Cadalyst Labs Review: Dual-Core Processors31 Oct, 2006 By: Ron LaFon
Faster than a speeding bullet!
After a period of small, incremental performance gains, this latest generation of CAD/engineering workstations makes a big leap over previous systems. The four systems reviewed here are the fastest workstations that Cadalyst has ever seen. Credit for the improvement goes primarily to Intel's speedy new Core 2 Extreme processors, which are used in three of the four systems received. One system is based on the AMD Athlon64 FX-62 2.8GHz processor that until recently had been the leader on Cadalyst performance tests.
These new Intel processors establish themselves as the top choice for power machines—at least for the time being. AMD is not exactly resting on its laurels. It recently announced its new Rev F Opteron server processors. Rev F Opterons are all dual-core models that add new virtualization abilities and faster memory and run at the same 2.6GHz top speed as their predecessors. Although these new processors use a different socket—making the upgrade path from one Opteron to the next more difficult—they lay the foundation for AMD's quad-core chips that are expected to appear in 2007.
All of this is good news for end users in the market for fast workstations, because these systems are faster than anything I've seen before. They offer performance that you can not only benchmark, but also see in day-to-day operations.
For this roundup, Cadalyst requested systems with the fastest available single dual-core processors (Intel or AMD) installed, along with at least 2GB of system RAM. We asked for at least 120GB total hard disk storage, which could be configured with multiple drives. Systems also needed CD/RW and DVD-ROM drives, or a combination drive that accommodated both media.
Other requirements included a network card, a wheel mouse and Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed. Finally, a 3D OpenGL graphics card with at least 64MB of onboard RAM had to support 1280x1024 resolution at a minimum 85Hz refresh rate.
Deadlines were very tight on this roundup, so some vendors weren't able to meet the time constraints. I received five systems, one of which was disqualified because it didn't meet our specifications (it arrived with two dual-core processors installed). I put the four remaining systems through their paces with the standard suite of benchmark tests.
Each workstation was started and checked for the appropriate amount of RAM and graphics card capabilities, and then I installed software for the three benchmarks. Our primary AutoCAD test is the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark with AutoCAD 2005 using Service Pack 1. The Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark is available at www.cadalyst.com/c2006/ for those who want to run it on their own systems for comparison purposes.
I also tested workstations with MAXBench 4 using Autodesk 3ds Max 8 with Service Pack 3 installed. When an accelerated 3ds Max driver such as NVIDIA's MAXtreme was available, I tested with both the default video configuration and the special driver. Test results for this benchmark are noted in the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/1106workstationtable/) with the default video performance listed first.
The final benchmark is the ProE-04 viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 9 (www.spec.org). This particular test tends to follow the performance of the installed graphic card and so gives an idea of a system's graphic card/driver performance.
Cadalyst labs report card
Once the benchmark tests were complete, I evaluated each system based on several criteria: meeting the minimum system configuration requirements, benchmark results, pricing, features, warranty and documentation. These factors are all figured into the overall point average that determined the Cadalyst Labs ratings. Please note that we're giving letter grades instead of star ratings. For this roundup, any system with a grade point average of 9.2 or higher earned a Highly Recommended rating.
The systems reviewed here are high-performance systems that can make short work of ever more complex tasks. Quality is consistently high—you should be able to find or budget for a system that is suitable for your situation. Expandability is a given for these systems, so you can configure them for your particular needs. Each system in this roundup has something to offer, and evaluating them against one another proved very difficult at times.
Xi MTower PCIe
The Xi MTower PCIe is housed in a compact, silver and black 17.2" x 8" x 19.2" (HxWxD) case with a clear side panel. It features oversized ventilation fans to dissipate heat, though the system remains quiet. On a small panel located near the top front of the case, you'll find two USB 2.x connectors, a FireWire connector and plugs for both a microphone and headphones. The system offers excellent expandability with eleven drive bays: four 5.25" and two 3.5" externally accessible bays and five more 3.5" bays located inside.
The Xi MTower PCIe features an Asus P5W DH Deluxe motherboard with a single dual-core Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz microprocessor installed, supported by the Intel P975X chipset. A total of 2GB of DDR2 800MHz PC6200 RAM was installed, with total capacity of 8GB when the motherboard is fully populated. As with all workstations from @Xi Computer, the Xi MTower PCIe system can be configured with a broad range of options to fit specific wants and needs.
The test system came with an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500 graphics card with 256MB of onboard memory. For the benchmark tests, I used the preinstalled v.22.214.171.124 driver along with NVIDIA MAXtreme 8.00.03 for the Autodesk 3ds Max component.
The Xi MTower PCIe system sailed through the benchmark tests easily, posting an excellent total index score of 242 on the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark running under AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed. Although this isn't the highest C2006 benchmark score in this roundup, it's still exceptional. The MAXBench 4 tests with Autodesk 3ds Max 8 using Service Pack 3 produced an averaged high/low score of 97.24 using only the default graphics drivers and 207.64 when I switched to the MAXtreme 8.00.03 accelerated drivers.
The Xi MTower PCIe's good performance, combined with its attractive price, earned top honors in this group of dual-core processor workstations.
The final component of our benchmark series is the ProE-04 viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 9, which generated a weighted geometric mean score of 39.56. These performance numbers earned the Xi MTower PCIe system an A for performance. Additional A grades were awarded for warranty, expandability and return options.
Although the Xi MTower PCIe system didn't register the highest benchmark scores in this review, the performance was top notch—and the system price was slightly more than half that of the speediest system. Combined with excellent expandability, good warranty coverage and high-quality components, this system was the only one in this roundup to earn the Cadalyst Labs Highly Recommended rating.
As delivered, the Xi MTower PCIe system carries a price of $3,979, which includes a three-year warranty for parts and labor and one year of onsite service coverage. This price, the lowest of any workstation in this roundup, earned the MTower PCIe an A+. The MTower PCIe system is covered by a 30-day money back guarantee with no restocking fee. Highly Recommended.
These days virtually every CAD/engineering workstation is overclocked to one degree or another to achieve maximum performance. Overclocking is the process of forcing a computer component to run at a higher clock rate than designated by the manufacturer. The question arises as to just how much you can overclock a system and still maintain its integrity. Overdrive PC specializes in overclocking systems for the gaming and CAD/engineering segments of the market. In fact, Overdrive overclocked and tweaked virtually every component possible in the Core2.PRO system that I tested.
The Core2.PRO is housed in what I'd describe as a posh and futuristic case that is well engineered and appointed with lots of convenient extras. Even with the additional ventilation fans, it remains relatively quiet. A top-mounted panel incorporates the system power button as well as two USB 2.x connectors, a reset button and lock indicator. A small panel at the top center of the front of the case provides two more USB 2.x connectors, a FireWire connector and plugs for both microphone and headset.
Just about every possible component in the Overdrive PC Core2.PRO system is overclocked and tweaked for top performance.
The Core2.PRO system features an Intel Core 2 Duo (Extreme Edition) 2.93GHz microprocessor, which was overclocked by Overdrive to 3.76 GHz, mounted on a customized Intel D975X BX motherboard that uses the Intel 975 chipset. The 2GB of DDR2 (unregistered) RAM has a native speed of 1000MHz, but was hyperclocked to 1036MHz. When fully populated, the system accommodates 8GB of RAM.
Graphics for the Core2.PRO system were provided by an NVIDIA Quadro FX 5500 graphics card with 1GB of memory. Benchmarks were run with the preinstalled NVIDIA 126.96.36.199 drivers with the addition of the NVIDIA MAXtreme drivers v.8.00.03 for the Autodesk 3ds Max components of the tests.
The Core2.PRO came with a high-end Logitech G5 laser mouse and a very sophisticated Logitech G15 gaming keyboard, which probably isn't the best choice for CAD and engineering tasks.
The Overdrive PC Core2.PRO posted remarkable performance numbers—easily making it the fastest system in this roundup. I ran the Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark using AutoCAD 2005 with Service Pack 1 installed and achieved a total index score of 270—a record high for this benchmark. Scores for the MAXBench 4 benchmark were similarly high. Using the default Windows drivers, the averaged high/low score was 127.13, and it jumped to 240.62 using the NVIDIA MAXtreme 8.00.03 accelerated drivers for 3ds Max. Finally, the ProE-04 viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 9 produced a weighted geometric mean score of 52.21. With these high numbers, the Core2.PRO received an A+ for performance.
All the extras and the additional cost of labor for customizing and fine-tuning resulted in a price tag of $7,557, by far the most expensive in this roundup. That earned the Overdrive PC Core2.PRO a generous B grade for pricing. If you're willing to pay the price for this system, you'll get performance that you probably won't see for a year or so in the market. There will no doubt be some concerns about its reliability for critical CAD/engineering data. I can't vouch for long-term stability, but the system performed solidly and reliably during the time I tested it.
The system earned As for both warranty coverage and expandability and an A– for return policy. This is one of those odd circumstances where, even though this is unquestionably the fastest system in the roundup, other factors keep it from the top position.
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Polywell Computers sent Cadalyst a PolyStation 590SLI-5500 system, which is housed in a compact all-black system that proved to be relatively quiet. The case measures 16.8" x 7.5" x 19.6" (HxWxD) and features a slide-down panel cover that hides two USB 2.x ports, a FireWire connector and plug sockets for both a microphone and a headset. The system also includes a multifunction 7-in-1 floppy/card reader combination drive and two optical drives—a Sony DVD/RW and a second Sony DVD-CDRW combination drive. The system provides ten drive bays: four 5.25" and two 3.5" external bays and four 3.5" internal bays. Expandability should present no problems with the included Seasonic 700W high-efficiency PFC power supply.
Inside the box, the PolyStation 590SLI-5500 features an Asus M2N32-SLI-DLX motherboard that uses the NVIDIA nForce 4 SLI chipset. Mounted on the motherboard is a single AMD Athlon64 FX-62 dual-core microprocessor running at 2.94GHz. As provided, the system contained 2GB of DDR 800MHz RAM, out of a possible 4GB when the board is fully populated with memory.
The compact PolyStation 590SLI-5500 system, the only one in this review to incorporate an AMD processor, provides many connectivity options.
The PolyStation 590SLI-5500 incorporates two Western Digital SATA hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration for a total hard drive capacity of 300GB. Sound is provided by an onboard Realtek 7.1 chip, and the system includes an integrated 2Gbit network adapter. Input devices include a Logitech premium desktop keyboard with wireless mouse—the emitter for the mouse is located inside the keyboard itself.
Graphics were provided by a single NVIDIA Quadro FX 5500 graphics card with 1GB of onboard RAM. A second FX 5500 graphics card can be installed in this system and used in SLI mode, but only a single card was used for the benchmark tests. The NVIDIA graphics driver v.188.8.131.52 was preinstalled and used throughout the tests, along with the NVIDIA MAXtreme 8.00.03 accelerated driver for tests that required Autodesk 3ds Max.
On the test bench, I ran the PolyStation 590SLI-5500 through its paces with the standard benchmarking suite. The Cadalyst Labs C2006 benchmark with AutoCAD 2005 (Service Pack 1) generated a total index score of 180. With MAXBench 4 running under Autodesk 3ds Max 8 with Service Pack 3 installed, I achieved a score of 75.34 using the default video drivers and a score of 176.07 when I added NVIDIA's MAXtreme v.8.00.03 accelerated driver. On the ProE-04 viewset from SPEC ViewPerf 9, the system produced a weighted geometric mean score of 37.98.
Just a couple of months ago, these scores from a system using the AMD FX-62 processor would have been top flight. Now, with the performance edge shown by the new Intel microprocessors used in the other three systems in this roundup, they now seem on the slow side.
Although the Polywell system earned an A+ for its extended warranty coverage, its performance in this fast company resulted in a B. An A– for pricing, an A for expandability, and a B+ for return policy round out the report card.
ProMagix Plus W160
Based in Richmond, Virginia, Velocity Micro offers a broad range of custom-designed and -built computer systems for gaming and CAD/engineering use. Velocity Micro sent its new ProMagix Plus W160 workstation for this last workstation roundup of 2006.
The compact black-and-silver case features two swing-away doors on the front—a large drive bay cover at the top and a smaller ventilation door near the bottom. Handy wheels at the front and back make it easy to pull the case from under a desk for maintenance. The system proved relatively quiet in operation. It offers ten drive bays—four 5.25" and two 3.5" external bays and four more 3.5" bays inside the case. Power is provided by a 500W supply.
Velocity Micro's ProMagix Plus W160 workstation is equipped with wheels on the case so users can pull the system out from under a desk for easy maintenance.
Inside the case is an Intel D975XBXLKR motherboard that uses the Intel 975X chipset. A single Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 microprocessor runs at 2.93GHz. The ProMagix Plus W160 arrived with 2GB of XMS2 DDR2-800 memory out of a total of 8GB when the system is fully loaded. The configuration Cadalyst received uses two of the four RAM slots. The system comes with a selection of software, including PowerDVD and Nero for burning optical disks.
The ProMagix Plus W160 workstation incorporates a Western Digital 320GB WD3200KS SATA/300 7200RPM hard drive with 16MB of cache as well as a 16x Lite On DVD+/-RW/CD-RW dual-layer optical drive and an 8-in-1 memory card reader/floppy combination drive. Input devices include a Microsoft optical USB mouse v.1.0a and a Velocity Micro–branded Creative keyboard model KPA1. Sound for the system is provided by an onboard integrated Intel high-definition 7.1 channel sound processor.
Graphics were handled by an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 X2 graphics card with 512MB of onboard video memory. NVIDIA drivers v.184.108.40.206 were preinstalled and used for our benchmark test suite, along with the NVIDIA MAXtreme 8.00.03 accelerated driver for the benchmark components that used Autodesk 3ds Max. Speaking of benchmark tests, I tested the Velocity Micro ProMagix Plus W160 with AutoCAD 2005 using Service Pack 1 and the Cadalyst Labs' C2006 benchmark. This test returned a total index score of 213—not the highest in this roundup but definitely on the high side. Using the default Windows drivers for the MAXBench 4 test, I generated an averaged high/low score of 87.10, which jumped to 184.09 when I used the MAXtreme 8.00.03 driver. Finally, the ProE-04 viewset of SPEC ViewPerf 9 delivered a weighted geometric mean score of 37.33. All these figures represent very good performance numbers.
As delivered, the ProMagix Plus W160 workstation costs $4,740, which includes a year of warranty coverage for parts and labor with no onsite service coverage. Users can choose to extend coverage to 36 months for parts, labor and onsite protection. A broad array of components can be selected when ordering a system.
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.