Hardware

Take the Graphics Card Express

1 Oct, 2004 By: Ron LaFon Cadalyst

PCI Express graphics cards take technology to a new level.


It 's transition time! The introduction of PCI Express graphics cards and the systems that accommodate them has produced a wave of new technology, the breadth of which I've not seen for quite some time.

The PCI Express is a new system bus architecture for PCs that provides much greater throughput and opens a wide array of potential system changes that will ultimately affect the entire industry. CPUs continue to increase in speed, and communications across the system bus have, in some instances, been throttled because the bus was incapable of transferring information fast enough to take advantage of both the CPUs and any add-in cards installed in the system.

The industry has shifted from standard PCI-based cards to AGP, which is beginning to show its age. The time is ripe for a new way to move information through the system quickly. PCI Express is not the first to attempt at this. IBM's micro-channel architecture comes to mind, although it never caught on because it was incompatible with PCI cards, and many saw it as a way of making open-architecture systems more proprietary. PCI Express, on the other hand, has broad and deep industry support, and is likely to be at the heart of computer systems for the next decade or so.

 Reviewers Report Card
Reviewers Report Card

Because PCI Express systems will ultimately use the faster bus architecture for such things as network cards and because they can relocate components in ways not previously possible, they will open up the possibility of systems that are far removed from traditional systems in their basic form factors.

This month we review midrange graphics cards that, along with the first PCI Express computer systems, are the first PCI Express technology to make it to market. Cadalyst asked vendors to send in either new midrange AGP cards or PCI Express graphics cards that carried an estimated street price of less than $1,200. Several vendors didn't have cards ready for review, even as prerelease engineering samples. We preview forthcoming products from 3DLabs on p. 25 and recap Matrox's current multidisplay lineup.

Overall Performance
Overall Performance

As I've previously noted in Cadalyst, PCI Express will result only in incremental performance increases in CAD/CAM workstations. The most immediate impact will be on systems that are used for jobs that currently tax the system bus to the limit, such as video editing and some CAE applications. CAD/CAM systems will benefit from some performance increases immediately, but more improvement will depend on how quickly CAD/CAM applications add software support for features found in PCI Express.

TIME TO MOVE TO PCI EXPRESS?

So is now the time to move to a PCI Express system? The scope of this transition, for both system vendors and graphics card vendors, is great. It's not just a matter of buying a PCI Express system and plugging in a speedy new graphics card. During the course of preparing this article, I encountered new technology in motherboards with new drivers and new graphics cards with new drivers. There are numerous ways for problems and conflicts to occur, and in many cases they did. If you absolutely must get a new system right now, PCI Express systems are worth considering. If not, I'd say wait. The technology and driver issues will abate, and a number of speedy graphic cards are in the pipeline for introduction in the future—some announced, some not. This is a prime example where early adopters are on the proverbial bleeding edge.

Price/Performance
Price/Performance

Because most of the equipment I evaluate here is pre-release, the problems are widespread and interconnected enough that they may not be resolved in the final versions of the products, which should be shipping by the time this article reaches print.

Another looming factor is the imminent introduction of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP-based systems. Early reports indicate that this new release, which many consider to be a whole new operating system, has its own problems. Its stepped-up security features can play havoc with various applications, including AutoCAD 2000-2004 (for details, see http:// support.microsoft.com/ default.aspx?kbid=842242&product=windowsxpsp2). Add these complications to all the new hardware technology, and troubleshooting the source of a problem becomes daunting.

The FireGL V5100 is one of ATIs new family of PCI Express graphics cards.
The FireGL V5100 is one of ATIs new family of PCI Express graphics cards.

Once these problems are resolved and stabilized, we're going to see new levels of performance from our CAD/CAM workstations. Would I purchase a PCI Express system? Tempting as they are, right now my answer would be a firm no. Ask me again in a few months, and I'll most likely give you a definitive yes. This new technology is poised to provide an elevated base for workstation systems, a base that will support enhanced performance for many years. In this case, the best is yet to come.

Though it may seem that AGP-based graphics cards have suddenly become relegated to the old technology category, there's still lot of life there. This review covers a new AGP 8X card—the ATI FireGL X3-256—and two forthcoming AGP-based cards are noted in the 3Dlabs box on p. 25, the Realizm 100 and Realizm 200. Also, the relatively recently introduced and speedy NVIDIA Quadro FX 4000 AGP card appeared in a First Look review in last month's issue, Graphics card vendors are focused more on PCI Express equipment, but they'll continue to offer and support their current AGP cards. These cards work in most workstations and are at their prime in terms of features, performance, and price.

I used the AGP-based @Xi MTower 4240 and the PCI Express-based @Xi MTower 4320 to test the graphics cards in this roundup.
I used the AGP-based @Xi MTower 4240 and the PCI Express-based @Xi MTower 4320 to test the graphics cards in this roundup.

NVIDIA QUADRO FX 3000 • AGP 8X

NVIDIA

www.nvidia.com

Star rating: Not rated

Price: $1,300

When the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000 was released in mid-2003, it immediately became one of the most popular graphics cards for CAD/CAM systems and has remained so to today. Because this graphics card has found a home in so many CAD/CAM workstations and many of you are familiar with its performance characteristics, I decided to include it in this roundup for comparison purposes, even though it's considered a high-end graphics card rather than a midrange one like those covered in this review.

Table 1. Graphics Card Features
Table 1. Graphics Card Features

Featuring 256MB of onboard RAM with a 256-bit memory interface, the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000 is an AGP 8X graphics card that has a graphics memory bandwidth of 27.2GB per second. It supports ultrahigh-resolution displays up to 3840X2400. Using both of its output connectors, it drives the new 9-megapixel displays such as those from ViewSonic and IBM (Cadalyst, April 2004). The scores for the FX 3000 listed in the accompanying feature table are lower than typical for the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000 also features parallel vertex engines, fully programmable pixel pipelines, and other workstation-specific features. It offers solid support for OpenGL and DirectX. The FX 3000 continues to be available from NVIDIA and provides excellent performance for those who will continue to use AGP-based systems for some time to come.

The recently introduced ATI FireGL X3-256 has 256MB of onboard RAM.
The recently introduced ATI FireGL X3-256 has 256MB of onboard RAM.

ATI FIREGL V5100 • PCI EXPRESS

ATI Technologies

www.ati.com

Star rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Price: $799 (MSRP)

ATI recently introduced a family of PCI Express graphics cards to join its AGP line of cards. This new family includes the FireGL V3100, V3200, V5100, and the V7100. Each of these cards features 128MB of onboard memory, with the exception of the V7100, which has 256MB. Cadalyst expects to do a First Look review of the V7100 when it becomes available.

I tested and evaluated the ATI FireGL V5100, a 16-lane PCI Express card that features 12-pixel pipelines and six geometry engines. As noted, the V5100 incorporates 128MB of DDR unified graphics memory.

Figure 1. The Matrox Parhelia PCI 256MB graphics card is suited for AEC, GIS, and mechanical CAD use.
Figure 1. The Matrox Parhelia PCI 256MB graphics card is suited for AEC, GIS, and mechanical CAD use.

ATI notes that it offers two-way acceleration with its single-chip PCI Express solution, a bridgeless single-chip design. Unlike other bridged PCI Express implementations, ATI says that it delivers full bandwidth upstream and downstream, doubling the capabilities of its previous products.

Output connectors on the FireGL V5100 incorporate dual-display support via two DVI connectors and a stereo 3D connector with quad-buffered support. Drivers are available for Windows and Linux, and are optimized and certified for professional workstation applications based on OpenGL and Microsoft DirectX 9. The dual DVI feature supports any combination of digital and analog displays, with a maximum of 2048X1536 per display in dual display mode. The V5100 also supports 3840X2400 displays.

Figure 2. The Matrox QID Pro can power four analog or digital displays from a single chip.
Figure 2. The Matrox QID Pro can power four analog or digital displays from a single chip.

I used a prerelease version of ATI's unified driver, v6.14.10.6476, to run the benchmark tests. As is often the case with beta drivers, I ran into some difficulties—particularly in running the demanding Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark. These problems should be resolved with the final release of the drivers.

The 3Dlabs Wildcat Realizm 100 is an AGP 8X graphics card that features 256MB of GDDR3 memory and two single-link DVI-I connectors.
The 3Dlabs Wildcat Realizm 100 is an AGP 8X graphics card that features 256MB of GDDR3 memory and two single-link DVI-I connectors.

As noted in the ATI FireGL X3-256 AGP-based graphics card review, the ATI drivers use ATI's SMARTSHADER technology to provide programmable pixel and vertex shaders and multiple render target support. ATI's SMOOTHVISION technology also provides 2X/4X/6X full-scene antialiasing modes and 2X/4X/8X/16X anisotropic filtering modes.

Benchmark performance for the ATI FireGL V5100 was 107.05 for the total score of the Cadalyst Labs C2001 test, with an averaged high/low score of 77.88 for the MAXBENCH4 benchmark. On the proe-02 test set of SPECviewperf 7.1.1, the FireGL V5100 produced a speedy score of 50.64—this roundup's fastest performance on this particular test suite.

The Wildcat Realizm 800 is a 16-lane PCI Express graphics card from 3Dlabs with 512MB of GDDR3 memory and field-upgradable frame lock and Genlock support.
The Wildcat Realizm 800 is a 16-lane PCI Express graphics card from 3Dlabs with 512MB of GDDR3 memory and field-upgradable frame lock and Genlock support.

The ATI FireGL V5100 offers solid midrange performance at a good price and is covered by a three-year warranty with toll-free advanced technical support. The V5100 is a capable midrange graphics card with a nice feature set.

HOW I TESTED THE GRAPHICS CARDS

With all the graphics cards submitted for evaluation, I ran the usual set of test suites: the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark test, SPECviewperf 7.1.1—the proe-02 test suite, and MAXBench4. I tested all cards with the supplied drivers at 1280X1024@32-bit color depth. I used the default accelerated drivers for AutoCAD 2005 (wopengl8.hdi) for the tests. If an accelerated AutoCAD driver is available, I note it in the accompanying feature table on p. 22 but didn't use it for the tests. If a special driver was available for 3ds max 6, I tested with and without the drivers and noted the results in the table.

While I was writing this article, SPECviewperf 8.01 was introduced. Cadalyst is examining it for use in the future. A stand-alone 3ds max 6-specific benchmark has also been released—SPECapc for 3ds max 6, which we will also evaluate, though with 3ds max 7 announced and on the near horizon, its compatibility with this release is currently unknown.

I used two systems for testing this round of graphics cards, both from @Xi Computer ( www.xicomputer.com ), because I had AGP and PCI Express cards to test. I also pulled an additional PCI Express system into service after I had technical difficulties with the first.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 is a moderately priced PCI Express graphics card with excellent performance.
The NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 is a moderately priced PCI Express graphics card with excellent performance.

AGP Cards

For the AGP-based graphics cards, I used an @Xi 4240 MTower SP equipped with 2GB of PC3200 400MHz DDR RAM, a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 processor, and 800MHz front-side bus. The system included a 74GB Western Digital Raptor SATA hard disk with 8MB of cache and was equipped with Windows XP Professional Service Pack 1.

Configured with the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000 graphics card, which I used as a standard against which to evaluate other graphics cards, the @Xi 4240 MTower SP is priced at $3,745.70 as tested, with no monitor or speakers, but including a nominal shipping fee.

Other components included a Pioneer DVR-107 DVD+RW/+R-R drive (writes to CDR/W), a Logitech Deluxe black Windows keyboard, and an OEM Logitech Wheel Mouse 2+ optical mouse. Connectivity options include a parallel port, two serial 16550 connectors, two USB 2X connectors on the front of the case, and four USB 1.x connectors at the rear. The motherboard is based on the Intel 865 chipset.

PCI Express

For the PCI Express-based graphics cards, I used a @Xi 4320 MTower SP with 2GB of 400MHz DDR PC3200 RAM. The CPU on this system was slightly faster than the 4240 MTower SP used to test the AGP-based cards. The system is based on a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 microprocessor supported by the Intel 875P chipset. Front-side bus speed on this system was also 800MHz. The system as equipped carries an estimated price of $4,021.55, which reflects the faster processor and a different motherboard. The pricing for this system reflects an estimated graphics card price that is based on cards similar to the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000. The choice of graphics card in any system you order can significantly affect the pricing.

Other peripherals on the @Xi 4320 MTower SP were essentially the same as on the @Xi 4240 MTower SP used to test the AGP-based graphics cards. Graphics card drivers used for testing a specific card are noted in the feature table that accompanies this article.

I required a third @Xi system to complete the testing and evaluation of the PCI Express graphics card. The initial system we received was based on an early prototype of an Intel motherboard that ultimately proved problematical. @Xi sent Cadalyst a new system based on an ASUS P5GD1 motherboard. Both the @Xi systems I ultimately used for testing proved stable, reliable, and speedy.

ATI FIREGL X3-256 • AGP 8X

ATI Technologies

www.ati.com

Star rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Price: $1,099 (MSRP)

The ATI FireGL X3-256 is a newly introduced AGP 8X graphics card powered by ATI's parallel processing VPU (visual processing unit). The FireGL X3-256 features 256MB of onboard memory with a 256-bit memory interface. The X3-256 has a total of six parallel geometry engines with 16 parallel pixel pipelines and 128-bit full floating-point precision. It features dual integrated, 10-bit per channel 400MHz DACs. An integrated 165MHz TMDS transmitter provides DVI and HDCP compliance.

Dual DVI-I output connections support any combination of digital and analog displays. Dual-link support is provided for ultrahigh-resolution 3740X2400 displays. A maximum resolution of 2048X1536 is available per analog display, and you can select independent resolution and refresh rates for any two connected displays. It also offers quad-buffered stereo 3D support.

Drivers for the FireGL X3-256 are integrated into the ATI unified driver architecture for the line of FireGL graphics cards. The driver used for testing was a prerelease version that locked the system up during one part of the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark, but I was eventually able to complete the benchmark. I also noticed conflicts with some ASUS motherboard drivers in one test system. Such is the way with beta drivers at times. I assume that these problems—which I reported to ATI—will be resolved by the time the final drivers are released.

The drivers include a control panel that enables optimizations for specific applications such as AutoCAD, 3ds max, and Autodesk VIZ. They are ISV-certified for a broad range of programs. The drivers give full support for the OpenGL API shading language and DirectX 9 HLSP shader program. Using ATI's SMARTSHADER technology, the FireGL X3-256 provides programmable pixel and vertex shaders and multiple render target support. Its SMOOTHVISION technology provides 2X/4X/6X full-scene antialiasing modes and 2X/4X/8X/16X anisotropic filtering modes.

On the test bench, the FireGL X3-256 provided solid midrange performance on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 test with a total score of 104.23 and an averaged high/low score of 73.37 on the MAXBENCH4 test. The proe-02 test set of SPECviewperf 7.1.1 returned a score of 48.64.

With a manufacturer suggested retail price of $1,099, the ATI FireGL X3-256 approaches the upper end of what would be considered expensive for a midrange card, particularly for performance figures that place it solidly in the midrange category. I gave no deductions for pricing when tabulating the report card and star ratings. The card comes with a three-year warranty.

MORE FROM MATROX

Matrox ( www.matrox.com ) didn't have any new cards ready for testing for this roundup, but it currently offers an extensive array of graphics cards from several different lines.

The Matrox Parhelia Series is designed for 2D and 3D CAD and GIS workstations and includes the Parhelia 128MB AGP 8X ($399 ESP), the Parhelia 256MB AGP8X ($639 ESP), and the Parhelia PCI 256MB ($699 ESP, figure 1). The Parhelia Series feature innovative technologies such as Surround Design, which supports hardware-accelerated 2D and 3D across single, dual, or triple displays. Other benefits include the Matrox PrecisionCAD driver for AutoCAD, unified and certified drivers, and bundled collaboration tools from TORNADO Technologies.

The Matrox Millennium P-Series, for AEC and entry-level mechanical CAD users, includes the Millennium P650 ($169 ESP) and the Millennium P750 ($235 ESP). The Millennium P750 offers slightly faster performance than the Millennium P650 and TripleHead support for 2D applications only. Both cards come with unified, certified drivers and the Matrox PrecisionCAD driver for AutoCAD, as well as the bundled collaboration tools from TORNADO Technologies. The Matrox multidisplay features, including Matrox MultiDesk, TV output, Multi-Zoom, Clone, PureVideo, and the Matrox PowerDesk-HF utility suite, make hardware configuration and desktop management in multidisplay environments easy.

The Matrox Parhelia HR256 ($2,495 ESP) is for enhanced visualization of GIS, AEC, and mechanical CAD applications and is designed to drive high-resolution displays to their full potential. The Parhelia HR256 provides support for maximum refresh rates on 9-megapixel displays at resolutions of 3840X2400@200dpi.

The HR256's dual LFH-60 direct connection, with no adapters, ensures flawless image quality and provides support for very high resolutions and optimal screen refresh rates. This distinctive graphics card features 256MB of memory and a PCI interface. Multiboard and multisystem Genlock capabilities are available with the use of the Matrox ASM (advanced synchronization module). This card also features high-meantime-before-failure numbers and Matrox FanAlert, which advises the system administrator should the fan malfunction. With the PCI interface, you can also run this card in PCI Express systems.

The QID (Quad Information Display) Pro from Matrox ($999 ESP, figure 2) brings multidisplay capabilities to mission-critical environments. It includes support for four analog or digital displays from a single chip. It is also an ideal graphics platform for servers, bringing increased efficiency to IT managers by enabling them to see and work with more information at once across several displays when controlling multiple servers from a single system.

The QID Pro is a single-slot PCI card. Multiboard and multisystem Genlock capabilities are available with the use of the Matrox ASM.

Finally, the Matrox ASM can control up to four Matrox display controllers in one system and also supports synchronization between multiple systems. This intelligent PCI module offers a host of unique features to provide the highest level of options for the synchronization of large-scale, multimonitor configurations. In addition, its standard three-pin stereo connector supports multimonitor, multisystem, and multiuser stereoscopic visualization.

NEW CARDS FROM 3DLABS

Although 3Dlabs (www.3dlabs.com) had recently announced several new graphics cards, none was available for testing at the time I evaluated cards for this article. As they do become available from 3Dlabs, we expect to cover them in First Look reviews.

Announced in mid-June 2004, the Wildcat Realizm 100 and 200 are AGP 8X graphics cards. Both are based on the Wildcat Realizm VPU (visual processing unit) and support OpenGL Shading Language and DirectX 9 HLSL shader programs.

The Wildcat Realizm 100 ($1,249 MSRP) incorporates 256MB of 256-bit GDDR3 onboard memory for more than 32GB-per-second bandwidth. The card is equipped with two single-link DVI-I connectors, a stereo connector, and two DVI-to-VGA connectors. 3Dlabs' internal testing shows that the Wildcat Realizm 100 delivers 50 frames per second on the SPECviewperf 7.1.1 UGS-03 benchmark test.

The Wildcat Realizm 200 ($1,599 MSRP) incorporates 512MB of onboard memory. It features two dual-link DVI-I connectors and drives the new high-end 9.2-megapixel displays.

Also announced was a Wildcat Realizm Multiview Option Kit for the Wildcat Realizm 200 and 800 ($650 MSRP), which offers field-upgradable support for frame lock and Genlock for these graphics cards. The kit includes an interface card, which requires an additional slot, a jumper cable to connect to the graphics card, and a 6' frame lock cable.

The Wildcat Realizm 800 ($2,799 MSRP) is a PCI Express-based graphics card—a full 16-lane card. It features a Wildcat Realizm VSU (vertex/scalability unit) and dual Wildcat Realizm VPUs, which 3Dlabs says delivers more than 700 GFLOPS (billions of floating-point operations per second) of floating-point graphics processing. Like the Realizm 100 and 200, the Realizm 800 also offers support for OpenGL (1.5) Shading Language and DirectX 9 HLSP shader programs.

In addition to the 512MB of onboard GDDR3 graphics memory, the Wildcat Realizm 800 incorporates 128MB of onboard DirectBurst memory for boosting geometry-intensive applications. The Realizm 800 offers two dual-link DVI-I connectors and a stereo connector. Although a card was not available for testing, 3Dlabs says that the Realizm 800 scores higher than 80 frames per second on the Spec Viewperf 7.1.1 UGS-3 benchmark. We're looking forward to putting this card through its paces in Cadalyst Labs once it becomes available.

NVIDIA QUADRO FX 1400 •PCI EXPRESS

NVIDIA

www.nvidia.com

Star rating: 5 stars out of 5

Price: $650-$700

NVIDIA recently added a new line of PCI Express card to its burgeoning graphics card offerings. This new line includes the NVIDIA Quadro FX 540, FX 1400, FX 4400, and FX 4400G. I tested the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400, which fit the midrange workstation graphics card criteria Cadalyst established for this roundup. The FX 4400 was not available at the time I was evaluating new graphics cards, but Cadalyst plans to review the card when it does become available. With its new line of PCI Express cards, NVIDIA wants to provide something for every type of PC user.

The FX 1400 has 128MB of DDR1 memory onboard, with a 256-bit memory interface. The graphics memory bandwidth for the FX 1400 is 19.2GB per second. Output connectors include two DVI-I connectors and a 3D stereo connector. The FX 1400 carries a three-year warranty.

NVIDIA's Quadro FX 1400 has parallel vertex engines and fully programmable pixel pipelines. It supports both OpenGL and Microsoft DirectX. The programmability of the vertex and pixel pipelines enables real-time shaders to simulate a wide range of physical effects and surface properties.

I tested the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 with a prerelease version of NVIDIA's unified driver v6.13.10.6600, still some weeks away from final release. The drivers were surprisingly solid and stable for beta drivers, even in this early release. A couple of components in the MAXBENCH4 suite ran more slowly than anticipated when used with NVIDIA's MAXtreme v6.00.07.00 driver, but I expect that once the drivers are finalized and optimized, they will offer even higher performance. This might also be expected of the other graphics cards tested with prerelease drivers.

The NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 redefines our expectations of price and performance for midrange graphics cards. On the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark test, the FX 1400 scored 130.67—comfortably within the range usually posted by high-end cards. Similarly, the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 produced an averaged high/low score of 98.71 on the MAXBENCH 4 test. At 47.57, the scores on the proe-02 viewset of the SPECviewperf 7.1.1 benchmark were about average for the cards included in this roundup.

With an estimated street price of $650-$700 and great performance scores, the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 is sure to be a popular graphics card that will find a home in many CAD/CAM systems. Highly Recommended.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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