How Today's Chips Stack Up

29 Feb, 2004 By: Ron LaFon

Cadalyst Labs tests hot single-processor systems

This roundup includes a variety of microprocessors, ranging from fairly standard 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processors to an Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition 3.2GHz processor. There are also several AMD64 processors-one of the new 148 chips and a couple of FX-51 chips.

Similarly, a broad range of motherboard vendors and models are used in these systems. This mix of processors and motherboards provides some interesting information in terms of performance and what chips seem best at particular functions-at least at the current time.

Judging from the benchmark test results, the AMD 64-bit chips excel at 3D performance, but tend to earn weak 2D scores. The Intel Pentium processors, on the other hand, are much more even across the board-not the fastest at 3D, but faster on 2D performance. As a result, the benchmark figures tend to equalize, with each processor family gaining points at what it does best. This makes the sort of work you do a significant consideration for the next workstation you purchase.

Early iterations of the AMD Opteron 148 chips varied wildly in their ability to achieve consistent 3D performance figures. I speculate that there might be a bug of some kind that involves the AGP slot on certain motherboards using the AMD processor. It was troublesome and appeared several times during benchmark testing.

What We Requested

For this roundup, we asked for single-processor systems with the fastest processor (Intel or AMD) available from each vendor. Tested systems had to have at least 2GB of RAM and at least 120GB of total hard drive storage-multiple drives were allowed. We also requested both a CD-R/W drive and a DVD-ROM drive, which could be combination CD/R and DVD drives.
Reviewer's Report Card
Reviewer's Report Card

We required an incorporated network card and a 3D OpenGL graphics card with at least 64MB of RAM, capable of supporting resolutions as high as 1280X1024 and 24-bit color at a minimum refresh rate of 85Hz.

Systems were to be preloaded with Microsoft Windows XP Professional configured to the older Classic system interface. Systems came with a mouse with a wheel, but we didn't ask for speakers and monitors or include them in the pricing.

Testing the Goods

I began with the C2001 test using AutoCAD 2004 running on each system in Windows XP Professional at 1280X 1024 with 32-bit color at 85Hz. Nothing was different from the past few times I've used the benchmark, although those of you who haven't tried it with AutoCAD 2004 should download the free updated version on the Cadalyst Web site ( I then ran the proe-02 test suite of SPEC ViewPerf 7.01 on each system, selecting the best score from the two runs through the benchmark that we normally do.

Finally, for the first time I ran the MAXBench4 benchmark test with Discreet's 3ds max 6. Though the benchmark ships on one of the CD-ROMs included in 3ds max 6, a graphic required for one part of the benchmark test is missing. Once I added it to the mix, the benchmark ran without difficulty. Locate this file, rhino.jpg, from a previous version of 3ds max and place it in the MAXBench directory with the other graphics files that the benchmark test uses.

Review Summary
Review Summary

Note that there is no MAXtreme column on the systems using NVIDIA graphics cards because the high-performance MAXtreme driver hadn't been released in time for this review. We will use it for future tests. The PowerDraft driver is also being updated to take advantage of AutoCAD 2004.

Coming Attractions

New microprocessors from Intel and AMD are imminent, so performance characteristics will likely ratchet up over the next few months. Also on the horizon is PCI Express, a two-way serial data bus designed to replace the AGP 8X interface. A PCI Express graphics card slot is expected to provide usable bandwidth of 4GB per second, double that of an AGP 8X slot. Systems and graphics card that support PCI Express are expected out this summer.

None of the submitted systems deviated widely from what we've seen before, though test scores continually climb. All the systems offered standard 3.5" floppy drives, and each had the old standard BIOS, so none of the vendors are yet adventurous enough to move into new territory around that technology-although that will certainly come.

While running these benchmarks, I reflected back on the many systems I've tested in the past using these benchmarks or their predecessors. Not only are systems significantly faster, they're more stable than ever before. This is a result of improvements in the hardware and the software drivers. In the past, I dreaded certain parts of the benchmark tests, because there were stumbling blocks that not all systems made it through. Now, it's extremely rare for a system to have a problem with a test. Much has changed, and for the better. Overall quality has increased over the years, something that we're not always aware of because of the slow, steady pace of improvements.

MTower SP

@Xi Computer Corp.
The MTower SP from @Xi Computer takes center stage with the lowest price and best performance on the C2001 test in this roundup.
The MTower SP from @Xi Computer takes center stage with the lowest price and best performance on the C2001 test in this roundup.

5 stars out of 5

Price: $3,749

Though most of the really high performance systems we see from @Xi Computer are based on AMD processors, the MTower SP system @Xi Computer sent this time incorporates a standard 3.2GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor. The P4 is nested on an Asus P4C800-E motherboard that uses the Intel 875 chipset. The motherboard is populated with 2GB of P4C800-E DDR 400 RAM. Maximum capacity is 4GB.

Housed in a silver case with a swing-away drive bay cover, the MTower SP has a clear Plexiglas panel on the removable side panel. This case is also available in putty or black. The front panel features two USB 2 ports and a single FireWire connector behind a closable port door. Four USB 1.x ports are available on the back of the system. With a total of eleven drive bays, the MTower SP offers great expandability, with plenty of power available from the AMS 430W power supply.

The Mitsumi keyboard was a bit mushy for my taste, but other keyboard options are available. The MTower SP also came with a Logitech MX300 mouse. A PNY/NVIDIA FX 3000 graphics card with 256MB of onboard RAM controls video. This really seems to be the card for high-performance CAD systems these days.

The MTower SP is a double winner: at $3,749 it is, by a small margin, the least expensive system in this roundup, and its score of 132.50 on our C2001 test is, also by a small margin, the fastest on our AutoCAD performance benchmark. Scores on both the SPEC ViewPerf proe-02 suite and the MAXBench4 benchmark are high, but not the highest in this roundup. It's interesting to note that this system, using a standard Intel 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor, outperforms the system using the Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition 3.20GHz Pentium processor-at least on our C2001 benchmark.

Its high performance scores, relatively low system price, and expansion options combine to give the @Xi Computer MTower SP a solid 5-star rating from Cadalyst. Highly Recommended.

Workstation xw4100

The Hewlett-Packard Workstation xw4100 is a solid system and offers a standard 3-year warranty for parts, labor, and on-site coverage. Screen image courtesy of SolidWorks Corp. and UAMZ Company.
The Hewlett-Packard Workstation xw4100 is a solid system and offers a standard 3-year warranty for parts, labor, and on-site coverage. Screen image courtesy of SolidWorks Corp. and UAMZ Company.

Star rating: 4 stars out of 5

Price: $3,837

The Hewlett-Packard Workstation xw4100 is a compact, well-built system that qualifies as the smallest box tested in this roundup. Measuring a svelte 17.7" X 6.6" X 17.9" (hXwXd), the Workstation xw4100 is built around a Hewlett-Packard xw4100 motherboard that features a 3.2GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 2GB of PC3200 RAM, and 800MHz front-side bus speed, all supported by an Intel 875P chipset. The motherboard accommodates a total of 4GB of RAM. System expansion is a bit limited by the small case size-it doesn't offer room for many expansion drive bays. Similarly, expansion is somewhat limited by the 280W power supply.

I previously tested the Hewlett-Packard Workstation xw4100 with a much faster graphics card installed-the NVIDIA FX 3000. This system came equipped with the new NVIDIA FX 1100 graphics card (see a First Look review of this graphics card on p. 24), an excellent midrange, midperformance graphics card at a more reasonable price. The performance of the xw4100 lagged somewhat behind the other systems benchmarked here, mostly because of this graphics card.

Star Ratings Explained
Star Ratings Explained

Previous tests show how fast this system can be with a different graphics card, but the FX 1100 doesn't match the outstanding performance (or the high price) of the FX 3000.

The xw4100 offers a standard 3-year warranty that covers parts, labor, and on-site service. Also included in the support coverage is 24-hour parts replacement and 24-hour live technical support.

The xw4100 carries a reasonable price of $3,837 as we tested it, including a 48X/24X/48X CD-R/W drive and integrated AC97 sound.

Certainly there are faster systems reviewed here for comparable prices, but if you need stellar support, the Hewlett-Packard Workstation xw4100 is a good choice, no matter which graphics card you choose for it.

Poly 900NF3-FX

Polywell Computers
The Poly 900NF3-FX turned in good scores on all of our tests and offers solid warranty coverage, all for a reasonable price of $4,399.
The Poly 900NF3-FX turned in good scores on all of our tests and offers solid warranty coverage, all for a reasonable price of $4,399.

Star rating: 5 stars out of 5

Price: $4,399

The Poly 900 NF3-FX from Polywell Computers achieved very good scores on all of our benchmark tests. Housed in an aluminum case with a removable side panel that features a clear Plexiglas window built around an extra ventilation fan, the Poly 900NF3-FX is both compact and lightweight. The case is attractive in a high-tech sort of way, but the thin aluminum shell seems to mar and dent easily. This affects its appearance only, not system performance.

The Poly 900NF3-FX generates a fair amount of heat, and a high-pitched fan noise was a bit disconcerting. I suspect the latter problem can be resolved and isn't endemic to the system.

The Poly 900NF3-FX is based on an AMD Athlon64 FX-51 processor on an Asus SK8N motherboard that uses the NVIDIA nForce-3 chipset. As requested, the system came equipped with 2GB of PC3200 DDR 400MHz RAM, with 4GB of RAM possible when the motherboard is completely populated.

A PNY/NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000 handles graphics with its normal complement of 256MB of RAM. This seems to be the current standard card for fast CAD/visualization systems-all the systems tested here, save one, use this speedy card.

The Polywell Poly 900NF3-FX offers several niceties, including a cordless Microsoft Medial keyboard and cordless IR mouse combo and a 7-in-1 3.5" floppy drive that doubles as a flash and memory card reader for a variety of memory cards. This is particularly useful for those who use laptops or digital cameras during the course of their work.

Polywell also includes a good selection of bundled applications, among them WinDVD4, Nero (for burning CDs and DVDs), and Norton AntiVirus. Six USB 2 sockets are a welcome addition.

Warranty coverage is a comfortable 60 months on parts and 36 months on labor with 12 months of on-site coverage. The $4,399 price tag falls some-where in the midrange- the Poly 900NF3-FX is neither the most nor the least expensive of the systems tested here. Highly Recommended.

PowerHouse 148

SYS Technology
The SYS Technologies PowerHouse 148 comes with the speedy PNY/NVIDIA FX 3000 graphics card 
and 400GB hard drive space.
The SYS Technologies PowerHouse 148 comes with the speedy PNY/NVIDIA FX 3000 graphics card and 400GB hard drive space.

Star rating: 4 stars out of 5

Price: $5,321

The SYS Technology PowerHouse 148 is a squat, compact, and solidly built system that shows careful attention to detail in both its components and finish. One nice touch is a cantilevered drive bay cover that lies back against the system case-out of harm's way-when you fully open it.

The PowerHouse 148 is built around an Asus SKU8 motherboard using an AMD64 148 2.2GHz processor supported by the Via K8T800 chipset. Though the C2001 test score of 115.39 is a respectable figure, it's not up to what this system should be capable of producing. This is most likely due to the AGP slot problem mentioned in the introduction that currently plagues some 148 processor, motherboard, and chipset combinations. I expect to see better performance from this system once the problem, wherever it lies, is rectified.

Although the C2001 test scores are lower than I expected, the SPEC ViewPerf proe-02 and MAXBench4 scores are good.

Like most other systems tested here, the PowerHouse 148 includes a speedy PNY/NVIDIA FX 3000 graphics card, which accounts for a significant portion of its $5,321 price tag. The higher price, which includes some extras such as drives, results in a grade reduction for price-it's the most expensive system tested in this group.

The SYS Technologies PowerHouse 148 offers much in the way of expandability, both in internal and external drive bays and the standard 460W Enermax power supply.

The workstation includes a Lite-On 48X/24X/48X/16X DVD drive as well as a Plextor PX708A DVD+/- R/RW drive. A Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop Elite keyboard and mouse combination handles input. Two 200GB Western Digital hard disks are configured in a Raid 0 configuration to provide 400GB of total hard disk space. All these niceties also contribute to the high price of the system, so keep that in mind when you compare prices.

StarStation FX

TriCAD/CAM Systems
TriStar CAD/CAM's StarStation FX has plenty of room and power to expand to meet your computing needs in the future.
TriStar CAD/CAM's StarStation FX has plenty of room and power to expand to meet your computing needs in the future.

Star rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Price: $3,995

Tri CAD/CAM Systems sent a StarStation FX system housed in a compact, heavy, matte-black midsized tower case with a lockable swing-away drive bay cover. The StarStation FX is built around an Intel D875PBZ motherboard with a 3.2GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor. The supporting chipset is the Intel D875. The motherboard provides a remarkable eight USB 2 ports-certainly attractive to those who use a lot of peripherals. The system also has the usual single serial and single parallel port. It accommodates networking with an Intel Pro/1000 CT network interface adapter.

In addition to the expandability options offered by the USB 2 ports, the StarStation FX provides ten drive bays and a 400W power supply. This system can certainly grow as your needs change. In addition to producing high-quality workstations, Tri CAD/CAM also offers a range of equipment and extensive training facilities.

The StarStation FX comes with a Logitech mx500 mouse and a Logitech Elite keyboard, which I found a bit mushy for my tastes, but this is really a matter of personal preference. The review model comes with the PNY/NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000 graphics card slightly throttled back by the AGP 4X slot on the motherboard. This was also apparent in the benchmark test scores.

The StarStation FX comes with a very good assortment of software, such as NTI Backup NOW! V3, NTI CD&DVD Maker, NTI Drive Backup 3, and WinDVD 4 to play DVDs on the system. It offers a Sony CD-R/W 48X/24X/48X drive and a Sony DVD drive. In terms of test scores, the StarStation FX ranked near the top, with a total index score of 122.03 on our C2001 benchmark test. Scores were very good, if not the fastest, on both the SPEC ViewPerf proe-02 and the MAXBench4 benchmark tests.

ProMagix A/V/D

Velocity Micro
The Velocity Micro ProMagix A/V/D earned the highest scores across the board in this roundup.
The Velocity Micro ProMagix A/V/D earned the highest scores across the board in this roundup.

Star rating: 5 stars out of 5

Price: $4,160

The Velocity Micro ProMagix A/V/D is housed in an attractive deep indigo-blue enameled case with a swing-away drive door. In addition to being handsome and well made, the ProMagix A/V/D also happens to be very fast. This was the only system in this roundup based on the pricey Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition 3.2GHz processor. Though the performance is definitely there, incorporating that processor contributed much to the $4,160 price tag on the system as tested.

The system is based on an Intel D875PBZLK motherboard that uses the Intel 875P chipset. The board is populated with 2GB of DDR 400 (PC3200) RAM and handles 4GB when fully populated. The ProMagix A/V/D offers extensive opportunities for expansion, with a plethora of available drive bays and a 430W Antec power supply. The eight USB 2 ports further enhance expansion opportunities.

The Intel motherboard includes an integrated Intel 10/100/1000 network adapter. Instead of the usual incorporated AC97 sound system, Velocity Micro offers a SoundBlaster Audigy 2 sound card. Input for the ProMagix A/V/D is via a Microsoft USB Optical Mouse v1.1a and a Microsoft Multimedia keyboard 1.0a.

Velocity used high-quality components throughout the system, as evidenced by the Lite-On 52X/32X/52X CD-R/W drive and the companion Lite-On 4X DVD+/-RW drive, both of which are highly rated. Also contributing to the overall system price is the fast PNY/NVIDIA FX 3000 graphics card.

On the test bench, the Velocity Micro ProMagix A/V/D scored a high 132.10 on our C2001 benchmark, a 64.61 on the averaged MaxBench4 score (the highest in this roundup), and 46.25 on the ViewPerf proe-02 test suite, also the highest in this roundup. These high scores and the overall quality of the system contribute to make this one of the top systems in this roundup. Highly Recommended.


About the Author: Ron LaFon

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