Pimp my Mac

The title of this entry comes with all apologies to Brad Oliver, but I could not resist using it to talk about upgrading my trustworthy Quicksilver PowerMac that has been used for a home computer and as a system to manage the various media in the house as well as functioning as a Photoshop machine to complement the photography habit.

As it was, the Quicksilver system *was* a G4 running at 733 Mhz, plenty fast for running OS X, surfing the web, writing and such, but a bit too slow for my photography and frankly, it just felt slow given that I am rolling with a MacPro quad 3.0 Ghz Xeon in my office at work. Granted, upgrading your Macintosh does not always make sense given the kind of power you can pick up in even a low end Mac Mini with dual core Intel chips these days. However, I’d invested a fair amount of money into internal hard drives (2 250GB Seagates), memory (1.5 GB RAM), and software applications that are not yet universal binary, such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite (although I am beta testing Photoshop CS3 on the MacPro at work and it *is* amazingly fast) for this system and for the money, figured that if upgraded for a few hundred dollars, I could easily get another couple of years out of this machine before dropping the cash on whatever new hotness Apple has available then.

I’ve written about upgrades to Macintosh systems years before for the now dormant Applelust website. Not much has changed since then as the upgrade routine is largely the same depending upon the model of Macintosh you may have and who makes CPU upgrades that will be compatible with your particular Macintosh. There are currently a number of manufacturers including Newer Technology , Daystar Technology, Powerlogix and Sonnet Technology. Options have been limited in the past for a number of reasons including Apple’s maintenance of a closed CPU architecture that was closely tied to ROM among other reasons. Unfortunately for the PowerPC camp, Motorola and IBM some time ago either could not improve performance enough or simply had decided to no longer focus their efforts on making the PowerPC chips with applications for desktop or portable systems any faster and the upgrade speed potential has been stalled for some time. This lack of commitment to desktop and portable applications of course was the principal reason why Apple shifted their platform from IBM and Motorola to Intel and incidentally has put a crimp on the business of companies like Sonnet, Daystar, Newer and Powerlogix leading them to diversify into peripherals to supplement their CPU upgrade business and maintain their viability. Ultimately I believe this to be a good thing for Apple and the upgrade manufacturers and have eagerly embraced Apple’s move to Intel by purchasing a number of Intel based Macs for work. My hope for the upgrade market is that with the move to Intel chips we may see resurgent CPU upgrade business as there have been a number of reports of folks upgrading their Mac minis with faster Intel chips as they have become available.

That said, for the home system, I was still dealing with a G4 based PowerPC system and would thus be restricted to a Motorola series chip even though Motorola has not upgraded the specs of this chip for some time. At the moment there are a couple of flavors of G4 chips that you can use in your upgrade including the 7457 and the 7447A revision. The 7457 chips have an additional level 3 cache that speeds up calculations significantly, but after Apple stopped ordering 7457 based chips for their portable systems for reasons of cost, clock frequency improvements stagnated at around 1.4 Ghz with that line. So, while you can still get an upgrade based on the 7457 with a level 3 cache, you will not be able to find one that runs faster than 1.4 Ghz currently and with the extra 400 Mhz of speed that is possible with the 7447A, there is a slight edge in speed possible for many calculations. The other issue is that if you want a dual CPU upgrade, you will not be able to find one that uses the 7457 chip for reasons that are not immediately clear to me as dual CPU upgrades were certainly possible with the 7455 chip. I suspect it is simply a cost structure issue to avoid cannibalizing sales of the lower cost, but higher profit 7447A chips? Perhaps Mike Breeden over at Xlr8yourmac could provide some clarity on this issue…. Mike?

A third option comes from Daystar who also makes a 7448 based upgrade for Apple’s Aluminum based Powerbooks running as fast as 2.0Ghz, but given that Apple never shipped a system with an OS running on a 7448 based chip, you will forever be limited to relying on additional software patches provided by Daystar to make your system run. This of course means that you are less likely to have a future version of OS X that successfully runs on your upgraded system.

Because this system is principally a Photoshop machine, and I wanted to preserve as much functionality and compatibility as possible this upgrade was going to consist of the fastest G4 upgrade I could find in a dual CPU configuration, making it the dual G4 7447A 1.8Ghz upgrade. The next decision was which vendor to use which is actually pretty easy for me as I went with Sonnet given my past experience with the company and the simplicity of the upgrade process with those chips. In short, provided there are no BIOS upgrades required, installation consists of simply removing the heat sink from the old CPU, unscrewing the CPU from the motherboard and reversing the process for the installation. Sonnet generally has the highest performance possible without resorting to overclocking as well given my past upgrades in other systems with Sonnet CPUs including other G4s and G3s. I am not sure why this is given that the chips themselves all come from Motorola, but there must be some sort of optimization they are doing to eek out something. This does not surprise me however as many of the engineers from Newertech went to Sonnet after Newertech’s bankruptcy and prior to the reorganization. Newertech took over the reins from the previous best Macintosh CPU upgrade manufacturer on the planet after Daystar went out of business back in the days of
the beige box Macs.

As long as I was upgrading the CPU, there were a few other upgrades that should be done to maximize the value of this particular system. Because the fan on the Nvidia Geforce 4 Ti card was making a tremendous amount of noise, I also decided to change out the fan on the system with a Zalman fan which brought it’s own issues. I am routinely amazed at the cheap quality fans that ATI and Nvidia have shipped over the years with their video cards. I’ve gone through a number GPU fans both at home and at work and have used a variety of companies fans as replacements. The best by far come from Zalman, though they are sizable and will obstruct the adjacent PCI card slot in all but the most recent motherboard designs.

Other upgrades include adding a USB 2.0 card and another SATA card for a third internal drive for backup purposes, and a Apple OEM 16X dual layer Superdrive. I bought a Sonnet Allegro USB 2.0 card and a Sonnet Tempo SATA card but there are any number of slightly cheaper vendors for USB and SATA cards out there that would work including USB cards from IOGEAR and MacAlly for USB cards and SATA cards from Firmtek. Performance with informal benchmarking appears absolutely identical for the Sonnet SATA card and the Firmtek SATA card as I also have one of those in the system and am very happy with the performance and reliability. You can get all of these products from the above named vendors from Other World Computing, a company that provides great service and some of the best prices on Macintosh parts, peripherals and more. (That is an unpaid endorsement. I just happen to think they are great)

Installation of Sonnet CPU upgrade and Zalman fan:
There is nothing complicated about these upgrades as the process is relatively simple. With respect to the Sonnet upgrade, one can download the manual from Sonnet’s website here for detailed instructions specific to each model of Macintosh. The one and only complaint I have with these upgrades is that if your firmware is not up to date, then you have to boot into an OS 9 partition in order to update the firmware. This is largely because Apple has no interest in providing a firmware updater to allow folks to upgrade their older machines, but it would seem that Sonnet could invest some time and effort in reverse engineering an OS X native firmware updater. OS 9 issues aside, the installation is straightforward and should take no more than 12 minutes or so given the clean design of Sonnet’s CPU upgrade. It comes with a rather substantial copper heatsink with fans pre-attached, so all one has to do is plug it in and ensure that you have attached the captured screws (nice touch) to the points on the motherboard.

The Zalman fan I purchased was the VF900-Cu, bearing supported fan constructed of yet more pure copper (perhaps mined from here) and dual heatpipes to maximize heat transfer. Because of the bearings, I am hoping for a bit more lifetime on this fan than the OEM supplied fans, but the additional advantage is that they can be throttled down in speed thus decreasing their noise signature, yet still maintain cooling. Installation is again straightforward consisting of removing the previous fan, cleaning the GPU core and installing the new fan with thermal grease. Again, because of the substantial size of this upgrade, you will block the adjacent PCI slot. Another problem on this particular motherboard with the Nvidia GeForce Ti GPU is that one of the bottom screws used to secure the fan to the GPU will contact the closest RAM module. There are two solutions to this including using a rubber spacer or simply not using that one screw to retain the fan as three screws appears to do a sufficient job of maintaining uniform contact. Other GPU cards may not position the GPU core as far down which would eliminate this proximity problem. The Zalman fan also comes with little purple anodized heatsinks for the GPU RAM that may or may not actually do anything. Installation is relatively straight forward and they do not cause any other obstruction problems greater than those posed by the actual thumbscrews to retain the fan on the GPU card, so I installed those as well.

Booting the system up with the upgrade installed made the interface feel just as snappy as my quad 3.0 Ghz MacPro at work. Application performance was also much improved. While extensive benchmarking was not performed, a couple of quick informal tests were performed with Xbench and a Photoshop script sequence on an image data-set and a quick evaluation of frame rates in Halo, one of the applications I helped beta test. While the stock G4 running at 733Mhz scores a 92.1 on Xbench, the upgraded system with a Sonnet dual G4 running at 1.8Ghz scored a 175.15 with CPU scores of 89.21 and 224.99 for the stock and upgraded system respectively. My Photoshop tests required 487 seconds to complete the scripts for the stock system and 172 seconds for the upgraded system. Archiving a 1.5GB file from the finder required 640 seconds for the stock system versus 210 seconds for the upgraded system. While I don’t have any recent games to test frame rates with, I do still have the latest release of Halo (v1.5.2) on the system, so running at full screen with high quality settings with shadows, detailed objects, specular lighting and max detail settings on, average frame rates of the time demo test were 16fps with the stock 733 G4 and 36fps with the Sonnet dual G4 at 1.8Ghz making this system very playable at the high quality settings. Now if I could just find the time to play the game…

So, for less than the price of a new Intel Mac mini, I was able to renew, reuse and recycle an older G4 tower that ultimately delivers better performance than the Mac Mini, provides the convenience of 750 GB of intern
al hard drive storage (or more), and dramatically increases the performance of applications while preserving investment value of software not yet available as a Universal Binary . I could have saved a couple hundred dollars by going with a single CPU, but enough functions in Photoshop benefit from multiple CPUs that it made sense for me to pay the extra for the second CPU core.

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