Take one workstaton, add three displays and you have got yourself a highly productive system for design and visualisation.
At AEC Magazine we tend to review standalone workstations, rarely one that comes with a display and certainly not one that comes with multiple screens. But we have made an exception for Scan’s new 3XS i7 Eyefinity workstation, which includes three professional Dell UltraSharp displays, driven by a single AMD FirePro graphics card.
Powered by AMD Eyefinity technology, the FirePro V5900 is one of a handful of AMD professional graphics cards that can support three displays. It uses its two DisplayPort and one DVI outputs to drive three of Dell’s impressive 24-inch Dell UltraSharp U2410 displays.
UltraSharp is Dell’s professional display brand and all monitors feature Image Plane Switching (IPS) technology, which not only delivers crisp images and excellent colour reproduction, but boasts much wider viewing angles than budget displays. The U2410 features a resolution of 1,920 x 1,200, slightly bigger than standard HD (1,920 x 1,080).
Apart from quality, one of the best things about the UltraSharp U2410 is that it can operate in landscape or portrait mode. While landscape mode is likely to be the most common use in a three-display array, in portrait mode they combine to form one giant desktop with a colossal 3,600 x 1,920 resolution.
In portrait mode we felt fully immersed in our design, which spanned across all three displays. After a while, we even managed to ignore the bezels that surround each display and break up the image.
AMD Eyefinity automatically corrects for the bezelled edge that surrounds each screen. It cuts out a bit of the image so you do not get a stepping effect when an image spans across multiple displays. It is a neat feature as it tricks your eyes into thinking you have one continuous display, but can be a little frustrating as from time to time parts of the design are hidden by a bezel.
Bezel correction can be adjusted in the FirePro driver, and it can be turned off so no information is hidden, but we would not recommend this as it tends to make images look a bit odd. One way of getting around this is to buy a monitor with a thin bezel. Samsung’s MD230 is a good example — also sold by Scan, but not as a standard option.
Spanning a 3D CAD model across three displays and rotating it on screen did have an impact on performance, but not by a huge amount — frame rates were reduced by about 25%. Some CAD applications, where the CPU is the bottleneck, rather than the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), probably would not notice any difference.
Landscape mode is likely to be used more day and day out and here we found the three displays less spectacular. However, there are potentially huge productivity benefits as it pretty much gives you instant access to all your key software applications and datasets.
Setting aside the centre display for the core design application, the flanking monitors can be used to dip into different datasets, or any combination of email, browser, spreadsheet, rendering, simulation or document management software. It is worth spending a little time setting up your workspace to get the most of the technology — you can even move toolbars or model libraries off the main CAD display to maximise the modelling space.
While the three monitor setup is something out of the ordinary, the Scan 3XS i7 Eyefinity workstation itself is much more familiar. The processor, Intel’s Core i7 2700K, is an evolution of the 2600K, a mainstay of workstations in 2011 and a great CPU for general CAD or Building Information Modelling (BIM). There is a little bit more performance on offer here though, with the 3.5GHz chip, clocked up to 4.6GHz.
This is backed up with 16GB DDR3 1600Mhz memory, which means the machine is equipped to handle some pretty sizeable datasets. For storage, a 128GB Corsair Performance Pro Marvell Solid State Drive (SSD) is used for the operating system and applications, while a 2TB Seagate Barracuda, 7,200rpm is for data.
Prices of hard drives have gone up in recent months following major flooding in Thailand, the hard drive capital of the world, but not so much to make a big impact on overall system cost.
Delivery and setup
Being a journalist is not the glamorous life you may imagine, so when someone offers to not only deliver a system, but also unpack it ready to go, you jump at the chance.
This is not some veiled attempt on behalf of Scan to win favour with lazy journalists it is a new service where a trained installer drives down from Bolton and sets everything up for you — and all for no additional charge, just the standard £35 delivery fee.
While this may not interest hardened IT managers, we can attest it was a welcome introduction to setting up a workstation with three displays. We were given an introduction to how to configure AMD Eyefinity, such as how to make sure the right image appears on the right screen. The Eyefinity software is pretty simple to use, but it was great being given a helping hand to get you started.
It is easy to forget about monitors when buying a workstation. At AEC Magazine we certainly update our machines more regularly than our displays.
In order to get three screens running with the Scan 3XS i7 Eyefinity workstation it is not mandatory to buy brand new displays. The FirePro V5900 can connect to a legacy DVI or VGA monitor via adapters, and this is fine if you want to run different applications on different screens. However, in order to span a single BIM model across three displays in portrait mode, it is important to use identical displays. The Dell UltraSharp U2410 is an excellent all round monitor, though some may prefer a display that features a smaller bezel. This is less of an issue in landscape mode.
When you first start using three displays side by side it feels like a bit of a luxury — in much the same way as it does when moving from one to two displays — but you soon find an important use for every last pixel. It is certainly not for everyone, and if you only use one design application, day in day out, plus a bit of email and web browsing, then two monitors should be more than enough. But when you move into portrait mode, it offers an entirely different experience. It is perfect for design/review sessions or when you need to see a lot of detail at the same time, such as a site or detailed BIM model.
The real draw of Scan’s system is the price. For just over £2,300 you get a powerful workstation which can also improve productivity by helping enhance workflow. If you’re considering a new workstation, maybe it’s time to think about updating the whole system.