Hardware

Punch Up Your CAD Power-New Athlon, Pentium Systems Pay Off with Performance

1 Mar, 2005 By: Ron LaFon

Cadalyst Labs looks at the latest and greatest workstations for CAD.


This workstation review produced record performance numbers, with scores well above 160 on our C2001 Cadalyst Labs benchmark—this just after the 150 barrier was broken in the November 2004 roundup. In terms of price and performance, a number of systems clustered at the top of the heap, reflecting a growing maturity as vendors put together ever-speedier PCI Express systems with fast (and often expensive) new graphics cards.

 Reviewers Report Card
Reviewers Report Card

For the first time since I've been reviewing workstations for Cadalyst, all the systems reviewed earned the Cadalyst Labs Highly Recommended rating. Whenever a given system had a deficiency such as, for example, slightly limited expandability, another characteristic of the system offset that lower grade. Because all the systems evaluated here are excellent, I was loathe to split hairs on which got a marginally higher or lower grade. I wouldn't mind having any of them sitting under my workbench—they're all that good.

We did receive one system based on dual Athlon processors that was ultimately pulled from the review. This system, like two from the last review in November 2004 produced scores that were markedly lower than others in the review. For more information.

Time to buy a new workstation?
Time to buy a new workstation?

Review Requirements

For this first workstation roundup of 2005, we requested systems with the fastest available Intel or AMD single processor with at least 2GB of system memory, 120GB or more of total hard drive storage, a CD-RW drive, a DVD-ROM drive, a network card and a mouse with wheel. We also requested a 3D OpenGL graphics card with at least 64MB of RAM that supports a resolution of 1280X1024 with 24-bit color and a minimum refresh rate of 85Hz. Submitted systems had Windows XP Professional installed and configured to the Classic system interface. We asked that no monitor or speakers be included with the system.

Systems earned grades in several different categories, with each category given a specific weight. Categories include performance (7X), price (4X), warranty (2X), expandability (2X) and return policy (1X). Extra credit is available for systems that offer some outstanding feature or benefit that is not reflected in these categories, but none of the systems received extra credit this time around.

Overall Performance : Price/Performance
Overall Performance : Price/Performance

Testing Procedure

We ran the most current versions of our usual set of test suites: the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark test with AutoCAD 2005 Service Pack 1 installed, SPECviewperf 8.0.1 proe-03 viewset and MAXBench4 using Discreet's 3ds max 7. All systems were tested with the supplied drivers at 1280X1024@32-bit color depth. Default accelerated drivers for AutoCAD 2005 (WOPENGL8.HDI) were used for testing purposes. If an accelerated AutoCAD driver is available, it's noted in the accompanying feature table, but was not used for the tests. If a special driver is available for 3ds max 7, which we used in this roundup, we tested with these drivers and noted the results in the accompanying table.

SPECviewperf 8.01 was recently introduced (www.spec.org) and this is the first major roundup that uses the proe-03 viewset. This is also the first series of benchmarks we ran using AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed. The MAXBench4 test setup was unchanged from previous evaluations.

When we last tested workstations, Windows XP SP2 (Service Pack 2) was fairly new and not installed on all the systems we tested. This time around, all systems came with SP2 preinstalled.

Users of NVIDIA graphics cards can now gain a significant performance boost by setting the system-level graphics drivers for a per-application optimization. This feature has appeared in NVIDIA graphics drivers for some time, but in previous iterations we found the performance benefits to be minimal or nonexistent. This is not the case with current graphics cards and drivers, so we recommend making this adjustment to gain maximum performance benefits from NVIDIA hardware.

During the course of testing, we often run into problems with systems, which we try to resolve with the vendors at the time the testing is underway. Though this can at times make for a harried reviewer, the understanding is that many of these systems are brand new and may not be available to the public at the time of testing, so all the bugs may not be resolved.

What's next?

SLI (scalable link interface) technology that is currently available in lower-end graphics cards should be appearing soon in workstations. SLI takes advantage of the increased bandwidth of the PCI Express bus architecture and supports two graphic cards linked by an SLI connector to drive an image to a single monitor. SLI requirements include a PCI Express motherboard that supports two graphics cards, two SLI-capable graphics cards (the NVIDIA FX 1400, FX 3400 and FX 4400, for example), an SLI connector that links the two graphics cards, and software drivers that make this all possible. The systems from BOXX, Polywell and @Xi reviewed here have motherboards that are SLI-capable, although other parts of the technology aren't yet ready for prime time. All systems for this roundup were tested with a single graphics card, even if they were capable of handling more than one.

When it all comes together, we'll have workstations that reach new levels of graphics performance, although systems so equipped will certainly cost more because of the extra hardware required. As these SLI-based workstations become available, we'll look at them later in 2005.

No other major workstation changes are likely before Longhorn, the next iteration of the Windows operating system, becomes available. Certainly performance will benefit from faster and more sophisticated components and peripherals, as well as the continued development of software applications, but these are likely to be along the lines of the incremental, steady improvements and developments we're accustomed to.

Xi MTower 64SLI

@Xi Computer
www.xicomputer.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $4,399


The Xi MTower 64SLI system from @Xi Computer posted the fastest scores ever on the Cadalyst C2001 Benchmark test, breaking the record that @Xi previously set in November.

The @Xi MTower 64SLI system led the pack with top scores on all three benchmark tests.
The @Xi MTower 64SLI system led the pack with top scores on all three benchmark tests.

Housed in the standard @Xi Computer case—a midtower design with a swing-away drive bay door and a panel on the front with USB and FireWire connections—the MTower 64SLI offers additional USB connectors and a FireWire connector on the back, for a total of 10 USB 2.x connections and two FireWire connections. The case design features ten drive bays—four 5.25" and two 3.5" external, and another five internal 3.5" bays. Combined with the 460W Enermax power supply, this system offers tremendous opportunities for expansion and earned an A+ in this category.

The MTower 64SLI is one of three systems in this roundup that are SLI-capable, providing two PCI Express 16x slots. The system also has two onboard 10/100/1000 network circuits, adding further to expandability options. We tested the system with 2GB of DDR 400/533 memory, although fully populated the MTower 64SLI holds 4GB of RAM.

On the test bench, the Xi MTower 64SLI achieved a sizzling C2001 Total Index Score of 166.61, 143.26 on the averaged frame rates of the MAXBench4 benchmark using the NVIDIA MAXtreme 6.00.07 accelerated driver, and 58.54 on the proe-03 viewset of SPECviewperf v8.01. These represent the highest scores in the roundup for each of these benchmark tests. The MTower 64SLI received an A+ for performance.

The system we tested is priced at $4,399 with the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4400 PCI Express card with 512MB of RAM. The same system costs $3,845 with the speedy but less expensive NVIDIA Quadro FX 3400 that has 256MB of onboard memory. The system price is a little higher than we typically expect from @Xi, but reflects the cost of the graphics card and the AMD Athlon FX55 2.6GHz processor—for which AMD is currently charging a premium price. Highly Recommended.

MJ-12 5500

Alienware
www.alienware.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $4,399


The Alienware MJ-12 5500 is the second system that we've tested from Alienware, and it delivered great performance at a moderate price—proving that sometimes it's the second time that's a charm, not the third. The MJ-12 5500 is a sleek, stylish and relatively compact system that's easy on the eye.

The Alienware MJ-12 5500, priced at $4,399, offers excellent expandability options.
The Alienware MJ-12 5500, priced at $4,399, offers excellent expandability options.

The MJ-12 5500 that we tested was built on an Intel 3.8GHz Pentium 4 processor on an ABit AA8XE motherboard that used the 925 XE chipset. As tested, the system was listed as having 2GB of DDR2 RAM installed, though the system panel indicated 3GB of installed RAM. When fully populated, the system accommodates 4GB of RAM.

As with many of the speedier systems tested in this roundup, the Alienware MJ-12 5500 used the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4400 16x PCI Express graphics card. Testing was done with NVIDIA 7.1.2.4 drivers and MAXtreme v6.00.07 for the 3ds max benchmark tests.

The system was priced at $4,399, which, considering the extras included with the system, earned it an A for pricing. The Alienware MJ-12 5500 received an A+ expandability. It provides fourteen drive bays: four 5.25" and two 3.5" external bays, and six 5.25" and two 3.5" internal bays. Combined with an Enermax 460W power supply, eight USB 2.x connectors and a single FireWire 1394 connector, the system has room for expansion and the means to support it.

On the Cadalyst Labs test bench, the Alienware MJ-12 5500 achieved a Total Index Score of 154.71 on the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, 120.91 on the averaged frame rates of the MAXBench 4 benchmark using the NVIDIA MAXtreme 6.00.07 accelerated drivers, and a score of 54.02 on the proe-03 viewset of SPECviewperf v8.01. These are all very respectable numbers that earned the system an A for performance.

The only complaint I have with the Alienware system has to do with the noise level, which is louder than I like. However, the system is rife with niceties. I've never seen a mousepad delivered in an embossed metal box, and I must admit that I enjoy the whimsy. Highly Recommended.

3DBOXX 3206

BOXX Technologies
www.boxxtech.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $4,944.50


For this roundup, BOXX Technologies submitted the 3DBOXX 3206, a new system from its 3200 series of high-performance workstations based on AMD Athlon 64 FX processors.

The 3DBOXX 3206 from BOXX Technologies comes in a stylish metal case and, more importantly, posted solid test scores.
The 3DBOXX 3206 from BOXX Technologies comes in a stylish metal case and, more importantly, posted solid test scores.

BOXX's system cases are distinctive and attractive, with the company logo cut out of the metal housing. These systems are not just for appearance, however, as shown by the solid scores they earned during our testing.

The 3DBOXX 3206 is based on an AMD Athlon 64 FX 55 seated in an Asus A8N-SLi Deluxe motherboard that uses the NVIDIA nForce4 SLI chipset. As tested, the system had 2GB of DDR400 RAM, though the motherboard accommodates 4GB.

The 3DBOXX 3206 provides nine drive bays: two 5.25" and one 3.5" external and six 3.5" internal bays. The Emacs/Zippy 400W power supply may be a little on the weak side, depending on how many of the drive bays you plan to use. The 3DBOXX 3206 offers six USB 2.0 connectors (two in the front, four in the rear) and two FireWire connectors (one in front, one in the rear).

Cadalyst Labs test results for the 3DBOXX 3206 included a strong Total Index Score of 157.13 on the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, 132.93 for the averaged frame rates of the MAXBench 4 benchmark using the NVIDIA MAXtreme 6.00.07 accelerated drivers, and 54.94 on the proe-03 viewset of the SPECviewperf v8.01 benchmark. These very good performance scores earned the 3DBOXX 3206 an A for this category.

With a price of $4,944.50, the 3DBOXX 3206 is the most expensive system in this roundup, due in part to the premium that AMD is exacting for its new Athlon 64 FX55 processors and the inclusion of a very speedy, though expensive, NVIDIA Quadro FX 4400 graphics card. The price is on the high side, but is not too far from the range of other systems included in this roundup. The system still earned an A for pricing, though it was admittedly a close call. The good news is that as the AMD FX55 microprocessors come into wider distribution and production scales up, per-unit prices on the chips are likely to drop. Highly Recommended.

Dell Precision 370

Dell
www.dell.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $3,631


The Dell Precision 370 was one of the more compact systems in this roundup, measuring only 7.1" X 16.7" X 17.6" (wXhXd). As it turned out, good things do come in small packages, as the Precision 370 turned in good performance numbers on our benchmark tests. Based on an Intel Pentium 4 3.6GHz processor housed on a Dell-designed motherboard that uses the Intel 925X chipset with a Memory Controller Hub and I/O Connection Hub, the Dell Precision 370 came with 2GB of DDR2 533MHz ECC memory. A fully populated motherboard holds 4GB of RAM.

Dell's Precision 370 will conserve desk space, though at the expense of expandability options.
Dell's Precision 370 will conserve desk space, though at the expense of expandability options.

Testing the Dell Precision 370 produced a Total Index Score of 154.91 on the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark. The system registered 108.18—a little on the low side—for the averaged frame rates of the MAXBench 4 benchmark using the NVIDIA MAXtreme 6.00.07 accelerated drivers. The score for the proe-03 viewset of the SPECviewperf v8.01 benchmark was 52.92. These numbers indicate that the Precision 370 would serve well as a CAD workstation rather than as a visualization and rendering station. The results are solid, however, and earn the Dell an A for performance.

Life in the Fast Lane—Watch for Speed Bumps, Part 2
Life in the Fast Lane—Watch for Speed Bumps, Part 2

Though the Precision 370's compact case was striking, its size ultimately limited expandability options. The system offers six drive bays: two 5.25" and two 3.5" externally accessible bays and two 3.5" internal drive bays. Combined with a 350W power supply, the expandability options are limited when compared with other systems in this roundup, so the system received an A- score in this category. The Precision 370 proivdes eight USB 2.x connectors, two in front and six on the rear, with a FireWire connection as an optional add-on.

The system received a second A- score for the return options, which at 21 days is on the short side, although there is no restocking fee.

The Dell Precision 370 is very quiet—one of the quietest systems to come through Cadalyst Labs. The system is well-designed and engineered, and should provide a long life of useful service. Highly Recommended.

IntelliStation MPro 6225

IBM

www.ibm.com

Cadalyst Labs Grade: A

Price: $3,955

For this roundup, IBM sent an IntelliStation MPro 6225 system, a compact and solidly built workstation that measured 19.4" X 6.9" X 17.7" (wXhXd). The system demonstrates all the attention to detail and engineering that we typically associate with IBM workstations.

Priced at $3,955, the IBM IntelliStation MPro 6225 is a compact system with a range of configuration options.
Priced at $3,955, the IBM IntelliStation MPro 6225 is a compact system with a range of configuration options.

New features and capabilities in this workstation are PCI Express, 64-bit memory architecture for large models, PC3200 DDR 2 memory and eight USB slots as well as IEEE 1394 connections. The IBM IntelliStation MPro 6225 is based on an Intel Pentium 4 3.8GHz EM64T processor on an IBM motherboard with the Intel 925X chipset that includes the 925X Memory Controller Hub for PCI Express x1. The system reviewed came with 2GB of PC3200/400MHz DDR2 RAM and supports 4GB when the motherboard is fully populated.

Performance scores included a Total Index Score of 147.21 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark, 38.73 on the SPECviewperf proe-03 benchmark, and an averaged frame rate of 116.03 on the MAXBench4 benchmark using the NVIDIA MAXtreme v6.00.07 accelerated driver. Note that these numbers were with the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3400, rather than the 3D Labs Realizm 800 graphics card. This is a very capable system that costs $3,955 as tested.

Configuration options on the IBM IntelliStation MPro can make this same system an entry-level 3D workstation when you specify the inexpensive ATI V3100 graphics card, or a higher-end system when a more expensive NVIDIA Quadro FX 3400 card is installed. This is an ideal system for those whose budget dictates an economical system because it offers the potential for an easy upgrade to higher performance by simply changing the graphics card and drivers.

Even greater performance numbers are likely possible from the IBM IntelliStation MPro 6225 by including the newer, and more expensive, NVIDIA Quadro FX 4400 PCI Express graphics card, though as this article goes to press, IBM does not yet offer this as an option.

Though IBM is selling its PC business, the IntelliStation workstations are part of the IBM server group and remain under the aegis of IBM. Highly Recommended.

Poly 939N4-4400FX

Polywell Computers
www.polywell.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $4,199


Polywell Computers sent us a Poly 939N4-4400FX system, which proved to be one of the speediest systems we've ever received from the company. The Poly 939N4-4400FX was housed in a sturdy and stylish case.

The Polywell Poly 939N4-4400X is one of only two workstations to earn an A+ for performance in this review.
The Polywell Poly 939N4-4400X is one of only two workstations to earn an A+ for performance in this review.

The system is based on an AMD Athlon FX55 (2.6GHz) microprocessor and an ASUS A8N-SLI motherboard that uses the NVIDIA NForce 4 SLI chipset. The review system came with 2GB of DDR 400MHz RAM installed, half the maximum 4GB possible when the motherboard is fully populated.

Expandability options are good for the Poly 939N4-4400FX, which features ten drive bays: four 5.25" and two 3.5" external bays, plus four 3.5" internal bays. The system has a 400W power supply and incorporates six USB 2.0 connectors and two FireWire connectors (one each, front and back). The Polywell Poly 939N4-4400FX is ready to roll with SLI capabilities once all necessary components and drivers are released.

The Polywell Poly 939N4-4400X posted a sizzling Total Index Score of 161.46 on the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark and a score of 54.16 on the SPECviewperf proe-03 benchmark test. The averaged frame rate was 132.37 on the MAXBench4 benchmark using the NVIDIA MAXtreme v6.00.07 accelerated 3ds max driver. These excellent scores earned the Poly 939N4-4400FX a rare A+ for performance—one of only two systems in this review to warrant that grade.

The Poly 939N4-4400FX uses the 16x PCI Express NVIDIA Quadro FX 4400 graphics card that's referenced in the system model number, which we ran with NVIDIA Windows XP driver number 7.1.2.4 and with the NVIDIA accelerated driver for the 3ds max 7 components of the benchmarks.

Polywell offers a good warranty on this system, with 60 months coverage on labor, 36 months on parts and 12 months of onsite service. Also standard are 24-hour replacement parts and 24-hour telephone support. In addition to a nice software bundle, Polywell includes a Microsoft Digital Media Keyboard and a Microsoft Wheel Mouse Optical v1.1a with the Poly 939N4-4400FX system. Highly Recommended.

StarStation

TriStar Corp.
www.tristar.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $3,048


The TriStar StarStation system tested here was based on an Intel 3.4GHz Pentium 4 microprocessor seated in an Intel D915PBL motherboard based on the Intel 915P chipset. The system arrived with 2GB of DDR2 memory, with 4GB possible when the motherboard is fully populated. The StarStation is housed in a very attractive case with a full front swing-away cover with a mesh grille for ventilation. The cover is cantilevered to easily swing out of the way and incorporates a locking mechanism.

Though TriStar's StarStation benchmark scores are slightly low, it had the slowest processor and lowest price of all workstations tested.
Though TriStar's StarStation benchmark scores are slightly low, it had the slowest processor and lowest price of all workstations tested.

On the Cadalyst Labs test bench, the StarStation achieved a Total Index Score of 137.46, 50.68 on the SPECviewperf v8.01 proe-03 viewset and an averaged frame rate of 106.99 on the MAXBench4 benchmark with the NVIDIA MAXtreme v6.00.07 accelerated driver. These scores are slightly low as a result of the StarStation's 3.4GHz Intel Pentium processor—the slowest in this roundup—but they're still high enough to give the system an A- score for performance. The speedy NVIDIA Quadro FX 4400 certainly helped to boost overall system performance. We tested the system with NVIDIA drivers v6.14.10.6722.

Even with the expensive graphics card, TriStar quoted us a system price of $3,048, the lowest of any workstation in this roundup. This earned it an A+ in the pricing category.

The StarStation provides nine drive bays: four 5.25" and two 3.5" that are accessible externally, with an additional three 3.5" internal bays. The system includes an Allied 400W power supply and incorporates eight USB 2.0 connectors (four in front, four in back) and two FireWire connectors (1 in front, 1 in back).

Warranty coverage is 36 months for both labor and parts, with onsite coverage available. Telephone support is available from 7am-7pm EST. 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.

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About the Author: Ron LaFon


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