ATI FireGL V3600 review

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At Siggraph ATI unveiled its next generation unified graphics architecture. Greg Corke took a closer look at ATIÝs FireGL R600 series, which starts with the entry-level V3600.

ATIÝs FireGL V3600 is the entry-level card in its R600 family, and will feature both a new unified architecture and multithreaded drivers.

Siggraph is THE industry Ùget togetherÝ for anyone involved in specialist computer graphics. Such is the importance of the event that software and hardware developers plan their release schedules around the show – which takes place during the summer months at a different location each year in the US.

This year Siggraph took place in San Diego and ATI used it as the springboard for its new generation FireGL graphics cards, based on the companyÝs R600 architecture. ATI is catering for the entire cross section of professional 3D users with entry-level budget cards for CAD, right up to beasts with 2GB memory for those pushing the limits in the Digital Content Creation (DCC) sector.

There are five cards in total: the entry-level FireGL V3600 (256MB), the mid-range FireGL V5600 (512MB), the high-end V7600 (512MB) and the ultra high-end FireGL V8600 (1GB) and FireGL V8650 (2GB).

Technological evolution obviously plays a role in defining the specifications of the new generation cards, but so does Windows Vista, as 128MB of on-board memory is simply not practical for MicrosoftÝs new Operating System. While ATI has not been shy in dishing out 256MB for its entry-level V3600, it has been downright generous with its top end V8650, which features a whopping 2GB. A cynic might say this is more about getting one up on arch-rival Nvidia (whose Quadro FX5600 features 1.5GB), than solving real world graphics problems. After all, it would take a hell of a lot of complex geometry and textures to fill 2GB.

Interestingly, all cards feature 2 x Dual Link support, so driving two hi-res monitors, such as AppleÝs Cinema display, at resolutions of 2,560 x 1,600 is no problem. Support for Stereo 3D, however, is still the reserve of the high-end (V7600 and above) and if you are looking to run powerwalls with Framelock you will have to invest in a V8600 or V8650.

In addition to the new cards, AEC understands that ATI will keep the R500-based FireGL V3350 in its range, to fulfill the role of a true budget entry-level workstation card.

The first card to ship will be the FireGL V3600, closely followed by the V5600 and V7600. It will be a little longer before we see the V8600 (1GB) and FireGL V8650 (2GB).

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While the FireGL V3600 will probably do little to excite the power hungry digital artists, it will certainly get the attention of the CAD sector. With 256MB and the level of power usually associated with mid-range cards it is targeted squarely at the volume 3D CAD market.

Like the other cards in the series it brings many new technologies to the table ± unified graphics architecture, a 65nm fabrication process, DirectX 10, and multithreaded drivers. The benchmarks and analysis will come later, but first of all, let’s spend a bit of time explaining what all of the above technologies mean for CAD.

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ATIÝs new FireGL lineup
Entry level Mid Range High End Ultra High End
FireGL Model V3350 V3600 V5600 V7600 V8600 V8650
Memory 256MB 256MB 512MB 512MB 1GB 2GB
Memory Interface 64-bit 128-bit 128-bit 256-bit 512-bit 512-bit
Power Consumption N/A <50W <75W <150W <225W <255W
Dual Link DVI no 2 2 2 2 2
Stereo 3D output Yes yes yes
GenlockFramelock yes yes

Unified architecture

When Nvidia delivered the ÙindustryÝs first unified graphics architectureÝ back in April, with its Quadro FX4600 and FX5600 you could sense the irritation coming from ATI. The AMD-owned graphics giant had delivered its own unified graphics architecture with the Xenos chip in MicrosoftÝs Xbox 360 two years ago, but this technology had yet to make its way to the professional graphics sector. This has all changed with the R600, which sees the ATI bring what is essentially its second generation unified architecture to market.

With unified architectures a graphics card has an array of processing units which can be dynamically allocated to geometry or shader tasks as required. In the past this was dealt with by dedicated geometry engines and dedicated pixel shaders. This meant that if your model was geometry heavy (as is typical for CAD) then your geometry engines could be working flat out while your pixel shaders sat around twiddling their thumbs. Having a unified architecture means that you can make full use of all of your processing units at once. These are called Stream processing units in ATI terminology, total 120 in the entry-level FireGL V3600 and go up to 320 in the top end FireGL V8650. Four stream processors have roughly the same compute power as a single geometry engine or pixel shader.

65nm fabrication process

For its low end and mid-range boards, ATI has moved from 80nm to a 65nm fabrication process, which essentially means its chips will run cooler. This is evident on the FireGL V3600 which, for the level of processing power it possesses, sports a relatively small heat sink and fan. The benefit for the end user is that more and more processing power can be crammed into the same power envelope, which is limited by the power supply and cooling requirements of a workstation.

While ATI is pushing forward with 65nm at the low-end, it still uses 80nm fabrication for its high-end boards, primarily due to their complexity. The FireGL V8650, for example, consumes up to an incredible 255 Watts, compared with the 50W drawn by the FireGL V3600.

Drivers

The drivers for ATIÝs new FireGL cards are multi-threaded, which means that the graphics card can talk to multiple CPU cores, rather than just a single CPU. With a traditional single-threaded graphics driver, if a user is updating the fillets on a part, for example, then the CAD software will first take up all of the CPU resources to do the calculation, and then only update the graphics when there are spare CPU cycles available. With the new multi-threaded driver, the idea is that one or more CPU cores can carry out the required calculations in your CAD package, while other core/s can be used to drive the graphics card. This will help improve the fluidity of the design process, but wonÝt necessarily increase the overall performance of your card.

The degree of benefit to the end user is dependent on how the technology has been implemented by their CAD software vendor. However, in many cases, just by implementing a specific OpenGL extension such as VBOs (Virtual Buffer Objects) the user will automatically benefit. The introduction of multi-threaded drivers is also likely to herald the arrival of Crossfire (ATIÝs multi graphics card solution) on the Workstation platform.

Another driver enhancement is the introduction of automatic profile switching, which tunes the graphics driver for individual CAD applications (though this was actually introduced about six months ago). This was previously a manual process, with the user selecting their chosen application from a pick list, but the driver now automatically does this for you by monitoring which CAD application EXE commands have been launched and tuning the driver appropriately. This not only means you should get better performance but also better accuracy and stability.

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DirectX 10

DirectX 10 (or Direct3D 10) is the next generation graphics technology inside Microsoft Windows Vista and as of next year will be a pre-requisite for a graphics card to be certified on MicrosoftÝs new Operating System. While many CAD applications still exclusively use OpenGL (the industry standard 2D/3D graphics API), some CAD vendors, such as Autodesk and Bentley, are taking the DirectX route to display their graphics. Autodesk Inventor, for example, has an ageing implementation of OpenGL, and has used DirectX as its default for the past few releases.

While DirectX has improved since Version 9 by including better support for geometry (an area in which OpenGL has always been strong), it still looks unlikely that CAD vendors will follow the lead of Autodesk en masse any time soon.

And while OpenGL 2.0 support continues to be essential for professional CAD cards, DirectX 10 is going to be more important in the future as it will be vital to get the most out of other Microsoft Vista applications, like translucent toolbars in Microsoft Office, for example and, of course, special effects in 3D games.

FireGL V3600 on test

With only a single afternoon to test the FireGL V3600 we were up against it find out how ATIÝs entry-level sub ú200 card stacked up against the competition. We tested the card inside a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600-based workstation using a very early beta driver. The stability of the driver was excellent, though ATI was keen to point out that most individual applications were not yet optimised.

We tested under a number of CAD and DCC applications including SolidWorks 2007, Inventor 2008 and 3ds Max 9, plus the popular synthetic benchmark Viewperf 10.0. The Quadro FX 1500 from Nvidia was used for comparison, largely because we already had a full set of benchmark results from this mid-range card, but also because we knew it would give the FireGL V3600 more than a good run for its money. N.B. The Quadro FX 1500 features 256MB memory and is NvidiaÝs current mid-range card, but this will be replaced soon with a new G80-based card, the Quadro FX 1700.

Under SolidWorks 2007, the FireGL V3600 was a little off the pace as the card was 15% slower than the Quadro FX 1500. In DirectX mode in 3ds Max 9.0 the gap dropped to 8%, with a score of 134, while in OpenGL mode the FireGL V3600 was actually 13% faster than NvidiaÝs Quadro FX 1500 with a score of 112.

Inventor 2008 threw up some interesting figures, particularly under our large model in DirectX mode where it reached 3.2 frames per second (FPS), one of the fastest scores weÝve ever seen and beating NvidiaÝs Quadro FX 1500 by nearly 20%. OpenGL performance in Inventor 2008, on the other hand, was poor, which at 1.6 FPS was nearly 50% slower than the Quadro FX 1500. With scores all over the place due to the early driver and lack of optimisations we decided to test the FireGL V3600 under Viewperf 10.0. Regular readers of AEC will know that weÝre not huge fans of this synthetic benchmark, which runs standalone and not inside the actual CAD or DCC application. This means that while any driver optimisations made to make SPEC Viewperf 10 run faster will not necessarily translate to the applications on which the benchmark is based – which include 3ds Max, Catia, Pro/E, SolidWorks, and UGS NX. The thing is SPEC Viewperf continues to be one of the first applications that graphics card vendors spend valuable resources tuning their drivers for as it is used so widely by magazines and tech websites.

The SPEC Viewperf results were very interesting, with ATIÝs FireGL V3600 beating NvidiaÝs Quadro FX 1500 in all but one of the tests. However, while this shows that the card has great potential weÝre reluctant to print exact percentages. Surely, even ATI wouldnÝt believe that its FireGL V3600 is three times faster than NvidiaÝs Quadro FX 1500 under UGS NX, for example!

Conclusion

With a new unified architecture and multithreaded drivers, the R600-based FireGL range certainly looks to be an exciting technology. But with drivers still in development and benchmark figures all over the place it would be premature to come to any definitive conclusions about the new cards quite yet.

As with any new generation architecture ATI still has a lot of optimisation work to do. However, from looking at the SPEC Viewperf 10 scores of the FireGL V3600 (and letÝs remember thatÝs ATIÝs entry-level card) it is certainly clear the new technology has great potential. The challenge now is for the boffins at ATI to translate that potential into actual performance in real-world CAD and DCC applications, and only then will we be able to see just how good this new technology is.

www.amd.com

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