Low End Mac Gaming

Gaming With Older Power Macs

Brian Rumsey - July 18, 2000

The first generation Power Macs, while by no means cutting-edge, are still capable of running a fair portion of modern games. For the purposes of this article, the first generation Power Macs include the 6100, 7100, 8100, and their variants, and the Performa/Power Mac 5200, 5260/5300, 6200-6230, 6260-6310, and 6300/6320.

The key to getting the most out of your first generation Power Mac is knowing how to upgrade it for maximum performance without spending a fortune and which games to play. In this article I will address upgrades, and in a future article I will address specific games.

The two most important components to upgrade are memory and hard drive. Early Power Macs often shipped with 8 or 16 MB of memory and 250 MB to 1 GB hard drives.

Even 16 MB of RAM is not much these days. Considering the low prices of memory upgrades, it is advisable to add two 32 MB SIMMs (first generation Power Macs take SIMMs instead of DIMMs), which will give you plenty of memory to work with. This upgrade should cost $100 or less. All first generation Power Macs have at least two SIMM slots, with some having as many as eight. Apple lists 32 MB as the largest officially supported SIMM in these computers, although adventurous types have reported success with 64 and 128 MB SIMMs. If you are willing to risk unsupported memory, 64 MB SIMMs can be a very good deal. Oempcworld.com sells them for around $50 each. If you do get SIMMs from them, or any other non Mac-specific dealer, make sure you are getting Mac-compatible SIMMs.

Another very important upgrade, as I mentioned, is the hard drive. While even a relatively modern system can run on a 250 or 500 MB hard drive, it does not give you much room to work. For users who want to make the most out of their first generation Power Mac, I would recommend upgrading to a 4 GB hard drive. I recommend 4 GB because I think that it is a good compromise between size and cost. Prices on 2, 4, and 9 GB drives have been dropping fairly quickly recently.

If your Mac uses an IDE hard drive, you will find IDE drives cheaper than SCSI. IDE drives are cheap enough that a 10-20 GB drive can be reasonable for a first generation Power Mac.

Memory and hard drive are the critical components to upgrade. There are other options, too. Most of these computers shipped with 2x or 4x CD-ROM drives. A faster CD-ROM drive will be of no benefit to some games, but will make a huge difference in others. Upgrading to a faster CD-ROM is not a bad idea if the computer in question is getting a lot of use, especially with CDs.

A number of video cards are also available for these computers. For 61/71/8100s, if you are using the Apple HPV or A/V video card, there is no reason to get another card unless you have a need for the slot occupied by your video card. The HPV and A/V cards use the PDS slot, of which there is only one, while third-party cards use a NuBus slot. If you are using motherboard video, you may want to install a PDS or good NuBus video card, because the motherboard video support is not able to support very high resolutions. If you are using a 52xx/53xx/62xx/63xx Power Mac, there are a few options besides the built-in video support, but they are rarely necessary.

The most expensive upgrade option, which is only available for the 61/71/8100 series, is an upgrade to a G3 or G4 processor. These upgrades will certainly provide a performance boost, but, as I have noted in a previous column, they are not usually a very good investment if your primary use is playing games. This is because these old Power Macs do not have PCI slots to take modern 3D accelerated video cards. Also, some games actually require the PCI architecture to run, so they will not run on a 61/71/8100 even if it has been upgraded to a G4.

These upgrades are somewhat more reasonable if you are also planning to use your computer for tasks like web browsing, word processing, and other business applications. Despite the impracticality of these upgrades, they have always held my interest. If I ever get my hands on one, I will be sure to report its gaming performance.

Hardware is not the only upgrade issue. Much of the perceived speed of any Mac comes from which operating system it is running. Any Power Mac with enough memory can run any new Mac OS through 9.0.4. However, running the newest OS will cause an older Power Mac to feel slow, as well as use up a lot of memory.

The general consensus seems to be that Mac OS 8.1 is the best choice for first generation Power Macs. It provides a good mix of speed and features. You will want to have at least 24 MB of memory, and preferably more, for Mac OS 8.1. Other choices include Mac OS 7.6.1, which includes modern networking and will feel quite fast, and Mac OS 8.6, which is newer and a bit slower but includes more features. I do not recommend Mac OS 9 for these Power Macs, but if you decide to install it, you should probably have at least 64 MB of RAM.

As you can see, there are several options for upgrading first generation Power Macs. In my opinion, it is not out of the question to spend at least $200 on upgrading a first generation Power Mac, because once you have done this much upgrading, you will have a computer that, depending on your needs, could still serve you well for a year or two.

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