8 Great CAD Workstations28 Feb, 2003 By: Ron LaFon
Today's systems combine style with quality
The quest of CAD/CAM software users for ever-greater computing power tends to make us more conservative in our computer choices, both in selection of design and in sticking to proven technologies. After all, speed makes a real and tangible difference in the amount of work done and how fast it gets done. Time is still money. We are on occasion asked why we conduct our benchmark tests under Windows 2000 rather than Windows XP, and the answer is all in the numbers. Our benchmark tests run well under Windows XP, but a quick survey of several workstation vendors reveals that, on average, fewer than 10% of new CAD/CAM systems configured for customers ship with Microsoft Windows XP. The overwhelming majority of CAD/CAM users still want Windows 2000. In Microsoft's drive to "dumb down" the operating system with XP and protect users, many operations are more tedious for technically savvy users to access. So despite improvements in security and arguably more stable underpinnings, Windows XP is just not proving a popular choice at this time. Will this change over time through personal choice, or will users simply be forced to upgrade to use the applications they need? Good question, and the answer is not yet in sight.
The computer industry seems to be undergoing a facelift-the cases continue to be fancier, more innovative, and stylish. The selection of computer housings for this roundup is the most varied that I've ever seen in a single review. Pretty to behold is, however, only part of the story.
System noise continues to be a mixed bag-we had extremely quiet and extremely noisy systems. HyperThreading, Intel's new technology that makes the processor appear as two virtual processors to the operating system and software, is something of a "so what" at this stage of its development. Just after we started this roundup, Intel posted a notice on its Web site indicating that HyperThreading worked correctly only with Windows XP and Linux-based systems. From what we've seen, the performance advantage amounts to only a few percentage points at best. In some situations, a few percentage points of performance gain can be significant, but most users won't notice the difference, at least on currently available systems and software. While this will surely change, this innovation currently seems more hype than useful where multitasking is concerned.
We saw more systems with only one serial port instead of two, and systems with six USB ports (usually USB 2-compliant) are becoming common, often with a couple at the front.
Despite valiant efforts by some vendors to talk us into changing the Cadalyst C2001 test to showcase their product of the moment, our C2001 test remains the same-and continues to give AutoCAD 2002 a thorough workout with the type of operations the most of you, our readers, use in your daily work. Herein lies the great value of our C2001 test-it works like we do, day after day. What better benchmark to see how a particular combination of CPU, hard disk, and graphics card performs on routine daily work?
For the SPEC ViewPerf test, last year we moved to v7 and now use the proe-01 suite of tests. This updated suite gives a reliable test of video performance, particularly the OpenGL characteristics of a graphics card. It also adds a few new models and tests to the benchmark series. We also used this particular test suite for our recent graphics card roundup (February 2003, p. 22) and plan to use it for the near future.
MAX4Bench, a new benchmark based on discreet's 3ds max 5, has proved quite capable at ferreting out display and system problems. If you've interested in benchmarking your current system with 3ds max 5, the benchmark tests reside on the second 3ds max 5 CD-ROM. These new tests, as well as 3ds max 5, give systems a substantial workout and address many new video card features, such as pixel shading.
I don't usually comment on our star or grade ratings here, but the process was extremely difficult this time because of the high quality of the systems submitted, and surprising strengths popped up in unexpected areas. That evaluating these systems was so difficult is a very good thing for anyone in the market for a system. Be sure to check out the feature chart below to compare the specs for all these systems.
As always, monitors are not included with the systems. We used a Samsung 19 flat-panel display to evaluate all the systems in this review.
COMING ATTRACTIONS (LESS IS MORE?)
At the risk of sounding like Methuselah, I remember when neither my printer nor my graphics card had more memory than my primary system. Things change. Sometimes our computer hardware changes incrementally, with some innovation-for example, the emergence of USB as a welcome feature.
Other times it requires a major shift, such as leaving 5.250 disk drives behind. In the not-too-distant future, if Microsoft and Intel have their way, we may face one of the more profound and traumatic hardware changes the PC industry has yet gone through. What I'm referring to is the complete lack of legacy device support in whatever version of Windows follows Windows XP. It's currently looking as if that might happen sometime around 2004 or 2005.
Gone will be serial ports, printer ports, and 3.50 disk drives-just for beginners. There is some conjecture as to whether even the combination of Intel and Microsoft can pull this off. If they do, it will most likely be the biggest change we've seen in the industry.
Presumably the advantages will be so compelling that people will move to the new systems and the new version of Windows willingly-and frogs will sprout wings, as the saying goes.
At the software level, the next Windows version is scheduled to be a much more "secure" environment, though some controversy surrounds just how secure it should be, and by whose definition.
Whatever the case, both the operating system and the basic PC seem poised for some dramatic changes that will likely have a profound effect on our day-to-day work. Whatever these changes turn out to be, you'll find them covered and evaluated here in Cadalyst.