Much of today's Mac music recording and processing software realistically requires a G3 processor to give optimum real‑time performance; but this doesn't mean you need to consign older Macs to the scrapheap. As Bob Dormon explains, there is now an alternative to trading in your old Performa for a costly new machine.
Music software is increasing in power and flexibility all the time, as new programs appear and cutting‑edge features are added to existing packages. The cost of buying and upgrading software easily runs into hundreds, and those exciting new features inevitably make ever‑greater demands on your computer's CPU. You know you're in trouble when your model inevitably appears as the minimum system requirement in the latest update.
Replacing your computer, however, is not only expensive, but unnerving. Transferring files is a chore and some crucial item of software may get lost in the process. The alternative is to buy a processor upgrade card, but until recently, these have only been available for the high‑end Macintosh models. Furthermore, some models have been described as having no upgrade path at all — until now.
One seemingly dead‑end range, the Performa 5400 and 6400, has been granted a whole new lease of life thanks to the innovative design of the Vimage Vpower PF G3/240 upgrade card. This, quite simply, transforms the old 180‑200MHz 603ev processor found in the 64/5400 Performas into a 240MHz G3 PPC 750. Currently, no other G3 upgrade exists for these models.
The G3 processor and its accompanying 'backside cache' are examples of lateral thinking, where the designers thought less about ramping up the processor speeds and more about making existing processing tasks more efficient. Although the difference in clock speed between the 603ev and G3 processors is relatively small, therefore, G3‑based computers still demonstrate greatly improved performace.
The Vimage Vpower PF G3/240 will fit both the Creative Studio 6400, Apple's low‑cost multimedia solution of a few years ago, the all‑in‑one 5400 Performas (which were typically black) and a handful of clones (see spec box for details). The clones require an additional fan that comes with the card and clips onto it.
Unlike the majority of available G3 upgrade cards, the Vpower PF G3/240 does not use a PCI slot. PCI slots are precious to most users, especially musicians, as they are used for audio I/O cards and SCSI accelerator cards, so leaving the PCI bays untouched is a big benefit. Instead, the PF G3/240 fits into the level 2 cache slot found on the motherboard. This may already be inhabited by a level 2 cache chip, which needs to be removed. The 256K level 2 cache found in many Performas is only worth about £35, so it's not much of a sacrifice, and the Vpower card comes with its own 512K level 2 cache — a performance enhancement in itself.
Before you get your screwdriver out, the software, which recognises the upgrade card at start‑up, needs to be in place. This comes on a floppy disk which installs three items: the Vpower control panel, the Vpower PF G3 extension and the Vpower Info application. That done, you can proceed with the hardware installation.
Vimage provide an earthing wrist band, to reduce the risk of static damage to the computer components. Wearing this, you remove the screws from the back panel and pull out the motherboard. The level 2 cache slot will be named on the circuit board. If a cache chip is installed, removing this is likely to be the most difficult aspect of the whole installation. Unlike on memory chips, there aren't any tiny levers to prise the chip out of its socket. Instead, you have to tug on it until it becomes free (I had to wrap a cloth around the chip to get a decent grip on it before it would come out — it was that stubborn). Next, slot the Vpower chip in place, put the board back in, hook up the peripherals and fire up the computer.
Initially, the Mac starts up as normal and then silently reboots, listing the Vpower extension followed by all the others that were already installed before the upgrade. This happens whenever you start up, adding a little time to the boot‑up procedure. The Vpower Info application confirms the presence of the hardware — and from the very first window you open, you'll be aware that the card is working by the swiftness of it all (of course, the speed of the Mac's System buss is not altered by this upgrade, but there's no denying the improvement in overall performance despite this). The Vpower control panel is simplicity itself, with two self‑explanatory options to choose from: Faster and More Compatible. The only time I had to choose More Compatible was with my Virtual PC Windows 95 emulator, which crashed under Faster mode. You don't even have to restart the Mac or quit applications when changing modes. Incidentally, the emulated Windows 95 performance was also greatly enhanced, transforming what had been a sluggish Windows system into a perfectly usable PC. I even managed to get the PC version of Cubasis Lite to run using internal sounds that emulate a Yamaha OPL2/3 FM synth. The timing was a bit dodgy, but it was a result nonetheless.
Diversions aside, Mac music software presented few problems for the Vimage Vpower card. It tested fine with Steinberg's Cubase VST/24, Opcode Vision DSP, Emagic Logic Audio v3.5 and Bitheadz Unity DS1 software sampler (see review on page 40 this month). Unity worked perfectly with the Vpower upgrade, suffering none of the note‑stealing and other glitches that had occurred on the Performa before the G3 installation. The only time that the system appeared strained was when either the Korg 1212 I/O or Sonorus STUDI/O PCI audio cards were used to deliver separate outs via their ADAT interfacing whilst running a number of plug‑ins, among them Waves' heavy‑duty TrueVerb. However, unlike its standard incarnation, this souped‑up Performa could at least run the TrueVerb plug‑in in stereo mode quite comfortably, provided I prioritised plug‑in and EQ usage. Sound Manager performance was better still: Vision DSP performed superbly, with EQs aplenty and a handful of plug‑ins.
To get more precise information on the improvement in performance, I carried out 'before and after' Norton Utilities Benchmark tests. The Vimage PF G3/240 result produced a relative system rating that was 2.43 times better overall, with a CPU rating 2.51 times better than the original Performa 6400 200MHz machine. The Vpower Vimage PF G3/240 even out‑performed the pre‑G3 top‑of‑the‑range 9600 PPC. Vimage claim the PF G3/240's performance exceeds that of a 233MHz G3 desktop machine.
Faced with a bill approaching £1500 for a new 266MHz G3 desktop model, or one for under £500 for the upgrade card option, it's easy to see the appeal of the latter — although it's conceivable that the recent release of the new translucent Macs may well prompt a price reduction of the Vpower PF G3/240. However, the new Macs aren't exactly muso‑friendly, as the USB‑based MIDI interfaces that they need to handle MIDI duties are still thin on the ground and floppy software authorisation from USB drives isn't supported yet (see last month's news item on the new Macs for more on this). Conversely, the original Performa 6400 and 5400 had a lot going for them, and many owners will be loath to part with them, but will be finding their processing power increasingly strained by today's music software. The PF G3/240 is pricey compared to some G3 upgrades for other machines, but considering that the Performa models were thought to have no upgrade path at all, it can't be bad.
- Dimensions: 4.61 in (117.1mm) W x 1.5 in (38.0mm) D.
- CPU: Power PC 750 240MHz.
- Level 2 Cache Size: 512K.
- CPU Clock: 240MHz.
- Level 2 Cache Clock: 120MHz.
COMPATIBLE SYSTEM SOFTWARE
- Recommended for system 7.5.3, 7.6, 7.6.1, OS 8, 8.1.
- Tested OK with MacOS 8.5.
- Apple Macintosh Performa 5400, 5410, 5420, 5430 5440, 6400, 6410, 6420.
- Clones: UMAX Apus 2000, 3000 series; Akia MicroBookPower; SuperMac C500.
- Improves performance with digital audio interface cards.
- Copes admirably with power‑hungry plug‑ins.
- Easy to install.
- Very stable.
- Expensive compared to equivalent G3 upgrades for other Mac models.
It's the only G3 upgrade available for 54/64xx Performas and Apus 2000/3000 clones, hence the price. But once it's installed you notice the difference immediately.