ATI Radeon HD3870 video card upgrade for first-gen Mac Pro

How much did a video card upgrade affect Aperture performance?
The current video card upgrades at the Apple Store are not compatible with first-generation Mac Pros, which is really unfortunate (I have an old 3GHz Mac Pro that uses 667 MHz DDR2 memory). With the coming reliance of Snow Leopard and apps on Core Image (which uses the GPU for accelerated performance), a fast video card is a must in any modern Mac. Plus, I use Aperture, which is really only usable with a fast video card.

My Mac came with an NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT 256MB, which was virtually obsolete before it shipped, and so for $339, I upgraded to an ATI Radeon X1900 XT. I installed the ATI as my primary card, and attempted to use the NVIDIA as a secondary card for a second monitor. This failed abysmally in Aperture. Furthermore, the ATI 1900 XT is big, loud, and runs really hot. It is also plagued with problems on the Mac: I posted an article about dancing sparklies, which has this far generated over 54 comments from other folks with the same problem.

Today, I installed an ATI Radeon HD3870 Mac & PC Edition (512MB RAM), which I purchased for $216 at Amazon. My research [review 1] [review 2] indicates that it is the best card to get for aging Mac Pros. It's cheap, fast, and most importantly, works in a first-generation Mac Pro. At Amazon, it's hard to find because it's cryptically named Radeon 3870 Rohs 512MB, but it's there, and with free shipping and no tax, it was a no-brainer.

I yanked both the X1900 GT and the GeForce 7300 GT, and now am running only the Radeon 3870 in my system, with two 30" screens attached to it. Firing up Aperture, I notice now that it runs much faster -- it is a huge improvement in usability!

Here are some numbers for the amount of time it took to go from preview to rendered image (21-megapixel Canon 1Ds Mk III raw files) in Aperture (double-clicking on an image thumbnail with Aperture running full screen on a 30" display):

- Mac Pro 3 Ghz / ATI X1900 GT: 2.8-3.9 seconds, with most values around mid 3-sec range - Mac Pro 3 Ghz / ATI HD3870: 2.0-3.9 seconds, with most values around low 2-sec range - MacBook Pro 17" Unibody 2.93 Mhz: 2.3-3.1 seconds, with most values in mid 2-sec range (Aperture was only displayed at 1920x1080 instead of at 2560x1600)

I also did an export of 36 21-megapixel Canon 1Ds Mk III RAW files to 8-bit TIFs. The upgraded video card had no effect on this time, so I guess it's all CPU power (it took 2 minutes). My MBP17 unibody took 2 minutes, 50 seconds -- not bad, for a notebook!

If you are an Aperture user on an aging Mac Pro with an old, pokey video card, buy the ATI Radeon 3870 now. It's a high-value upgrade that might just extend the life of the machine.