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November 3rd, 1999

[Editorial] Mac Games and the iMac
by Oliver Dueck

Apple has enjoyed tremendous success with its iMac. Since it began shipping in August 1998, well over two million have been sold. Apple has not rested on it laurels, either; with the new iMac line, the company has added exciting new features such as FireWire and DVD, not to mention speedy 400 MHz G3 processors. While the iMac meets the needs of a vast majority of consumers (and educators), there is one faction that it has not completely satisfied: Mac gamers.

The problem lies in its video hardware. The original iMacs sported 4 MB of video memory; that was soon bumped to 6 MB. The newest line employs ATI's Rage 128 chipset, and has 8 MB of video memory. Not too shabby, but games are getting more and more demanding, and quite frankly, those eight MB will be heavily taxed by games like Unreal Tournament. The biggest problem here is not the lack of video memory; it is the lack of expansion options. There is no way to upgrade your iMac's graphics chipset. Take it or leave it. For users who can't (or won't) live without the option of upgrading to a better video card, the only alternative is to get a Power Mac G4.

At first, this doesn't sounds too bad: a G4/350 is a measly US$100 premium over an iMac DV Special Edition. Oh, but wait: that G4 comes with half the memory, a smaller hard drive, no DVD drive, and no monitor. Once you bring the specs on par with that iMac, and throw in a 17" monitor, you will need to pay well more than US$2000. And notice you have downgraded to a processor that has a 50 MHz lower clock speed. Granted, you do get the benefit of a superior processor architecture.

In my opinion, the solution is to do one of three things: make the iMac's video memory expandable (to 32 MB, preferably), use an AGP slot for video (so it is upgradeable), or offer a new consumer system, perhaps based on the now-defunct Power Mac G3, to complement the iMac. The best move would be to go the AGP route, but that would require significant changes to the iMac's logic board. Offering upgradeable video memory would be great step, but that still limits you to Rage 128 - you wouldn't be able to upgrade to a Voodoo 3, 4 or 5 card.

The easiest thing to do would be to offer a new system. Take the old Power Mac G3/400, and equip it with 128 MB of RAM, a 13 or 20 GB hard drive, a DVD drive, a modem, and throw in a 17" monitor for good measure, and then price it at $1899 or $1999. It would make a great mid-level gaming system, and would also attract consumers who need more expandability than the iMac offers. Granted, such a move would make things a bit complicated for the Apple product matrix, which says that there should only be one product each in the portable and desktop areas for consumers and professionals. Sooner or later, Apple will upgrade the iMac's video hardware. What exactly will be done is not known, although the best guess says that Apple will offer AGP in the iMacs sometime in the future. But for now, gamers either get stuck with an 8 MB ATI Rage 128 chipset, or they have to cough up the bucks for a Power Mac G4.

For Apple to continue to make the Mac platform more attractive to gamers, these needs have to be addressed.

Oliver is a computer science student a the University of New Brunswick, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. He has been using Macs since 1986 when his father would bring home a Mac Plus on the weekends. He was one of the original writers for Webintosh, and before that was a contributor to the now-defunct MacSense CD magazine.

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