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Use the (Ge)Force

March 24, 2009 - Dave Hecei
Recently Apple updated their entire desktop line of Macintosh computers – Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro tower. With this update, and the update of all their notebook computers last Fall, Apple has transitioned all of their stock computers to nVidia GeForce video cards or chips. This is a drastic step showing that Apple has fully committed its resources to nVidia, while keeping ATI, the only other major video card company, as an option on ‘build-to-order’ Macs.

Lower end Macs – the mini, MacBook, MacBook Air, and base iMacs – now use the integrated GeForce 9400M video chips. Integrated video is built onto the motherboard and uses part of the system RAM instead of its own dedicated video RAM (VRAM). These chips are much less expensive and can help keep the cost of a computer lower. Usually integrated video does not have the same performance as a dedicated system, but this new 9400M chip might surprise you.

In previous models, both the Mac mini and the MacBook used the Intel integrated video chip, the Intel 950 GMA. This video system was adequate for 2-D functions like word processing or image editing but had very poor 3-D performance. This kept the mini and MacBook from running a large array of new Mac games and even some productivity software.

The new GeForce 9400M chip has helped fix this since it seems to have better 2-D and 3-D performance. These Macs can now play games like Tiger Woods Golf and Call of Duty 4, which wouldn’t even load if you had the Intel integrated video. The 9400M video chip will not make these Macs gaming machines, but it does allow for the casual Mac gamer to have some fun.

The new MacBook Pro, mid to upper iMacs, and the Mac Pro tower now have new discrete nVidia video cards (of course the only Mac that has a physical card that can be removed and replaced is the Mac Pro tower). The MacBook Pro notebook has both the 9400M and the much faster 9600M video systems. The reason for having both is for power management. Since a notebook can live on an internal battery, you have your choice of longer battery life, using the 9400M, or better performance, by using the 9600M. Apple claims you get an extra hour of life by using 9400M video.

The new 24-inch iMacs are available with either the new GeForce GT 120 or GT 130 video card. The GT 120 has 256MB of dedicated VRAM, while the GT 130 has 512MB. The GT130 is also slightly faster. For those who choose the Apple Store build-to-order (BTO) option, you can upgrade the GeForce to an ATI Radeon 4850 HD video card with 512MB of VRAM.

The new Mac Pro towers (either the quad-core or eight-core) come with the GeForce GT 120 card with 512MB of VRAM. If you choose the BTO option, you can upgrade to the ATI Radeon 4870 HD cards. This ATI is the fastest card currently available for the Mac Pro.

While the GeForce GT 120 and 130 are decent cards, they are only slightly faster than some previous models and should not be considered ‘high end’. The Windows PC side has cards that far outreach the performance of these Mac video cards. There are plenty of high-end gaming cards, plus there are plenty of high-end workstation cards, cards that are meant for serious graphics software. These cards are pretty expensive. Gaming cards are $400-500 and workstations cards can get into the four-figure price range. If you consider that a decked out Mac Pro tower will likely set you back 4 or 5 thousand bucks, a $500 video card isn’t outrageous.

Choosing a single platform for the off-the-shelf Macs keeps things consistant. nVidia does make some of the best video chips, for the moment. The GeForce 9400M is the best price/performance solution for the lower end Macs, since the Intel integrated video was such a poor performer. It would be nice if Apple could up the ante with the faster Macs sometime soon.



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