Hardware

Workstations on the Rise (Cadalyst Labs Review)

1 Mar, 2007 By: Ron LaFon

Todays's Hottest Dual Cores, and Tomorrow's Quad-Core Technology


Although Cadalyst looked at several workstations with dual-core processors in its November 2006 issue, we opted to take another look at these systems in our first comparative workstation review of 2007. Dual-core technology has become the mainstay of contemporary systems, from workstations through laptops, and it has matured since Cadalyst last examined it.

I've included a sidebar to this article (see "Quad-Core Systems Arrive") that discusses the first quad-core systems to come through Cadalyst Labs. Systems based on the new quad-core technology are available, though not in sufficient numbers to justify a comparative review at this time. We'll look at those systems more closely as 2007 progresses.



Review Standards

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

The systems had to have a CD-RW drive and a DVD-ROM drive, with combination drives being accepted, as well as a network card and a wheel mouse. A 3D OpenGL graphics card with at least 64MB of onboard RAM was required and had to support at least 1280x1024 resolution with 24/32-bit color at a minimum 85Hz refresh rate.

 Dual-Core Processor Workstation Report Card
Dual-Core Processor Workstation Report Card

Each system had to be preloaded with Windows XP Professional with the latest service packs installed. Cadalyst mandated that none of the systems include a monitor or speakers and that neither of these components was reflected in the system prices.

As long as these minimum system requirements were met, vendors were permitted to configure their systems however they pleased. However, too many extras usually affect price and the Cadalyst ratings for that category.

Testing Procedures

After I unpacked and set up 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 C2006 benchmark with AutoCAD 2005 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 it from www.cadalyst.com/c2006 and give it a try.

The Xi MTower PCIe system has a very quiet water-cooled fan.
The Xi MTower PCIe system has a very quiet water-cooled fan.

I also tested each workstation with Autodesk 3ds Max using v8 with Service Pack 3 installed and running the MAX-Bench 4 benchmark test. If an accelerated driver such as NVIDIA's MAXtreme was available, I also tested the work-station with this driver. Autodesk 3ds Max 9 uses Direct3D as its default driver, and the new MAXtreme driver for 3ds Max is a Direct3D driver that works only with 3ds Max 9. Beginning with this set of tests, I added a Direct3D test to the benchmark for 3ds Max, so the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/307workstations-table) incorporates three figures for the MAXBench 4 benchmark—the default OpenGL driver, accelerated 3ds Max driver and the Direct3D scores.

The final benchmark I ran was the ProE-04 viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 9.03 (www.spec.org). This particular test tends to follow the performance of the installed graphic card to provide an idea of the graphic card/driver performance for a given system.

The PolyStation 5000X6 SLI system provides high performance and an exceptional warranty.
The PolyStation 5000X6 SLI system provides high performance and an exceptional warranty.

After the benchmark tests had been performed on a given workstation, I then evaluated it based on several criteria: meeting minimum system configuration requirements, the benchmark results, pricing, features, warranty and documentation. These factors are all figured into the overall grade point average that determines the Cadalyst ratings. For the comparative reviews, any system with a grade point average of 9.2 or higher receives a Highly Recommended rating.

As the test scores indicate, these high-performance systems can speed their way through complex tasks. All systems received were of consistently high quality throughout, so you should be able to find a system that suits your particular needs now and—with expandability being a given for these systems—in the future. With systems of this quality, evaluating them against each other is a difficult task. These speedy systems are the best I've seen.

Xi MTower PCIe
@Xi Computer
800.432.0486
www.xicomputer.com
Price: $4,149



The version of the Xi MTower PCIe system that @Xi Computer submitted for this article is housed in a compact, sturdy black mid-tower case measuring 17.2" x 8" x 19.2" (H x W x D) and offers easy, tool-free access to the system components. This particular system has a fan-speed control on the back for a water-cooling fan.

Although I haven't been thrilled with any of the water-cooling solutions I've seen, the Thermaltake Silent Water system used in the MTower PCIe system is integrated and sealed, and it requires little or no user maintenance. This subsystem made for a very quiet operating workstation.

Inside the box, the MTower PCIe is based on an EVGA NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI motherboard with an NVIDIA 680i chipset. This motherboard includes a third PCIe slot for the installation of a graphic processor (not yet particularly useful for CAD). The motherboard is housed an Intel Core2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz processor with Silent Water Cooling, and that was overclocked to 3.20GHz. The dual-core Extreme has a 4MB cache with a dynamic allocation feature that gives a single active core as much cache as necessary.

The MTower PCIe included 2GB of DDR2 1,000MHz PC2-8000 RAM out of a possible 8GB and included two Western Digital Raptor 74GB hard disks joined in a RAID 0 configuration for a total of 148GB of hard drive capacity.

Graphics for the system were accommodated by the XXX version of the XFX GeForce 8800 GTX, which is based on the NVIDIA GeForce 8800, and incorporated a total of 768MB of DDR3 memory. The system supports two video cards, showing the potential for an SLI configuration (though only one card was provided for this evaluation). This system is the first I've tested with this moderately priced graphics card and, as the test results show, it performs quite well.

The MTower PCIe produced a total index score of 292 on the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed. This score is the highest of any system I've ever tested—and this result with no specific AutoCAD settings available in the graphics card driver.

Next, I tested the system with Autodesk 3ds Max 8 with Service Pack 3 installed, running the MAXBench 4 benchmark. With the default video driver and 3ds Max set for the OpenGL driver, I was able to generate a combined high/low average score of 94.85. This particular graphics card has no 3ds Max–specific accelerated driver, so I moved on to the Direct3D driver test. Using the default 3ds Max Direct3D driver, I generated a combined high/low average of 303.64—also the highest of any system in this roundup. Finally, I tested the system with the ProE-04 Viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 9.03 and produced a fairly lackluster score of 15.19 for this benchmark. All told, however, the numbers were good enough to earn the system an A in the performance category.

Pricing for the Xi MTower PCIe system is $4,149 equipped as tested, the least expensive of the systems submitted for this article, earning it an A+ grade for pricing. The system price includes three years of warranty coverage for both parts and labor and one year of onsite coverage.

With its dazzling performance numbers, moderate pricing, good warranty coverage, extensive expandability options and high-quality components throughout, the Xi MTower PCIe system earned its rating. Highly Recommended.

PolyStation 5000X6 SLI
Polywell Computers
800.999.1278, 650.583.7222
www.polywell.com
Price: $4,550



Polywell Computers offers a wide range of high-end computer systems, ranging from desktop PCs to RISC-based workstations. For this article, Polywell sent its PolyStation 4000X6 SLI workstation. Based on a Supermicro X7DAL-E motherboard, this workstation housed a 3.0GHz Intel Xeon 5160 dual-core processor supported by the Intel 5000X chipset that supported a front-side bus speed of 1,333MHz. The system arrived with 4GB of DDR2 667MHz fully buffered ECC RAM installed, out of a possible 12GB when the motherboard is fully populated.

The PolyStation 5000X6 SLI system was housed in a compact and substantial black-and-silver case with a panel on the top front that included microphone and headset jacks, a power switch, an SATA connector, a reset button and two USB 2.0 connectors. This panel is very conveniently located and makes it easy to access often-used features. This case is much sturdier than the cases that Polywell has used in the past, and it features a large fan on the removable side panel, which is surrounded by a silver bezel. Although this fan certainly pro-vided cooling capabilities, it contributed to the system's overall moderately loud noise level.

A 700W high-efficiency PFC power supply by SPI, combined with 10 drive bays, provides support for system expansion. The system has a total of six USB 2.0 connectors and includes single serial and parallel ports, though it has no FireWire 1394a connectors.

Although the system supports dual PCIe 16x graphics cards linked in an SLI configuration, only one was incorporated in the tested workstation—a single NVIDIA Quadro FX4500 by PNY that featured 512MB of integrated onboard memory. Two Western Digital SATA 150GB hard disks in a RAID-0 configuration were included in the system for a total of 300GB of hard disk capacity.

I tested the PolyStation 5000X6 SLI system with the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed and was able to generate a total index score of 217. After I had completed several iterations of the C2006 benchmark, I tested with Autodesk 3ds Max 8 and Service Pack 3 installed. With the OpenGL driver selected, the system produced an averaged high/low frame rate score of 85.69. With the NVIDIA MAXtreme 8.00.03 accelerated driver for 3ds Max, the averaged high/low score jumped to 187.76. When I tested with 3ds Max 8's default Direct3D driver, I produced a score of 205. The last benchmark test was the ProE-04 Viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 9.03, in which the system produced a score of 36.16.

Velocity Micro s ProMagix Plus W160 workstation provides all-around good performance and great accessibility via its wheel-mounted case.
Velocity Micro s ProMagix Plus W160 workstation provides all-around good performance and great accessibility via its wheel-mounted case.

In the fast company of this group of workstations, these benchmark scores aren't the fastest, which resulted in a letter grade of B in the performance category.

The PolyStation 5000X6 SLI system equipped as it was for this article is priced at $4,550, placing it in the middle of this particular group of systems. The warranty coverage for the system is an exceptionally good 60 months of coverage for parts, 36 months for labor and 24 months of onsite coverage, which earn it an A+ in that category.

ProMagix Plus W160
Velocity Micro
800.303.7866
www.velocitymicro.com
Price: $4,995



Based in Richmond, Virginia, Velocity Micro offers a wide range of custom-designed and-custom-built high-performance systems for a variety of applications. For this article, Velocity Micro sent its ProMagix Plus W160 workstation. The configuration that Cadalyst received featured an EVGA nForce 680i motherboard that features the NVIDIA 680i chipset. The motherboard housed an Intel Core2 X6800 processor that is nominally rated at 2.93GHz, but in this instance was overclocked to 3.46GHz. Front-side bus speed was 1,066MHz.

The ProMagix Plus W160 system included 2GB of Corsair Dominator PC8500CD RAM at 1,066MHz, out of a total of 8GB that is possible when the board is fully populated. The system incorporated two Western Digital hard drives, a 150GB Raptor 10K RPM drive and a 250MB Caviar 7200 RPM drive, for a total capacity of 400GB. Other drives in the system included a Lite-On 16X DVD+/-RW 48X CD-RW optical drive and a combination memory card reader and floppy drive unit.

The system included a 750W power supply that would be sufficient to support a wide range of peripherals. Connectivity options included a total of eight USB 2.0 connectors—six in back and two in front—and FireWire connections on both the front and back.

The case that houses the ProMagix Plus W160 is a low (but deep), heavily constructed 17.72" x 23.29" x 8.27" model with a swing-away front panel. The construction is rugged, making the system moderately heavy, but the system tracks on four rubber-covered wheels that greatly simplify pulling the system out from under the bench to access the rear connectors.

Graphics for the ProMagix Plus W160 are provided by a PNY/NVIDIA Quadro FX5500 that features 1GB of integrated onboard RAM—useful for those who work with large and/or complicated designs. I tested with the preinstalled NVIDIA XP v.9.1.3.6 drivers for Windows XP. The overall system noise level for the Velocity Micro system was moderate, and most of the noise originated in the FX5500's cooling fan.

We put the ProMagix Plus W160 through its paces with the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed, and I was able to achieve a C2006 total index score of 244. When tested with Auto-desk 3ds Max 8 with Service Pack 3 installed, the system produced a combined and averaged high/low score of 100.9 with the OpenGL driver and 221.36 with the NVIDIA MAXtreme 8.00.03 accelerated driver for 3ds Max. Using 3ds Max 8's Direct 3D driver, the combined high/low average was 260.57. I then ran the final benchmark, the ProE-04 Viewset of SPEC ViewPerf, and generated a weighted geometric mean score of 47.56. All the test scores were on the high side, indicating all-around good performance for the system, though not the highest of this article.

Equipped as received, the pricing for the Velocity Micro ProMagix Plus W160 workstation is $4,995, making it the most expensive system in this article. The warranty included in the pricing is on the low side for the present company, with one-year coverage for parts, labor and onsite service.

Quad-Core Systems Arrive

Workstations offer additional processing power—can you take advantage of it?
By Ron LaFon

The first quad-core systems have just made their way to Cadalyst Labs—though thus far the only submitted systems have been based on Intel processors, a situation I expect to change as the year goes on. I elected to include the first two quad-core systems in a sidebar to this article to give readers a sneak peek at what can be expected from this new technology.

None of Cadalyst's current benchmarks really give a workout to additional processors, be they additional physical processors or simply more processors incorporated in a single-chip design. But they do indicate how they perform with standard design applications, most of which don't take advantage of the additional processing power at this time. As both applications and the benchmarks evolve, this assessment will most certainly change.

Intel notes that quad-core systems will test slower on some processes, both because of the slower base clock speed of the processor and how the task switching is handled. Obviously, applications that handle multitasking well will show the most perfor-mance benefits. See http://support.intel.com/performance/workstation/xeon/intthru.htm for more information.

I include two systems here, both of which are based on Intel multicore processors. Both differ in their approach and give an indication of potential workstation capabilities based on this new technology.

The Xi MTower PCIe-QX system that Cadalyst received for evaluation is almost identical to the MTower PCIe system discussed in the main body of this article, except for the installed processor. The Xi MTower PCIe-QX system is based on an EVGA NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI motherboard that uses the NVIDIA 680i chipset, which supports a front-side bus speed of 1,066MHz. The processor is an Intel Core2 Extreme QX6700 2.66GHz chip with Thermaltake Silent Water Cooling that is overclocked to 3.20GHz, the first example of an overclocked quad-core system at Cadalyst Labs.

The Xi MTower PCIe-QX has an obvious knack for high AutoCAD and Direct3D performance.
The Xi MTower PCIe-QX has an obvious knack for high AutoCAD and Direct3D performance.

As I noted in the review of the dual-core system in the main article, the Thermaltake Silent Water Cooling system used in the MTower PCIe-QX system is integrated and sealed, and it requires little to no user maintenance. The only user-accessible control is the fan-speed control at the rear of the system. Aside from the obvious effect of cooling the processor, this subsystem makes for very quiet operation.



The system arrived with 2GB of DDR2 1,000MHz PC2-8000 RAM installed, with a possible 8GB when the motherboard is fully populated. The XXX version of the XFX GeForce 8800 GTX graphics card provided speedy and economical graphics for this system, and it's based on the NVIDIA GeForce 8800 chipset, which is a new generation of this graphics processor. This graph-ics card is an interesting choice for a system designed for CAD and engineering applications. Although the cards drivers don't have specific optimizations for CAD, design or engineering applications, it's certainly a graphics card to watch thanks to of its 768MB of onboard RAM and obvious knack for high AutoCAD and Direct3D performance.

I ran the Xi MTower PCIe-QX quad-core system through its paces with the usual benchmark suite, starting with the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed. Using the default wopengl8 Heidi driver that ships with AutoCAD, I obtained a C2006 total index score of 292, the same as the @Xi dual-core system in the body of the roundup article—tying for the fastest AutoCAD score I've ever tested. I actually had a single iteration of the test show one point higher at 293, but I wasn't able to reproduce this score on sub-sequent tests.

Next up was the MAXBench4 benchmark, which I ran under Autodesk 3ds Max 8 with Service Pack 3 installed. I tested first with Max's OpenGL driver and generated an averaged high/low score of 94.86. NVIDIA's MAXtreme driver 8.00.03 doesn't work with this family of graphics cards, so I wasn't able to test with this accelerated driver. My final test with 3ds Max was with Max's default Direct3D driver, which produced a speedy averaged high/low score of 303.64. The final benchmark test for this system was the ProE-04 Viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 9.03, in which the system produced a weighted geometric mean score of 15.25.

As equipped upon arrival for testing, the Xi MTower PCIe-QX system was priced at a moderate $4,199, which includes 36 months of warranty coverage for both parts and labor and 12 months of onsite service. Other warranty coverage options are available at the time of purchase. The MTower PCIe-QX system carries a 30-day money-back guarantee with no restocking fee.

Cadalyst has previously reviewed the HP xw8400 personal workstation (www.cadalyst.com/100906HPxw8400) and rated it very highly as a speedy and forward-looking CAD system, so when I had the opportunity to have a look at the same basic system equipped with an Intel quad-core processor, I elected to do so.



The HP xw8400 personal workstation that Cadalyst received is based on a custom HP Tyan/MiTac motherboard that uses the Intel 5000X chipset, which supports a front-side bus speed of 1,333MHz. Mounted on the motherboard was an Intel dual 5355 Clovertown processor running at 2.66GHz. The system included 2GB of DDR2-667 ECC fully buffered DIMM memory, with a possible 64GB of RAM maximum when future memory becomes available.

Housed in a squat charcoal-and-matte silver mid-tower case that measures 17.7" x 6.6" x 17.9" (H x W x D), the HP xw8400 is extremely quiet, thanks to HP's extensive acoustic engineering. Indeed, current HP systems are noteworthy for their excellent engineering. A beefy 800W Delta power supply provides lots of power for adding peripherals, and a whopping total of 13 drive bays also points to the flexibility of this design. Connectivity options include seven USB 2.0 external connectors, one internal USB 2.0 connector and single external FireWire sockets on both the front and back of the system. Also included are single serial and parallel ports and an integrated 10/100/1000 Ethernet connector, with the possibility of adding an optional second network card.



Graphics for the HP xw8400 system that Cadalyst received were provided by an NVIDIA Quadro FX3500 16x PCIe graphics card with 256MB of onboard memory. The system also included an HP rebranded Logitech optical wheel mouse and an HP KU-0136 keyboard.

Although I didn't include this system in the body of the comparative review article or in competition with other systems, I wanted to check what kind of performance I'd get. I ran the usual suite of benchmarks, starting with the Cadalyst C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed, and the system generated a C2006 total index score of 196. Next was the MAXBench4 benchmark running under Autodesk 3ds Max 8 with Service Pack 3 installed. I first tested with the default 3ds Max OpenGL driver and produced an averaged high/low score of 62.73. I then switched to the NVIDIA MAXtreme 8.00.03 accelerated driver for 3ds Max, and the averaged high/low score jumped to 165.08. For the last of the 3ds Max tests, I ran MAXBench4 with the default Direct3D driver for 3ds Max and produced an averaged high/low score of 191.67. Finally, I ran the ProE-04 Viewset of SPEC ViewPerf v.9.03 and generated a weighted geometric mean score of 34.00. These scores are with the processor operating at its rated speed without any overclocking.

The HP xw8400 personal workstation equipped as received for this sidebar is priced at $6,759, which includes a comfortable and attractive three years of warranty coverage for parts, labor and onsite service. As is true of all HP workstation systems, the xw8400 can be configured with a variety of options, so final pricing will depend upon which options you choose.

Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor and a computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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