Hardware

Cadalyst Labs Review: Play Your Cards Right

1 Oct, 2005 By: Ron LaFon Cadalyst

PCI Express Graphics Cards Push Performance


FOR THIS ROUNDUP we requested newly introduced PCI Express graphics cards. Each vendor had the opportunity to submit two graphics cards in two of the following categories: entry-level, midrange and high-end. Cards had to support at least 1280X1024 with 32-bit color at a minimum 85Hz refresh rate (our testing resolution). Graphic cards were evaluated based on meeting minimum configuration requirements, benchmark results, price, features, warranty and documentation.

We received two cards from ATI, the entry-level V5000 graphics card and the V7100 midrange offering. NVIDIA sent its midrange Quadro FX 1400 and its new high-end Quadro FX 4500. These graphic cards ranged in price from $415 to $2,499, with two in the $650–$700 price range. In terms of price/performance ratios, a look at the online feature table (images.questex.com/Cadalyst/PrintEdition/2005/1005table.htm) shows that you pay for performance characteristics. The faster cards will certainly let you get more work done more quickly, but whether they fit your budget is another question.

This is our first graphic card roundup limited exclusively to PCI Express cards. Though a number of AGP 8X graphics cards are still available from most vendors, little development is foreseen in this category. It's likely that any new AGP graphic cards will be covered in Cadalyst as First Look reviews, rather than in future roundups. This reflects the superior design of PCI Express and its swift adoption among workstation vendors. PCI Express will ultimately prove useful in workstation operations other than the graphic subsystem. Networking is an obvious example, though we see little movement toward these other capabilities in newly released systems.

 Overall Performance
Overall Performance

As I've previously noted in Cadalyst, PCI Express will produce only incremental performance improvement in CAD/CAM workstations. The most immediate impact is on systems that are used for endeavors that currently tax the system bus to the limit, such as video editing. CAD/CAM systems will benefit from some performance increases immediately, but will depend on software support from their primary CAD/CAM applications to take full advantage of features found in PCI Express.

Other than increased performance, always a good thing for CAD and visualization professionals, not much is new in terms of features. Most of the changes evident in new graphics cards are evolutionary, such as more graphic pipes and onboard memory—512MB is the popular new pinnacle. Though SLI (scalable link interface) technology is proving popular in gaming systems, there has been little adoption of the technology for CAD/CAM workstations, though that may change when stable and complete drivers are available.

More graphics cards support dual-link technology to drive ultra-high resolution displays, such as those from IBM and ViewSonic. Such displays are more popular in GIS and medical imaging than they are in the CAD and visualization categories.

Price/Performance
Price/Performance

How We Tested

For testing, we used a new system from @Xi Computer, the MTower 64 SLI workstation based on the ASUS A8N-SLI motherboard with the NVIDIA NForce 4 chipset. See our review of this system. The system offers two PCI Express slots in an SLI configuration. The system we evaluated had an AMD Athlon 64 dual-core microprocessor and was set for single graphics card operation. The test system was loaded with Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed. The requested configuration included 2GB of 400MHz DDR2 PC3200 RAM, two 74GB 10,000rpm Western Digital SATA Raptor hard disks with 8MB cache and a Sony DW-26a DVD+R/DL-R double media drive. We downloaded the latest drivers from the vendor Web sites and installed them before running our benchmarks. If an accelerated driver for 3ds max was available, we used the most current version.

All cards submitted for review carry a standard three-year warranty, earning each a B in that category. There's nothing wrong with a three-year warranty, but it would be nice to see a longer warranty on one of the more expensive components in a workstation.

Cadalyst labs report card
Cadalyst labs report card

We ran our usual set of test suites on all the graphics cards submitted: the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark test running under AutoCAD 2006, the SPECviewperf 8.01 proe-03 test suite and MAXBench 4 with 3ds max 7.0. All cards were tested with the supplied drivers at 1280X1024@32-bit color depth. The default accelerated drivers for AutoCAD 2006 (WOPENGL8.HDI) were used for the tests. If an accelerated AutoCAD driver was available, it's noted in the online feature table, but was not used for the tests. If a special driver was available for 3ds max 7, we tested with the accelerated drivers and noted the results in the table. Recently, 3ds max 8 was announced and is due to ship in the near future, at which time we'll evaluate it for use in our benchmarks.

The burgeoning array of PCI Express graphics cards available ensures that users have a wide range of choices available in whatever price range and category they need. The workstation-level graphics card choices available now are some of the best ever.

ATI FireGL V5000

ATI Technologies
905.882.2600
www.ati.com/firegl
Cadalyst Labs Grade: B+
Price: $415



The ATI FireGL V5000 is an entry-level workstation graphics card that features 128MB of onboard DDR3 memory and six geometry engines and pixel pipelines. We previously reviewed the FireGL V5000 as a First Look (Cadalyst, April 2005), but this is the first time it's been included in a graphics card roundup. Since that review, two things have changed significantly. The graphics drivers are now at v6.14.10.6546, which we used for our benchmarks in this roundup, and the price has dropped substantially, from $699 to the current $415, making it the least expensive graphics card in this roundup.

With a price tag of only $415, the ATI FireGL V5000 makes an attractive entry-level graphics option.
With a price tag of only $415, the ATI FireGL V5000 makes an attractive entry-level graphics option.

The V5000 incorporates dual DVI connectors for multidisplay applications and also boasts a Stereo 3D connector with quad-buffered support. It supports dual-link connectivity, which is especially surprising in such a reasonably priced entry-level graphics card. Dual-link support lets the V5000 drive the new ultrahigh-resolution 9-megapixel displays such as those from IBM and ViewSonic. Though these monitors continue to be on the expensive side, prices have dropped somewhat and other, more reasonably priced options are in production.

The ATI FireGL V5000 doesn't require a wiring harness or dongle to support its power requirements, as do most of the PCI Express graphics cards that we've seen thus far, including two of the other cards in this roundup. The ATI FireGL V5000 is self-contained, drawing its electrical needs entirely from the PCIe slot in the host system. The card is quiet in operation, thanks to an enclosed fan and heat dissipation system.

Capable of producing a maximum resolution of 2048X 1536 per display in dual-display mode and 3840X2400 in dual-link mode, the ATI FireGL V5000 supports independent resolutions and refresh rates for any two connected displays. The V5000 is covered by a three-year warranty that includes toll-free technical support.

The V5000 is supported by ATI's unified driver architecture and supports OpenGL v1.5 and extensions, OpenGL Shading Language and DirectX 9 and DX9 HLSL. Display drivers for Windows 2000/XP and Linux are regularly updated on the ATI Web site. ATI FireGL graphics cards are certified for a wide range of CAD and digital content creation applications.

We tested the V5000 on the system described above, but it was not a smooth operation. The current revision of the ASUS BIOS for the A8N-SLI motherboard in our test system initially did not allow either ATI graphics card to operate, but this was resolved by using the previous revision level of the BIOS software. This was obviously an ASUS problem and will undoubtedly be resolved promptly.

Once installed and running correctly, the ATI FireGL V5000 graphics card produced a total index score of 114.63 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark and 45.95 on the SPECviewperf v8.01 proe-03 benchmark. Using 3ds max 7 and ATI's MAXimum driver v2.05084 accelerated driver with MAXBench4, the card achieved a low frame rate of 68.73 and a high rate of 101.15, for an averaged score of 84.94. These numbers are all a bit higher than the last time we tested the FireGL V5000—the result of a different test system and newer drivers.

If you're looking for a low-priced entry-level work-station class graphics card, the ATI FireGL V5000 is well worth investigating.

ATI FireGL V7100

ATI Technologies
905.882.2600
www.ati.com/firegl
Cadalyst Labs Grade: B+
Price: $650



Like the ATI FireGL V5000, we previously reviewed the FireGL V7100 in First Looks (February 2005). As we found with the V5000, newer drivers were available and the price was reduced. The V7100 now costs $650, down from $1,099—a substantial drop.

The ATI FireGL V7100 midrange PCI Express graphics card incorporates 256MB of onboard GDDR3 memory
The ATI FireGL V7100 midrange PCI Express graphics card incorporates 256MB of onboard GDDR3 memory

As designated by the V in the model name, the FireGL V7100 is from the Visualization series of PCI Express graphics cards from ATI. One of its most obvious features is the large copper heat sink, which is typical of recent models in the FireGL line.

ATI says the FireGL V7100's single-chip architecture means fewer failure points and shorter physical connections, which minimizes the time and distance between data requests and delivery to maximize reliable performance.

The V7100 is a relative quiet graphics card that uses a single PCI Express slot. As is somewhat typical of newer PCI Express cards from most vendors, the V7100 includes a wire connector for feeding in two power leads from the host system. If either lead is unattached, the system won't boot.

Two DVI-I connectors and a 3D stereo connector are incorporated in the ATI FireGL V7100, which comes with 256MB of GDDR3 onboard RAM.

We tested the FireGL V7100 on the @Xi system described in the introduction to this roundup and, as noted in our review of the V5000, initially encountered some problems with the ASUS BIOS for the A8N-SLI motherboard in the test system that prevented the system from booting. This was resolved by using the previous revision of the ASUS BIOS.

Using v6.14.10.6546, the most current video driver for Windows XP available on the ATI Web site, the V7100 achieved a total index score of 135.8 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark test. With MAXBench 4 running under 3ds max 7 with ATI's MAXimum driver v2.05084 accelerated driver, the card posted a low frame rate score of 73.47 and a high rate of 110.41, for a combined average of 91.94.

Finally, the FireGL V7100 generated a score of 47.67 on the SPECviewperf v8.01 proe-03 benchmark. All test scores were higher than when the card was tested previously, the result of the workstation used for the tests, a newer driver revision level and an updated version of the accelerated driver for 3ds max 7.

The FireGL V7100's scores and new, reduced price place it in the midrange of workstation graphic cards. Our one previous complaint with the V7100 had to do with its pricing, which is now what we'd expect for its performance level. Like other FireGL cards from ATI, the V7100 is covered by a three-year warranty that includes toll-free technical support.

AMD 64-bit dual-core system for CAD

Xi MTower 64 SLI Workstation
Pros: Quiet; economical; good performance.
Cons: None significant.
Price: $2,821
@Xi Computer
800.432.0486
www.xicomputer.com





One of @Xi Computer's latest models, the MTower 64 SLI workstation offers two PCI Express slots in an SLI (scalable link interface) configuration. It incorporates the ASUS A8N-SLI motherboard with the NVIDIA NForce 4 chipset. The system evaluated featured an AMD Athlon 64 dual-core microprocessor and was set for single graphics card operation. Switching from a single- to a dual-card configuration is simply a matter of changing the orientation of a small circuit card located between the two PCI Express slots.

@Xi MTower 64 SLI system comes with either a regular fan or a water system for cooling.
@Xi MTower 64 SLI system comes with either a regular fan or a water system for cooling.

We reviewed two versions of this workstation—the more conventional version that we ultimately used for the graphics card benchmark tests and a fanless version that is cooled by an external water tower radiator. The latter system greatly reduces system noise by eliminating noisy fans, though the verdict is still out on using water to cool relatively expensive electronic equipment that is used for critical work applications such as CAD. Whatever your particular take on this technology, the water cooled systems are quieter—though from past experience, water and electronics do not mix well when they come together. In addition, with both the water-cooled and the more conventional fan-cooled systems, the primary source of noise is the fan system on the graphics card.

Dual-core microprocessors are typically slower than their single-core siblings, producing benchmark scores slightly slower for nonmultithreaded applications. With applications designed to access a second processor (either stand-alone or the second core of a dual-core chip), performance benefits from the second processor.

That said, on the test bench the MTower 64 SLI system achieved a score of 165.86 on the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark with the speedy new NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 PCI-Express graphics card installed—certainly a good score.

The MTower 64 SLI system is housed in a new, compact case with a 460W power supply. The case provides four 5.25" drive bays and six 3.5" drive bays, as well as excellent potential for system expansion.

The price for this system, as equipped per our specifications for the tests at hand, is $2,821. This configuration included 2GB of 400MHz DDR2 PC3200 RAM, two 74GB 10,000rpm Western Digital SATA Raptor hard disks with 8MB cache, a Sony DW-26a DVD+R/DL-R double media drive, a Logitech Deluxe keyboard and a Logitech 2+ optical mouse. Sound and networking capabilities are incorporated in the motherboard. The system price includes Microsoft Windows XP Professional and the Thermaltake Rocket external silent water cooling system ($219). As with all @Xi systems, a multitude of configuration options and components are available. —R.L.

Matrox Launches PCI Express Options

Especially noted for its high-quality 2D graphics cards and multimonitor support, Montreal-based Matrox Graphics didn't have any new 3D cards ready for testing this time around. The company currently offers an extensive array of graphics cards from several different lines, including its first PCI Express cards. Here are the particulars on two such cards.
The Matrox Parhelia DL256 uses industry-standard dual-link DVI to support monitors with up to twice the resolution of typical digital monitors.
The Matrox Parhelia DL256 uses industry-standard dual-link DVI to support monitors with up to twice the resolution of typical digital monitors.

Matrox Graphics
800.361.1408, 514.822.6000
www.matrox.com/graphics

Parhelia DL256
Price: $699

The Matrox Parhelia DL256 PCI graphics card supports the dual-link DVI (digital video interface) industry standard for high-resolution digital monitors. Using dual-link DVI at a standard refresh rate (60Hz), this card can support resolutions as high as 4 million pixels. Dual link allows twice the resolution of standard single-link DVI solutions.

The higher resolutions made possible with the combination of a Matrox Parhelia DL256 graphics card and a high-quality, high-resolution monitor, such as the 30" Apple Cinema HD Display, let users see more and do more.

Increasing display resolution offers some of the same advantages as increasing the number of displays used. Extra displays are appropriate when information is easily divided, but increasing the resolution of a display is more appropriate when large amounts of information need to be kept together, for example, when viewing maps. With the Parhelia DL256, you can simultaneously use an additional analog monitor.

The P650 PCIe 128, Matrox s first PCI Express card, offers DualHead support for using two digital or analog monitors at a time.
The P650 PCIe 128, Matrox s first PCI Express card, offers DualHead support for using two digital or analog monitors at a time.

By installing more than one Parhelia DL256 graphics card in a single computer, you can use more than one high-resolution digital monitor at a time. This solution provides a resolution of 2560X1600 and is ideal for CAD and GIS workstations. The Parhelia DL256 supports both Microsoft Windows- and Linux-based systems.

The Parhelia DL256 is a 64-bit PCI graphics card that is compatible with all PCI and PCI-X slots (not to be confused with PCI Express). Included with the Matrox Parhelia DL256 are a DVI-to-HD-15 connector adapter, a TV-output adapter cable (HD-15 to composite video and S-video) and a stereo-3D connector bracket (mini DIN-3 connector). Optional upgrades include a Linux display driver (Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake), a Sun Solaris x86 display driver and the Matrox advanced synchronization module for multicard genlock (frame lock and pixel lock). Warranty coverage is a standard three years.

Millennium P650 PCIe 128
Price: $249

The Matrox Millennium P650 PCIe 128 is the first Millennium P-Series graphics card designed for PCI Express (x16). With full DualHead support for using two digital or analog monitors at a time, 128MB of onboard graphics RAM and certified drivers for some leading software applications, this product is well suited for CAD and GIS professionals. By providing the ability to manage large amounts of information, Matrox multidisplay support can help users improve productivity and reduce errors.

Reasonably priced at $249, the Matrox Millennium P650 PCIe 128 card drives one or two digital monitors at resolutions of 1920X1200, two analog monitors at 1920X1440 or a single analog monitor at 2048X1536.

Two DVI-to-HD-15 connector adapters are included, and a TV-output adapter cable (HD-15 to composite video and S-video) is available as an accessory. This product includes Matrox UltraSharp display output technology, single- and multidisplay acceleration for OpenGL and Microsoft DirectX, and high-quality display drivers for Microsoft Windows 2000/XP.

Additional display drivers are available for Linux (Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake) and Sun Solaris x86. Warranty coverage on the Matrox Millennium P650 PCIe 128 is a standard three years.

NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400

NVIDIA
408.486.2000
www.nvidia.com/quadro
Cadalyst Labs Grade: B+
Price: $699



We last looked at the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 when it was in prerelease form, noting that it was sure to find a home in many CAD/CAM systems. This has certainly been the case, as the FX 1400 has proven to be one of the more popular graphics cards from NVIDIA, offering very good performance coupled with a moderate price tag.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 midrange graphics card posted very good performance scores on our benchmark tests.
The NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 midrange graphics card posted very good performance scores on our benchmark tests.

The NVIDIA FX 1400 features 128MB of onboard DDR1 memory, with a 256-bit memory interface. Graphics memory bandwidth is 19.2GB/sec, and the card includes two DVI-I connectors as well as a 3D stereo connector. Parallel vertex engines and fully programmable pixel pipelines enable real-time shaders to simulate a broad range of physical effects and surface properties. The FX 1400 supports both OpenGL and Microsoft DirectX. Priced at a moderate $699, the card carries a standard three-year warranty.

On the test bench, the FX 1400 produced very good performance numbers using the NVIDIA 7.7.1.8 WHQL-certified drivers. As is often the case, newer drivers were released just after we completed our benchmark tests. Using AutoCAD 2006 and the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark, the FX 1400 produced a respectable C2001 total index score of 134.77 with the standard AutoCAD accelerated driver (WOPENGL8.HDI). On MAXBench 4, using 3ds max 7 with the NVIDIA MAXtreme 7.00.03 supplemental driver, the FX 1400 posted low frame rates of 110.39 and high frame rates of 122.47, for an average of 116.43. Finally, on the SPECviewperf 8.01 proe-03 benchmark, the FX 1400 earned a score of 53.3—the second highest in this roundup.

These are all very good numbers—little wonder that the FX 1400 has become as popular as it has. As previously noted, the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 has redefined what we expect in terms of price and performance for a midrange workstation card.

The FX 1400 performance numbers are higher for this roundup than in previous tests that used prerelease drivers on a different workstation, though the overall grade of B+ is lower than the previous rating. This is a result of the stellar competition against which the FX 1400 is tested this time, and the range of cards in the roundup, rather than any particular shortcomings of the FX 1400.

A note on graphics card drivers: We typically test with the latest drivers available, but with new cards there is often no alternative but to test with beta-release drivers because those are the only ones that support the new card. Vendors continually work on producing faster, more bug-free drivers, so we recommend using the latest drivers available for your particular graphics card. Often newer drivers offer substantial performance improvements.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 is an outstanding graphics card at a reasonable price.

NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500

NVIDIA
408.486.2000
www.nvidia.com/quadro
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $2,499



The Quadro FX 4500 is one of NVIDIA's newest graphics cards. In addition to offering blazing performance, it's a work of design art itself. Housed in a double-width card, the FX 4500 has a clear plastic casing with extensive cooling pipes to vent some of the heat generated by the card. This is an unusual and striking design—it's almost a shame that it's hidden inside the workstation case.



The design of the FX 4500 is primarily aimed at cooling the high-performance GPU found at the heart of the board. In the image at right you can see the vent and cooling tubes that originate near the GPU and travel along all the edges and end in the large heat sinks encased in the clear plastic housing. This is not a particularly quiet graphics card, but if you're after maximum performance, you'll need to compromise on the noise level.

Our immediate inclination is to compare the Quadro FX 4500 with NVIDIA's FX 4400, which has for some time held the honors as one of the speediest high-end graphics cards available in contemporary workstations. The primary difference between the two cards has to do with performance. The FX 4500 GPU has more processing pipes (eight vertex and 24 pixel vs. six vertex and 16 pixel on the FX 4400), and can yield 181 million triangles per second vs. 133 million for the FX 4400. Finally, the FX 4500 has a fill rate of 10.8 billion texels per second, compared with 6.4 billion on the FX 4400. The hardware pixel readback performance on the FX 4500 is four times faster than previous generation workstation graphics, making it particularly useful for oil and gas, broadcast and medical imaging applications. In total, the FX 4500 offers a 50% greater fill rate, 33% higher raw geometry performance and 25% higher performance as measured at www.spec.org. Apart from the new GPU, most of the other features on the two cards are similar.

Performance scores for the NVIDIA Quadro FX4500 make it likely to become the card of choice for high-performance workstations.
Performance scores for the NVIDIA Quadro FX4500 make it likely to become the card of choice for high-performance workstations.

What do all these performance capabilities equate to on our benchmarks? Using AutoCAD 2006 and the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark, the Quadro FX 4500 earned a C2001 Total Index Score of 165.86 (the FX 4400 on the same system produced numbers in the high 150s). Using 3ds max 7 and the MAXBench 4 benchmark, the Quadro FX 4500 produced a low frame rate score of 144.75 and a high rate of 154.45, for an averaged rate of 149.6. Finally, the card posted a sizzling score of 70.91 on the SPECviewperf 8.01 proe-03 test These are all remarkably high performance numbers, well above those turned in by the other graphics cards covered in this review.The NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 will likely become the card of choice for high-performance workstations.

At a price of $2,499, which includes 512MB of GDDR3 RAM, the Quadro FX 4500 is not an inexpensive card, nor is it particularly quiet. But if you want high performance and are willing to pay the price, the FX 4500 is hard to beat. Highly Recommended.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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