Do High-End G4 Zif Upgrades Make Sense, Or Are Lower-End Cards A Better Value? - A Review
There are both G3 and G4 upgrades, for G3 Macs. This covers both Beige G3's and Blue & White G3 Macintoshes. Our review will cover most of the G4 Zif upgrades from the following manufacturers: NewerTech, PowerLogix, Sonnet & XLR8.
We have had all the cards for about a month now, putting them through our battery of tests, and are pleased to report that they all passed with flying colors.
You will, however, pay a premium to enter the G4 club. And unless you are using, or plan to use in the future, one of the programs that takes advantage of the AltiVec instructions (Velocity Engine) of the G4 processor, you may be better off purchasing a less expensive G3 Zif upgrade.
Installation: Getting in and out of the machines these G4 upgrades are meant for couldn't be easier, with one exception. In the case of the Beige Desktop and Tower Macs you basically remove the cover and unroll your computer. The Blue & White machines are even easier; just lift a latch and the hinged side of the computer swings down exposing the austere guts of the machine. The one exception to ease of access is the All-In-One Mac. The AIO was the precursor to the iMac and was sold mainly to education institutions. Upgrading it is complex and requires many steps. Oddly enough, even though it is the most difficult to upgrade, only Sonnet's installation manual covers the process, although all the processor upgrades support the machine. So hats off to Sonnet for supplying this additional info.
Speaking of manuals, Newer, Sonnet & XLR8 all provide very slick comprehensive manuals that will walk you though the installation process. The PowerLogix manual is a little anemic but still provides you with the vital info you need. It would be nice to see them beef the manual up, including larger images of the installation process and to also more info on over-clocking their upgrade.
Newer, XLR8 and Sonnet provide you with a grounding strap to be worn while installing the upgrade, PowerLogix does not. Overall XLR8's packaging was the slickest, providing not only a high quality, reusable grounding strap but also a small screwdriver, which is a necessary tool for removing the clip holding the processor's heatsink in place.
All the G4 upgrades require you to install software to enable the new processor and its backside cache. You should install the software before installing the upgrade card. If you are installing the card in a Blue & White Power Mac you will also need to update the firmware, if you haven't done so already. The Apple firmware has a G4 block that will not allow the Blue & White machines to boot with a G4 upgrade installed. To get around this, all the upgrades come with software that will patch the firmware update, allowing the machine to operate normally with a G4 upgrade card installed. If you have a beige machine you get to skip this onerous step.
For Newer, PowerLogix & XLR8 the installation software includes both an extension and a control panel. Sonnet simple installs an extension and a utility called Metronome. Metronome gets installed into the Apple Menu folder and displays the proper functioning of your upgrade card and its current operating parameters (temperature, speed etc.) - other manufacturers display this information in a Control panel.
Once you have the software installed getting into your machine, other than the All-In-One, is very easy. We installed the upgrades into a Beige Desktop G3/266 machine, which meant that we basically had to unroll our machine to get access to the processor card. Once you have the heatsink exposed you will need a small screwdriver to remove the clip holding the heatsink in place. This clip was well engineered by Apple, and is easy to remove - if you have a small screwdriver which fits into a hole on the clip. You basically push down and out and the clip comes right off. Thoughtfully XLR8 and PowerLogix include a small screwdriver with their upgrade, for the others you will need to provide your own.
Before installing a Newer upgrade you need to make sure that some dip switches on the card are set properly for your machine's System bus speed - either 66MHz (Beige) or 100MHz (Blue & White).
The XLR8 cards have jumpers. These are set at the factory for the stock speed of the card, but XLR8 encourages you to fiddle with them to see if you can squeeze a little extra speed out of the card. We were able to over-clock the XLR8 card up to 533MHz but as you'll see below that did not result in a better score for all tests.
PowerLogix cards have a switch on them that allows you set the bus speed (for either the 66 MHz bus of the Beige machines or 100 MHz bus of the Blue and Whites) and to play with over-clocking the processor speed itself.
After the heatsink is put to one side (it remains tethered to the logic board by a grounding wire) you simply lift up a lever, gently lift the old processor out and drop the new G4 upgrade in. The pins on the upgrade should easily slide into the Zif socket and it should take only very gentle pressure to make the upgrade card seat all the way. If there is any resistance you have the card aligned improperly and should take a look again at your instruction manual to get the orientation right.
If you have the card seated properly, put the lever down, close up the machine and fire that baby up. You can use the control panel or gauge utility, whichever was installed, to check that the upgrade is operating properly.On the Newer, PowerLogix and XLR8 cards you can set the backside cache speed in each card's respective control panel. In most cases it is best to leave the cache speed at half the processor's speed, or 2:1.
Sonnet's cards have no control panel and cache speed is set at 2:1 automatically by the Encore software.
Note to OS 9 users: If you have been running OS 9 under G3 conditions you will be missing some essential AltiVec libraries in your extension folder. You will need to install these libraries from your OS 9 CD install disk to take full advantage of the G4 upgrade. You can do this by doing a custom install of the "Core System Software" after the G4 upgrade is installed. You can also use the Tome Viewer application. Point Tome Viewer to Software Installers --> System Software --> Mac OS 9 Additions, on your Mac OS install CD, and drag the extracted extensions to your extensions folder.
Performance and Stability: All these cards performed without a hitch in our Beige G3/266 desktop machine. There were no startup problems, random freezes or unexplained program quits during the time we put each card through its paces. Of course applications engineered to take advantage of the AltiVec instructions of the G4, such as QuickTime, showed the most performance improvement. Our QuickTime encode test showed around a doubling of performance with a G4 clocked at the same speed as the original G3/266. For the high-end G4/500MHz cards, the QuickTime test showed an almost quadrupling of performance over the stock machine. If you are using applications that take advantage of the AltiVec "Velocity Engine" and are using those applications to do heavy duty work, it really pays to have a G4 card.
For those doing more general computing and light work with their Mac, the choice between a G4 or G3 upgrade is less clear. Basically similarly clocked G3s and G4s will perform close to the same when running applications that have not been accelerated for the G4. So paying the extra premium for a G4 may not be the wisest choice. For example you may be better off buying a high-end G3 instead of a low-end G4, both of which are priced similarly.
A processor upgrade has very little effect on drive performance, however we were pleasantly surprised by the pickup in video performance when running with a G4/500MHz card installed. We saw an improvement of almost 30% in scrolling speed and a 50% improvement in frames per second when running Quake III at its fastest setting. However hardcore gamers, that want quality along with speed, will have to breakdown and get a high-performance video card- if they don't already have one.
Unexplained is the poor showing of the PowerLogix 400 MHz card and the XLR8 card (when over-clocked to 533MHz) - in our Search & Replace test. We ran the test 4 times, to double-check our results, and came up with the same score each time. If anyone has an explanation for this please post it below.
Conclusions: So what card should you get. All these cards performed well for their rated speed. If you are doing heavy work in applications that stress the extra power of the G4 processor, the additional cost of a G4 upgrade will more than pay for itself in time saved. As far as what speed G4 to get, we give the nod to the 400 MHz cards as being the most cost efficient. These cheaper cards will give you good performance and you won't have to pay the extra premium that a high-end G4 will cost you. From our testing the G4/500 cards will give you a 14% speed improvement over the G4/400 cards for both AltiVec and non-AltiVec processing. The G4/450 from 8-10%. So you can make up your own mind, depending on the speed of your base machine, what speed card will work best for you. Even when upgrading a Blue and White G3/350, your best bang for the buck may be a G4/400, if most of what you are going to do is use it to render using G4 savvy applications.
Do you need a G4 upgrade at all? Well that is a good question to ask yourself. If you are not going to be using one of the audio, graphics or multi-media programs that take advantage of the G4, or only use them on a casual basis, then you might be better off getting a high-end G3, which will perform pretty much on par with a G4 at the same clock-speed. A Sonnet Encore G3/500 will cost you $400. A Encore G4/500 costs $700 - quite a premium to pay for that extra performance, if you are not going to use it.
Ok there are some of you, hobbiest that just have to have the fastest thing possible, no matter what the cost. There is nothing wrong with that. Go ahead and give in to your guilty pleasure ... the economy will thank you!
If you are a tweaker and enjoy playing with your upgrade to see how far you can push it, XLR8 or PowerLogix is the way to go - you can spend half your productive time playing with the jumpers/switches and experimenting with back-side cache speeds. If you want simplicity Sonnet is the way to go - just install a simple extension, install the card and you don't have to think about your upgrade ever again - hopefully. Newer allows you to adjust the cache speed but not much else.
As far as the out of the box experience for the consumer, XLR8 really goes the extra mile, providing a great manual, professional grounding strap, essential screwdriver, a in-house developed AltiVec plug-in for Photoshop 3 & 4 users (downloadable from their web site) and even a little daub of thermal grease. Newer and Sonnet are not far behind in consumer experience with quality manuals and good web sites complete with online tech support. PowerLogix lags a little behind in out of the box consumer experience, but they do provide a copy of the Linux operating system on the software install CD, if you are interested in playing with that.
Below in our ratings we give a slight nod to the XLR8 card at the high-end. This is primarily due to the extra efforts they have taken to make the installation of the upgrade, and its support, easy. For a low-end card, the Newer G4/400MHz gets high scores from us. This is, again, mainly because of Newer's attention to the consumer experience and the fact that it performed slightly better on some tests, over the PowerLogix card. The Newer G4/450 is a good middle of the road card but will only run at 433 MHz in Beige machines. It may appeal to those with G3 machines that already have a relatively high clock speed (300 MHz or better).
It should be mentioned that Newer also has a G4/500 MHz card, PowerLogix has a G4/450 MHz card, Sonnet has a G4/400 MHz card and XLR8 also has G4/350, 400 &450 MHz cards for sale, however none of these cards were available for us to test. (For the additional XLR8 scores below we either clocked down or clocked up the stock G4/500 card that XLR8 provided to us)
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Actual Scores - In Seconds
MAXpowr PB Card Stats