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Speed is in the cards

Are processor upgrades worth the money?

For the first time ever, companies that make Mac processor upgrades have announced upgrade cards with speeds up to 1GHz. Though the cards aren’t shipping as this column is being written, that kind of speed leaves me asking the question: Are processor upgrades worth the money?

After all, the fastest Mac system shipping is a dual-processor 1GHz system (though that changed when new machines were unveiled at the Macworld New York), so the thought of simply upgrading your current Mac to this speed is tempting. On the other hand, upgrade cards aren’t cheap, and there are other variables to computer performance than sheer megahertz.

When looking at the overall performance of a computer, processor speed is, of course, critical. But then, so are things such as bus speed, amount of RAM, the quality of the hard disk, type of graphics card, etc. Still, Robert Jagitsch of Austin, Texas-based Mac CPU upgrade maker PowerLogix says that processor upgrades are worth the money because you can’t get that kind of performance boost anywhere else for such a low price point.

PowerLogix recently announced new PowerForce G4 Series 100 and Series 133 upgrades that will be available in speeds ranging from 750MHz to 1GHz. The new upgrade should be available by the time this story goes to press.

PowerLogix said the new cards use Motorola’s PowerPC 7455 processor. They sport four integer execution units, one double precision FPU, and four 128-bit AltiVec execution units. The chips also feature 256KB on-chip Level-1 cache running at the same speed as the processor. The PowerForce G4 will be available with varying amounts of Level-3 cache.

The PowerForce G4 Series 100 upgrade cards are designed to work in the following systems: Power Mac G4 “AGP Graphics” running at 350, 400, or 450MHz; Power Mac G4 “Gigabit Ethernet” at Single 400, Dual 450, or 500MHz; and Power Mac G4 Cube running at 450 or 500MHz. The PowerForce G4 Series 133 upgrade cards work with Power Mac G4s running with a 133MHz bus, including: Power Mac G4 “Digital Audio” at 466, 533, 667, 733, or Dual 533MHz; Power Mac G4 “QuickSilver” at 733, 867, or Dual 800MHz; and Power Mac G4 “QuickSilver 2002” at 800, 933, or Dual 1GHz.

Prices will range from $449 to $749.

“We aren’t trying to beat the performance of a new Apple machine,” Jagitsch says. “Although sometimes that has happened, that isn’t our ultimate goal. After all, we can’t take a machine with a 100MHz bus and make it run 133MHz, and include a new video card, and faster or bigger hard drive, all for the price of a processor upgrade. If you need or want all that, buy a new machine.” He said that PowerLogix’s latest cards are designed to offer 95 percent of the performance for 25-35 percent of the price of a new machine, which for many people offers the best mix of performance versus budget. There are a huge number of customers who, with a faster processor (and perhaps more RAM and a faster/bigger hard drive, both of which are relatively inexpensive) can get performance indistinguishable from that of a new Mac, he said. And they may have enough left over in their budgets for a big LCD monitor or a multiple-machines upgrade for less than the price of a new one, he adds.

Jagitsch says there are many circumstances (and combinations of circumstances) in which people should consider upgrading. If you can get virtually identical performance to that of a new computer, without spending the money on a new one, you should upgrade. If you want to spread out the cost of improving your Mac, you’re an upgrade candidate. For example, you might want to upgrade the processor now, the hard drive in three months, the video card three months after that, etc.

“Others may want to get something Apple doesn’t offer; for example, 1GHz in a Cube,” Jagitsch says. “Some Mac users may want to extend the life of a machine. Many older Macs aren’t fast enough for dedicated use on someone’s desk, but can be used as servers and even dedicated fax machines, and an inexpensive upgrade can help them perform better. Not everyone or every application needs the fastest computer in the world, so why spend the money if you don’t have to?”

Large installations are also good candidates for processor upgrades, he adds. It’s significantly cheaper to upgrade 500 machines than it is to buy 500 new ones, Jagitsch says. This is especially important in education, where budgets are tight. Those looking to maximize performance versus cost in an office should also think about upgrading, he says.

Still, he admits there are circumstances in which upgrading isn’t feasible. First, some systems aren’t upgradable. Second, the age of the computer might make it impossible for an upgrade to match the performance requirement. And third, well, there are looks.

“New Macs are usually sexier than old Macs, even if the old one is faster,” Jagitsch says. “Also, if you want or need the latest greatest Mac technology, regardless of price, [you may want a new machine].”

Newer Technology, widely known for Mac processor upgrades, has reentered the Mac space under new leadership. Newer-closed in 2001 after it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection-will be selling completely new products as well as some MAXpowr upgrade designs. The intellectual property was purchased by a former Newer employee, Rick Estes of Wichita, Kan., who plans new product introductions as well as producing upgrades. The company plans its own 1GHz upgrade, but hasn’t elaborated.

When it comes to processor upgrades, Estes says it depends on the Mac and the applications you’ll be using. Generally, people look at the price of a new machine versus the price of an upgrade, factoring in how long the upgrade will prolong the life of a machine.

“When it comes to upgrading from a G3 to a G4, it generally depends on whether you’re using AltiVec-aware software,” Estes says. (AltiVec’s new engine provides for highly parallel operations, allowing for the simultaneous execution of up to 16 operations in a single clock cycle.) “If you are, it makes sense to upgrade. If you’re using, say, a sub-200MHz, you could upgrade to 500MHz, for example, for about $300. A new machine would cost four times that. Also, when you upgrade, you don’t have to transfer all your data over, and you can continue to use a machine that you’re familiar and comfortable with.”

On the other hand, if you need the “absolute maximum throughput” and are doing lots of graphics, you need to buy a new Mac. Interestingly, Estes said that Mac users can “look forward to Newer products that are faster than Apple’s announced products.”

Sonnet Technologies also makes processor upgrades. Not surprisingly, they also feel that they offer a good deal on their products.

“Third-party Mac upgrades are a good bargain for a few reasons,” company spokesperson Joy Hsu says. “First, installing a CPU upgrade usually takes just minutes, and saves the user from lengthy downtime required when configuring a new machine, and eliminates the tedious task of transferring all the data from one computer to another. Second, with very few exceptions, everything that was working before the upgrade will be working after the upgrade, including software, peripherals, memory and other add-in cards. Hubs, adapters and software upgrades can add hundreds of dollars to the ‘starting’ cost of a new computer.”

Potential upgraders include those who want and need more processing speed from their computer and can find a compatible upgrade available for the machine. If their Mac is already running the applications they want to run, and speed is the missing ingredient, a CPU upgrade “is the only way to go,” Hsu said.

But for those who can’t run the applications they want to run, and who will need several major enhancements to get where they need to be, they’ll want to evaluate the total cost of upgrading against the cost of a new system. For example, if you plan to use your Mac for professional video development under Mac OS X, and you’re working on a PowerMac 7500 with 64MB of RAM and a 1GB hard drive running OS 8.6, it would be hard to justify an attempt to convert your current system, as it would cost more than an (old style) iMac to get even close, Hsu says.

Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus–author of 39 books, including “Dr. Mac: The OS X Files (How to Become a Mac OS X Power User)” and “Mac OS X For Dummies,” columnist for the Houston Chronicle, and an Apple Solution Experts Trainer specializing in Mac OS X–generally advises against upgrades.

“The only time I can see an upgrade being the best solution is for users on incredibly tight budgets,” he says. “For some users, an upgrade is the only way to coax more life out of an older Mac. But my advice is and has always been: Buy a new Mac or a used later-model Mac instead. Each generation of Macs has improvements that go beyond the processor: faster motherboard busses, faster CD-ROM drives, bigger and faster hard disks, the ability to use faster RAM, and so on.”

If you upgrade an older Mac, you get a faster processor but none of the other benefits. So if you can possibly swing it, a whole new Mac will usually give you significantly better performance, LeVitus said. And after selling your old one, it may not cost that much more than the upgrade you were considering. LeVitus advises you not to upgrade if you can afford a new Mac instead or if you’re a technophobe “There may be issues with upgraded systems that don’t affect stock Apple systems,” LeVitus says.

As for yours truly, I’ve never bought an upgrade card for any of my Macs, mainly for the reasons “Dr. Mac” points out. I usually try updating my desktop and laptop once a year. Most folks won’t need to upgrade as often as I do, but as Mac journalist, I feel the need to have fairly up-to-date equipment (at least that’s what I tell my wife when the credit card bills arrive). I’ll either sell my old systems or deal with a company that takes trade-ins, such as AIS Computers in Atlanta.

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