Low End Mac Gaming

The Suitability of G3 Upgrades for Gaming

Brian Rumsey - June 9, 2000

If you have been following Macs, you can not help but notice that there are a lot of upgrade options available for older Power Macs. These upgrades make more sense in some cases than others. The case I am going to examine is gaming.

Everybody knows that a faster computer will play games better than a slower one, but the real question is whether or not the available upgrades are suited to gaming.

There are many ways to upgrade your computer. Adding more memory is almost always a good idea. Other peripherals can also be upgraded, such as your hard drive or video card. However, what I will look at is the heart of the computer: its processor. I am only going to deal with G3 and G4 upgrades. If you have questions about lower-powered upgrades, I would be happy to address them by email,* and maybe I will do a column about them in the future.

The earliest series of Macs which can be upgraded to G3 and G4 are the first generation Power Macs, the 6100, 7100, 8100, and a few variants. In some ways it is amazing that these computers can even be upgraded to G3 or even G4, considering the 60-80 MHz processors they came with.

There are some good uses for upgraded first generation Power Macs, but I can not honestly say that gaming is one of them. The greatest reason is that these computers do not have any PCI expansion slots. This prevents you from getting a good 3D accelerated video card, which is needed for certain types of games. If that isn't enough, most of the upgrades for these computers fit into the PDS slot, of there is only one, and which is also used for some video cards which are available for these Power Macs. There are adapters available which allow you to continue to use your PDS graphics cards with these G3/G4 upgrades, but they cost about $100 extra, almost the cost of a new PCI Voodoo3 video card. Also, these computers have relatively slow bus speeds of 30-40 MHz. (The bus speed is the speed at which the processor talks to the other parts of the computer. A slower bus speed means that a lot of the power of a fast processor is wasted waiting for the rest of the computer.)

There are two other considerations when upgrading a first generation Power Mac. One is that, unless you have already upgraded other aspects of your computer, you will need to do so in order to run most games which will take advantage of the G3 or G4. Another is that some games will not run on any computer with a NuBus architecture, even if the processor is upgraded. Heroes of Might and Magic III is one exampel - The stated minimum processor is a PowerPC 603 at 180 MHz. Since none of the first generation Power Macs fit within this range, support for the NuBus architecture was not included. This prevents even upgraded NuBus machines from running this game, as well as several other games. I guess my final word about this group of computers is that they are not necessarily bad gaming machines, but if a game won't run at all without the upgrade, don't count on it running well with a faster processor.

There are no G3 upgrades for a lot of the early Performas.

The next series of upgradable Macs is commonly referred to the 7300-9600 series, because most Power Macs with a number in this range are included. Also included are several clones. These machines are built around a PCI architecture. Another series of computers which is not quite as similar internally, but can be grouped with this series for this article, is the 603-based machines aimed at the consumer market, which includes a few Power Macs, some Performas, and several clones.

Although this whole group of computers, even with G3 upgrades, is not quite as good as "true" G3s, they are still good enough to make it worth upgrading for gaming. Since they have PCI slots, they can use almost any video card. If you upgrade all of the components of your second generation Power Mac, it will basically be equal to a new computer, with one (fairly big) exception: bus speed. As I said earlier, bus speed is the speed at which the processor communicates with the rest of the computer. These Power Macs came with bus speeds ranging from 40 to 60 MHz, compared to 66 MHz for the original (beige) G3s and iMacs and 100 MHz for later models.

The end result of this slower bus speed is that your hard drive access may not be as fast, memory access will be slower, newer graphics cards will not be pushed to their limits, and the like. I experience choppiness at times in Unreal Tournament on my Power Mac 7300 with a G3/300, more than I would expect to see in a true Power Macintosh G3/300.

As for compatibility, almost any game should run on a G3 upgraded second generation Power Mac. In fact, most will probably run on the original 603 or 604 processor, even if they are not "officially" supposed to - but they will not necessarily be playable. I would generally recommend G3 or G4 upgrades for this series of computers, although it is wise to calculate your projected costs before you start upgrading to make sure you are not approaching the price of a new computer. Note that there have been some incredible deals on G3 upgrades listed on Deal Mac lately.

Although some people out there would be very happy just to have a G3, there are others who want to push their G3s even higher. Some G3-based models, such as the iMac, are not easily upgradable, while others are very easy. Since the G3 is a relatively new computer, most of the people wanting to upgrade it are probably not incredibly cash-strapped. There are not any major drawbacks to these upgrades other than a smaller increase in speed than for older machines, so I would say if you want it and have the cash, you might as well go ahead. Upgrading to G4 is also an option with this series as well as the other series. At this point the G4 does not offer much better gaming performance than the G3, although this is likely to change as support for the G4 becomes more common.

Well, there you have a somewhat brief overview of how suited various G3 upgrades are for gaming. I hope have not created more questions than I have answered.

* Readers, please note that for the next two weeks I will be traveling out of the United States. While this will not set back my next article terribly much, it does mean that I will rarely, if ever, have access to email. If you email me, be patient in waiting for a response.

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