Graphics Cards

Rev It Up (Cadalyst Labs Review)

1 Oct, 2007 By: Ron LaFon

Graphics Cards Pack Power for Today's Hottest Designs


The newest generations of workstations based on the PCI Express 2 (PCIe2) graphic bus — and the new graphics cards that will take advantage of it — are still on the horizon, so Cadalyst wants to share the currently available crop of graphics cards for CAD and digital content creation (DCC). All of the graphics cards in this roundup review are based on the PCI Express (PCIe) bus, and they offer entry-level to ultrahigh-end performance. Early next year, Cadalyst plans to cover the new PCIe2 systems and graphics cards in more depth, but for many users, the current batch of cards will be the workhorses that get the job done.

For this roundup review, Cadalyst requested currently available PCIe graphics cards. Each vendor had the opportunity to submit two graphics cards in two of the following categories: entry-level, midrange, or high-end. The cards had to support at least 1,280 x 1,024 resolution with 32-bit color at a minimum 85-Hz refresh rate, which was my testing resolution. I evaluated the graphic cards based on meeting minimum configuration requirements, benchmark results, price, features, warranty, and documentation, although this article is a survey and thus has no report card or ratings.

As this issue went to press, the first PCs built around the PCIe2 bus were due to be released. This evolution will, among other things, provide double the graphics-card bandwidth, which bodes well for workstation performance in future systems and the graphics cards designed to use the new bus. Because the new generation of graphics cards will also require new computers to take advantage of the increased bandwidth, I expect that it will be a few months before they make it into general use. In the interim and for the near future, existing PCIe graphics cards will be used most commonly for workstation-level graphics.

Because PCIe2 is backward compatible with the current PCIe specification, the graphics cards that Cadalyst looks at in this article will be usable in the new PCIe2 slot. However, they won't be able to use the extra bandwidth available. In addition to bandwidth limitations in the current PCIe slot, these cards also have power limitations, with the new specification providing support for the more powerful generation of graphics cards.

In the interim, the current crop of graphics cards offers good performance and value. For this roundup article, I tested the ATI FireGL V3350, an entry-level workstation graphics card from AMD, and the Quadro FX 4600 and the Quadro FX 5600, two ultrahigh-end graphics cards from NVIDIA. I included all three of these graphics cards in the main body of the article because they're all certified for numerous professional-level design applications. These three also offer accelerated drivers for applications such as Autodesk 3ds Max. Autodesk supports all three cards for AutoCAD.

Many readers also run AutoCAD and other similar applications on graphics cards that are uncertified, so I've included a sidebar about the recently introduced Diamond Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT, a consumer-level graphics card I tested using the normal Cadalyst benchmark suite. An additional sidebar describes the @Xi Computer test system I used for testing all the cards in this article.

Testing Procedures

For testing the graphics cards, I used a new system from @Xi Computer: the Xi MTower PCIe workstation, which is based on an EVGA NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI motherboard that uses the NVIDIA 680i chipset. Although this motherboard supports graphics cards in an SLI configuration, all the tests were done with single graphics cards installed. The system had an Intel Core 2 E6850 rated at 2.93 GHz that was water-cooled and overclocked to 3.20 GHz.

Our test system was preloaded with Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed. The requested configuration included 2.0 GB of 1,066-MHz DDR2 RAM, a 150-MB Western Digital Raptor 150-GB hard drive, and a Lite-ON 18 x 10 x 40 x 12 optical drive. When I was ready to start the tests, I downloaded the latest released drivers from the vendors' Web sites and installed them before running the benchmarks. If an accelerated driver for Autodesk 3ds Max was available, I also downloaded it and used the most current version.

For the first part of the benchmark tests, I ran the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark under AutoCAD 2008 and tested performance with both AutoCAD's native OpenGL drivers and its Direct3D drivers. If an accelerated AutoCAD driver was available, I noted it in the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/1007cards-table) but did not use it for testing. All cards were tested at 1,280 x 1,024 resolution at 32-bit color depth.

I used MAXBench4 with Autodesk 3ds Max 9 for this benchmark, typically in three configurations: with the native OpenGL drivers, with the native Direct3D drivers, and with any third-party accelerated driver that was available for 3ds Max. I will provide all three sets of results for the tests, both in the individual discussion of the graphics cards and in the online feature table.

I had been considering changing to the full SPECViewperf test (www.spec.org) rather than just using the ProE Viewset, and just before I began my evaluations for this article, SPEC released the new SPECViewperf 10 test that works under both Windows XP and Vista. So the timing seemed good to begin. This article is the first with both the new SPEC benchmark and the full test results.

This survey roundup seems to include something for everyone. With estimated street prices ranging from $199 to $2,500, there's certainly a wide budgetary range and, as one might expect, a good range of performance characteristics as well.

Among the choices for workstation-level graphics cards are some of the best made, and some of them are covered in this Cadalyst roundup review. All of the cards discussed in this article are covered by three-year warranties and fill needs for workstation-level performance. Though a new generation of graphics cards is on the way, the current generation still has plenty of life for some time to come.

ATI FireGL V3350

AMD
905.882.2600
www.ati.amd.com
Price: $199


Introduced earlier this year after the Advanced Micro Device (AMD) purchase of ATI, the FireGL V3350 is the middle product of the three entry-level workstation graphics cards offered by AMD. It features 256 MB of onboard memory. The ATI FireGL V3350 is a PCIe 16x graphics card based on the RV515 graphics accelerator running at 400 MHz.

With an estimated street price of $199 and carrying a full three-year warranty, the FireGL V3350 is targeted at entry-level workstation use. The ATI FireGL V3350 features full Shader Model 3.0 support and scalable ultra-threaded architecture with true 128-bit floating-point precision. It includes two parallel geometry engines and four pixel shader processors. With its 10-bit display pipeline and high dynamic range (HDR) 16-bit per RGB color component capacities, the FireGL V3350 can produce display images with more than one trillion colors.

The ATI FireGL V3350 from AMD is an entry-level graphics accelerator with 256 MB of DDR2 memory.
The ATI FireGL V3350 from AMD is an entry-level graphics accelerator with 256 MB of DDR2 memory.

The FireGL V3350 with ATI Avivo Technology has two DVI-I connectors, each of which will drive an analog monitor at 2,048 x 1,536 resolution at 85 Hz or a digital monitor at 1,920 x 1,200 resolution at 60 Hz on each output connector. This fully certified workstation-level graphics card works with a broad array of design, DCC, and visualization applications. The card doesn't have dual-link connectors — for that, you'd need to move to the FireGL V3400, which is the next card in the entry-level category. The dual DVI-I outputs support any combination of digital and analog displays with independent multimonitor resolution and refresh rate selection. Dual VGA analog support is provided.

Both OpenGL 2.0 and OpenGL shading language are supported in the unified drivers for the FireGL V3350, as is Microsoft DirectX 9 with Dx9 HLSL. Drivers are available for Windows XP, Windows XP64, and Windows 2000, as well as Linux 32 and Linux 64. Although the ATI FireGL V3350 is Microsoft Vista certified, support for DirectX 10 isn't listed.

The system requirements for AMD's ATI FireGL V3350 are a PCIe-based workstation with one available 16x lane graphics slot. The system should have a 350-W or greater power supply (assuming a fully loaded system) and 512 MB of system memory. A supplemental power connector isn't required for the V3350 — the card draws less than 35 W in operation. The software and driver CD included with the V3350 require a CD-ROM drive for installation. AMD regularly updates drivers for their graphics cards, and the latest drivers often yield the best overall performance. Just before running the benchmark test suite, I downloaded and installed Windows XP drivers v.8.353.1.1 and MAXimum v.2.0.6392 (an accelerated driver for Autodesk 3ds Max), which is the latest available from the company's Web site at http://ati.amd.com/firegl.

After I had the OS-level drivers configured, I ran the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark using AutoCAD 2008. I ran multiple tests with the default AutoCAD 2008 drivers, one set configured for OpenGL, the other for Direct3D. For the tests with AutoCAD 2008's native OpenGL driver, I obtained a total index score of 140; for the same tests with AutoCAD 2008's native Direct3D drivers, the total index score was 152. The tests were completed without difficulty, and these performance scores are within what I'd consider to be entry-level range.

For the MAXBench4 test running under Autodesk 3ds Max 9, the ATI FireGL V3350 produced averaged high/low scores of 78.03 for the native OpenGL drivers, 92.96 for the native Direct3D drivers, and 77.57 with the accelerated MAXimum driver for 3ds Max.

The final benchmark was the full SPECViewperf 10 test. This benchmark consists of eight primary tests that are designed to mimic the operation of specific major design applications. The tests and their results were: 8.74 for 3dsmax-04, 17.74 for catia-02, 10.35 for ensight-03, 21.21 for maya-02, 12.8 for proe-04, 17.85 for sw-01, 2.59 for tcvis-01, and 6.36 for ugnx-01. They're not the fastest scores I've seen, but as an entry-level graphics card, the ATI FireGL V3350 gets the job done.

Quadro FX 4600

NVIDIA
408.486.2000
www.nvidia.com
Price: $1,200


Cadalyst previously published a standalone review of the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4600 graphics card (www.cadalyst.com/7907NVIDIA), but I elected to include it in this roundup review because it seems to be among the most popular choices for new mid-to-high-end workstations. The Quadro FX 4600 is a three-quarter length, double-width PCIe 16x graphics card that requires a supplemental power connector plug to operate because it draws 135 W of power in operation.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 4600 is an ultrahigh-end PCIe graphics card based on the G80GL GPU and boasts 768 MB of onboard GDDR3 RAM.
The NVIDIA Quadro FX 4600 is an ultrahigh-end PCIe graphics card based on the G80GL GPU and boasts 768 MB of onboard GDDR3 RAM.

The FX 4600 is based on the G80GL graphics accelerator, affording the graphic card support for DirectX 10 in Windows Vista operating environments. Unified drivers are available for the Quadro line of cards, with support for both 32- and 64-bit versions of both Windows XP and Vista, as well as drivers for Linux, Solaris, and FreeBSD. Like all Quadro graphics cards from NVIDIA, the FX 4600 is certified for a broad range of professional applications. Also available are a couple of accelerated drivers for specific applications: PowerDraft for AutoCAD and MAXtreme for Autodesk 3ds Max. The latest version of the MAXtreme driver is an accelerated Direct3D driver that provides significant performance enhancements for its parent application.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 4600 has 768 MB of onboard DDR3 memory and includes two dual-link DVI-I connectors and a VESA stereoscopic output connector. The FX 4600 can drive displays at resolution of 2,048 x 1,536 at 85 Hz and 32 bits per pixel (bpp) on an analog (CRT) monitor and 2,560 x 1600 at 60 Hz and 32 bpp on a single-input, dual-link digital panel.

I ran the full suite of benchmark tests with the Quadro FX 4600, including the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2008. All tests were done with the latest WHQL-certified drivers available from the NVIDIA Web site, which in this case were v.6.14.10.9778 for the Windows XP display drivers and v.9.00.01 for the MAXtreme accelerated 3ds Max driver. With the native AutoCAD OpenGL drivers, I obtained a total index score of 308, and with AutoCAD 2008's native Direct3D drivers, a total index score of 425.

Next, I tested the FX 4600 using the MAXBench4 benchmark running under Autodesk 3ds Max 9 and running tests in three different configurations. First, I used the native 3ds Max OpenGL drivers, which produced an averaged high/low score of 102.16. Then I switched to 3ds Max 9's native Direct3D drivers and generated an averaged high/low score of 226.40. Finally, I installed and tested with MAXtreme 9.00.01, the latest version of NVIDIA's Direct3D accelerated driver for Autodesk 3ds Max, and produced an averaged high/low score of 245.47.

Last but not least, I ran the full SPECViewperf 10 benchmark suite to completion. The results were: 44.31 for 3dsmax-04, 53.39 for catia-02, 43.68 for ensight-03, 166.78 for maya-02, 47.39 for proe-04, 90.55 for sw-01, 23.46 for tcvis-01, and 25.28 for ugnx-01. These all are good performance numbers, though none of the tests particularly exercise the full amount of memory available on the FX 4600. Users with large and/or complex models will likely see performance benefits relating to the amount of graphics memory available, depending upon their design application and system.

The FX 4600 carries an estimated street price of $1,200 and a three-year warranty. Using the latest drivers available from the graphic card vendor's Web site often produces the best performance. NVIDIA regularly updates its primary OS-level drivers and the special-purpose drivers such as PowerDraft and MAXtreme.

Quadro FX 5600

NVIDIA
408.486.2000
www.nvidia.com
Price: $2,500


Although the NVIDIA Quadro FX 5600 has been on the market for a while, this review represents Cadalyst's first opportunity to get its hands on one for testing and evaluation. The FX 5600 is a large card in every way. It boasts 1.5 GB of onboard DDR3 memory, making it good for users whose work involves large, complex models. The FX 5600 is a double-width card, requiring two slots in your system, though it's only connected to a single PCIe x16 slot.

The Quadro FX 5600 is a full-length card — a rarity these days. I had to be sure that the test system could accommodate both the full length of the card and the power requirements. The FX 5600 requires two power connectors and draws a remarkable 171 W in operation. If you're considering the Quadro FX 5600, you'll want to make sure your system has the requisite power connectors available, as well as a system power supply that's beefy enough to accommodate the power demands of the card.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 5600 uses NVIDIA's unified drivers. Like other cards in this family, it offers PowerDraft, an accelerated AutoCAD display driver, and MAXtreme, an accelerated driver for Autodesk 3ds Max. The latest version of MAXtreme is a Direct3D driver, and it offers significant performance benefits for the Quadro family of graphics cards.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 5600 is an ultrahigh-end PCIe graphics card based on the G80GL GPU and has 1.5 GB of GDDR3 memory onboard.
The NVIDIA Quadro FX 5600 is an ultrahigh-end PCIe graphics card based on the G80GL GPU and has 1.5 GB of GDDR3 memory onboard.

Like the FX 4600, the Quadro FX 5600 is based on the G80GL graphics accelerator, which affords DirectX 10 support for Windows Vista environments. The FX 5600 will drive an analog monitor at 2,048 x 1,536 resolution at 32 bpp or a single-input, dual-link digital panel at 2,560 x 1,600 resolution at 32 bpp.

You'll find two dual-link DVI-I connectors on the back of the Quadro FX 5600, as well as a VESA stereoscopic output. The Quadro FX 5600 carries an estimated street price of $2,500 and a three-year warranty. NVIDIA regularly updates drivers for their Quadro line of graphics cards, with new drivers often offering performance benefits. You'll find drivers on the company's Web site for a number of operating environments, including 32- and 64-bit versions of both Windows XP and Vista, in addition to drivers for Linux, Solaris, and FreeBSD.

For the benchmark tests, I used the most current Windows Hardware Quality Labs (WHQL)–certified drivers available at the time I began testing, which in this case were v. 6.14.10.9778, along with the MAXtreme v.9.00.01 driver for the 3ds Max components of the tests. On the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running in AutoCAD 2008, the FX 5600 produced a total index score of 310 with the native OpenGL drivers and a total index score of 434 with the native Direct-3D drivers.

I ran the MAXBench4 benchmark with Autodesk 3ds Max 9 in three different configurations: with the native 3ds Max OpenGL drivers, the native Direct3D drivers, and with NVIDIA's MAXtreme accelerated driver. The averaged high/low scores for these tests were 108.31 for the Open-GL drivers, 233.72 for the native Direct3D drivers, and a speedy 252.49 with the MAXtreme accelerated driver.

For the final benchmark tests, I ran the entire SPECViewperf 10 benchmark to produce the following scores: 44.31 for 3dsmax-04, 54.99 for catia-02, 48.83 for ensight-03, 181.98 for maya-02, 49.18 for proe-04, 94.62 for sw-01, 27.46 for tcvis-01, and 31.18 for ugnx-01. Although these are speedy performance numbers, none of these benchmarks really access the extra memory available on the FX 5600, so there are likely to be even more performance benefits for users who deal with particularly large and complex models.

Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT

Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT
Diamond Multimedia
818.534.1414
www.diamondmm.com
Price: $429.99



Although uncertified for AutoCAD and Autodesk 3ds Max, that doesn't prevent its use anyway.

The Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT is one of Diamond Multimedia's newest offerings. It's available in two models that differ in the amount of onboard RAM. Cadalyst looked at the model with 1 GB of GDDR4 memory; a version with 512 MB of GDDR4 memory also is available.

The Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT is considered a consumer-level graphics card, without the certifications, design application–specific optimizations, and accelerated drivers for such applications as AutoCAD and Autodesk 3ds Max. That certainly doesn't stop it from being used by users for such applications, but it does explain why it's included in a sidebar rather than in the main body of this review.

Diamond's Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT 1024 MB offers 1 GB of DDR4 onboard RAM and 320 unified stream processors.
Diamond's Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT 1024 MB offers 1 GB of DDR4 onboard RAM and 320 unified stream processors.

Diamond's Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT is optimized for Windows Vista with support for both DirectX 9 and 10. In addition to being Vista ready, this graphics card also runs under Windows 2000 and Windows XP with Service Pack 2 installed, so it can be used in a broad range of systems. Recommendations include a system based on an AMD Athlon or Intel Pentium 4 microprocessor with at least 512 MB of system memory, although 1 GB of system memor is recommended for the best performance. You'll need an optical drive to install the software and drivers and a 750-W or better power supply with two 2 x 3 pin PCIe power connectors. For optimal performance, one 2 x 3 pin and one 2 x 4 pin PCIe power connectors are recommended.

Based on a R600 ASIC with a core clock speed of 743 MHz, the Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT has a 512-bit memory interface with memory operating at 1,100 MHz. Connectors include two dual-link DVI plus HDTV-out with VIVO (HDMI support, with multichannel 5.1 surround audio, is through a dongle). Features include 320 unified stream processors, high-speed 128-bit HDR rendering, physics processing support, and up to 24x custom filter anti-aliasing. The Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 will drive two monitors at resolutions of 2,560 x 1,600 at 50 Hz (digital) or 2,048 x 1,526 at 85 Hz (analog).

I elected to run the Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT through the full set of benchmarks. Tests were completed using driver v.8.361.0.0 (4/1/2007). With AutoCAD 2008 running the C2006 benchmark, I got total index scores of 211 using the native AutoCAD OpenGL drivers and 228 with AutoCAD's native Direct3D drivers, even without the availability of specific driver tweaks for AutoCAD.

On the MAXBench4 benchmark running in Autodesk 3ds Max 9, I obtained an averaged high/low frame rate score of 111.95 with Max 9's native OpenGL driver and 224.51 with its native Direct-3D driver. No specific accelerated driver is available for Autodesk 3ds Max, nor are specific optimizations available at the base driver level.

For the last round of testing, I ran the SPECViewperf 10 benchmark, generating a score of 15.56 for 3dsmax-04, 15.75 for catia-02, 23.17 for ensight-03, 29.16 for maya-02, 11.16 for proe-04, 22.73 for sw-01, 6.86 for tcvis-01, and 14.7 for ugnx-01 — all with the default 3D settings and with vertical sync turned off, as I typically do for all tests.

The Viper ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT graphics card carries an estimated street price of $429.99 and a two-year warranty. The card ships with two DVI-to-VGA converters, a component HDTV adapter, a 9-pin VIVO adapter, a DVI-to-HDMI adapter, and a CrossFire bridge interconnect.

Xi MTower PCIe

Xi MTower PCIe
@Xi Computer
800.432.0486
www.xicomputer.com
Price: $2,699



A speedy system for a broad range of graphics cards, including the most powerful and power-hungry.

@Xi Computer sent Cadalyst one of the latest models of its Xi MTower PCIe workstation for evaluating the graphics cards in this article. The system was based on an Intel Core 2 E6850 dual-core microprocessor that was nominally rated at 2.93 GHz, but on this system was water cooled and overclocked to 3.20 GHz. In addition to providing cooling for the microprocessor, the Silent Water Cooling also made for a system that was noticeably quiet in operation. The system was built around an EVGA NVIDIA nForce 68i SLI motherboard that used the NVIDIA 680i chipset. This chipset supports a front-side bus speed of 1,333 MHz and graphics cards in an SLI configuration, though all the tests for this graphics card roundup review were conducted with a single card installed.

The Xi MTower PCIe system from @Xi Computer was used for all graphics card tests in this roundup and produced exceptionally good CAD scores as well.
The Xi MTower PCIe system from @Xi Computer was used for all graphics card tests in this roundup and produced exceptionally good CAD scores as well.

At Cadalyst's request, the MTower PCIe system included 2 GB of 1,066-MHz DDR2 RAM, a Western Digital 150-MB Raptor hard drive, and a Lite-ON 18 x 10 x 40 x 12 optical drive. As with all systems offered by @Xi Computer, a broad range of configuration options are available, so users easily can tailor a new system to their specific requirements and desires.

The MTower PCIe system came housed in a new and beefy case that offered a lot of amenities, including a swing-away drive-bay door and a convenient control panel on the top front of the case with a power button/LED indicator, two USB 2.0 connectors, a reset button, and the HD indicator. The system included a 600-W OCZ Technology power supply that provided sufficient power for expandability and to drive the power-hungry graphics cards. An important consideration is that the system accommodates a full-length graphics card, such as the NVIDIA Quadro FX 5600. Expandability options included 10 drive bays, 10 USB 2.0 connectors, and two FireWire 1294 connectors.

During the course of the testing, the Xi MTower PCIe system performed flawlessly and provided ample power and smooth operation for every graphics card that I plugged into it. Obviously, the choice of graphics card significantly affects the overall performance of a system used for demanding applications, and the performance numbers for the Xi MTower PCIe speak for themselves. This very speedy system can accommodate a broad range of graphics cards, including the most powerful and power-hungry of them all.

In the configuration Cadalyst received, the Xi MTower PCIe system is priced at $2,699. This configuration included an economical XFX 8600 GT 256 XXX graphics card with 256 MB of onboard memory, as well as a three-year warranty on parts and labor, a one-year warranty for on-site service, and 24-hour replacement part availability. @Xi Computer offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on its systems with no restocking fee. Prices may vary, depending upon the peripherals, and additional extended warranty coverage and support options are available. @Xi Computer consistently offers some of the fastest CAD workstations available —with lots of room for expandability — and this workstation is no exception.

Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor, and a 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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