3-D video boards scratch itch

Speed: When the latest games or other software tempt you to upgrade your Mac, installing a new 3-D accelerator can be a simple solution.

September 20, 1999|By Dave Zeiler | Dave Zeiler,Sun Staff

I know I'm in trouble whenever I run across cool software that either won't run on my Mac or will only do so with difficulty.

I'm in trouble because I know it's just a matter of time before I'll seek out and buy whatever upgrade is necessary to make that recalcitrant software rock on my Mac.

The culprit this time was a demo for Pangea Software's new 3-D game, Bugdom. The game uses the 3-D capability built into all new Macs, including the current iMac. While some older Power Macs will run the game, it's virtually unplayable without 3-D hardware.

Such was the case with my vintage 1996 Power Computing PowerTower Pro. Even pumped up with 144 MB of RAM and a G3 upgrade running at 318 MHz, my Mac could not cope with Bugdom's 3-D demands. Yup, I was in trouble.

So the search was on for a 3-D video accelerator board that I could plug into my faithful machine. If your Mac has PCI slots (most desktop Macs made in the past few years do), you can choose from several 3-D accelerators, including ixMicro's Rocket series, MacTell's Vision 3D EvilEye cards (both of which use the PC-based VooDoo standard) and ATI's Rage 128 cards. Prices range from $100 to $275, depending on how much firepower you want.

After a couple of weeks of research, including the vast data trove on Mike Breeden's Accelerate Your Mac! site (www.xlr8yourmac.com), I decided on the ATI Rage Orion.

ATI had an unfair advantage in my decision because the company supplies the video cards for all of Apple's current Macs, including the new G4 line. And according to ATI's Web site, the Rage Orion is the card most similar to the one in Apple's G3 and G4 models.

In tests results posted on the Accelerate site, the Orion was one of the best performers despite its middle-of-the-road, $179 price ($149 after a mail-in rebate).

Installation was straightforward; I just popped the card into an empty PCI slot and plugged my monitor into the board's output jack. The Rage Orion uses the PC standard VGA connector but includes an adapter to accommodate Mac monitors.

After installing all the ATI extensions from the CD-ROM, I rebooted and -- voila! No problems whatsoever.

My mouse immediately headed for the Bugdom icon. What a difference! Smooth textures, fluid movement, dramatic effects. The PowerTower was vindicated!

Next I checked the 3-D game demos that ATI includes: Tomb Raider II and Myth II, as well as the full versions of Pangea's Nanosaur and an awesome game called Future Cop L.A.P.D. It was a hardship, but I spent hours developing a full appreciation of the Rage Orion's abilities.

In between games I played a few QuickTime movies; another welcome feature of the Rage Orion (and many other 3-D cards) is its ability to resize QuickTime movie windows as large as you please with little loss of quality.

A few days later I summoned the willpower to stop playing around so I could run the MacBench 5.0 graphics tests. I figured the ATI card, with 16 MB of video memory, would significantly outperform the 3-year-old ixMicro Twin Turbo 128, with 8 MB of video memory.

Amazingly, the Orion did not leave the Twin Turbo in the dust. With the Twin Turbo set as the "100 percent system," the Orion scored 136 percent with the display in millions of colors mode; in thousands of colors, it scored only 114 percent; and in 256-color mode, a mere 109 percent.

Nevertheless, I could see a difference. My Mac felt much snappier in the Finder and my display was significantly brighter and crisper.

Of course, most Macs built before 1998 had 4 megabytes of video memory and benefit much more from the upgrade than mine did. Adding a Rage Orion to a standard Mac of that era would nearly double its 2D performance in addition to providing mind-blowing 3-D performance.

My advice to the average Mac user seeking a performance boost is first to make sure you have abundant system RAM (64 megs is about right for Power Macs running any flavor of Mac OS 8). After that you should consider buying a G3 processor upgrade card.

Upgrades to RAM and the CPU will also boost graphics performance, so adding a 3-D graphics card should be at least third on your upgrade list. You don't have much choice -- most fancy games that utilize 3-D hardware recommend outlandish amounts of RAM, hard disk space and at least a 200 MHz PowerPC processor.

Let's face it, few Mac users need 3-D hardware, but it's an add-on treat avid gamers are sure to love.

Sounds like a good Christmas present, dontcha think?

Send e-mail to david.zeiler@ baltsun.com.

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