processor upgrades Graphics Cards

Sonnet Crescendo G3 L2 Processor Upgrades - Beautiful Music or a Little Out Of Tune?

Test Machines and Cards
Installation
Operation and Performance
Bench marks
Compatibility Issues
Conclusion
Price and Availability
Update

General Impressions

I want to begin this review on a positive note, I will get into the problem we

Supported Models

Apple: Power Macintosh 4400, 5400, 5500, 6400, 6500; Performa 5400, 5410, 5420, 5430, 5440, 6360, 6400, 6410, 6420; 20th Anniversary Macintosh
Motorola :StarMax line of machines
Power Computing PowerBase

had with the cards further down in the Compatibility section.

I was impressed with these cards. They are tightly engineered to fit a very small form factor, which is necessary for them to be installed in some of the machines that they are intended for.

Installing them in our machine was like slipping an old genteel man a dose of Viagra - lots of vim and vigor where one thought all passion had been lost. They sped up our test machine 2 to 3 times depending on the task being undertaken. Also, though I know this should not be much of a consideration, they are stunning visually.

The Sonnet cards have a dramatic purple heatsink running almost the full length of the top of them (they won't get the nod from Jerry Falwell, but would be right at home next to your children's Tinky Winky Teletubbie toy).

Given the general utility of the cards, we were naturally disappointed by the problems we had with them. The exact nature of what is causing the problem or how widespread it is across machines, or within even a single model, has not been nailed down as of the time this is being written, but for us they were very real. [see update below regarding this issue]

The Test Machine and The Cards

The Sonnet cards will work in a wide variety of machines (see side bar). We tested the cards in a Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (TAM) with 96MB of RAM, running 8.0 but otherwise the same machine it was when we bought it. The TAM sports a 603e processor running at 250Mhz and has a 50Mhz system bus. Our TAM did have some repair work done on it for a speaker buzzing problem during which some board inside the machine was replaced.

Sonnet sent us the three flavors of the L2 cache slot G3 card they were manufacturing at the time to review. Two were 300Mhz versions, one with 512K of backside cache and one with 1MB, and a 240Mhz card with 512K backside cache. The 240Mhz card runs at 225Mhz in machines with a 50Mhz System bus and full speed on machines with a 40Mhz bus. The bus speed between the cache and the chip on all the cards is half the chip speed - 150Mhz on the 300Mhz cards and on the 240Mhz card, 112 with a 50Mhz System bus machine, and 120Mhz on a machine with a 40Mhz bus (Sonnet has since clocked up the 240Mhz card to 250Mhz so that it will now run at full speed on compatible Macintoshes with 50Mhz buses).

Installation

Installation is fairly simple. If you have ever done a RAM or L2 cache upgrade you will have no problem installing these cards which fit into the L2 cache slot. I will describe the process for the TAM, though the basic installation is the same for every machine. It's just how you get to the logic board that differs between models. The instructions that Sonnet includes with the cards are concise, well illustrated, tell you how to get to the logic board for each machine and include any special considerations for individual models.

First you install the software - an extension that enables the card, the LibMotSh extension - LibMotSh is an high performance shared math library that is suppose to improve FPU performance - and Metronome - a utility which, when you run it, will provide you with stats on the installed card, including operating temperature. (LibMotSh can be found as freeware on the Net and can be installed on most machines whether they have a G3 upgrade or not.)

After the software is installed, turn the machine off (I also turn off power to the surge protector), follow the instructions that come with the card for accessing your machine's motherboard.

I had trouble installing the Sonnet card when our TAM was standing upright (could not apply enough pressure) and so put a pillow on the desk and placed the TAM face down on top of that which protected the front of the machine.

Touch the metal part of the fan housing to ground yourself and then locate the L2 cache slot (it's marked on the motherboard) and pull the cache chip out. If you have trouble getting it out, I found putting a unbent paper clip with a hook at one end though the holes on the top corners of the cache chip effective - pull carefully but with a certain amount of force at one end of the chip and then the other. After you have the chip out plunk the Sonnet card in, heatsink headed south. It will take a certain amount of pressure to get it in. I pushed one end down most of the way then worked my way down the chip to the other end and it popped in. On the TAM you will have to replace the thin back cover with the larger expansion cover to accommodate the new card. Turn the power on, and your hot to trot with a turbo charged Mac.

Operation and Performance

Given their power, these cards run fairly cool. The 300Mhz cards ran at about 31 degrees celsius (about 87 degrees fahrenheit) and, interestingly the lower clock speed card, the 240Mhz unit ran warmer, at about 49 degrees celsius (112 degrees fahrenheit). You can easily check the operating temperature of the cards by launching Metronome. It is interesting to watch the temperature of the card creep up after you have booted the machine, until it reaches normal operating temperature.

Once we got through the boot process the cards worked flawlessly for us. We have had the 300Mhz/1MB card installed for several weeks and have had no problems what-so-ever once all the extensions and control panels are loaded and the Machine is ready to start its workday.

Unfortunately getting to that point proved to be a bit of a problem. We experienced consistent sporadic and random crashes during the boot process that would hard freeze the machine. We go into some detail about this problem in the Compatibility section, and what we tried to do to troubleshoot the situation.

Performance-wise the cards are a lot of fun. The 300/1MB card that we had installed sped up our TAM from 2 to 3 times depending on the task being attempted. In general, operation of the machine was much snappier. Windows popped open faster and the machine flowed through tasks.

A lot of our work at MacSpeedZone involves, naturally, editing Web pages. Some of these pages have rather complex tables, and anyone who has edited Web pages with a graphical html editing program will tell you how slow modifying heavily table laden pages, can be. This type of work took less than 1/3 the usual time with the 300Mhz cards installed. Photoshop filters saw, generally, a halving of the time needed to render images.

Below you will find benchmark results detailing our findings in both real world tests and MacBench 5.0. We have a revision "B" iMac (233/512K) and so were able to do some comparisons with that, which are also included below. Will the the high-end Sonnet card give you iMac performance or better? Well on most processor intensive tasks they were pretty similar. However on graphics speed (screen redraw, scrolling etc) and disk performance the iMac will easily best the Sonnet upgraded machine. If you want iMac performance or better you will have to upgrade the graphics card of your machine (if possible) and the hard drive to faster versions, which will probably push your upgrade cost closer to what you would pay for a complete iMac. But for those that just want a relatively low cost method of speeding up the processing power of the machine they already have, the Sonnet cards do that.



MacBench 5.0 Results
(Longer bars are better)

Processor

 

Floating Point


Disk

 

Publishing Disk


Graphics

 

"Real World" Tests
(Shorter bars are better)

 

 

 


Photoshop 4.0 Tests

 


Photoshop 4.0 Filter Results

 

 

 

 



Compatibility Issues

The major compatibility issue involved the random boot crashing described earlier. We spent 4 days trying to track down the cause which we detail below. The Sonnet cards may also be incompatible with the Geoport Modem - we had mixed results with ours.

The story

When we first got the cards from Sonnet we immediately popped the high-end card into the TAM. For 4 days we did not do any testing on it, just let it sit there as we used the increased processing power to do our daily tasks. During this time we experienced no problems with the card, no crashing - nothing out of the ordinary. But we also only booted the machine once or twice during the 4 days. Then it came time to do some benchmarks.

We always, for consistency's sake, benchmark machines with only the System extensions and any necessary extra extensions active. We set the machine to load our test extension set and restarted the machine. The machine crashed during the boot process. Force rebooted - crashed again. Third time it made it all the way through to the desktop. We continued to explore the problem with the machine during the boot process and found sometimes it would crash on the first boot, usually by the 4th or 5th boot and it never got past the 8th boot.

It would crash whether it was a cold or warm boot and would clear up if the Sonnet extension was disabled. Many times it would crash as the Sonnet extension was loading, but just as often not. It always crashed on, or after the extension had loaded - never before.

We tried to troubleshoot the problem. We zapped the PRAM, rebuilt the desktop and updated the disk driver - still crashed. Took the card out and reinstalled it - no change. We tested the machine with only one of the RAM DIMMs installed at a time and could still crash the machine. Tried the other two cards to see if they would crash the machine during startup - they did. Installed 8.5.1 on a separate fresh external hard drive and ran the machine off that - crashed again. Changed the load order of the Sonnet extension, labeling it "z" so that it would load latter on in the boot process. This helped a lot. We were able to get through 16 reboots before the machine crashed with the extension loading later.

We put the Sonnet extension back in its normal load order and decided to take the card out, disable the extension and see if we had any boot problems. We did 20 reboots - no crashing. I am sure we could have kept rebooting without problem. Put the card back in and crashed on the first boot. We disconnected our peripherals one at a time to see if it was a compatibility issue with one of them. Disconnected the SCSI drives - no change. Disconnected the VCR from the S-video port - no change. Disconnected the StyleWriter printer connected to the serial port and rebooted, and rebooted and rebooted and after 25 reboots the machine still had not crashed. This looked good. Reconnected the printer and crashed on the 8th try.

So our best guess at this point is that there is some problem with the serial port and/ or certain peripherals connected to it when the Sonnet cards are installed. It will require more technical expertise than we have at our disposal to ferret out what the exact nature of the problem is or even if we are on the right track. Hopefully Sonnet will come out with some information on the issue, if indeed this turns out to be a widespread problem with the cards.

Conclusion

Given our experience with all three cards and reports we have had from others we feel that there is some problem with the Sonnet cards. If you peruse the past messages on the TAM discussion board you will find others who have experienced the same symptoms we did (someone on the board in frustration called the cards "Crashendos"). And Todd Stauffer's review at Mac-Upgrade.com noted that he also had some hard crashing problems during the boot process when these cards were installed in a Performa 6400 (though he did not take the issue as seriously as we do and gave the cards a good review).

On the flip side Sonnet told us that they have sold over 1,000 of these cards and have had very few reports of problems and Bob Moriarty over at MacCPU wrote up a glowing review of these cards and says he has sold over 50 cards with no reported problems.

Still we are concerned. We are quite certain that the problem is card related; we never experienced boot crashing on the machine before the card was installed, the symptoms go away once the card is removed, the crashing only occurs after the extension has enabled the card - even if the extension loads near the end of the boot process. The problem is possibly serial port related but it will take more reports from others to flesh this out.

Whether this is a general problem with these cards or an isolated one, and if general whether is can be rectified through a software fix or requires a more problematic hardware change, time will out. For the time being our recommendation for these cards is one of caution. Aside from the boot crashing problem they appear to work quite well and are a joy to have inside the machine (though as we all know in a few short months after one speed upgrade you will begin to take what you have for granted and will be back lusting for an even greater one).

Sonnet currently has the only G3 L2 cache slot upgrade running at 300Mhz on the market though Vimage and NewerTech have both said that they are working on 300Mhz cards. Both NewerTech and Sonnet are also working on faster cards running at 400Mhz that should be available in a few months, but will cost a little under twice what the high-end 300Mhz card from Sonnet costs today.

NewerTech has the MAXpowr G3 L2 Processor Upgrade Cards for Power Mac 4400 series, StarMax and APS computers in 260Mhz and 300Mhz models available now

For TAM owners the Sonnet cards are really the only practical option as the Vimage card puts too many limitations on your machine and was not specifically designed with the TAM in mind.

So perhaps the practical thing to do at the moment is to wait until the problems with the Sonnet cards have been better defined, and perhaps until there are more card options for L2 cache slot upgrade out there on the market. If you are determined to get one now we suggest that you purchase from someone who has a good return policy. If you purchase one of the cards and the boot crashing problem crops up we have found that you can minimize it by renaming the Crescendo extension "z". Under such a scenario you may experience very few crashes.

It also might make more sense to purchase the the lower-end 300Mhz card over the higher -end one and put the money you'll save into a faster graphics card or hard drive. This will help to balance the performance of your machine and the speed improvement of the 300Mhz card with 1MB of cache over the one with 512K not that great.

We realize this has not been the "two thumbs up" review that we would have liked to give these cards. If you have bought one of these cards and it is working well or poorly for you, in whatever machine you have it installed, we would really like to hear about it. If it is working well for you try doing as many reboots as you can stand to see if your machine freezes. If it is working poorly and you have a device connected to the serial port, try disconnecting it and see if that clears up the problem.

We are willing to give whatever space is necessary at MacSpeedZone to Sonnet or qualified others to comment on this problem with the cards and/or any possible fix.

Update: On our recommendation Sonnet connected an Epson printer to their machine and was able to reproduce the boot crashing we have experienced confirming that this is a common problem with these cards rather than an isolated one. Our advice is to hold off buying one of the Sonnet cards until the problems with them have been identified completely and fixed. Sonnet is in the process of trying to resolve the issue.

[Update #2: Since this review we purchased a Crescendo G3/L2 500Mhz and have been running it in our TAM without incident - it appears that Sonnet has been able to address the startup freezing issue by updating the Crescendo extension. Be sure to download the latest extension version from Sonnet's web site if you are using one of these upgrades]

Crescendo Card Stats

-Card

Type

Cooling System

Variable/Fixed Clock Rate

Tech Support

Warranty

Price Information

Sonnet Crescendo
G3 L2 300/150/1MB

Cache Slot

Heat Sink

Fixed

Phone
949-261-1426
E-mail

3 Years

OtherWorldComputing

Sonnet Crescendo
G3 L2 300/150/512

Cache Slot

Heat Sink

Fixed

Phone
949-261-1426
E-mail

3 Years

OtherWorldComputing

Sonnet Crescendo
G3 L2 240/120/512

Cache Slot

Heat Sink

Fixed

Phone
949-261-1426
E-mail

3 Years

OtherWorldComputing
Ta