Low-Cost Graphic Card Solutions For Macs

In many ways, the Mac has come a long way since the days of the "not made here" mentality that Apple used to exhibit. For example: NuBus, nonstandard microphones, Ethernet and mouse connectors. All of these are examples of technologies that Apple has dropped in favor of standard technologies.

With the adoption of technologies such as USB, PCI, and IDE, we Mac users have been able to take advantage of the numerous low-cost mass-market products that are cross-platform. Donit like your Apple one-button mouse? Replace it with a 3-button mouse! Need a low-cost hard drive? Pop in an inexpensive IDE model that offers massive amounts of storage for very little money. Overall, itis a great time to be a Mac owner in terms of buying third-party products.

On the graphics card front, much has improved from the days of the thousand dollar cards marketed by RasterOps, Radiance and Newer Technologies. These days, users can purchase Macs with the latest graphic cards from chipset vendors ATI and NVIDIA. However, while new Macs feature some of the best "eye-candy" available, the after-market video card situation is far from heaven.

Although ATI and NVIDIA have done a good job of supporting the Mac market, we can still count on one hand the number of video cards for those who wish to upgrade their older video system. This is troubling because it is well known that Mac users tend to hold on to their machines longer than PC users. So, though the total Mac market might be small in comparison, the number of users who wish to improve their video performance should be an attractive market. One need only look at the history of CPU upgrades on the Mac to confirm this.

This situation only helps to reinforce the notion that "Macs are expensive and canit be upgraded." While we wait for PC video-giants ELSA and MSI to enter the Mac market, and perhaps open the floodgates to low-cost cards based on ATI and NVIDIA chipsets, we must consider what is available today. This article covers some of the facts I have learned in my quest to improve the video performance in my old desktop workhorse. I have refrained from providing links and site names, and specific "how-tos" on the subject because, as with game emulation, it is a subject that is in a "grey area."

I have a G4 (Sawtooth) 400MHz Macintosh that has an AGP slot. This machine came stock with a Rage128. A friend gave me his Radeon after he upgraded to a newer ATI card. The Radeon enables Quartz Extreme in Mac OS X, and of course offers better performance over the stock Rage 128. Recently, the fan on this Radeon seems to be too loud. Having looked around town for a replacement fan, I came to the conclusion that it might be wiser to just upgrade the video card.

So having visited numerous sites, my options were: a new ATI card, a PC version of an ATI card, a used NVIDIA Mac card, or a PC version of an NVIDIA card.

For a new ATI card, the costs would start at around US$160 and up. The newest cards from ATI are great, but far too much power for my humble Mac, which I intend to hold onto for just two more years. The 9000 card seemed like the one to get, but as I mentioned, this card sells for over US$160. A better option for my machine was the ATI 8500, however it is now EOF (End-of-Life) and very hard to locate. You might be able to find them on auction sites, but most likely marked up too high. I havenit come across any NVIDIA cards outside of auction sites.

That leaves us with the final two options -- flashing either an ATI or NVIDIA PC card to work on a Mac.

In a nutshell, most cards are made to a certain spec as outlined by the chipset maker, i.e. ATI and NVIDIA. Located on the card is a ROM chip, just like the ROM in your Mac. Although not always the case, there are a few cards that are identical and sold to Mac and PC users. However, we poor Mac users must pay more money for the "Mac version" (makers claim this is due to driver development, etc.) and also get burnt in terms of software goodies. (PC cards tend to come bundled with a few games and apps.) As I said, some cards are identical, and what sets them apart is what is in the ROM.

Putting a PC card in your Mac -- even if it is an AGP card, and also has a Mac version of the same model -- will not work 9 out of 10 times, of course. Again, this is due to the differences between the ROMs. So what to do?

Hackers (not crackers!) have long learned how to "dump" the data from a ROM chip, and then copy the data to another cardis ROM chip. The result is that the target card will for the most part operate as the reference card that provided the ROM information.

It is important to realize, though, that you canit make a square peg fit in a round hole, and the same thing pretty much applies for flashing cards. For example, if the PC cardis model number is 1200VAGP, and there is a Mac card from the same maker with the model number 100VGP, even if they look somewhat the same, chances are, there is enough differences that it wonit work.

Related to this is the case of "improved" cards. For example, a PC card is numbered 966EVPro, and the Mac version is called 966E, those extra letters at the end of the PC card possibly point to special features, and thus flashing the Mac card with the PC cardis ROM will probably result in a non-working card.

Having spent a week with Google to track down various articles on flashing PC cards to work on the Mac, I will provide you with a summary of what I have learned. First, flashing is NOT for the faint of heart. Rushing in blindly, or buying the wrong item, could result in a card destined for the scrap heap.

Next, I want to mention that having successfully flashed a PC card to work on a Mac, may not bring happiness when Apple updates its OS, or the card maker updates its drivers. There is always the chance that future upgrades might render your card useless. In addition, many people feel that we need to support the card makeris extra expense in bringing us their cards, by purchasing the official Mac product.

I will leave those debates and warnings in your head and allow you to make your own decisions. For me, I would happily purchase a Mac card if a card maker offered me a low-cost solution. However, these days they seem to be focused on the high-end. Which is a shame because many Mac users tend to keep their machines for a long time, and are always looking for ways to squeeze another year from their machine.

And now for the options -- again, I focused on cards for my machine, a G4 AGP 400MHz Sawtooth model.

The first card that I examined was the ATI 8500. This model was made for the Mac and PC, and is an AGP card with good performance. The main difference is that the PC version has a DVI port versus the Mac versionis ADC port. Since I use a standard LCD with DVI connector, this is a non-issue to me. The 8500 comes in 3 versions: 64MB, 128MB and a "Wonder" version. Reports on flashing the 128MB model seem to have failed for the most part.

However, many users have reported good results with flashing 64MB models. Since I wasnit able to find information about flashing the Wonder version -- nor was I interested in its extra features -- I focused on the 64MB model. When shopping for them, you may see them marked as OEM, Retail, bulk, white-box, etc. Do some reading with the help of Google and you will get the low-down on what those terms mean. Some users also report that cheaper cards may not work well, due to slow memory or perhaps clock speeds. I admit that I havenit read up enough on this issue to pass along any advice, and I want to emphasize that you need to do your own research. As far as flashing the 8500, it seems to be pretty straightforward and there are some helpful guides, which you can find with Googleis help.

The next popular option that I have looked into is the NVIDIA GeForce2 chipset, also known as the GeForce MX, GeForce MX 200, and GeForce MX 400. These cards are a bit old by todayis standards and speed-wise, and would be about what my original Radeon offers. So why bother replacing a card with a model that wonit offer a noticeable difference in performance? As I mentioned earlier, my Radeonis chipset fan is as annoying as a mosquito. Iill consider this option simply as a way to reduce the noise!

Interestingly enough, these cards are very inexpensive and can be had for under $40. The downside is that finding one with DVI ports is nearly impossible. If you do find one that has DVI, it might be a GTS or Ultra model. From what I have read, it is best to only use a straight MX200 or MX400 model for flashing. Users with my machine (the G4 Sawtooth) who run Panther might want to read up on using a GeForce2 card, since recent reports point to a problem with this combination.

A step up from this GeForce2 is the GeForce4, or GeForce4 MX 440. This card also comes in various versions, like the "Ti" models. Articles on flashing mention very, very little success in flashing these cards. So I think they are to be avoided, despite being low-cost and offering better performance/features than the GeForce2 line.

In between, NVIDIA released a GeForce3 chipset. Cards based on that chipset seem very difficult to find, and a bit pricey. The ones I located also lacked a DVI port. I also read about questionable image quality with the GeForce3, but canit confirm it. However, there have been users who successfully flashed GeForce3 cards.

There are many new cards with ATI and NVIDIA chipsets. For example the ATI 9200, and 9600 can be found at many stores at very competitive prices. It seems that ATI has reduced the ability to use their PC cards in Macs by doing things like not allowing the entire ROM to be flashed, changing the ROM size, etc. (Macs need 128k, while many of the new PC cards only have 64k ROMs.) Iim not a tech, so I donit know the technical details as to why no one is flashing newer cards, though I did hear about someone flashing a 9800. To me, however, if you plan to spend that much for a PC ATI 9800, you might as well get a Mac 9800 to be on the safe side! I think flashing should be kept in the domain of the low-end cards, where Mac users have very little or no choice!

Apple has sold Macs with a fairly new NVIDIA card called the FX5200 Ultra. These cards are also sold for the PC. Performance isnit bad, and the cost is low. Now, we need some brave souls who can be the pioneers and provide us with their flashing experiences. If enough success is reported, then my eyes will shift from the PC ATI 8500 to the NVIDIA FX 5200-based cards!

Lastly, I want to state again that I am not a tech. Two weeks ago, I knew zero about the world of flashing video cards. With the help of Google and some great Mac sites, I was able to lurk and read many posts in various forums. The information in this article is a summary of my adventures to find a solution to improving my old Macis video performance without breaking the bank.

The last thing I thought I should note is that if you are upgrading an older Mac with a newer video card, make sure you match the card to your AGP slot. AGP currently comes in 2X, 4X, and 8X flavors; video cards come in corresponding designations. Most 4X cards will work in a 2x slot, and 8X cards often work in 4X slots, so just make sure the card you are getting will work in the AGP slot in your Mac.