Hardware

Today's Power: Quad-Core Workstations (Cadalyst Labs Review)

1 May, 2008 By: Ron LaFon

Cadalyst's first-ever comparative review of quad-core workstations evaluates high-performance systems that can speed their way through complex tasks.


In the past, Cadalyst has tested and reviewed quad-core systems on a standalone basis, but the first workstation roundup of 2008 is devoted entirely to systems based on these capable processors. The systems reviewed in this article range widely in price and performance, and they encompass a number of variants.

Earlier this year, Cadalyst sent invitations to a number of vendors indicating plans to do a roundup review of quad-core workstations. Six vendors initially accepted the invitation, although two withdrew as the deadline for receiving the systems approached, so Cadalyst received four systems to put through their paces.

As I've said in the past, Intel notes that quad-core systems will test slower on some processes, both because of the slower base-clock speed of the processor and because of how the task switching is handled. Obviously, applications that handle multitasking well will show the greatest performance benefits. See www.cadalyst.com/intel for additional information about tasks and speeds.

The systems that Cadalyst received ranged in price from $2,795 to $5,499, and all vendors submitted systems based on Intel processors (although the choice of processor was entirely up to the individual vendor). All systems also included NVIDIA Quadro graphics cards, with one including the Quadro FX 4600 and the other three including the newer Quadro FX 3700. Three of the four submitted systems were overclocked to one degree or another, depending upon the particular processor. Among the systems, two were liquid cooled. Although liquid cooling has become relatively common, some — myself included — have qualms about liquid systems within a box of complex electronics.

Cadalyst requested systems based on Windows XP Professional rather than any of the Vista versions. Accurately benchmarking on Vista is difficult at best due to the extensive background processes that seem to be part and parcel of the new operating system. I continue to look at options for benchmarking Vista-based systems, but at present, getting repeatable and reproducible results is elusive. I will know soon if the highly anticipated Service Pack 1 for Vista improves this situation.

Quad-core Systems Report Card
Quad-core Systems Report Card

Review Standards

For this roundup, Cadalyst requested systems with the fastest available single quad-core processors installed, whether Intel or AMD based. The choice of processor included in a given system was, as always, entirely up to the vendor who submitted the system. Each submitted system had to have a minimum of 2 GB system memory and a minimum of 120 GB total hard drive storage capacity, which could be attained with either a single or multiple drives.

The systems had to have a CD-RW drive and a DVD-ROM drive (combination drives were acceptable), as well as a network card and a wheel mouse. A 3D OpenGL graphics card with at least 64 MB of onboard RAM was required, and it had to support at least 1,280 x 1,024 resolution with 24/32-bit color at a minimum 85 Hz refresh rate.

Each system had to be preloaded with the 32-bit version of Windows XP Professional with the latest service packs installed. Cadalyst specified that none of the systems include a monitor or speakers, so the system prices don't reflect these extras.

These system requirements were the minimum, but as long as they were met, vendors could configure the systems however they pleased, though too many extras typically affect the price and the Cadalyst ratings for that category.

Testing Procedures

After I unpacked each submitted workstation, I checked for the appropriate amount of RAM and graphics-card capabilities and then installed the underlying application software and benchmarks. I used the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark with AutoCAD 2008 using Service Pack 1 for the AutoCAD component of the tests. If you want to test your own system with this benchmark, you can download the C2008 benchmark at www.cadalyst.com/C2008 and give it a try on your own system. The C2008 results gives three figures, the first two for the native OpenGL and Direct3D drivers.

I ran two concurrent sessions of AutoCAD 2008, each running a separate copy of the C2008 benchmark. I use this procedure to test multicore systems, with both instances of the test producing high scores in approximately the same amount of time that a single test requires to run. Because this procedure accomplishes approximately twice the amount of work in essentially the same amount of time required to run a single benchmark iteration, I've found it to be an effective means of evaluating performance on multicore systems — at least until AutoCAD itself incorporates this ability. The third figure in the C2008 results is the combined C2008 total index score for both concurrently running sessions.

I tested each workstation with Autodesk 3ds Max 2008 with the latest available updates and fixes running the MAXBench4 benchmark test. I typically test with an accelerated driver if one is available, but recent problems with some of these drivers precluded their use for this particular roundup. These problems were subsequently resolved but not in time for these tests. Autodesk 3ds Max 2008 uses Direct3D as its default driver, so I tested with both the native OpenGL and the Direct3D drivers included with the product. As a result, the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/0508workstationtable) incorporates two figures for the MAXBench4 benchmark — the default OpenGL driver is the first figure and the Direct3D score is the second score. As noted, no accelerated drivers were used for testing in this particular roundup, so the third figure for each system is None.

For the final benchmark, I ran the full SPECviewperf 10 benchmark suite (www.spec.org). The results for each of the individual tests are given both in the specific reviews and in the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/0508workstationtable).

After all of the benchmark tests had been performed on a given workstation, the system was evaluated based on several criteria: meeting the minimum system configuration requirements, the benchmark results, pricing, features, warranty, and documentation. I figured all of these factors into the overall grade that determined the Cadalyst ratings. Any system with a grade of A or higher received the Cadalyst Highly Recommended rating.

If you need the additional processing power afforded by quad-core processors, the workstations reviewed in this article represent a range of high-performance systems that can speed their way through complex tasks. All the systems reviewed are of consistently high quality, so you should be able to find a system that suits your particular needs. Expandability is a given for the four systems reviewed here, so the potential for future growth certainly exists. And if four processing cores aren't enough, stay tuned! Soon Cadalyst Labs will review its first dual quad-core system.

Xi MTower PCIe

@Xi Computer
800.432.0486
www.xicomputer.com
Price: $5,499


For this roundup, @Xi Computer submitted a Xi MTower PCIe quad-core system based on the pricey Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 3.20 GHz processor that had been overclocked to 3.82 GHz and cooled with a Silent Water Cooling system. The processor was mounted in an ASUS P5E3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP@n motherboard that used the Intel X38 chipset. A total of 2 GB of DDR3 1,333 MHz RAM was installed, out of a total 4 GB possible when the system board is fully populated. The front-side bus speed was the full 1,600 MHz.

The included hard disk was a speedy 15,000 rpm Seagate serially attached SCSI 150 MB drive. The optical drive included was an 18 x 10 x 40 x 12 Lite-On drive. Graphics were handled by an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4600 graphics card with 768 MB of onboard RAM. All the systems in this roundup used Quadro graphics cards, but this system is the only one that used the FX 4600. The system featured PCIe2 slots, and I used NVIDIA drivers v.6.14.11.6939 (dated February 1, 2008) for testing.

The pricey but dazzling Xi MTower PCIe workstation earned an A+ for its performance.
The pricey but dazzling Xi MTower PCIe workstation earned an A+ for its performance.

The Xi MTower PCIe system Cadalyst received was housed in a squat but deep case that measured 17.2" x 8" x 19.2" (H x W x D) that I hadn't seen @Xi Computer use previously. The case offered room for future expansion, with a total of nine 5.25" drive bays, five of which were externally accessible. The system had a total of 10 USB 2.x connectors, two FireWire 1394 connections, and a parallel printer port. Expansion potential was enhanced by the 850 W Cooler Master power supply, which also resulted in relatively quiet system operation.

On the test bench, the Xi MTower PCIe system did extremely well — the Cadalyst C2008 total index scores for AutoCAD 2008 with Service Pack 1 were 312 with the native OpenGL drivers, 432 with the native Direct3D drivers, and 868 for the combined C2008 total index score for the concurrent sessions. The concurrent C2008 benchmarks for the Xi MTower PCIe were completed in 58 minutes. This system also produced high numbers for the MAXBench4 benchmark running under Autodesk 3ds Max 2008, generating an averaged high/low score of 122.84 with the native OpenGL drivers and an averaged high/low score of 272.72 for the native Direct3D drivers. The AutoCAD and 3ds Max scores for this system are the highest in this quad-core roundup.

Although the Xi MTower PCIe system produced high scores on the complete SPECviewperf 10 benchmark suite, they were not the highest in this roundup. Benchmark scores were 49.76 for 3ds max-04, 59.82 for catia-02, 46.86 for ensight-03, 171.33 for maya-02, 56.79 for proe-04, 110.91 for sw-01, 24.59 for tcvis-01, and 27.07 for ugnx-01. Including the AutoCAD and 3ds Max scores, this system earned an A+ in the performance category.

All this excellent performance does come at a price — $5,499, to be exact. The pricing reflects the high cost of components, such as the processor, the graphics card, RAM, and the 15,000 rpm SCSI drive. The Xi MTower PCIe system as configured for testing was at least $2,000 more than other systems in the roundup. This disparity resulted in the system receiving a grade of B for pricing, which ultimately kept this specific configuration from being awarded Cadalyst's Highly Recommended rating. Even so, the dazzling A+ performance almost brought the overall ratings high enough to achieve this recommendation. If your budget has the requisite depth and you need the performance, the Xi MTower PCIe quad-core system configured as reviewed here delivers.

The system price for the Xi MTower PCIe includes 36 months of warranty coverage for both parts and labor and 12 months of on-site service. @Xi Computer offers a 30-day money back guarantee on the system with no restocking fee, which earned the system an A rating in this category.

HP xw4600 Workstation

Hewlett-Packard
800.289.6947
www.hp.com
Price: $3,129


The HP xw4600 workstation arrived dressed in an HP Desktop skin, a 3M vinyl skin that is one of thousands of designs offered by SkinIt for HP workstations (see http://hp.skinit.com). You can also upload a company logo, photos, or unique messaging and have them made into a skin for the HP xw4600 and several other devices. These skins simply are another way that the HP xw4600 can be customized. Overall, the system offers extensive opportunities for customization in terms of the options you can order at the time of purchase.

The system is based on a single Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 (Yorkfield) 2.83 GHz processor, which was plugged into a proprietary HP xw4600 motherboard that used the Intel X38 Express chipset and featured a front-side bus speed of 1,333 MHz. The system can accommodate a total of 8 GB of RAM when fully populated, but it included 3 GB of DDR2-800 ECC RAM for this roundup. HP uses a variety of vendors for the 16x optical drive within this system. The hard disk was a SATA-II NCQ 250 GB model with a 16 MB cache — HP also uses a variety of vendors for the hard drives used in its systems.

The HP xw4600 was housed in a remarkably compact 6.6" x 17.9" x 17.7" (H x W x D) case that offered exceptionally good acoustic engineering for extremely quiet system operations. The case had three externally accessible 5.25" drive bays and one 3.5" drive, with an additional two 3.5" drive bays that were accessible only internally. The system offered a total of 10 USB 2.x connectors and one FireWire connector. The system featured one parallel port and one serial port, with a second serial port being optional, and it included a standard HP PS/2 keyboard and a USB optical scroll mouse.

The HP xw4600 has a remarkably compact 6.6" x 17.9" x 17.7" case that provides exceptionally good acoustic engineering for extremely quiet system operations.
The HP xw4600 has a remarkably compact 6.6" x 17.9" x 17.7" case that provides exceptionally good acoustic engineering for extremely quiet system operations.

The HP xw4600 had dual PCI Express x16 Gen2 slots, one of which was occupied by an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700 graphics card with 512 MB of integrated GDDR3 memory onboard. This card was driven by NVIDIA drivers for Windows XP v.6.14.11.6919, which were dated November 30, 2007.

When I received the HP xw4600 on the test bench, I initially ran the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark under AutoCAD 2008 with Service Pack 1 installed, testing with both the native OpenGL and Direct3D drivers. The C2008 total index score for the native OpenGL driver was 226, but that score jumped to 311 with the native Direct3D driver. With AutoCAD still configured for Direct3D, I ran two concurrent sessions of AutoCAD, each with a different version of the C2008 benchmark — the combined C2008 total index scores for both tests was 593.

Next, I ran MAXBench4 under Autodesk 3ds Max 2008. With the native OpenGL drivers, I generated an averaged high/low score of 80.94. With the native Direct3D drivers, the averaged high/low score was 211.25.

For the final tests on the HP xw4600, I ran the full SPECviewperf 10 benchmark, which produced the following scores: 35.99 for 3dsmax-04, 45.99 for catia-02, 42.21 for ensight-03, 162.03 for maya-02, 46.28 for proe-04, 90.85 for sw-01, 26.24 for tcvis-01, and 28.23 for ugnx-01.

As configured for this review, the HP xw4600 has an Internet price of $3,129, although other configurations are priced from $760. Warranty coverage included in this price is a full 36 months for parts, labor, and on-site coverage, with 24-hour replacement parts and 24/7 telephone support. The HP return policy is 30 days, with a restocking fee of $15. To read HP's return policy, visit http://h71016.www7.hp.com/html/infodesk/returns.asp.

Poly i780SLI3

Polywell Computers
800.900.5836
www.polywell.com
Price: $3,479


The Poly i780SLI3 system Cadalyst received was based on an Intel QX9650 3.0 GHz processor that was seated in an EVGA 132-CK-NF78-A1 motherboard using the NVIDIA 780i chipset and featuring a 1,333 MHz front-side bus speed. The i780SLI3 arrived with 4 GB of 1,066 MHz of DDR2 RAM installed out of a possible 8 GB when the motherboard is fully populated.

Housed in an 18.2" x 8" x 19.3" (H x W x D) case that incorporated a large fan on a removable side panel, the case afforded relatively quiet operation despite the extensive use of fans throughout. One very nice feature of the case was a top-mounted panel at the front that provided connections for an external SATA device, two USB 2.0 connectors, the system's power and reset buttons, and both headphone and microphone connectors. These easily accessible connections are a real usability advantage that adds to the overall system design.

In addition to the two USB 2.x connectors on the top front panel, the workstation had seven others for a total of nine USB 2.x connections on the system, as well as one FireWire connector. The case provided a total of 10 usable drive bays — four 5.25" externally accessible bays and one 3.5" externally accessible bay and an additional five 3.5" bays that are accessible internally. A beefy 700 W SPI power supply provided power for the system with room for growth. Combined with the availability of 3x PCIe x16, 2x PCI, and a single PCIe slot, the Poly i780SLI3 has exceptionally good expandability options, which earned the system the first of its two A+ grades.

The system also included two 10,000 rpm SATA drives, a 150 GB Western Digital drive, and a 500 GB drive from Seagate. The included optical drive was a Lite-On 20x/52x drive. An all-in-one card reader and 3.5" diskette drive rounded out the drives for the system. Graphics were handled by an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700 drive with 512 MB of integrated onboard RAM. Although the motherboard was SLI capable, only a single graphics card was included in the review system, but this is yet another way the system can be expanded as desired. Microsoft Windows XP with Service Pack 2 was preinstalled, as were NVIDIA graphics drivers v.6.14.11.6919 dated November 30, 2007.

On the test bench, I ran the Poly i780SLI3 system through its paces. With AutoCAD 2008 running the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark, the system generated a C2008 total index score of 252 with the native OpenGL drivers and 342 with the native Direct3D drivers. The combined C2008 total index for the concurrent sessions using the Direct3D drivers was 647, which it completed in a total of 1 hour, 9 minutes.

With the MAXBench4 benchmark running under Autodesk 3ds Max 2008, I first tested with the native OpenGL drivers and produced an averaged high/low score of 92.27. Using the native Direct3D drivers, the averaged high/low score was 219.41. As noted previously, tests with the accelerated 3ds Max drivers from NVIDIA were not conducted for this particular roundup.

The Poly i780SLI3 earned two A+ grades: one for exceptionally  good expandability options and the other for its five-year labor and three-year parts warranty.
The Poly i780SLI3 earned two A+ grades: one for exceptionally good expandability options and the other for its five-year labor and three-year parts warranty.

On the full SPECviewperf 10 benchmark, the Poly i70SLI3 system produced the following scores: 40.17 for 3dsmax-04, 50.35 for catia-02, 43.88 for ensight-03, 165.51 for maya-02, 48.59 for proe-04, 95.66 for sw-01, 26.24 for tcvis-01, and 28.24 for ugnx-01.

Pricing for the Poly i780SLI3 as configured is $3,479. This price includes an exceptionally good warranty that covers three years for limited parts and five years for labor, but on-site coverage is optional. The optional warranty includes 24 to 48–hour coverage for replacement parts and 24-hour telephone support. This very good warranty coverage earned the Poly i780SLI3 its second A+ grade. Polywell's return policy is 30 days with a 15% restocking fee.

The Poly i780SLI3 system shows off Polywell's expertise in putting together high-quality systems for CAD, design, and digital-content creation (DCC) applications. With its expandability, good performance, and excellent warranty coverage, this workstation gets the work done now and offers room for growth as users' needs evolve.

ProMagix W160 High-Performance Workstation PC

Velocity Micro
800.303.7866
www.velocitymicro.com
Price: $2,795


In this roundup, the Velocity Micro ProMagix W160 High Performance Workstation PC was the only system to achieve Cadalyst's Highly Recommended rating. Located in Richmond, Virginia, Velocity Micro produces a broad range of computer systems for a wide spectrum of needs, including systems for CAD, design, and DCC applications.



The ProMagix W160 Cadalyst received was based on an Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 rated at 2.66 GHz. The processor was overclocked to 3.6 GHz, a substantial amount for this processor, but I saw no problems whatsoever during the course of giving the system a workout on the benchmark tests. The processor was mounted on an EVGA 780i motherboard that uses the NVIDIA 780i chipset and features a front-side bus speed of 1,600 MHz.

The system came with 4 GB of Corsair XMS2 DDR2-800 RAM installed out of a possible 8 GB when the system is fully populated. The system included two SATA hard drives; a 10,000 rpm 150 GB Western Digital Raptor and a 500 GB 7,200 rpm Hitachi drive. Also included in the system was a Lite-On optical drive with speeds rated at 20x DVD+R, 24x CD-RW, and 48x CD-R. A 52-in-1 media reader completed the drive inventory for the ProMagix W160.

Graphics for the W160 were capably handled by an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700 graphics card with 512 MB of integrated onboard GDDR3 memory. Microsoft Windows XP with Service Pack 2 was preinstalled on the system, as were NVIDIA graphics drivers v.6.14.11.6961 dated January 15, 2008.

The system was housed in a compact 17.72" x 8.27" x 9.29" (H x W x D) case made of a fairly heavy-gauge aluminum and featuring swing-away drive bay doors. It had a total of six USB 2.x connectors, four at the rear of the system and two in front, and one FireWire connector. Fan noise was moderate but unobtrusive. It had seven drive bays, with three 5.25" and one 3.5" bays that were externally accessible and an additional three 3.5" bays inside the box. Also included was a Velocity Micro–branded Creative Labs glossy piano black keyboard and an 800 dpi laser mouse.

Velocity Micro's ProMagix W160 High Performance Workstation PC is housed in a heavy-gauge aluminum, compact 17.72" x 8.27" x 19.29" case that features swing-away drive bay doors and a glowing blue panel.
Velocity Micro's ProMagix W160 High Performance Workstation PC is housed in a heavy-gauge aluminum, compact 17.72" x 8.27" x 19.29" case that features swing-away drive bay doors and a glowing blue panel.

I put the ProMagix W160 through its paces with the benchmark tests. With AutoCAD 2008 running the Cadalyst C2008 benchmark, the system generated a C2008 total index score of 290 with the native OpenGL drivers and 391 with the native Direct3D drivers. The combined C2008 scores for the concurrent sessions with the Direct3D drivers was 796, which completed in a total of 61 minutes.

For the MAXBench4 benchmark running under Autodesk 3ds Max 2008, the averaged high/low scores with the native OpenGL drivers was 99.20, and the averaged high/low scores with the Direct3D drivers was 243.05.

The final benchmark test was the complete SPECviewperf 10 benchmark, and the scores for the ProMagix W160 were 52.84 for 3dsmax-04, 66.49 for catia-02, 57.12 for ensight-03, 248.68 for maya-02, 64.12 for proe-04, 122.26 for sw-01, 33.63 for tcvis-01, and 36.57 for ugnx-01. The scores for the SPECviewperf 10 benchmark suite were the highest of any system in this roundup.

The Velocity Micro ProMagix W160 configured as Cadalyst received it is priced at $2,795, making it the least expensive system and earning it an A+ in the pricing category. The warranty plan included at this price is a little on the weak side, with 12-month coverage for parts and labor, 12-month regular business hours support, and depot repair service. However, options for as many as three years parts and labor warranty with on-site service are available. Even with additional warranty coverage, the price is still low. Velocity Micro's return policy is 30 days with a 15% restocking fee.

With its good performance and moderate price, the Velocity Micro ProMagix W160 reaps some of the benefits of its acquisition of Overdrive PC. Highly Recommended.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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