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  • The Case of the ATI Graphics Card and the Missing Instructions

    November 14th, 2006

    Mac users have a right to feel a little deprived when it comes to getting the latest and greatest graphics hardware at affordable prices. In fact, I remember when you actually had to spend several thousand dollars for something that bore the name of “Thunder something-or-other” in the hope of blasting pixels on your screen in a decent fashion. In case you’ve forgotten, that’ll take you back to the early part of the last decade.

    Even today, with the Mac on the rise, and both ATI and NVIDIA producing products for the platform, you have to feel that the PC user is still getting the choice products at the lowest prices. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a limited choice of a few powerful cards, and I was happy to get an opportunity to evaluate the new $349 Radeon X1900 G5 Mac Edition. This particular product, by the way, only functions on the final generation of Power Macs that had PCI Express slots.

    I note, in passing, that the Windows version of the product is $249, after a $50 rebate. Specs appear to be similar, with 256MB of video memory, a pair of dual-link DVI slots and an S-video slot. And, no, I didn’t attempt to pick a fight with ATI about the pricing disparity. It would be a wasted effort. Besides, I was just happy to have a chance, even a brief one, to ditch the my G5 Quad’s standard NVIDIA GeForce 6600, which provides tepid gaming rates.

    ATI, now owned by AMD as most of you know, shipped the product to me in a plain brown envelope without the standard retail accouterments. I actually had to download an online manual and the software from a special FTP site designed for press representatives, but that was no big deal.

    After installing the software, I shut down the G5, removed the cables and opened the case. For those who are extolling the virtues of the extended expansion space in the Mac Pro, let me remind you that the G5 seems to be all fans and heat sinks when first opened.

    With the chassis in full view, I removed the NVIDIA card, and then freed the X1900 from its anti-static envelope. A power cable for the ATI card’s huge fan was provided separately, and I began the search of the G5’s motherboard for a corresponding jack, without much success. Readers who are more familiar with the Power Mac will probably know where it lies, but you don’t see it at first glance. Rather than strain my aging eyes, I got a flashlight and began to look over every nook and cranny without actually seeing it, so I examined the X1900’s manual, which simply referred me to Apple’s documentation. Not good.

    Even worse, the Power Mac user guide offered little illumination on the subject. Apparently Apple had never anticipated that anyone would want to install a card that had its own cooling fan. For a moment, I even considered installing the card without that hookup, but the Power Mac runs hot enough as it is, and I didn’t want to fry the delicate parts on the graphics card. Again, I missed the obvious location, but finally discovered it with the help of an ATI technical person.

    You see, there’s a plastic card guide designed to position longer boards, and adjacent to the upper left of that guide lies a single jack to power the fan. But I had to unscrew the guide in order to gain unfettered access.

    Within minutes, the card was seated in its slot, and the Power Mac was reassembled. After attaching all the cables, I booted successfully and did some casual testing. Although text seemed a tad darker, I didn’t notice much of a difference at first. After recalibrating the picture in the Displays preference panel, I did some casual testing in various applications, and began to notice a few enhancements, such as quicker resizing of large windows. A neat plus: The refresh issues I had noticed in Peak Pro’s gray toolbar were gone.

    A run with a few games revealed much more fluid performance, but I’ll refer you to the tests at Rob-ART Morgan’s Bare Feats site for the cold, hard numbers. In brief, you’ll observe that it blows away the GeForce 6600 in every respect and comes remarkably close to the pricier GeForce 7800.

    The G5 variant of the X1900 provides performance that’s even competitive with the comparable card in a 3.0GHz Mac Pro, but the latter still has the upper hand.

    In the scheme of things, I suppose a G5 Quad is long in the tooth. But the ATI Radeon X1900 definitely gives it a new lease on life, even if the poor documentation from ATI and Apple makes installation a little more difficult than it should be.



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