Home > Features > Product Review: AMD-ATi Radeon X1900

If you work in architecture, chances are that you'll have 3D modelling somewhere in your production pipeline, either in design exploration or client presentation. You may also be wondering what benefits a more-powerful graphics card can bring to the party. The SketchUp forums in particular seem to be deluged with "What-is-the-best-graphics-card-for" questions, this program being a particular resource hog for OpenGL renderings.

If you're a Mac user, the choices are, admittedly, limited. Apple offers just three graphics card options in its current Mac Pro line up, starting with the nVidia GeForce 7300 256MB (ships with base configuration, $149 per additional card) moving on to the ATi X1900 XT 512MB ($249 BTO, $399 upgrade) and topping out with the eye-wateringly expensive nVidia Quadro FX 4500 512MB (an additional $1649 BTO – at the time of writing this doesn't seem to be available as an upgrade on the Apple store). All of these cards are capable of running two displays simultaneously, with the top two cards having the ability to run two 30" Cinema Displays simultaneously. The 7300 can 'only' drive one 30" display, plus an additional monitor.

We'll be looking at the ATi X1900 XT, both in its incarnation direct from Apple (which is destined to fit into the Mac Pro) and in the third-party card from ATi that upgrades the PowerMac G5 line (as long as they have PCI-Express slots).

ATi X1900 XT 512MB - Mac Pro Edition


The Mac Pro has garnered plaudits for its ease of upgrading, and this extends – partly – to the installation of new graphics cards. The blanking plate with its two captive bolts that hold the PCI cards in place obviates the need to go scrabbling around for lost screws, and the double-height first PCI slot accommodates the cooling fan housing on cards like the X1900 without sacrificing a further slot.

The X1900 certainly is a monster when compared to the stock GeForce 7300 GT, with its white, cast-metal fan housing covering the cooling fan and copper heatsinks needed to keep the temperature of the high-speed GPU within operating limits. It's also easily a third as long again as the stock card and the back end must be located in a slot on the 'rack' in front of the forward fan housing to stop it 'flapping'. In a standard set-up, the card will reside in the first, double-height, 16x PCI-e slot. Due to its extra circuitry and cooling fan, the X1900 needs to draw additional power from the motherboard, and to this end a flying Molex power lead hangs off the card, which connects with one of two corresponding sockets on the motherboard. This is where we encountered the only hassle with the installation: the motherboard power sockets are quite hard to reach and required the removal of our Mac Pro's first two hard drives to make access easier. Even then, the sockets are located just beneath the front fan housing, making getting a connection very frustrating. And we mean a good 15 minutes worth of frustration. (see image 01-02).

01 - Installing the X1900
02 - X1900 installed

Solving the Noise

Once installed, however, it was quickly up and running, with Mac OS X loading the correct drivers with no intervention on our part. But the first thing that grabbed our attention was the noise. Apple has gone to great lengths to achieve the design goal that the Mac Pro machines be as silent as possible. Having this card in place completely destroys that goal. It really is very noisy, even at idle. A few minutes cursory exploration with SketchUp also showed that the card had a tendency to ramp up its fan at regular intervals when orbiting a model, increasing the noise level even further. We knew that this was a situation that we couldn't support in a work environment, so we knew we would have to seek alternate solutions.

We wanted to stress this card in a typical architectural environment, so we devised a few test files that we knew would stress the card's ability to handle complex models with textures. These were based on models in SketchUp (www.sketchup.com), a 30-second OpenGL camera flythrough in Cheetah3D (www.cheetah3D.com) and some large scrolling test in VectorWorks.

Having used ATi cards previously in G5 machines, we were looking forward to using the ATi Displays Control Panel, which allows you to set such niceties as full-screen antialiasing (FSAA) and to fine-tune Performace vs. Quality settings on an app-by-app basis. Neither nVidia card offers this option. The trouble was, the Displays.app didn't seem to be installed on our Mac Pro. A quick trot over to ATi.com revealed that while ATi Displays.app was available for downoad in its latest, Universal Binary incarnation (version 4.5.9), it would only install on G5 machines. We have no idea why ATi are limiting this set of utilities only to G5 customers, and shutting out Mac Pro users. True, ATi only sells the G5 card – the Mac Pro version has to be sourced through Apple, but still...

However, we found a way around this.

A little bit of judicious searching turned up a webpage at http://aarongyes.com/guides/atidisplays/

Instructions are here for a small Terminal hack that will make your Mac Pro report itself as a G5 to the ATi installer, and ATi Displays.app will then install normally. (see image 03). After all, if you've just paid out $250-$400 for the latest and greatest graphics card, you'd expect all the bells and whistles as well, wouldn't you?

03 - ATI Displays app (click on thumbnail)


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