Hardware

Investigate Your Options--CAD Workstations

1 Mar, 2006 By: Ron LaFon

Though dual-core systems are the latest rage for CAD/engineering workstations, there's still a lot of life left in classic single-core systems, as evidenced by these six speedy workstations from @Xi, HP, Monarch, Overdrive, Polywell and Sys Technologies. We also introduce the Cadalyst C2006 Benchmark.


Asingle-core, single-processor workstation is the best option for those on a limited budget, yet can still serve up power needed for demanding applications, as the six units reviewed here indicate. Though some vendors no longer offer single-core systems, opting to focus on their higher-performance dual-core counterparts, single-core processors are still worth considering for CAD work. And new technology such as SLI (scalable link interface), which finally seems to be working smoothly, judging from the single SLI-equipped workstation we received, can extend the potential of the single-processor system.

Review specifications

In addition to the fastest available single-core processor (Intel or AMD), we requested a minimum of 2GB of system RAM, at least 120GB of total hard drive storage (multiple drives acceptable), CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives, and the usual wheel mouse. We also required a 3D OpenGL graphics card with at least 64MB of onboard RAM, and the graphics card had to support a resolution of at least 1280X1024 with 24-bit color at a refresh rate of 85Hz or more. At our request, all systems were loaded with Windows XP Professional SP2.

Six vendors sent workstations for testing. One was an Intel-based system and the rest featured some type of AMD microprocessor. We generally saw more compact cases in this workstation roundup, good news for those who want to maximize desktop space. Also among the review systems was the first fully functional SLI-based CAD workstation to come through Cadalyst Labs—Polywell's PolyStation SLI2-FX57 system, which incorporated dual NVIDIA Quadro FX 3450 graphics cards. Several systems in this roundup featured SLI-capable motherboards with the requisite dual PCIe graphics card slots, but Polywell actually implemented the SLI technology in its system.

 Single-Core Systems
Single-Core Systems

Card reader/floppy drive combinations appeared on more systems than in previous roundups, and acoustic improvements made this group of workstations among the quietest we've seen (heard?) in some time.

How We Tested

Each workstation was started and checked for the appropriate amount of RAM and graphics capabilities. Then I installed the underlying application software used for the three benchmarks. The benchmark suite is the first to use the new Cadalyst C2006 benchmark for AutoCAD, an update created by Art Liddle, who wrote the original C2001 benchmark (see box).

Price/Performance
Price/Performance

Art downgraded the 2D tests in C2006 to reflect the fact that these operations don't stress today's AutoCAD workstations as they did in the past. Thanks to improvements in both software and hardware, virtually any system can handle 2D operations. The C2006 benchmark, like the C2001 test, should be used to gauge performance of different hardware configurations while running identical software. Art designed C2006 to give a Total Index number similar to those produced by C2001. C2006 results generally come within 15% of the previous version.

We used the new C2006 benchmark with AutoCAD 2005 for the systems tested here. It works with the current release of AutoCAD, but because AutoCAD 2006 tends to cache 2D writes, running the benchmark with AutoCAD 2005 provides a more accurate representation of system performance. The new Cadalyst C2006 benchmark is available at www.cadalyst.com/c2006/ for those who want to give it a spin.

Cadalyst labs report card
Cadalyst labs report card

Workstations were also tested with MAXBench 4, using Autodesk 3ds max 8 with the recently released Service Pack 1 installed. When an accelerated 3ds max driver, such as NVIDIA's MAXtreme, was available, we tested with both the default video configuration and with the special driver. Test results are noted in the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/0306table/), with the default video performance listed first.

Rounding out our benchmark series is the ProE-03 Viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 8.10 (www.spec.org). This test tends to follow the performance of the installed graphics card, so indicates the graphic card/driver performance in a given system.

Once the benchmark tests were performed, each system was evaluated based on several criteria: meeting minimum system configuration requirements, benchmark results, pricing, features, warranty and documentation. These factors are all figured into the overall point average that determines the Cadalyst ratings. Cadalyst is no longer giving star ratings, only letter grades.

How to get Highly Recommended

With this roundup we've made a few changes in how a system gets a Cadalyst Highly Recommended rating. Each workstation is assigned a letter grade for all report card categories. Each grade is assigned a numeric value: A+ equals 10, A equals 9, and so on. The numeric value of each assigned grade is then multiplied by the category's importance weighting factor (performance, for example, has a weight factor of 7x). A grade point average is computed by dividing the sum of the weighted grades by the total possible weight factors. We then look at the GPAs, use them to determine a final grade, and award the top ones the Highly Recommended rating. We had hoped that the GPAs would correlate nicely to a final grade, but we ended up adjusting them a bit. In this review, three of the submitted systems earned the Cadalyst Highly Recommended rating.

This roundup covers a broad range of workstations in a broad price range—everything from systems ideal for entry-level production to screaming speed machines that can make short work of more complex tasks. Quality is consistently high, so you should be able to easily find or budget for a system that suits your particular situation. Expandability is a given for these systems, so you can configure them for your particular needs. Each system in this roundup has something to offer, and evaluating them against one another was at times very difficult.

@XI Computer Corp.

Xi MTower 64SLI
800.432.0486
www.xicomputer.com

@Xi Computer is no stranger to producing CAD workstations that consistently earn high ratings for high performance and great expandability, backed by a good warranty. The Xi MTower 64SLI is no exception. Though this system was edged out by another for the fastest C2006 AutoCAD score, it did post the highest scores for both the SPEC ViewPerf ProE-03 Viewset and the MAXBench4 benchmark using 3ds max 8.



The Xi MTower 64SLI system arrived in a compact new case that measures 17.2" X 8" X 19.2" (HXWXD). The case is similar to that now used by Polywell, with a brushed aluminum finish and a black front panel. A panel at the lower front offers two USB 2.0 connectors and both microphone and headphone connectors. The system provides eight additional USB 2.0 connectors as well as two FireWire 1394 connectors. The compact case size does not inhibit expandability—the Xi MTower 64SLI features ten drive bays, five of which are internal. This expandability is supported by a 550W Enermax power supply, so there's ample room for growth.

The Xi MTower is based on an AMD Athlon FX57 2.8GHz microprocessor seated in an Asus A8N-SLIN32 motherboard that uses the NVIDIA nForce4 chipset. The system arrived with 2GB of DDR 400/533 RAM installed and accommodates 4GB when the slots are fully populated. Two Western Digital Raptor 74GB hard disks were configured in RAID 0 for a total of 148GB of hard disk space.

A speedy NVIDIA FX 4500 PCIe graphics card supplied graphics (and a significant part of the system cost). Though the Xi MTower 64SLI system is SLI capable, as indicated by the system name, only one graphics card was included. We used the NVIDIA 8.1.6.7 drivers that were installed when we received the system. Though the FX4500 graphic card tends to contribute significantly to the overall noise generated by a workstation, this system was surprisingly quiet, probably a result of acoustic dampening in the case.

The Xi MTower delivers speedy performance (second by a hair in this review) and an attractive return policy.
The Xi MTower delivers speedy performance (second by a hair in this review) and an attractive return policy.

Total index score for the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running on AutoCAD 2005 was a speedy 179. The MAXBench4 benchmark also posted a combined high/low score of 179.25 running on 3ds max 8 with SP1 and the NVIDIA MAXtreme 7.00.03 accelerated driver. On the SPEC ViewPerf benchmark, the Xi MTower 64SLI system generated a score of 85.74. These scores earned the MTower 64SLI system an A for performance, one of only two systems to do so. The system also garnered an A for expandability and an A+ for return policy—a 30-day money-back guarantee, with no restocking fee. Standard warranty coverage is a comfortable three years on parts and labor and one year for onsite service. Other plans are available.

All in all, the Xi MTower is a speedy workstation with lots of expandability options.

Hewlett-Packard

HP xw4300 Personal Workstation
Phone: 800.888.0262
www.hp.com

The HP xw4300 Personal Workstation can be configured with an impressive range of options. As configured, the system we received for review is an entry-level workstation available for the relatively budget-friendly price of $2,986, the lowest price in this review by $4. The system incorporates two 80GB hard disks in a Raid 0 configuration.

The only Intel-based system in this review, the HP xw4300 provides many extras for a moderate price.
The only Intel-based system in this review, the HP xw4300 provides many extras for a moderate price.

The HP xw4300 is housed in a compact, solidly built silver-and-black case that measures 17.7" X 6.6" X 17.9".

The system incorporates six drive bays and a 460W (continuous) Delta power supply. Among a field of relatively quiet workstations, the HP xw4300 stands out as very quiet, reflecting the work that HP has put into acoustic engineering. Indeed, the engineering throughout the system is superb. The truly tool-free case makes it remarkably easy to add and remove components.

Located in a vertical row at the right front of the system are two USB 2.x connectors, headphone and microphone connectors and one 1394 (FireWire) connection, which is enabled by an optional PCI card.

The HP xw4300 workstation distinguishes itself as the only system in this roundup based on an Intel microprocessor—the Intel P4 #672 3.8GHz chip. This is seated in a Foxconn 383595-001 motherboard that uses the Intel 955X Express chipset. The system was delivered with 2GB of DDR2-667 ECC RAM installed, out of a possible 4GB when fully populated.

Graphics were handled by an NVIDIA FX 1400 PCIe graphics card, which tends to produce scores in the entry-level to midrange performance category. We tested with NVIDIA drivers v/8.1.67, which were preinstalled on the review system.

Performance figures fell in the midrange, with a total index score of 138 on the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark with AutoCAD 2005. MAXBench4 benchmark using 3ds max 8 with SP1 and the NVIDIA MAXtreme 7.00.03 driver yielded a combined high/low score of 117.01. The ProE-03 Viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 8.1 registered a score of 49.42. All tests were completed using NVIDIA drivers v.8.1.6.7.

These benchmark figures largely reflect the use of the FX 1400 graphics card and would likely be somewhat higher with a speedier (and more expensive) graphics card.

The HP xw4300 Personal Workstation earned two A+ scores—one for pricing, and the other for return policy. HP offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.

One of the hidden assets of the xw4300 Personal Workstation is HP's support policy, which many consider among the best in the industry. The warranty coverage for the system is three years for labor, parts and onsite service, with 24-hour replacement parts and 24-hour telephone support included. Another nice plus is the HP Performance Tuning Framework, which walks users through custom configuration to best suit specific applications such as Inventor, SolidWorks, Pro/ENGINEER, AutoCAD, MicroStation and many others. This utility also helps keep graphics card software up-to-date by referencing a database to locate the most recent certified driver for the applications installed on the workstation.

Monarch Computer Systems, Inc.

Monarch Furia Custom Workstation w/PCI-E
800.611.0875
www.monarchcomputer.com

The Furia custom workstation with PCI-E is the second system from Monarch Computer Systems to appear in a Cadalyst roundup. The system is housed in a distinctive brushed aluminum and black case with an unusual slash design. A heavy-gauge aluminum swing-away door is almost the full height of the system. The case serves to dampen most of the noise from the system fans and the NVIDIA FX 4500 graphics card installed in the workstation. USB, sound and FireWire sockets are positioned on the side of the case near the front door.

The Monarch Furia custom workstation leaves lots of room for growth with 11 drive bays.
The Monarch Furia custom workstation leaves lots of room for growth with 11 drive bays.

Inside the case is an AMD Opteron 152 processor, which is rated at 2.6GHz—slightly slower than the FX57 microprocessor (2.8GHz) used in several other systems in this roundup. This is reflected in slightly slower performance. As noted, the system included a speedy NVIDIA FX 4500 PCIe graphics card, which provides 512MB of onboard RAM. The FX 4500 offers a maximum VGA resolution of 2048X1536X32 bits at 85Hz, and a maximum resolution over digital port (single GPU) of 3840X2400X32 bits at 24Hz (reduced blanking). We tested the system with the NVIDIA drivers v.8.1.6.7 that were preinstalled.

The AMD Opteron 152 chip was seated in an Abit KN8 Ultra nF4 motherboard that uses the NVIDIA nForce4 Ultra chipset. The system arrived with 2GB of OCZ DDR400 RAM installed, out of a possible 4GB. The motherboard features an onboard gigabit network as well as onboard sound functions.

The Monarch Furia custom workstation came with a Microsoft keyboard with a built-in fingerprint reader and a Microsoft wireless optical mouse. Its two 250GB Western Digital SATA 3G hard drives feature a 16MB cache. The system includes two NEC optical drives and a Mitsumi 7-in-1 floppy/card reader combination drive. Connectivity options include eight USB 2.x connectors with optional FireWire connectivity.

Cadalyst benchmark gets a facelift
Cadalyst benchmark gets a facelift

The Furia posted a total index score of 161 on the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running AutoCAD 2005. A combined high/low score of 159.77 was generated by the MAXBench4 test with the NVIDIA MAXtreme accelerated driver v.7.00.03. Finally, the system scored 75.84 on the ProE-03 Viewset of the SPEC ViewPerf benchmark v.8.10.

Monarch earned an A for expandability by incorporating 11 drive bays. Four of these are internal 3.50 bays in a rack arrangement. This expandability is supported by an OCZ 520W power supply. Though warranty coverage merits an A (three years on labor, parts and service), the return policy of "return for replacement/repair only" rates a B. Monarch offers an array of options, so you can customize its workstation to your specific needs.

Overdrive PC

Torque.SLI
866.410.9958
www.overdrivepc.com

The Torque.SLI system in this roundup represents Overdrive PC's first foray into the CAD market. Overdrive PC is an established, respected name noted for exquisitely customized and speedy gaming systems. Using advanced cooling methods, optimizing software configurations, custom clock corrections and a variety of other improvements, Overdrive PC produces systems that far exceed standard manufacturers' values. Look inside one of its systems, and you immediately notice the attention to detail, which extends to custom wiring harnesses. Obviously a great deal of time and attention goes into the creation of each workstation.



The Overdrive PC Torque.SLI system that we received for review is based on an AMD Athlon64 FX-57 microprocessor seated in an Asus A8N32-SLI motherboard that features the NVIDIA nForce 4 SLI chipset. A total of 2GB of DDR 400MHz RAM was installed, taking up two of four RAM slots that, when filled, accommodate 4GB of RAM.

Achieving the top AutoCAD benchmark score on your first entry into a Cadalyst Labs roundup is no small feat and indicates Overdrive PC's attention to performance. Although the AutoCAD C2006 benchmark scores edged out all other systems in this roundup, other systems produced marginally higher scores on the SPEC ViewPerf ProE-03 Viewset and the MAXBench4 benchmark with 3ds max 8. The Torque.SLI system achieved a total index score of 185 on the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark under AutoCAD 2005 and an averaged high/low score of 177.55 on the MAXBench4 benchmark for 3ds max 8 using the NVIDIA MAXtreme accelerated driver. Its score on the ProE-03 Viewset of the SPEC ViewPerf 8.10 benchmark was 85.04. These impressive scores earned the Torque.SLI system an A for performance.

The Torque.SLI from Overdrive PC, a giant in the gaming world, posted the top performance totals in this review.
The Torque.SLI from Overdrive PC, a giant in the gaming world, posted the top performance totals in this review.

This system is particularly dependent on a solid source of electrical energy to the power supply, so its heavy power cord should either be plugged directly into the wall or attached to a fairly beefy UPS power conditioner to avoid problems.

The Overdrive PC Torque.SLI system arrived with lots of extras that boosted the initial price to $6,777. We requested a second price for a system without some extras that don't affect performance. That price is the second given for this system, $4,492, which we used as the "scoring" configuration. The changes were removing the storage hard drive, reducing RAID drives from 150GB to 74GB, changing the NVIDIA Quadro graphics card to a GeForce FX 7800GTX 512MB (which turned out to be much faster after Overdrive PC's modifications), removing the sound adapter and replacing the three-drive SATA cage with a one-drive SATA cage. Though the system cost as reconfigured is still slightly higher than other systems in this roundup, the amount of customization manifested in the system, combined with its outstanding performance, justifies the expenditure.

Polywell Computers, Inc.

PolyStation SLI2-FX57
800.999.1278 / 650.583.7222
www.polywell.com

The PolyStation SLI2-FX57 is the first fully functional SLI system to appear in a Cadalyst Labs workstation roundup. Though many vendors offer SLI-capable systems, Polywell Computers is the first to provide a full implementation for review. In the past, we've looked at several SLI implementations, but none were quite ready for prime time. With the PolyStation, there were a very few display glitches on the MAXBench4 benchmark, particularly with the NVIDIA MAXtreme 7.00.03 accelerated driver, but none were major.



The Polywell system posted a total index score of 164 on the C2006 benchmark and a score of 75.31 on the ProE-03 Viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 8.1. The combined high/low average for the MAXBench4 benchmark running under 3ds max 8 with the NVIDIA MAXtreme 7.00.03 accelerated driver was 159.47.

The PolyStation SLI2-FX57 was housed in a compact 16.8" X 7.5" X 19.6" case similar to the one used by @Xi in this roundup, except that the Polywell case is predominately black with a matte aluminum front panel. This attractive case features a bottom front panel that provides two USB 2.x connections, one FireWire connection, and sockets for plugging in headphones and a microphone. The system offers ten drive bays, four of which are internal 3.5" bays. Power is supplied by a Seasonic 600W 80 Plus high-efficiency PFC power supply, which should be adequate to support both graphics cards and almost any commonly found expansions.

The first fully functional SLI system to come through Cadalyst Labs, the PolyStation SLI2-FX57 includes two NVIDIA FX 3450 graphics cards working as one.
The first fully functional SLI system to come through Cadalyst Labs, the PolyStation SLI2-FX57 includes two NVIDIA FX 3450 graphics cards working as one.

Inside the case is a 2.8GHz AMD Athlon64 FX-57 microprocessor seated in an Asus A8N32-SLI motherboard that uses the NVIDIA nForce 4 SLI chipset. As delivered, the PolyStation SLI2-FX57 contained 2GB of DDR 400MHz RAM, out of a possible 4GB total. Graphics were accommodated by two PNY/NVIDIA FX 3450 PCIe express graphics cards linked via SLI. Testing was done with NVIDIA drivers v.8.1.9.8. Though you'd expect the additional graphics card to increase system noise, the PolyStation SLI2-FX57 was very quiet, likely the result of a case with good acoustical engineering.

The PolyStation SLI2-FX57 system incorporated two Western Digital SATA 74GB hard disks in a RAID 0 configuration, for 148GB of hard drive space. The system arrived with two optical drives, a Sony DVD-R/W and a Sony DVD-CDR/W combination drive. A 7-in-1 floppy/card reader combination completes the drive inventory. A Logitech Cordless Mouse and Logitech keyboard provide system input.

The Polywell PolyStation SLI2-FX57 achieved an A for its excellent warranty: five years on parts, three years on labor and two years onsite service, which also includes 24-hour replacement parts and 24-hour technical support. System pricing, including the two FX 3450 graphics cards with an SLI bridge connecting them, is $4,150, not bad when one considers that a large part of the system cost resides in the two graphics cards.

Though a few minor glitches remain to be worked out of the SLI configuration—apparently in the graphics driver end of the equation—this technology, plus the excellent overall quality of the workstation and its components, makes the Polywell PolyStation SLI2-FX57 deserving of a close look.

SYS Technology

DesignPro A154
626.810.2345
www.sys.com

SYS Technology has long provided CAD workstations that can be configured with a wide range of components and accessories to suit specific needs.

Despite one of the lowest price tags in this review, the SYS Technology DesignPro A15 provides good performance and comes with unusual features such as a color-coded AutoCAD keyboard.
Despite one of the lowest price tags in this review, the SYS Technology DesignPro A15 provides good performance and comes with unusual features such as a color-coded AutoCAD keyboard.

The SYS Technology DesignPro A154 arrived in a solidly constructed and attractive matte black midsized case that measures 20.6" X 8.1" X 18.6" (HXWXD). The system was very quiet thanks to very good acoustical engineering in the case. It's loudest when the optical drives are spinning up. The case features a small flip panel in the front that holds two USB 2.x connectors, a FireWire connector, and microphone and headphone sockets. The two optical drives and the 7-in-1 floppy drive/memory card reader combination are behind a swing-away lockable security door.

The DesignPro A154 is based on an AMD Opteron 154 2.8GHz microprocessor that's plugged into a Gigabyte GA-K8N PRO SLI motherboard with the NVIDIA NForce 4 chipset. As the motherboard model name suggests, this is an SLI-capable design, though only a single PCIe graphics card was installed.

A PNY/NVIDIA Quadro FX 3450 with 256MB of onboard RAM handled the system graphics, which we tested with the preinstalled NVIDIA 7.7.5.6 drivers, which SYS Technologies says produce slightly better performance on this workstation than do more recent driver releases.

The DesignPro A154 had 2GB of unbuffered nonparity DDR/PC3200 400MHz CL3 RAM installed, with a maximum of 4GB possible. The system contains two 250GB (500GB total) Western Digital SATA drives, which are configured for RAID 0—lots of hard disk space to grow into.

Included with the system was a color-coded AutoCAD keyboard with AutoCAD shortcuts integrated directly into the design of the keyboard, which you'll likely find very useful if AutoCAD is a major part of your daily work. The system also included a Logitech two-button optical wheel mouse for input.

On the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark using AutoCAD 2005, the SYS Technology DesignPro A154 generated a total index score of 158. The combined high/low average for the MAXBench4 benchmark running under 3ds max 8 with the NVIDIA MAXtreme 7.00.03 accelerated driver was 144.45. The proe-03 viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 8.10 returned a score of 63.28. These are not the highest scores in this roundup, but they're not bad. This is an excellent entry-level to midrange workstation, available for a good price. If you don't like this particular configuration, you can put together one of your own at SYS Technology.

Price for the SYS Technology DesignPro A154 is $2,990, only $4 more than the least expensive system in this review. This earns the DesignPro A154 an A+ for pricing. This price is especially attractive considering the generous amount of hard disk capacity and other high-quality components included in this configuration.

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


AutoCAD Tips!

Lynn Allen

Autodesk Technical Evangelist Lynn Allen guides you through a different AutoCAD feature in every edition of her popular "Circles and Lines" tutorial series. For even more AutoCAD how-to, check out Lynn's quick tips in the Cadalyst Video Gallery. Subscribe to Cadalyst's free Tips & Tools Weekly e-newsletter and we'll notify you every time a new video tip is published. All exclusively from Cadalyst!
Follow Lynn on Twitter Follow Lynn on Twitter


Poll
At your company, who has the most say in CAD-related software purchasing?
CAD manager
CAD users
IT personnel
vice-president/department manager
CEO/company owner
Submit Vote