Making Sense of Video Cards
April 18, 2005 2:12 PM   Subscribe

I am about to buy a new Macintosh. How can I most quickly understand the pros and cons of the video cards in various models?

I am considering a 15-inch PowerBook (ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 w/ 64 MB DDR), a 17-inch iMac (NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 Ultra w/ 64MB DDR), and the rumored upcoming speedbumped iMac (ATI Radeon 9600 w/ 128 MB DDR). I am not a gamer, but I very much want a snappy UI. I believe all three of these cards will support CoreGraphics in Tiger. When I try to read reviews on the web, I very quickly get lost in a sea of numbers that don't mean anything to me. If benchmarking were simple, I'd be able to find out "slow, faster, fastest".
posted by alms to Computers & Internet (11 answers total)
Well, slow is easy: the GeForce FX 5200 Ultra

This is a card which supports a lot of complicated shaders, but is limited on fill and transform rate. However it's still pretty good.

As for the other cards, the key words are "Mobility" and the ram there. I'd take a 9700 over a 9600 in general, but having a little bit more ram and the non-Mobility card might be nice.

Honestly I think you'd be happy with either of the ATIs. With the GeForce, you'd be happy unless you ran Halo or something. Personally I'd choose the laptop since, you know, laptops are awesome, but the G5 and better memory architecture make a difference too.

All of these cards will support ARB_vertex_shader, and they will also support ARB_fragment_program, although the GeForce will be kinda slow. As a result, they should support CoreImage and CoreVideo, which is (I assume) what you mean. (CoreGraphics is the base OS X graphics layer; all OS X machines support this.)
posted by thethirdman at 2:52 PM on April 18, 2005

Thanks for this info, TTM. Very helpful. The only remaining question is how I would have most easily figured this out on my own? Are there sites/resources that compare video cards in layman's terms? Or a tutorial on "things to look for when considering video cards" that explains the terminology and different capabilities that get separately benchmarked?
posted by alms at 3:38 PM on April 18, 2005

What were you using previously? I've never had a problem with Mac OS UI slowness, but maybe I'm just patient. If you do, more RAM is probably going to make a bigger impact.

XLR8 Your Mac has an awesome database of video cards (among other hardware upgrades). I think they'd have the kind of real-life comparisons you're looking for.
posted by Sibrax at 4:10 PM on April 18, 2005

If you're not a gamer, your choice of graphics card won't really make much of a difference. "OS-snappiness" is a function of 2d rendering, which all of those graphics cards will do equally well. If you really want more snappiness, you don't need more RAM on your video card -- get more regular RAM.

Where the graphics card starts to matter is in accelerating 3d rendering. This doesn't happen much outside of games. For 3d rendering, though, I'd say the three are probably about equal. The Mobile one might be a bit slower as it sucks less power.

That said, as I was looking at the really big monitors in the campus bookstore the other day the clerk told me that most Macs need a bigger video card to drive the really huge monitors. I don't know if he was right, but if he was then it would be a matter of these smaller video cards not supporting a big enough resolution rather than not having quick enough 2d rendering.
posted by ontic at 5:35 PM on April 18, 2005

The only case of the Mac needing a special card is to be able to drive the 30 inch cinema display.

Otherwise, check out Xlr8yourMac as noted above.
posted by jeremias at 7:16 PM on April 18, 2005

I have no idea how you would figure this out on your own, sadly. I have been developing high-end OpenGL applications (read: games) for years, and that's how I know- just programming all the different cards, developer notes, etc.

You can find a million and a half benchmarks on the web, at the sites noted above, or at PC sites like Tom's Hardware and so forth. Glance at a few, keep glancing over a period of months, and eventually you'll get a rough idea of the performance numbers.

Sorry I can't be more helpful in that regard. :)
posted by thethirdman at 8:22 PM on April 18, 2005

another good site for benchmarks of all kinds for the mac is, pretty comprehensize. that said, i think for general ui snappy, any of those with at least a gig of ram will be just fine.
posted by brionius at 9:05 PM on April 18, 2005

I don't really have any way to back this up, but my intuition is that the amount of regular system RAM you have is much more intimately tied to UI snappy-ness than your video card selection. When I first got my 12" PB, it had the standard 256 MB of RAM and was nearly unusable in terms of responsiveness. One 512 MB chip later, and it screams.

This might also chance when Tiger comes out. As I understand it, part of the value of CoreImage is pushing the more taxing UI effects to the GPU. But I was also under the impression that many effects had already been outsourced to the GPU through Quartz Extreme.

So yeah, I would say to guarantee good performance, make sure you have bare minimum 512 MB or RAM, and if you have the money and really care about it, go to 768 or 1024.
posted by heresiarch at 11:27 PM on April 18, 2005

Thanks to all for all the comments. This is very helpful.
posted by alms at 6:24 AM on April 19, 2005

ontic, what you say is the case with Windows currently, but ever since Mac OS 10.2 and Quartz Extreme, 3D performance has mattered for so-called "2D" desktop performance, as almost all drawing is accelerated with OpenGL. Now with CoreImage and CoreVideo, the GPU plays an even larger role with programmable vertex and pixel shaders. And, as thethirdman says in his first post, the FX5200 is pretty slow in the shader department. It may actually make a difference.
posted by zsazsa at 6:54 AM on April 19, 2005

I have two G5 Macs- a Dual 1.8 at work and a Dual 2.0 at home, with similar RAM configs. I game at home, so that has an ATI 9600. My work computer has a GeForce FX 5200. Aside from gaming, I really can't tell the difference.

Bottom line, unless you're a gamer or do video editing, you should be fine with the stock config.

Also remember- graphics card technology advances much more quickly than other parts of your computer, and is one thing that is easy and cheap to upgrade. Every computer I've owned has gotten a graphics card upgrade at some point.
posted by mkultra at 8:39 AM on April 19, 2005

« Older Help me find a new watch.   |   CMS and Word compatible Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.