Graphics cards give gamers a boost

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For most Mac users, adding more RAM is the best hardware upgrade option. But there is an exception: If you’re a gamer and you own a Power Mac, adding a new graphics card could make a huge difference in your system’s speed. But it’s not cheap: Upgrading the graphics on an older Power Mac G4 will run you a couple hundred bucks, while doing so on a Power Mac G5 can run you $400 or more.

If you have one of those older Power Mac G4 and you’re looking for a modest upgrade that won’t break the bank, check out the Radeon 9600 Pro PC & Mac Edition card from ATI. The Radeon 9600 comes with 256MB VRAM and two Digital Visual Interface (DVI) connectors, so you can hook up two flat panel displays. (ATI includes an adapter for older analog displays, too). One of those interfaces is “Dual-Link” compatible, so it’ll drive an Apple 30-inch Cinema HD Display. This is the first graphics card I know of that, out of the box, will work with both Macs and PCs—no small technical feat and, because it means the card doesn’t need to be carried by Mac vendors only, should help keep the street price below the $200 suggested retail.

If you’re willing to spend a bit more, the Radeon 9800 Pro Mac Edition is another good option for Power Mac G4 systems. Its graphics chip is faster than the Radeon 9600 Pro’s, and it touts an S-Video port (in addition to DVI and VGA outputs), so you can hook your Power Mac G4 up to a TV for that game console experience. The card goes for about $300.

Owners of Power Mac G5s who are champing at the bit for some faster graphics performance need to first figure out which kind of system they have: Those made before mid-October 2005 used AGP 8x interfaces, those made since then use PCI Express. PCI Express is a newer and faster expansion interface that’s been around on the PC for a while. But, as I write, there aren’t yet any third-party Mac video cards designed to use it—just the ones that Apple sells.

But Apple sold bucketloads of Power Mac G5s that do feature AGP interfaces, and for those systems, ATI has a card for you: the Radeon X800 XT Mac Edition. At $400, it’s about the most expensive Mac graphics card on the retail market, but it’s also a lot faster than the Radeon 9600s and GeForce FX5200s included with many Power Mac G5s. And the X800 card includes an Apple Display Connector (ADC) and DVI interface—so you can hook up Apple Cinema Displays old and new without relying on bulky, expensive adapters.

Radeon 9800 Pro Mac Edition
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