First Looks: Hot new graphics cards shine on dual AMD Opteron

30 Sep, 2003 By: Ron LaFon

Graphics cards for every CAD user.

This special First Look roundup spans the range of workstation graphics card performance, from entry level to top end. The entry-level graphics card is a newly introduced ATI FireGL T2-128 card with 128MB of RAM. The top-end card is NVIDIA's FX 3000, which boasts 256MB of RAM. Both cards were tested on a state-of-the-art dual Opteron 64-bit CAD workstation from @Xi Computer.

There are several firsts with this roundup: The system based on dual AMD Opteron 1.8GHz 64-bit processors is the first that we've run through our benchmarks. This is also the first time we've fully tested under Microsoft Windows XP Professional.

As anticipated, performance figures were somewhat lower under Windows XP Professional than under Windows 2000, and some features of the XP operating system don't make for the easiest benchmark testing. Nevertheless, because XP Professional is installed on many new workstations, we test it here.

NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000
Graphics powerhouse

pros: Very fast.
cons: Relatively noisy.
price: $1,851 (street price)


NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000
NVIDIA is not resting on its laurels-it continues to produce ever-faster workstation graphics cards. Coming on the heels of the speedy FX 2000, the new FX 3000 is even faster.

The fan on the FX 3000 is noisy, particularly when added to the five fans already operating inside the Xi 488/240 MTower 2P64 system we used for our benchmarks. One look at the FX 3000 with its extensive heat- dissipating fan structure makes you wonder how hot it gets inside the computer case, particularly with systems built around faster microprocessors that already generate a generous amount of heat. How far can computer and graphics card designs advance without using nitrogen cooling or some other form of air (and hopefully noise) conditioning?

NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000
The NVIDIA FX 3000 sets the bar for graphics card performance.
NVIDIA announced two Quadro FX 3000 cards, the standard model benchmarked here and the FX 3000G. The latter model includes Framelock, which lets you link multiple systems in a cluster for life-sized visualization, and Genlock, which synchronizes with standard signal formats and house-sync signals for video postproduction, broadcast, compositing, and editing solutions.

Among the new features in the FX 3000 are high-performance graphics memory and 27.2GB-per-second memory bandwidth-more than twice the bandwidth of the FX 2000 card. Also new is a single system powerwall so you can specify overlap and blending for two projected images from a single system onto large surfaces. The Quadro FX 3000, with 256MB of memory, drives high-resolution displays up to 3840×2400.

Both graphics cards are AGP 8X, though they are backwards-compatible with AGP 4X systems. For best performance, AGP 8X is the obvious choice, because AGP 8X offers twice the bandwidth of AGP 4X. The FX 2000 and the FX 3000 cards both require two slots in your system.

With estimated prices of $2,295 for the FX 3000 and $2,995 (list price) for the FX 3000G, these are not inexpensive graphics cards, but they do offer high performance in areas where time is money and will pay for themselves relatively quickly.

Speaking of performance, we compared the FX 2000 and the FX 3000 on the same system. On our C2001 benchmark with AutoCAD 2004, the FX 3000 posted a total index score of 101.92 and a 3D combined index of 137.40. The SPEC ViewPerf proe-01 Viewset benchmark tested at 36.12 in this configuration. On the MAXBench4 benchmark with the default video driver under Windows XP Professional, the score-an average of high and low scores-was 50.12. Using NVIDIA's speedy MAXtreme v4.00.29 driver for 3ds max, the FX 3000 earned an average score of 95.16.

Using the same system, drivers, and operating system, the NVIDIA FX 2000 registered 104.23 for the C2001 total index and 117.60 for the 3D combined index. SPEC ViewPerf proe-01 test results were 35.56. Finally, the MAXBench4 average scores were 46.17 using the default video driver and 86.95 with MAXtreme v4.00.29.

If you just use AutoCAD 2004, you won't gain a lot from the FX 3000, but if you need speedy 3D performance, NVIDIA's Quadro FX 3000 excels.

ATI FireGL T2-128
Entry-level graphics card

pros: Inexpensive.
cons: None significant.
price: $379


Though high test scores and sizzling 3D performance are mainstays of the new high-performance workstations that we test and evaluate, not every CAD or visualization firm needs this kind of performance or can justify and afford the price tag. The good news is that even entry-level graphics cards provide performance benefits while remaining affordable.

The ATI FireGL T2-128 is an excellent example of a well-executed, single-slot solution that redefines entry-level workstation graphics cards. Based on the FGL 9600 visual processing unit, the FireGL T2-128 boasts 128MB of RAM and features two geometry engines and four parallel rendering pipelines.

The ATI FireGL T2-128 entry-level graphics card with 128MB of RAM provides good performance for a fantastic sticker price of $379.
These features combine to produce face geometry processing, realistic rendering, and optimized application performance for CAD engineers and digital content creators.

The FireGL T2-128 is a midlength AGP 8×/4× graphics card. It ships with a CD-ROM full of drivers and utilities, including the speedy ATI MAXimum display driver for 3ds max and the Universal Driver for all FireGL workstation products. Built from the same source as ATI's Catalyst driver, the Universal Driver adds a critical OpenGL component. It's optimized for and certified by many professional workstation applications.

Part of a new family of FireGL graphics cards, the T2-128 offers solid support for OpenGL, CAD, AEC, and DCC applications on either Windows or the Linux operating systems.

All FireGL boards are certified for a variety of OpenGL and DirectX 9.0 applications, with full support under Windows and Linux environments. Releases of Windows and Linux drivers are almost concurrent, with Linux releases currently trailing the Windows version by about two weeks.

All other FireGL cards support dual DVI-I displays, but the FireGL T2-128 supports one DVI-I display and one VGA display. The card comes with a DVI-to-VGA adapter.

FireGL graphics cards have two integrated display controllers, allowing them to simultaneously drive two displays with completely independent images, resolutions, and refresh rates.

The FireGL T2-128 was no slouch on our benchmark tests, with a total index score of 71.16 and a 3D combined index of 43.88 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark using AutoCAD 2004. On the SPEC ViewPerf proe-01 Viewset, the FireGL T2-128 achieved a score of 21.50.

Finally, on the MAXBench4 benchmark for 3ds max (we tested with v5.1) using the default video driver, the average of high and low scores was 35.59. With the ATI MAXimum driver v1.3.3721, MAXBench4 scores increased to 51.49. These are certainly good scores for an entry-level workstation graphics card.

Pricing on the ATI FireGL T2-128 graphics card is an affordable $379 with 128MB of RAM. The card is covered by a three-year repair and replacement warranty.

Not too long ago, the performance of a graphics card such as the ATI FireGL T2-128 would have been coveted at virtually any level for its workstation performance. Now this performance is remarkable for an entry-level workstation graphics card at a very good price.

@Xi 488/240 MTower 2P64
High-end CAD workstation

pros: Very fast.
cons: Loud; runs hot.
price: $5,239

@Xi Computer

@Xi 488/240 MTower 2P64
This is the first dual 1.8GHz AMD 64-bit Opteron system tested at Cadalyst Labs, and what better opportunity to test out Windows XP Professional for our benchmark tests on two new workstation graphics cards?

Equipped with 2GB of DDR PC2X00 RAM (the motherboard can handle 4GB), the MTower 2P64 was somewhat noisy and hot, no doubt from the five fans incorporated in the system and the heat-dissipating fan on the NVIDIA FX 3000 workstation graphics card. Even so, it proved to be the fastest system we've ever tested.

@Xi's aluminum midtower case, with ten bays (five are exposed) and a 420-watt power supply, is designed for expansion. The MTower 2P64 comes equipped with two USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire 1394 interface on the front of the system. Our review unit came equipped with two

@Xi 488/240 MTower 2P64
@Xi’s speedy 488/240 MTower 2P64 dual 64-bit AMD Opteron workstation offers the perfect platform to test a range of graphics cards.
80GB 7,200rpm Ultra ATA100 hard drives with 8MB cache.

Rounding out the system is a CDR/W1DVD 16×10×40×12× ATAPI drive, onboard AC97 sound, and onboard 1GB Ethernet (10/100/1000) LAN connectivity. As tested with the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000 graphics card, the system price is $5,239. With the FX 2000 graphics card, the price is $340 less. These prices reflect the requested Windows XP Professional operating system.

As we've come to expect from @Xi, the MTower 2P64 is a solidly built, innovative, and blazingly fast system at the forefront in performance and technology.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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