Graphics Cards

Cadalyst Labs Review: Need Speed?

1 Nov, 2005 By: Ron LaFon Cadalyst

Dual Chips Max Out CAD Power


Should your next system be a dual-processor system? The choices are greater than ever before—as are the available options. You get a lot of bang for the buck with the dual single-core workstations reviewed here. Many vendors are starting to offer dual-core, dual-CPU systems, which are likely to become the option of choice for many future workstation purchases. For our second major workstation roundup of 2005, we requested systems with a pair of the fastest available Intel or AMD processors installed. We limited this roundup to single-core processors, though several vendors had dual-core, dual-processor systems available for review, many of which incorporated SLI (scalable link interface) support. Future roundups for dual-processor systems will likely specify two dual-core processors.



As far as major CAD and design applications are concerned, SLI, which enables two graphics cards to work in tandem, is not likely to be a factor in workstation systems for some time to come. CAD applications must specifically address SLI at the coding level.

In addition to dual single-core processors, we also requested a minimum of 2GB of system memory and 120GB of hard drive storage, with multiple drives allowed. Other requirements included network capabilities, a mouse with a wheel and CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives, although combination drives were accepted. All workstations were preloaded with Microsoft Windows XP Professional. Systems do not include a monitor and speakers, and neither is reflected in the pricing.

 Overall Performance
Overall Performance

Finally, each workstation includes a graphics card with at least 64MB of onboard RAM that supported 3D OpenGL at resolutions of at least 1280X1024 with 24-bit color at a minimum 85Hz refresh rate. The next generation of Microsoft Windows—Windows Vista—currently appears to support OpenGL only via a software translation layer, which could hobble OpenGL performance. Because this is a prerelease specification, this and many other features may well change by the time Windows Vista ships late next year. If your firm plans to upgrade, consider the move carefully if your application performance depends on OpenGL. Any operating system upgrade can be traumatic, and the new release of Windows looks as if it may be particularly so.

Testing Procedures

We ran our usual set of test suites with the latest updates: the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark test, the new SPECviewperf v8.1 proe-03 test suite (www.spec.org) and MAXBench 4. For this round of testing, we used both AutoCAD 2006 with service pack 1 and 3ds max 7, also with service pack 1. Autodesk just released 3ds max 8, which we'll evaluate for use in future reviews. 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.

Price/Performance
Price/Performance

All vendors provided systems with Microsoft Windows XP Professional with service pack 2 installed. Because all the workstations included NVIDIA graphics cards, no accelerated drivers for AutoCAD 2006, such as PowerDraft, were available. We did, however use the latest NVIDIA MAXtreme driver v7.00.03.00 for the tests that involved Autodesk 3ds max 7. We tested with and without the 3ds max driver and noted the results in the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/1105wkst-table.htm). The system-level video revision level of the drivers for Windows XP, as installed by the various vendors, varied from system to system. All system-level drivers were set for the specific benchmark at hand for optimal performance results.

Each workstation was evaluated on several criteria: minimum system configuration requirements, benchmark results, price, features, warranty and documentation. Though all these factors are figured into the overall point average that determines the Cadalyst Labs grades, pricing and expandability played major roles in workstation ratings for this roundup.

Cadalyst labs report card
Cadalyst labs report card

This is a transitional time for processors, and several vendors had problems with components that prevented them from sending workstations for this review. All of the submitted workstations were based on AMD processors, indicating that some of the performance problems affect current generations of Intel microprocessors. This likely resulted in the decision of at least one major Intel-only vendor to decline our invitation. Faster Intel Xeon processors are expected later this year, and we'll review them here when they become available. At this time, AMD-based workstations have taken the lead in workstation performance.

Xi MTower 2P64

@Xi Computer
www.xicomputer.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $5,589


Housed in a matte-black version of @Xi Computer's standard MTower case, the MTower 2P64 workstation is built around an ASUS K8N-DL motherboard that arrived with two AMD Opteron 254 2.8GHz microprocessors installed. The motherboard uses the NVIDIA NForce Pro chipset. Also included was 2GB of DDR 400 REG ECC RAM, out of a possible 24GB that can be installed in the system. The MTower case features a removable side panel with a large, transparent Plexiglas window. A drop-down panel below the drive bays provides access to USB and FireWire connectors. The drive bay is protected by a lockable swing-away cover. The workstation offers ten USB 2.0x connectors, split between the front and back.

@Xi's MTower 2P64 workstation came away with the best scores of all the systems tested here.
@Xi's MTower 2P64 workstation came away with the best scores of all the systems tested here.

The system noise level is relatively low. As with the other systems that incorporate the NVIDIA FX 4500 graphics card, that card's cooling fan generates much of the distinguishable noise. The system also came with a Western Digital 160GB SATA II 7200rpm hard disk, a Sony DVD-R/W DW-28A double-media 4.7/8.5GB optical drive, a Logitech Optical Mouse and a Logitech keyboard.

The @Xi Computer MTower 2P64 posted the highest scores on all of our benchmark tests. It generated a total index score of 182.67 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark test. The averaged high/low score was 69.36 for MAXBench4 with 3ds max 7 with the default NVIDIA v7.7.7.7 driver set for 3ds max. Using NVIDIA's MAXtreme accelerated driver boosted the score to an even 160. On the SPECviewperf 8.1 proe-03 benchmark, the MTower 2P64 scored 74.94. These consistently high scores earned the Xi Computer MTower 2P64 system an A+ for performance.

The @Xi Computer MTower 2P64 is built with system expansion in mind, with four 5.25" and two 3.5" externally accessible drive bays, and another five 3.5" internal drive bays. A 550W Enermax power supply ensures plenty of room for growth.

The warranty covers 36 months for parts and labor, with 12 months of onsite coverage. Additional coverage options are available. The @Xi Computer return policy is a 30-day money-back guarantee, with no restocking fee.

Pricing for the MTower 2P64 workstation as equipped for this review is $5,589, placing it near the midpoint for systems in this roundup. Extensive configuration options are available, so how you choose to equip the system affects your price.

With its zippy performance, extensive expandability options, high-quality components and good warranty coverage, the Xi MTower 2P64 workstation is a real workhorse that earned the Cadalyst Labs Highly Recommended rating. The consistent high performance and quality of systems from @Xi Computer bespeaks a lot of experience and expertise in building workstations for the CAD and engineering market. Highly Recommended.

Empro Custom Workstation

Monarch Computer Systems
www.monarchcomputer.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: B
Price: $7,990


The Monarch Empro system that we tested is a custom-built workstation based on a Tyan S2895A2NRF K8WE motherboard using the NVIDIA NForce 4 Pro chipset with dual AMD Opteron 254 2.8GHz microprocessors. The system included 2GB of DDR (400) PC-3200 RAM and accommodates 32GB of RAM when fully populated.

Graphics were provided by the speedy new NVIDIA FX4500 PCIe graphics card, which has 512MB of onboard memory. We used NVIDIA graphics driver v7.7.5.6 for our benchmark tests, with the NVIDIA MAXtreme v7.00.03.00 accelerated driver for part of the MAXBench test.

The Monarch Empro custom workstation is a well-made system that delivers excellent performance.
The Monarch Empro custom workstation is a well-made system that delivers excellent performance.

The Monarch Empro was one of two systems in this roundup to achieve an A+ score for performance. On the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, the Empro produced a total index score of 178.7, a very impressive figure. On the MAXBench 4 benchmark, using 3ds max 7, the Monarch Empro achieved an averaged high/low score of 69.59 using the default graphics drivers set for 3ds max and 156.30 using the MAXtreme driver. The Empro's score of 74.22 on the SPECviewperf 8.1 proe-03 viewset reflects the speedy NVIDIA FX 4500 graphics card.

The system arrived from Monarch configured with a substantial amount of hard drive capacity: four Western Digital WD740GD 74GB SATA hard drives in a RAID 5 setup and two Western Digital WD2500KS 250GB SATA II hard drives in a RAID 1 configuration. This certainly is the kind of hard drive configuration many of us would love (who ever has enough hard disk space?), but it contributes to the overall cost of the system.

At $7,990, the Monarch Empro costs some $2,000 more than the next most expensive system in this roundup. We worked with Monarch on various configuration options to mitigate the impact of the cost on the overall score of the system without affecting the tested performance, but were unable to come up with any options that would reduce the cost more than $500, not enough to change the price rating. Monarch notes that the system price should drop by around $700 by the time this article appears in print. Even if you remove some of the hard disk capacity, the price is still higher than the other systems reviewed here. This is primarily the result of high-quality options and custom construction, which takes time and costs money.

The Monarch Empro is a very well made system. The somewhat squat and deep case features a handy wheel mechanism that makes it easy to pull the system out from under a desk to access connections on the rear. The system includes six USB 2.0x connections, some of which are accessible from a bay at the bottom front of the case.

The attention to detail is evident when looking inside the case, with its outstanding wiring harness and array of high-quality components. Small details such as the Mitsumi Floppy 7-in-1 USB card reader and Smart media drive make the system highly usable. Monarch Empro doesn't include a keyboard or a mouse, as most Monarch customers want to choose their own input devices, and neither is included in the quoted price.

xw9300

HP
www.hp.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: B+
Price: $5,999


The HP xw9300 workstation we reviewed is based on dual AMD Opteron 254 2.8GHz microprocessors on an HP-specific Tyan motherboard with the NVIDIA nForce Professional chipset with the AMD-8131 HyperTransport PCI-X tunnel. The system included 4GB of DDR-400 ECC RAM. It can accommodate 16GB of RAM when fully populated.

The graphics card is the newly introduced NVIDIA FX 3450, which has 256MB of onboard RAM. This is the first time we've seen the FX 3450 in Cadalyst Labs, and it distinguished itself with very good performance. It's not the best or most expensive product in the NVIDIA line. NVIDIA graphics drivers v7.7.1.8 were preinstalled on the system, and we used them for our suite of benchmark tests. For the 3ds max MAXBench 4 tests, we ran tests with the base video driver set for 3ds max and also with the accelerated NVIDIA MAXtreme driver v7.00.03.00.

 The HP xw9300 includes the NVIDIA FX 3450 graphics card, which keeps its price low compared with other workstations in this review.
The HP xw9300 includes the NVIDIA FX 3450 graphics card, which keeps its price low compared with other workstations in this review.

On the test bench, the HP xw9300 produced good scores, achieving a total index score of 164.37 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark tests. On the MAXBench 4 benchmark, the xw9300 earned 64.57 with the default graphic driver set for 3ds max and 136.42 when using the NVIDIA MAXtreme 7.00.03.00 driver for 3ds max. Finally, on the SPECviewperf 8.1 proe-03 test suite the HP xw9300 scored 61.57—lowest in this review. That score reflects the NVIDIA FX 3450 graphics card's performance—this particular test suite tends to follow the performance of the installed graphics card. All other systems use the faster and more expensive FX 4500 card. All in all, HP xw9300 received quite good scores.

The only real deduction came for expandability options, where the HP xw9300 received an A– for its relative lack of drive bay options. Two USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 FireWire connections are located on the front of the system. The back side offers four additional USB 2.0 connections and another IEEE 1394 FireWire connection. The xw9300 incorporates a single serial port and no parallel printer port. Those who need a parallel port must request an optional add-in I/O card.

HP offers an extensive line of configuration options, so users can add virtually any peripheral needed. HP plans to support the soon-to-be-introduced and more powerful processors from AMD in the xw9300.

As with other systems we've seen from HP, the engineering is excellent, with attention to tool-free maintenance and careful construction. The acoustic engineering is great. The xw9300 is relatively quiet; most of the audible fan noise is from the NVIDIA FX 3450's cooling fan.

Configured as specified in the online feature table, the HP xw9300 costs $5,999, which includes a 36-month warranty for parts, labor and onsite coverage. HP is noted for its excellent support, so this coverage is a valuable asset.

PolyStation 2050A-4500

Polywell Computers
www.polywell.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $4,699


The PolyStation 2050A-4500 is housed in a relatively compact black and matte silver case that includes a panel at the bottom front with the expected FireWire and USB 2.0x connectors as well as connectors for a microphone and a headset—nice extras. The system is relatively quiet. Much of the noise is generated by the NVIDIA FX 4500 graphics card.

Based on an ASUS K8N-DL motherboard that holds dual AMD Opteron 252 2.6GHz microprocessors, the PolyStation 2050A-4500 includes 2GB of DDR PC3200 ECC registered 400MHz RAM out of a possible 24GB when the memory slots are fully populated. This is the only system in this roundup that uses AMD's Opteron 252 chips, which give good performance while keeping the total cost down.

Its combination of performance, high-quality components and moderate price earned the Polywell PolyStation 2050A-4500 a Cadalyst Labs Highly Recommended rating.
Its combination of performance, high-quality components and moderate price earned the Polywell PolyStation 2050A-4500 a Cadalyst Labs Highly Recommended rating.

Hard disk capacity is provided by two Western Digital SATA 74GB drives. The system incorporates two optical drives: a Sony DVDR/W and a Sony CDR/W-DVD combination drive. A floppy drive with 9-in-1 media card reader combination rounds out the provided drive options.

The PolyStation 2050A-4500 offers two serial ports, a Centronics parallel port, eight USB 2.0x connectors and a MIDI/game port. Expansion options include four externally accessible 5.25" and two 3.5" drive bays, with an additional six internal 3.5" bays. Add to that a Seasonic 600W 80% high-efficiency power supply with Active PFC, and the PolyStation 2050A-4500 earns an A+ in the expandability category.

The Polywell PolyStation 2050A-4500 did well on our suite of benchmark tests, turning in a total index score of 164.84 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark. On the averaged high/low scores of the MAX4Bench test, the Polywell system generated a score of 64.39 using the default NVIDIA video driver v7.7.7.7 set for 3ds max and a score of 144.94 using the MAXtreme accelerated driver for 3ds max. On the SPECviewperf v8.1 proe-03 viewset, the PolyStation 2050A-4500 scored 70.55, reflecting the performance of its NVIDIA FX 4500 graphics card.



The Polywell PolyStation 2050A-4500 achieved the Cadalyst Labs Highly Recommended rating for its combination of performance, high-quality components and moderate price tag. By their nature, no dual CPU system can be considered inexpensive. Even so, the Polywell PolyStation 2050A-4500 is priced at $4,699, making it easily the most economical system in this roundup.

Warranty includes 60 months on labor, 36 months on parts and 12 months of on-site coverage. Note that the return policy for the system is a 30-day money back guarantee, but requires a 15% restocking fee. Highly Recommended.

Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor and computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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