpenGL support.
IXMicro ix3D Game Rocket 3.0 mice $249 888/467-8282
Decent performance; supports Glide.
QuickTime artifacts; no RAVE or OpenGL support.

November 1999 page: 38

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