Speed x2

31 Oct, 2003 By: Ron LaFon

Dual processors deliver design power

This is not only the largest workstation roundup that Cadalyst has done in some time, it’s also one of the most varied. We evaluate one system based on an AMD Athlon 28001, several systems based on variants of the Intel Xeon chips—one even has a 3.2GHz microprocessor—and several systems based on dual AMD Opteron microprocessors, including the new Opteron 246 microprocessor. The graphics cards included in the systems were also more varied than expected, although only NVIDIA was represented.

For this particular roundup we asked each vendor to send a system representative of its lineup. Systems are based on the fastest available dual processors (either Intel or AMD) and include at least 2GB of system RAM. We also requested at least 120GB of total hard drive storage. Multiple drives were okay. Other requirements include CD-R/W and DVD-ROM drives, a network card, a wheel-type mouse, and a 3D OpenGL graphics card with at least 64MB of RAM. The graphics card had to support a resolution of 1280×1024 at 24-bit color with a minimum refresh rate of 85Hz.

Finally, each system came preloaded with Windows XP Professional configured with the classic interface. System prices don't include speakers or a monitor.

For the AutoCAD tests, we used the Cadalyst C2001 benchmark test with the necessary updates for AutoCAD 2004. I completed the testing only with the accelerated Heidi driver that ships with AutoCAD 2004. Previous experiences with accelerated drivers from graphics card vendors show that the results are unreliable. At any rate, this is a moot point because those drivers have not yet been updated for AutoCAD 2004.

Last year, we started to use the SPEC ViewPerf v7 and the proe-01 suite of tests. This suite gives a reliable test of video performance, particularly the OpenGL characteristics of a graphics card, and adds a few new models and tests to the benchmark series. With the next series of tests, Cadalyst Labs will update to ViewPerf 7.1 and proe-02.

MAX4Bench, a new 3ds max benchmark based on Discreet's 3ds max 5, ferrets out display and system problems. If you want to benchmark your current system with 3ds max 5, the benchmark tests appear on the second CD-ROM of 3ds max 5 and 5.1. These new tests, as well as 3ds max 5, give the systems a substantial workout and address many new video card features such as pixel shading. For this benchmark, we used 3ds max 5.1. With the release of 3ds max 6 imminent, we'll investigate using it for the next set of 3ds max-related benchmarks.

This is the first time we tested all the systems with Microsoft Windows XP Professional. As expected from previous experience with this operating system, test results were slower than when using Windows 2000 Workstation. This was true even when using the classic interface of Windows XP Professional.

As far as microprocessors go, the latest AMD 64-bit Opteron chips achieve great scores with Cadalyst Labs' 32-bit benchmark series and still have a way to go before tapping out. Early results from AMD chips look quite promising.

Another interesting development for AMD 64-bit processors is the announced 64-bit version of Windows XP Professional that directly supports the Opteron and Athlon 64 microprocessors. A similar version is being released for Intel's 64-bit Itanium. What may turn out to be a significant difference between the two is that the AMD version supports 32-bit and 64-bit modes. The Itanium chip accomplishes 32-bit mode by emulation, in a WOW-64 mode (64-bit Windows-On-Windows). Will such emulation be fast enough? Real-world tests will depend on the availability of 64-bit versions of applications such as AutoCAD.

I expect that the Windows XP 64-bit edition for Itanium and the XP 64-bit edition for AMD64 will be limited releases, at least initially. Somewhere in the not-too-distant future, this should get very interesting.

In the interim, much of what I see is more and more window dressing, including lights in cases and on cooling fans. Such systems look as at home in a gamer's den as in a high-tech CAD/CAM office. The two pursuits are really not all that far apart as far as system requirements are concerned. A system that's attractive for its fast performance with electronic games often delivers very good CAD performance as well.

I continue to see innovation in system cases, including cases made with ultralightweight aluminum. Though these cases are lightweight, they are prone to dents and are easily marred. In this roundup, I also saw cases made of heavier aluminum enameled in glossy black, red, and blue.

Although 3.50 floppy drives are essentially obsolete and will eventually disappear from systems, I did see some innovation here. Several systems tested here combined 3.50 floppy drives with 7-in-1 memory card readers. These multifunction drives are useful, particularly with the advent of digital cameras and the continued popularity of PDAs. And they give continued life to the 3.50 drive.

I wonder about some of the choices for video cards in systems submitted for this roundup, although vendors likely chose what they did to stay near a certain price point. But if I'm going to spend $5,000 or more on a dual-processor system with 2GB of RAM and a large hard drive or two, it's false economy to throttle its performance with a graphics card that can't match the inherent speed of the system.

It's apparent that small- to midsized CAD system vendors show their expertise in putting together systems that are not only speedy for CAD/CAM applications, but also offer expandability and options.

There's an unusual situation with this roundup. The AutoCAD C2001 scores for @Xi Computer's Xi MTower 2P64 were nearly 12 points ahead of the nearest competitor. This, combined with significant expandability and other high scores, put this system well ahead of the others. Consequently, four systems that would ordinarily have received five-star ratings ended up with 4.5 stars. These four systems are high-performance systems whose 4.5-star ratings don't reflect any problems, other than lagging behind the one dynamo.

Overall Performance

Reviewer’s Report Card
Price War-
Star Rating
(37) (34) (32) (32) (31)  
@Xi MTower 2P64 A+ A A- A+ A 5 stars

A- B A B A 4 stars

Fusion AMP
C+ A+ A- B+ A 3.5 stars

IBM IntelliStation
Z Pro
B+ B- A B+ A 3.5 stars

Monarch G64 Enterprise
Custom Opteron
A A A- A+ D 4.5 stars

Polywell PolyStation
A A A A+ B 4.5 stars

SYS PowerHouse 3066D A- A+ A A B 4.5 stars

PowerStation FX
A- A A A B 4.5 stars

Velocity Micro
ProMagix Pro
A C A- A+ B 4 stars

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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