Review: Radeon Mac Edition

By Peter Molfese and Joel Hruska

Date: February 1st, 2002

In a time of constant technology breakthroughs, where the computer you buy today is already outclassed by the computer coming out next Tuesday, the first thing that my PC-owning friends say to me when they see my Power Macintosh G4 running at 500Mhz is something like this, “My computer is twice as fast, cost less, and is more upgradeable.” If you’re reading this review and you’re a faithful Mac user, take a deep breath! That two or three year old computer has hope of staying “cutting edge” with the help of a video card upgrade.  ATI has long been a supporter of the Macintosh platform and was kind enough to provide a card for testing. 


The Macintosh Radeon

The Mac Radeon is somewhat different than its PC counterpart.  The Mac Radeon apparently does not support FSAA but lists Line and Edge anti-aliasing as being supported.  ATI has recently informed us, however, that an upcoming driver version for OS: X will support 2x and 4x anti-aliasing for the first time on the Macintosh platform.  This particular model of the card is a PCI version, but the card also ships in a 2x / 4x version.  There was also some confusion as to whether or not the Mac Radeon supported ATI’s Video Immersion Technology, as it is not listed on its website.  We contacted ATI on this matter and they assured us that the Mac Radeon did, in fact, support ATI’s hardware DVD implementations.  The Mac Radeon also only offers 32 MB of RAM, not 32 or 64 as with the PC version.  The following features and specifications are common to both the PC and the Mac Radeon.

Charisma Engine:  This is the Radeon’s Hardware T&L Engine and can process up to a theoretical 30 million triangles per second (though real-world fill rates are always much lower). 

Pixel Tapestry:  This is ATI’s rendering engine, capable of rendering three pixels in a single pass (compared to other video cards in its price range which can only render two).  The engine has a theoretical rendering rate of up to 1.5 Gigatexels per second, though rates this high are almost never seen.

Video Immersion:  This is ATI’s digital video display technology and it offers excellent MPEG2-decoding in hardware as well as support for motion compensation and iDCT for minimal CPU usage.  Although all video quality tests are subjective, the Radeon certainly appears to have one of the best-looking DVD-playback modes around.

The card also supports EBM (Environmental Bump Mapping). This technique gives a more realistic ‘depth’ to a 3D image.  The card also ships with both a VGA and a DVI output on the same card. This is particularly important for those Apple owners who have DVI flat panels.  ATI also ships the card with an S-Video and an S-Video to RCA adapter cable for gamers looking to play on non-S-video-compatible televisions or use the television as a presentation medium.  Including the additional cables and converters is a very nice touch from ATI and well-appreciated by any buyer.


Benchmarks and Specifications

Testing Specs

Unfortunately the majority of the tests that can be performed on an upgrade of this type using a Macintosh are non-quantitative.  We have used quantitative tests to provide concrete numbers where possible but have also assembled a series of qualitative tests to better examine the upgrade to a Mac Radeon from the standard ATI Rage Pro 128.   Some general questions to ask yourself if you’re thinking of upgrading include 

QuickTime is Apple’s multimedia suite (http:// www.apple.com/quicktime ), which handles most every video and picture format on the market. The ATI Radeon yields a nice performance increase in viewing movies at full screen size making them look smoother.  On our system it actually improved a major issue with QuickTime, where occasionally audio and video would lose synchronization.  Most people would agree that when you’re watching a QuickTime movie trailer it’s annoying to have the audio a full 3 seconds off of the video. It was nice to see the problem corrected. 

Interestingly, ATI mentions in its documentation that your QuickTime movies will look better when rendered in full screen than they did before. I found this to be true although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much of a difference it makes.  In simple observations, the DVD player with the Radeon in both Mac OS 9.2.2 seemed to render movies more smoothly and with fewer jumps than rendering with the Rage 128, especially when other processes were running in the background.  This is due to the “Video Immersion” technology on board the Radeon and its ability to handle the DVD decoding in hardware. 

Mac OS X seems to have shown some visible improvements in terms of rendering the “genie effect1” for minimizing windows, however this could be a difference effect.  If you are  unfamiliar with the “genie effect” go to www.apple.com/macosx/ to watch the minimization video. I did notice several differences in viewing quality of OS X with the Radeon over the Rage 128. 



While either graphics card performs well with the game in either 640x480, it is rare that you find “serious” gamers wanting to play in such a low resolution. To top if off, very few people enjoy playing with no details – no offense to any legacy Quake 1 players out there.  At this speed we see the two video cards neck-and-neck with the Mac Radeon leading by less than 1 fps.

In 800x600 at high quality you can begin to feel a difference between the graphics cards. The noticeable lag while shooting or firing that rocket into one of your best friends when using a Rage Pro vanishes when the Radeon is used. 

In 1024x768 Quake 3 is unplayable on the Rage Pro system. The Radeon improves this dramatically and I found that if you do something as small as turn high quality sky off, it will jump the frame rate to 36.7 Frames/Sec. This is a very impressive score since it outperforms the older ATI Rage Pro at 800x600.

It is important to note that these frame rates might be lower on the Mac than a corresponding PC machine as the drivers on the Mac do not allow for Vertical-Sync to be switched off for testing, however the tests are internally consistent.  At high resolutions there is as much as a 50% improvement by switching to the faster Mac Radeon.  


Concluding Remarks
With the release of the ATI Radeon Mac edition, ATI has shown its support for the Mac platform once again.  It is available in both PCI and AGP forms.  As a Mac user who does not have extra money lying around to purchase a whole new computer, the ATI Radeon has breathed new life into my system.


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