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By Matt Lombard, December 13, 2012
When I was first asked to review the AMD FirePro W7000 graphics board, I was eager to compare it against my existing ATI FirePro V4800. Clearly, it’s not fair comparing a $200 card against a $900 one, but I was curious to see how I would benefit from an upgrade. The reason the comparison is not fair is because the W7000 is billed by AMD as a high-end professional 3D board, while the V4800 is an entry-level card So, I will make the comparison from the point of view of a 3D CAD user, specifically SolidWorks 2013.
Figure 1: The AMD FirePro W7000 on my floral pattern couch
First, let’s take a look at the specs of the W7000:
|Speed:||2.4 Tflops single precision|
|152 Gflops double precision floating point|
|Slots Req’d:||1 (PCIe 3.0 x16)|
|Power:||Supplemental 6 pin|
|Connections:||4x DisplayPort 1.2|
|Max Res.:||4096x2160 DisplayPort 1.2|
|2560x1600 DisplayPort 1.1|
|Shader Model 5.0|
The card I received appears to be an engineering or test sample. It was not in retail packaging, and didn’t include the items AMD says are included, such as the Quick Start Reference Guide, AMD's CrossFire Pro connector, and two DisplayPort-to-DVI adapters. This list of missing items becomes significant later in this review.
(To read more about this card and others from AMD, you can see a FirePro comparison at this link. To read more detail about the W7000, follow this link. For comparison, specs on the V4800 are listed here.)
To address an obvious question right out of the gate, ATI is now known as "AMD," because AMD purchased ATI a couple of years ago, and now is in the course of rebranding the entire division to AMD. You will still see both the ATI and AMD product names in the list, as evidenced by the two cards in this review.
The second thing we need to talk about is DisplayPort technology. Its connector adds another to the list of attempted standard video connectors that through the years we’ve had to deal with. I have a pair of perfectly serviceable LCD displays that are six and eight years old. One is a 24” model with a 16:9 ratio, and the other is 21” at 4:3 ratio. They look good, have lots of mechanical adjustments, and keep on working. They have connectors for component video, S-video, DVI, VGA, and several convenient USB and card reader connections. These monitors are old, but perfectly functional. The problem: neither has DisplayPort capability.
Figure 2: My computer's back panel, showing connections for both the V4800 and the W7000 graphics boards installed
As I understand DisplayPort technology, it has some advantages. Firstly, it can handle higher resolutions, as you see in the specs. Secondly, it can handle longer cable runs. And thirdly it can transfer more than just video information. None of these is an issue in this test nor in most high end engineering graphics situations -- unless you are running a projector for design reviews, say; even then, most projectors have the a fraction of the resolution of which DisplayPort is capable. DisplayPort might be important if you have speakers integrated with your display device, as is the case in televisions or digital projectors.
The real advantage of DisplayPort isn’t listed in any technical site: it's that the connector is much smaller, roughly the size of the now-ubiquitous HDMI connector used by televisions.
We'll have to see if DisplayPort ever becomes a pervasive standard. For now, it seems to be stalled in the high-end esoteric computer video sector, and the reading I've done does not suggest that DisplayPort is going to overtake HDMI in the home theater realm. (It does not help that Apple uses yet another standard, mini DisplayPort.) It'll probably remain where it is today, another red-headed stepchild in the long legacy of red-headed stepchildren in video connector standards – playing Betamax to HDMI’s VHS.
If you check a site such as Dell, you have the option to spec workstation-class machines with nVidia Quadro cards (all have DVI and DisplayPort combinations) or AMD FirePro cards (with DisplayPort connectors only). Looking further at the Dell site for monitors shows that none come with DisplayPort connections.
This is why you find DisplayPort- DVI adapters in the retail packaging of the W7000 and other graphics boards. While DVI and VGA are pretty standard, not all professional quality monitors come with DisplayPort connectors. So, why would we buy a $900 video card that offers only a connector that our existing monitors might not have? And so a DisplayPort-DVI adapter cost me $25 at the local computer store, this being a real geek store; Best Buy doesn’t carry this kind of thing and, in fact, the staff there had no idea what I was talking about. (They don’t sell any DP monitors, either.)
Figure 3: A DisplayPort to DVI adapter is not an item you find at Best Buy
The Lenovo ThinkPad W530, which I reviewed recently, included a mini DisplayPort out connection, about the size of a full-size USB connector. It’s a connection that makes sense, because it’s even smaller yet easier to work with than either VGA or DVI -- although again, it hasn’t caught on much, because the arguments of higher resolution and cable length still make little sense, even when space and convenience arguments do: A video card that has small connectors for four monitors, yet only takes up one slot in my computer seems better than one that takes up two slots for four large DVI connectors, which are twice as large.
The developers of the DisplayPort standard understood that they were going to have an uphill compatibility battle, so they made DisplayPort backwards compatible with both VGA and DVI. This means that we can buy adaptors (or, theoretically, hybrid cables) that allow us to connect between the different connector standards. Adaptors and backwards compatibility appear to be what is keeping DisplayPort technology from disappearing altogether.
Maybe the makers of video cards and monitors should team up on this DisplayPort standard. Calling it "mini DVI" instead of DisplayPort might help, too.
One of the issues that will affect your decision to purchase this video card will likely turn on whether you are buying it in a pre-built machine, or if you are looking to upgrade the current card in an existing machine.
Most of what follows deals with integrating this card into an existing system, and so will apply mainly to upgraders. My experience with upgrading this card is that it is not the usual trivial task of just replacing a card and rebooting. There are additional BIOS and power connection requirements that I needed to make before I could be sure this card would work with my existing system. Let's take a look at the issues I faced.
My desktop computer was built by Xi Computer, and is based on the Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard. This mobo has two PCIe x16 slots capable of handling long video cards. I installed it while the old V4800 was still in place, hoping for a plug-and-play installation, but that wasn’t to be the case.
To get the card going, I first called the Xi Computer support team. It turns out that the jump from PCIe 2.0 to PCIe 3.0 requires a BIOS flash (a.k.a. update). The BIOS on the Asus board was created in April, and by just a few months later in October, several updates had become available.
After I did the BIOS flash, the card still didn't produce results. With a little more research by the Xi support tech guy, he noticed that the W7000 required supplemental power.
Fortunately, the Xi had several spare 6-pin power connectors tucked away in the bottom of the chassis. Once I attached the extra power cable and rebooted the machine, the W7000 showed up in the Device Manager.
The AMD FirePro W7000 is capable of using the CrossFire system, technology for using several graphics cards in a single computer. The purpose is to improve performance. (The parallel technology in nVidia cards is named "SLI.") To make use of CrossFire, however, I needed two AMD CrossFire-capable cards from the same generation and a CrossFire bridge connector. (In contrast, nVidia’s SLI requires matching cards from a similar sub-series, making CrossFire somewhat more flexible.)
The ATI FirePro V4800 that I already had in my computer is a low end card, and not CrossFire-capable. In any case, I don’t know of anyone who uses SLI or CrossFire, even in higher end CAD systems. My feeling after using this card is that for most CAD work SLI would probably not be much benefit over a single, good quality card. Possibly at the very high end of very large assemblies with a lot of visual requirements like sections and transparency it would be a benefit. In any case, multiple card arrangements are not part of my tests here.
Video glitches were one of the considerations I used to justify purchasing the new computer, but I settled for a low-end video card, unfortunately. For instance, when rotating the SolidWorks screen after a popup toolbar appears, the only portion of the display that rotates is the small area where the popup had been; everything else remains frozen. This made it hard for me to work with the software.
I had been testing this problem with different video cards from different vendors and different drivers, proving the glitch was not a card or driver problem. It turns out the conflict is between SolidWorks and the Windows display settings; it works OK with a pure Aero theme, but it may exhibit the bug if I make certain customizations to the performance settings of Windows displays.
Another glitch I had noticed with the V4800 now disappeared with the W7000: many right mouse button menus in Firefox display consistently now. (They would appear and disappear as I moved the mouse over them.) With the W7000 installed, the RMB menus are clearly visible.
For reference, the default driver that installed automatically when the machine recognized the card was 8.982.2. The driver recommended by SolidWorks (and available on their System Requirements site) at the time of this writing is 8.982.8.1000. I have no complaints about the different driver version.
A simple benchmark that gives me a quick estimate of my hardware’s capability is the Windows Experience Index. We probably do not want to rely on it exclusively, but it has the advantage of being ubiquitous (included in Windows Vista and 7) and is immediately available. (To find WEI on your computer, go to Start>Control Panel>System.)
With the V4800 in my Xi system, the WEI was 7.0 with the video card definitely the weakest link. With the W7000, the WEI jumped to 7.8. With this change, the components in the computer were better balanced, all scoring about the same.
Figure 4: Windows Experience Index is a simple benchmark
A second benchmark I used is fairly subjective, but easy to demonstrate. One of the display functions in SolidWorks that taxes the video card is called "Ambient Occlusion." This is a simulation of the shadows that parts cast on themselves, based on ambient lighting. While rotating the view, the shadows disappear; as soon as I stop the rotation, the shadows are recalculated. The measure is of how long it takes to recalculate the shadows.
Figure 5: Ambient Occlusion setting with the W7000in SolidWorks is almost instantaneous
The effect appears subtle, but on some machines I have found it can take several seconds to recalculate. The Lenovo ThinkPad I reviewed recently took approximately a 1/2-second to redisplay the shadows. On this Xi box with the W7000 in place, it is nearly instantaneous. The delay certainly is not manually measurable.
I would include the SolidWorks Performance Test results here, except for problems with the test itself. (If you don’t have a Professional or Premium license, the benchmark keeps asking you to reactivate your license in order to run the rendering portion of the benchmark.) In any case, I find the reported values to be of dubious value.
The Passmark benchmark scores are understood only in comparison to another computer. So, for example, the Lenovo ThinkPad (laptop workstation) score was in the neighborhood of 2000. The Xi more than doubles the score, which I would expect from a high end desktop rig. The overall score just serves as a reference.
Figure 6: Passmark scores can be compared against other computers in a number of ways
What I am looking at in this review is not the overall system, however; it’s the video score reported by the 2D and 3D scores. Compared to other computers with the same processor, this machine was slightly better than half of other computers in the 2D graphics mark, and very close to the top of the 3D graphics mark.
(As the charts are displayed, the tested computer is at the bottom of the list. Any entry with a negative percentage was that much slower than the tested computer. Any entry with a positive percentage was faster than the tested computer.)
If you are looking to buy a computer with the AMD FirePro W7000 already installed, you will not regret your decision to include this card. This is a great 3D CAD video card, very fast, and solid in these tests. Of course this assumes you have either monitors with DisplayPort connections or adapters for each monitor.
If you are looking to retrofit this card into an existing machine, you have to make sure to have several things in place:
The DisplayPort only connectivity of this card allows the size of the card to stay compact, and still support four monitors, but may make it less accessible to people with monitors that do not support that type of connection.
|Matt Lombard is a leading expert on SolidWorks. He has written the SolidWorks Bibles as well as books about SolidWorks surfaces and SolidWorks administration. He has a BSME from RIT. More...|