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AMD takes the fight to Nvidia at the high-end of professional graphics

Published 28 July 2009

Posted by Greg Corke

Article tagged with: amd, quadro, firepro, ati, powerwall, crossfire, sli

For years AMD (and before it ATI) has been happy to exist only in the mainstream professional graphics market, but now the company has taken the fight to Nvidia at the ultra high-end with the unveiling of three new technologies today. A new ultra high-end graphics card, professional support for its Crossfire multi-card technology and a new framelock solution for powerwalls were all announced, just in advance of SIGGRAPH.

First off AMD has unveiled a new 2GB graphics card, the FirePro V8750 ($1,800). Bigger (bandwidth), better (performance) and faster (memory) is the general marketing message, but the most significant benefits are only likely to be experienced in certain high-end applications running on high resolution displays. AMD quotes Siemens PLM NX and Autodesk 3ds Max as key examples.

As with previous ATI FirePro cards, the V8750 features native multi-card support so users can drive four displays by adding a second card in the same workstation. However, the big news for this release is this multi-card capability has been extended so all the processing power can be diverted to a single modeling window. The technology that makes this possible is called ATI CrossFire Pro and while similar ‘Crossfire’ technology has been available on AMD’s consumer boards for a while, this is the first time it has been made available in the professional sector. Of course, Nvidia was first to market some years ago with this type of multi-card technology and as with its Quadro SLI offering, ATI CrossFire Pro is unlikely to bring significant benefits to the majority of CAD applications, particularly for those where the CPU is the bottleneck. However, AMD claims a significant performance boost in certain CAD and DCC applications including NX, Ensight, Maya and Teamcenter.

ATI CrossFire Pro works by coupling two graphics cards together using an interconnect cable. Currently only available on the ATI FirePro V8750, support is planned for the company’s mid-range and above graphics cards including the ATI FirePro V5700, V7750, and V8700. When this happens it will be interesting to see how two mid-range V5700s stack up against a high-end V8750, for example, particularly as the V5700s will be the more cost effective solution.

While speed increases are a given for any new professional graphics technology, it’s the addition of the new ATI FirePro S400 Synchronisation Module ($799) that really takes AMD into uncharted territory. This turns the high-end ATI FirePro V8750 graphics card into a niche solution capable of driving powerwalls from multiple projectors.

Up to four graphics cards can be used in tandem to produce a single seamless ‘virtual canvas’ on which high resolution digital mockup and design review applications can be displayed. With this solution each card has it own workstation and projector with individual images stitched together using framelock, a technology which synchronises the display output of the graphics cards. This capability was originally brought to market by 3Dlabs through its Wildcat cards and more recently with Nvidia’s high end Quadro FX cards. However, according to AMD other synchronisation modules only support two graphics cards at a time.

It will certainly be very interesting to see what Nvidia has up it sleeves ready for announcement at SIGGRAPH, which is being held in New Orleans from the 3-7th August.

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Do graphics cards hold the secret to photorealistic real time rendering?

Published 27 July 2009

Posted by Greg Corke

Article tagged with: rendering, gpu, firepro, gpgpu

Last week I saw a very slick demo of a brand new rendering, animation and composition package called MachStudio Pro from a relatively new company called studioGPU.

The name of this LA-based outfit gives a lot away as the entire product has been designed from the ground up to be powered by GPUs (Graphics Processing Units), specifically high-end ATI FirePro cards from AMD, and the workstation’s CPU hardly gets a look in when rendering a scene, with only 10-15% of its capacity used at peak.

The upshot of this is extremely quick rendering times, so quick in fact that photorealistic real-time rendering is starting to become a reality. The effect of any changes made to lighting, shaders, cameras and materials can be seen in the scene nearly instantly, albeit at lower resolutions. Users can adjust light intensity and high dynamic range exposures, control surface reflection and refraction, adjust depth of field, and cast shadows and manipulate their softness all in near real time and most important all to production quality. You don’t need to hit a ‘render’ button until you want to do final HD renders and even then, these are also incredibly quick.

To put this into perspective, studioGPU claims that its software is 500 to 900 times faster than traditional rendering packages (though doesn’t state the number of CPU cores this is compared to). It also says that MachStudio Pro can render a complex 1.98 million polygon high-definition image in 14 seconds while the same scene rendered with a traditional rendering package can take more than three hours to complete.

However, StudioGPU was keen to point out that MachStudio Pro is not just an accelerated renderer but offers a completely new workflow with compositing and finishing capabilities also included. It also has a full timeline editor for animation.

MachStudio Pro is a standalone product and to get data into the system you need a plug in for your CAD or DCC application. These are currently available for Rhino, 3ds Max, Maya and SketchUp, but studioGPU told us that they are already developing for SolidWorks, Catia, Revit and ArchiCAD, with others set to follow. It also accepts FBX files.

The interface is far from basic, particularly when compared to a product like HyperShot, but is nicely laid out and makes good use of sliders to adjust the scene. It’s certainly much less intimidating than 3ds Max or Maya for new users, partly because it doesn’t include any modelling tools. When the question of usability for novice users was raised, studioGPU told us that it is considering developing products which are specifically targeted at non-expert architects and designers with a view to streamlining the interface a little.

MachStudio Pro doesn’t work with any ordinary GPU and it is so crucial to make the system work effectively that each license comes bundled with a monster of a graphics card – AMD’s 2GB ATI FirePro V8650 (N.B. AMD has a strategic relationship with studioGPU). However it’s important to realize that a card of this power and size is not compatible with any ordinary desktop PC due to power and size restrictions. Instead, you’ll need a high-end workstation, so check your machine specifications before you dive in.

Now I’m no rendering expert, but I have to say I was gobsmacked with the speed and quality of renders, and the control you have over scenes with near instant feedback is simply astounding. Moving rendering to the GPU is an extremely exciting development and the potential to revolutionize the design visualisation workflow is huge. According to studioGPU this could also spell an end to traditional CPU-based render farms. Very exciting technology.

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SpaceClaim shows its hand(s) with regards to multi-touch

Published 20 July 2009

Posted by Greg Corke

Article tagged with: spaceclaim, windows 7, multi-touch, ergonomics

SpaceClaim has just posted a video on YouTube that is certain to grab the attention of multi-touch CAD fanatics. The video shows off some cool new multi-touch capabilities that are coming in the next release of SpaceClaim set for release this Autumn (Fall) and as far as I’m aware it’s the first time this type of technology has been seen in a commercial CAD system.

The video focuses on view manipulation using two hands, but also new ways of selecting and manipulating geometry including four finger box select and lasso select. There are also new ways to edit the model using multi-touch. You can start pulling on something and use one hand to drag the model away while the face you’ve selected stays put.

Now, if we ever had a topic that divides opinion at DEVELOP3D, this is one. Al Dean loves everything about multi-touch, he really can’t get enough of it and if he wasn’t on holiday at the moment he’d already have written a good thousand or so words on this. I’m a bit more pessimistic, and a little concerned about the potential negative impact on ergonomics as raised by HP earlier this year

I put my concerns to Blake Courter, co-founder of SpaceClaim and he explained that he’d been using his multi touch screen set up like a draughting table, not like a standard monitor set perpendicular to the user, and had had no problems at all, even with prolonged use. I’d also imagine this type of technology might not be used day in day out, perhaps during collaborative design sessions with designers stood around a wall mounted multi-touch display.

Blake also pointed out that the new multi-touch technology is not meant to be a replacement for keyboard and mouse and the mouse will still be very important, particularly where pixel accurate selection is essential.

SpaceClaim’s multi-touch technology is still very much in its infancy, but using two hands to make help design more fluent is certainly an interesting proposition. For example, one hand can stay on model manipulation/selection, while the other is used for changing tools, etc, cutting out unncessary mouse cursor movement.

We expect to see more announcements like this as Microsoft gears up for Windows 7 (which features touch technology built in), but it’s certainly exciting to see this technology in action.

I’d be very interested to hear your views on this. Do you think multi-touch has a crucial role to play in CAD or is it just a bit of a gimmick?

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How to buy a professional graphics card for SolidWorks 2009

Published 15 July 2009

Posted by Greg Corke

Article tagged with: delcam, powermill, powershape, copycad, garner holt

SolidWorks 2009 has one of the most advanced 3D graphics engines in the CAD industry, but what is it that makes it tick, how does RealView affect 3D performance and what do you need to consider when buying a professional graphics card?

I’ve put together my findings in a special report, which is due to appear in the July/August edition of DEVELOP3D magazine, out early next week. To make sure you get a copy, just register here now. And in case you didn’t know, it’s free!

I’d also like to take this opportunity to say a special thanks to Stuart Reid, Director, Product Systems & Graphics at SolidWorks

Labels: Graphics Cards, RealView, solidworks, VBOs

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