Workstations

CAD SYSTEMS CAPITALIZE ON NEW CHIP TECHNOLOGY-Cadalyst labs reviews the latest workstation technlogy

1 Jun, 2005 By: Ron LaFon


Since Cadalyst's last workstation roundup in March 2005, vendors have started to ship systems that incorporate technology designed, as always, to improve performance. This month we're doing a mini-roundup to see what these technological marvels can do on the test bench.



Intel's dual-core processors integrate two separate processors and L2 caches on a single chip, providing much of the benefit of a dual-processor system for multithreaded applications and multitasking (running multiple applications at once). SLI (scalable link interface) is finally available in graphics cards aimed at the engineering market. This technology capitalizes on the new PCI Express bus to enable two graphics cards to run simultaneously to drive one monitor. AMD introduced its Opteron chip, which handles both 32- and 64-bit computing, in February, but systems we've seen prior to this point suffered from puzzlingly poor performance. Those motherboard issues appear to be resolved, judging from Cadalyst Labs' latest test results.

Rather than specify a particular type of system, we allowed vendors to send an example of a new system they were just starting to produce. We ended up with one dual-processor system based on the new AMD Opteron 252 processor, one (our first) dual-core Pentium system and another system that incorporates both dual Opteron 252 processors and a full SLI implementation—again, another first, although it's not quite ready for production.

Because the components vary so much, we won't compare the systems as we normally do. One thing they do have in common is high performance—all blasted well beyond previous high benchmark scores. It wasn't so long ago that the first workstation broke the 150 barrier on the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark, but these new systems surpassed that mark to enter new performance territory—one posted a score of 170+. The Total Weighted Index scores were closer. The top score last time was 140.33 from @Xi's MTower 64SLI; the top score this time was 142.01. The accompanying price/performance and overall performance charts at right show how the new technologies compare with the top scoring single-processor in our last review.

 Overall Performanc
Overall Performanc

How We Tested

Our testing procedure for all these systems varied a bit from our last review, reflecting the release of AutoCAD 2006 and Service Pack 1 for 3ds max. We ran the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark on each system, using AutoCAD 2006 without any supplemental Heidi drivers. We ran only the default hardware acceleration driver, WOPENGL8.HDI, that ships with AutoCAD. All tests were done under Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed. When the base video driver for Windows allowed optimization settings for AutoCAD, we applied those settings for the test. In general, AutoCAD 2006 is somewhat faster than AutoCAD 2005 in running the benchmarks.

We used 3ds max v7 with the newly released Service Pack 1 installed for the MAXBench4 benchmark test. When the option was available, we set the base-level Windows driver for 3ds max. If an accelerated driver for the application was available, we also tested with this driver (the latter numbers reflect those performance figures in the feature table that appears online at www.cadalyst.com/0605wkstreview).

For the final component of our benchmark tests, we ran the proe-03 benchmark test from SPECviewperf 8.0.1 benchmark (www.spec.org). This benchmark tends to closely follow the performance of the included graphics card, though the base system configuration certainly is a factor in the final score.

Price/Performance
Price/Performance

New Technology

NVIDIA graphics cards seem to be the order of the day for these high-performance workstations—see the driver versions in the accompanying feature table. NVIDIA released a new version of its MAXtreme driver, v7.00.03, and we used this accelerated driver for the 3ds max component of our tests for systems that incorporated NVIDIA graphics cards.

Another first for the roundup was a workstation with a water-cooling system that was used to dissipate the heat generated by overclocking the primary microprocessor. This worked well, though the radiator mounted on the removable side panel with its associated water/cooling cable made it a bit difficult to get inside and change or adjust components.

Performance Glow

Among this small group are the fastest workstations ever to come through Cadalyst Labs, reflecting a substantial improvement over the capabilities shown by systems tested only a few short months ago. The performance improvements are not only numerical, as can be seen from the figures in the feature table, but are also visible—I could see the difference in the test components running on the screen. I can't help but wonder what sort of performance numbers we'll get during Cadalyst Labs' next major workstation roundup later this year. Refinements and tweaks at all levels should certainly improve on the numbers generated from this roundup.
Alienwares SLI Workhorse
Alienwares SLI Workhorse

In the meantime, if you need to purchase a new workstation, your options for fast performance have just increased. Last time I checked, time is still money, and these speedy new workstations definitely offer time savings.

Xi MTower 2P64 PCIe

@Xi Computer Corp.

800.432.0486
www.xicomputer.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $5,999


Cadalyst readers who've followed our testing of systems based on dual AMD Opteron processors know that their performance has been problematic. @Xi Computer has gotten it right, and those past problems did not manifest themselves in this speedy workstation.

The Xi MTower 2P64 PCIe system we tested is housed in the well-designed midsize tower case that @Xi has used for some time. These cases provide ready access to drive bays and feature a lockable swing-away drive bay cover for security. The case measures 17.88" X 7.88" X 17.5" (hXwXd) and is available in silver and black

The XI MTower 2P64 PCIe from @Xi Computer set a new performance record on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark test.
The XI MTower 2P64 PCIe from @Xi Computer set a new performance record on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark test.

Inside the case, the Xi MTower 2P64 PCIe system is based on an ASUS K8N-DL motherboard that features two new AMD Opteron 252 2.6GHz microprocessors—the first such system we've tested. The ASUS motherboard uses the NVIDIA NFORCE Pro chipset and offers Hypertransport at 2000MT/s. The system came with 2GB of DDR 400 REG ECC RAM, with 4GB possible on a completely populated motherboard. A SONY DVD-RW DW-26A Double Media 4.7/8.5GB 16X DV optical drive was also included.

The Xi MTower 2P64 PCIe system offers ten USB 2.0 and two FireWire 1394 connectors, as well as four externally accessible 5.25" drive bays, two externally accessible 3.5" drive bays, and another five internally accessible 3.5" bays. This largesse in expandability is supported by a 550-watt Enermax power supply, so there's definitely room for the system to grow.

The Xi MTower 2P64 PCIe is priced at $5,999 as tested. It includes the somewhat spendy 16x PCI Express PNY/NVIDIA FX4400 graphics card with 512MB of onboard RAM. This isn't an unreasonable price for a dual-processor system with 2GB of RAM and a high-end graphics card, but it may be too expensive for some. With the PNY/NVIDIA FX3400 installed instead of the FX4400, you'll give up a couple of points on the C2001 Benchmark Total Index score, but save about $700 on the overall cost of the system. If you don't need 2GB of RAM, the system can be configured with 1GB for further cost savings.

Velocity Micro's ProMagic DCX W140 features a liquid cooling system to support accelerated processor speeds as high as 4GHz.
Velocity Micro's ProMagic DCX W140 features a liquid cooling system to support accelerated processor speeds as high as 4GHz.

@Xi Computer is noted for its fast CAD workstations, and this system is no exception. On the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark test, it achieved a total index score of 170.89—the fastest score we've ever seen. Scores were similarly high on MAXBench4 run with 3ds max 7 with Service Pack 1 installed, where we were able to achieve an average high/low score of 139.81. With the proe-03 viewset of the SPECviewperf 8.0.1 benchmark, the system produced a score of 57.57—not quite the highest in this roundup, but an excellent score. All these results are excellent. It's hard to believe the improvement in performance in only a few brief months since the last Cadalyst Labs workstation roundup in March. Highly Recommended.

ProMagix DCX W140

Velocity Micro

800.303.7866
www.velocitymicro.com
Cadalyst Labs Grade: A
Price: $5,575


The ProMagix DCX W140 workstation from Velocity Micro is the first workstation we've tested that's based on a dual-core microprocessor—the Intel Pentium Processor Extreme Edition 840, supported by the Intel 955X Express chipset. Systems are available with the processors at the native clock speed of 3.2GHz or performance-tuned up to 4GHz with the use of the company's LiquiCool fluid cooling technology. The ProMagix DCX W140 we received for testing had a single dual-core processor running at 4GHz.

Velocity Micro introduced four dual-core system models in the DCX series, covering a fairly broad range of purposes. The ProMagix W140 DCX is the line's first professional workstation for digital content creation, animation and 3D graphics.

As you might expect, clocking a microprocessor to this speed does generate some heat, which is controlled by the liquid cooling system. A radiator is mounted on the removable side panel with a tube attached to a mechanism at the central processor. Though this works well—we had no problems stressing the system with our various benchmark tests—it does make it a bit more difficult to work inside the system to change graphics card or RAM.

The system was housed in a relatively compact, slightly squat 17.75" X 8.27" X 23.29" (hXwXd) case made of heavy-gauge aluminum—lightweight, but durable. The drive bays are covered with a lockable, swing-away cover for security. Niceties include a 3.5" floppy drive, a memory card reader and lots of hard disk space. One 250GB and two 74GB Western Digital hard disks offer enough capacity to get most people going, with adequate room for large design files and visualizations. The test system incorporated two LiteOn optical drives—a 16X DVD-RW, 48X CD-RW, 48X CD and a 16X/48X combination drive.

The ProMagix W140 DCX we tested was equipped with a PNY/NVIDIA FX4400 PCI Express graphics card, the current speedster of choice for many CAD and engineering workstations. This helped push the price of the system up to $5,575. Though this is not an impulse purchase for most people, it's not the most expensive system reviewed here.

Once we installed all the test applications and benchmark files, it was definitely time for some sizzle. When we tested the ProMagix W140 DCX with AutoCAD 2006 and the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark, it turned in some of the fastest AutoCAD test scores we've seen, producing a C2001 Total Index score of 166.11. The 3ds max MAXBench4 benchmark also delivered dazzling numbers—an averaged high/low score of 127.22. Similarly, the proe-03 test component of the SPECviewperf 8.0.1 benchmark produced a substantial score of 56.04. These are all impressive numbers.

The ProMagix W140 DCX system featured 1GB of RAM, rather than 2GB, so the additional RAM would likely produce a very small increase in performance while raising the overall cost of the system. The ProMagix W140 DCX workstation from Velocity Micro is an exceptional performer that incorporates several new technologies. 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.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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