If you’re looking to upgrade the video card on your Apple machine, however, you’re in for a new kind of pain. Apple computers have a very specific design, and OS X has very specific driver support for new devices. There are only a few cards that are compatible. Luckily, I’ve gone to the trouble of identifying three Mac video cards that are currently available and compatible. Note that this article focuses on compatibility with the Mac Pro, as iMacs, while not impossible to upgrade, are not considered user serviceable.
Radeon 5000 series
We’ll start off with the most obvious choice first. Current Mac Pro computers ship with the Radeon HD 5770 video card, a fast mid-range card with 1GB of RAM. This is not the fastest card on the market by a long shot, but it is also far from the slowest, and it will provide a noticeable boost if you’re using a program that supports GPU acceleration. Alternatively, you can purchase the quicker Radeon HD 5870. The Radeon HD 5870 is among the three quickest video cards currently available, so it will provide a big performance boost to any application that can make use of its power.
The Radeon 5000 series cards should work on any Mac Pro tower from the 2008 update or later. However, there does appear to be an issue with the use of DisplayPort on the video card when it is installed in older machines. Connecting a DisplayPort device deactivates the DVI ports, so you won’t be able to connect three displays as you would on a Windows machine but rather only two (with DVI) or one (with DisplayPort).
Quadro FX4800 for Mac
The Nvidia Quadro FX4800 is a high-end graphics card built for workstation computers, and the “For Mac” edition is the only current Nvidia Quadro card that can be used with the Mac Pro.
Now you may be wondering – what’s the difference between a Quadro card and a Geforce card? That’s a good question. The answer comes down certain specific features such as quad-buffered 3D output support and 128-bit color precision. These are features that are only useful with certain programs in certain situations (i.e. the Quadro is the only way to view 3D effects with Maya on a Mac computer). The Quadro FX4800 also offers support for CUDA, which is useful for acceleration of video transcoding with CUDA-compatible applications.
The price tag of the Quadro FX4800 is a shocker, however – about $1800 if you buy it from the Apple store and not much less elsewhere. This card can be worth it for certain professionals, but you’ll need to think very hard about how this card will save you time before you purchase it. The FX4800, like the Radeon 5000 series cards, is only compatible Mac Pros made since the 2008 model year.
Nvidia Geforce GT 120
Both the Radeon 5000 Series cards and the Quadro FX4800 are monsters in their own right capable of pushing huge volumes of graphics data through a big, fat memory pipeline.
The Geforce GT 120? Well, uh, not so much. Nvidia’s product line uses larger numbers to represent newer and faster cards, so the GT 120 is quite slow indeed. Even so, it can be a decent upgrade if you have an older Mac Pro with a bum video card or an even less powerful card. Also, as the Apple store description of this card points out — each GT 120 can handle two displays, so you can purchase four of these and run up to eight displays. The Geforce GT 120 is the best way to support a massive multi-monitor desktop.
This card, like the other listed here, should work with model year 2008 or newer Mac Pros although official support only extended to 2009 and newer Mac Pros. The card will cost you $150 from the Apple store.
Older Mac Pros and Conclusion
As you’ve probably noticed, all of the cards here are for relatively new Mac Pros. According to Apple support, the following cards are compatible with the PowerMac G5.
- GeForce 6600 LE
- GeForce 6600
- GeForce 7800 GT
- NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 (part number 631-0110)
And the following cards are compatible with the first two revisions of the Mac Pro
- NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT
- ATI Radeon X1900 XT
- NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 (part number 630-7532 or 630-7895)
- NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT (part number 630-9492), offered as an upgrade kit.
The problem, of course, is that these Mac-compatible video cards are discontinued models. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find them, but you may have to find a second-hand model. If you know of a good source of second hand-cards, or you managed to get a different video card working in your Mac, let us know how you managed it in the comments!