Sunday, November 23, 2008

The (Not-So) Compleat Guide to USB 2.0 PCI Cards for Older G4 Macs

N.B. As I crawl the web for info on upgrades for my MDD and Sawtooth Power Macs, I'll undoubtably be coming across other info and various other interesting minutiae on PCI-based USB upgrades for Macs - I'll then be updating this post as I find more stuff.

Update (1/13/08):


Apparently, Nvidia has gotten into the business of producing USB 2 chipsets; a card I purchased sold by Ultra (the house brand of components sold by Tiger Direct) had an image on the box which led me to believe that it used an ALi chipset - I was surprised to find that the card instead used an Nvidia chipset.


Apparently, what Nvidia has done is that it's acquired the M5273 chipset from ALi, by way of acquiring ULi. It seems that several years ago, ALi split into ALi proper, which now makes chipsets for webcams, set-top boxes, and personal media players, and ULi, which made chipsets for computer I/O interfaces like USB, SATA and IDE/PATA. In 2005, ULi was bought out by Nvidia.

Enough corporate shilling - how well does the card work? It doesn't seem to support deep sleep on my Sawtooth running 10.4.11. Otherwise it works as any ordinary USB 2 PCI card should. The card is currently in an upgraded Rev. B 300 MHz Beige G3 Desktop running 9.2.2 - interestingly, the card was not detected until I reverted the USB drivers to those from the USB Adapter Card Support 1.4.1 adapter originally released for 8.6 and above (see below). Under OS 9, it behaves as a USB 1.1 card, and at least works with USB mice. USB hard drives required a system restart to be seen and mounted.

If you're having problems with getting USB PCI cards to be recognized in OS 9, this tip from the 6400 Zone appeared to work for me in getting the Nvidia card recognized in the Beige G3:

Install MacOS 9.2.2.

Go into your Extensions folder and move out the following extensions: USB Authoring Support, USB Device Extension, USB Software Locator and USBAppleMonitorModule. Put them on the desktop, you will need them later.

Install the Apple USB Adapter Card Support 1.4.1 software.

Move to the Trash the following extensions: USB Authoring Support, USB Device Extension, USB Software Locator, and USBAppleMonitor. (You won't be able to delete them because they are "in use.")

Drag the extensions you removed in step 2 back to the extensions folder.

Restart the computer & empty the trash.

The USB standard for connecting computer peripherals rose in a few short years from relative obscurity to becoming the de-facto technology for linking peripherals to a host computer, even eclipsing the arguably superior FireWire in both its incarnations as FireWire 400 and FireWire 800. Even most HD camcorders use USB (in the form of USB 2.0) as their primary interfaces.

Of course, Apple had a little bit to do with that of course.

Since the days of the Blue-And-White Power Mac G3, all of Apple's Power Mac lineup have had PCI expansion slots. While USB 2.0 PCI cards aren't a dire necessity, their relative low cost and ubiquity, not to mention the alarming speed at which people tend to accumulate USB devices, means that a good USB 2.0 card is something that most people with Macs equipped with PCI slots should have, if they don't have them already. A card generally costs the same as a good USB 2.0 hub, but is somewhat more preferable in that having a card means potentially less cable clutter.

You'd be forgiven then if you naturally assumed that it was a matter of just popping own down to your local Big-Box Store and grabbing a USB 2.0 card. After all, USB 1.1 and 2.0 devices should in theory be compatible with the OHCI/UHCI/EHCI specification (you'll find information on this in System Profiler). Sadly, things aren't that simple. If this is your first foray into the wild and wooly world of Mac upgrades, get used to it...

Not All USB 2.0 Cards Are Created Equal

The first thing you need to pay attention to is the chipset. To my knowledge there are currently three main manufacturers of USB 2.0 chipsets, the ICs which manage the USB 2.0 interface (Remember that one of the characteristics of USB is that the CPU manages data I/O throughput - not much of an issue with mice and keyboards, but something which may lead to system slowdowns if you're transferring multi-GB files from a 1 TB drive.): NEC, ALi, and VIA. NEC is a very large, very well-known Japanese general electronics manufacturer who you've probably heard of or seen in some form or another (notably, they were known for their monitors, and used to make PCs in the mid-90's). ALi is a lesser known Taiwanese manufacturer producing FireWire chipsets and also combination FireWire/USB chipsets as well, in addition to other similar products. VIA is another general electronics manufacturer producing things like motherboards - you most likely know them for their C3 and C7 low-power x86 CPUs, popularized in small form-factor/home-theatre PCs and netbooks.

Other manufacturers known to produce chipsets for USB PCI cards are OPTi, Lucent, and Agere, but to my knowledge, cards using those chipsets aren't as common as cards with chipsets from the three manufacturers I'm covering here.

In short, here's what you need to know:

VIA - USB 2.0 cards with a VIA chipset will work, at least in Power Mac G4s like the Sawtooth. However, they do not support deep sleep on the Mac, so putting your Mac to sleep with a VIA-powered card installed with result in your Mac either freezing, or in an unrecoverable "quasi-sleep" where the display will go black and the power light will remain a steady green with the fans on, requiring a hard restart. Watch out for combo USB 2/FireWire 400 cards using VIA chipsets - from what I've heard on some forums apparently they don't work in Macs at all. I've also heard that in some cases VIA-based cards will drop down to work only at USB 1.1 speeds.

There are drivers for these chipsets in OS X 10.2-10.4 available from VIA - but I find their effectiveness worthy of doubt; it's likely that they may interfere with the on-board USB drivers in Mac OS X, potentially causing kernel panics or other such errors.

ALi - USB 2.0 cards with an ALi chipset will work - I have two such cards installed, in both a Sawtooth and an MDD, and with the Sawtooth, the card appears to support deep sleep with no issue. On the MDD it's been somewhat hit-and-miss, with the Mac going to sleep and waking up without issue, crashing before going to sleep, or crashing on wake-up. With each successive update to 10.4 however, I've seen these problems crop up less and less, so I'd say that these cards generally should work fine with Power Macs, so long as they're updated to the highest OS they can support (generally 10.4.11).

NEC - these are the cards you should get. Apple used NEC chipsets on the motherboards of some Power Macs like my MDD, so it stands to reason that cards using these chipsets should be the best overall for use on Macs, and that generally is the case. There are some exceptions, however; I tried an NEC-powered card on a Beige Power Mac G3 with a Rev. A motherboard and Rev. 1 ROM - the card didn't work in OS 9, causing Type-11 errors on startup. The card worked just fine however, on a Sawtooth when booted into both 10.4.11 and 9.2.2, being detected fully and supporting deep sleep. The early G3s are notorious for their flaky motherboard upgrade support, so this wasn't too unexpected.

I've read reports that on some Macs, even these cards have caused deep sleep, compatibility, stability, and speed issues. In general, in my experience cards with these chipsets have worked flawlessly.

If you've gone to the company websites, you'll notice they generally manufacture a wide-range of USB 2-related chips. From what I understand, generally the companies producing the cards use only a specific model of chip. In other words: don't worry about getting a specific model number of chipset on your card - all you need to worry about is the company which manufactured it. FYI though, from what I've seen on one post on the Apple support forums, the NEC chipset typically used is model number NEC PD720100 or PD720101; the chipset used on the two ALi-powered cards I've used is the M5273.

So how do you know what to buy? Generally, it should be plainly clear from the packaging itself. Many cards (especially those sold in Big-Box stores) come in transparent plastic blister packages which can allow you to easily see what chipset they use. Other times, they come in boxes where the chipset manufacturer is either marked on the side, or can be seen in the product photograph on the front of the box itself. You can also go to the website of the manufacturer of the card. Bytecc, one such company, specifies which company made the chip behind most of their PCI cards; if they don't, it's generally seen in the product promo shots.

As a beginning baseline guide though, here's a very short list of USB 2.0 PCI cards using NEC chipsets sold under various known brand names:

Adaptec 3100LP


Belkin F5U220

GWC UC-160

IOGear GIC250U & GIC251U

Keyspan U2PCI-5

O'toLink U2-C2A, U2-C2B, U2-P20N & U2-P50

Ratoc PCIU5

ADS Tech USB Turbo 2.0 PCI (USBX-2000)

Don't be afraid to ask, too. If they don't (and they generally won't), ask if you could see the card itself to be sure. Depending on where they work, the sales staff might be reticent, but in my experience shopping for parts at locally-owned businesses, I've never gotten any issues in properly looking at merchandise before I bought it.

Some more concrete resources are also available too: Apple actually has a list of recommended USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 PCI card vendors selling cards generally compatible with the iPod (and by extension Macs, as well). xlr8yourmac also has a very excellent resource page with reader reports on USB 2.0 PCI card issues, especially with respect to deep sleep.

Port Authorities

Generally, look for cards which at least have 3-4 ports on them. Marketing materials may include internal ports, so they'll often say "3+1 ports", meaning three external ports plus one internal port. Look for a card which has at least one internal port on it - if you're upgrading a Mac which doesn't have more advanced wireless capabilities you can at least use the internal port for a USB Bluetooth adapter, or USB 802.11b/g/n adapter. One idea I've had rattling around in my head has been to mount a USB soundcard on an internal port and hook it up to a 3.5 mm audio jack extension cord, which I'd thread through a hole drilled into a PCI slot cover - that way I could free up an external port, and streamline my system overall.

The only disadvantage with this is that you may suffer decreased wireless signal range or signal strength since the antennas will also be inside your computer, not just the associated electronics. Some Bluetooth and 802.11 adapters come with mini external antennas, which would likely mitigate this issue. Some have also gotten around this by hooking up the dongles to USB extension cords, fixing the dongles to other spots on the inside of the case which would provide better signal reception.

You may also want to take advantage of the internal port if you're interested in hacking modding your case to accommodate front-mounter USB ports, which is what some people have actually done.


You shouldn't spend more than $20-25 on a decent card. USB is a common technology, so you shouldn't expect to pay a "premium for obscurity", something I've seen with FireWire 400 and 800 PCI cards. If you're paying $25 and up you should at least be getting a card with two internal ports, which aren't very common. Cards from well known brands may command a higher price point, but seeing as how they're simply rebadged OEM products from generic manufacturers you'd be getting the exact same card if you'd bought a "no-name" product from a locally-owned vendor for half the price. At some Big-Box stores, I've seen 2-port USB cards sold for $40 - a complete rip-off.

Finally, if you're running on OS 9.2.2 all the way to 10.4.11 and beyond, there's no need for any drivers, something a lot of people likely know, but it's something that I think is worth pointing out nevertheless. It's also worth noting that there are no official USB 2.0 drivers for OS 9, so if you have an OS 9-bootable Mac, your USB 2.0 ports will drop down to 1.1 speeds if you boot into OS 9.


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