G4 upgrades for Power Macs: turning antiques into OS X machines

Introduction

When you want to get the most out of a G3 or early G4 Mac and don’t mind sticking a hand into its guts, a G4 upgrade card may be for you. Although it won’t bring a system up to par with today’s Power Macs, it can significantly improve your OS X experience. For this review, we ran seven upgrade cards through our testing gauntlet, a blue-&-white Power Mac G3/350MHz and a Power Mac G4/500MHz. Documentation
To install an upgrade card, you need documentation with clear illustrations. The PowerLogix PowerForce G4 ZIF, PowerForce G4 Series 100, and PowerForce Dual G4 cards come with an installation sheet with some directions, illustrations, and screen shots that provide a basic outline for installing the card. The sheets for the PowerForce G4 Series 100 and PowerForce Dual G4 lack a tech-support number, and the company’s email address is useless if your computer isn’t booting. PowerLogix does include a DVD with an installation movie, handy if you have a second computer or a TV near your desk. Sonnet Technologies’ documentation is the best of the lot. The bound manual for the Encore/ZIF G4 is detailed and easy to follow. The stapled pages for the Encore/ST G4 cards are likewise well-illustrated and thorough. The Sonnet manuals give detailed instructions for each of the systems the cards support. Installation time
With a reasonably steady hand, clear instructions, and the right tools, the actual mechanics of installing the upgrades are manageable. After you gently remove the heat sink, the ZIF processors lift out of their sockets when you raise a small lever. You have to unscrew three screws to disconnect the G4 processors. Of the upgrades for the Power Mac G3, the Encore/ZIF was the easiest to install. Sonnet included the necessary software on CD. We booted into OS 9, ran the firmware updater, swapped processors, and we were done. The PowerForce G4 ZIF instructions direct you to download the updater from the Apple site, but then to use the PowerLogix files for the actual updating. The PowerLogix site can be confusing, and the first link we found to the updating software was dead. The card also has a dial for setting the MHz speed. We had some difficulty installing the PowerForce Dual G4 cards. Because two processors run hotter than one, the dual-processor cards come with a large metal heat sink (meant to draw heat from the processor) and a fan. If you have an internal Iomega Zip drive, the fan hits up against the Zip drive’s IDE cable. We were able to install each card after we bent the Zip cable to closely follow the lines of the mounting frames for the Zip and CD drives, but the stiff cable fought us. We also had some trouble lining up the screws in the heat-sink holes; they frequently flipped over. Enabling the L3 cache on the single-processor PowerForce G4 Series 100 card took extra effort. The required software utility didn’t come in the box, so we had to go to the PowerLogix Web site to get it. The utility runs in the Terminal window. Although the instructions were easy enough to follow, we would have liked something more elegant. Performance
Both sets of cards improved the test systems’ performance by at least 30 per cent. In general, we had fewer installation and performance problems with the cards for the Power Mac G3 models than with those for the Power Mac G4 models. This stability makes sense because the G4 upgrades for the Power Mac G3 have been on the market, at one speed or another, for a few years. The dual-processor cards outperformed the single-processor cards only slightly in most tasks. The second processor does come in handy with processor-intensive tasks that take advantage of it, such as conversions in iTunes and many Photoshop operations. The first batch of Dual cards from PowerLogix had stability problems. They consistently crashed when we used iTunes to encode a song as an MP3 file. Moving the card to a second Power Mac G4/500MHz AGP system didn’t solve the problem. PowerLogix found the source of the trouble: as the second processor kicked in, the motherboard couldn’t supply enough power. The company sent us replacement cards with added power bypasses that fixed the problem. The first Sonnet Encore/ST G4 800 had difficulties running Classic. Even after we completely reinstalled the system, we got a message claiming that the Classic ROM was damaged. We also had intermittent hangs when we rebooted the system with the Encore/ST card installed. Sonnet was able to get us a replacement card that didn’t have either problem.
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