AMD ATI FirePro V8800 review

08 April 2010

AMD’s new ATI FirePro V8800 delivers cutting edge 3D performance never seen before on the desktop, but it’s the introduction of a new multi-monitor technology that really catches the eye of DEVELOP3D’s Greg Corke. 

Product ATI FirePro V8800
Company name AMD
Price $1,499

High-end in the extreme is the best way to describe AMD ‘s brand new professional 3D graphics card, the ATI FirePro V8800, the details of which were released this week.

This is a hugely powerful workstation-class board, which in addition to setting new records in 3D graphics benchmarks boasts a number of features that have the potential to transform the way we work with multiple monitors or explore digital mockups on powerwalls.

On paper, and in the flesh, the ATI FirePro V8800 is a beast. The double height board features 2GB of high bandwidth GDDR5 memory and boasts a total of 1,600 stream processors. All of this requires a significant amount of power and the card consumes up to 225W, which is at the top end for professional graphics. Power is drawn through the PCI Express slot but two additional power cables are also required. These are connected direct to the workstation’s power supply, which in many cases will need to be 1000W units.

Multi-monitor

The card boasts a total of four DisplayPort connectors, which is a first for a professional 3D card. As DisplayPort is a relatively new interface designed specifically for hi-res displays, an adapter for DVI displays is included in the box. For VGA monitors the adapter is a cost option.

With four DisplayPorts as standard the card can drive up to four independent 30-inch displays at resolutions up to 2,560 x 1,600, either as one extended desktop or as independent displays. For designers and engineers that commonly use a variety of applications concurrently, that’s an awful lot of valuable desktop space.

The technology that supports these multiple monitors is called Eyefinity and while we have yet to test it out – primarily because we didn’t have enough displays to hand - we have talked to customers who have used the technology and swear by it. Kirkham Motorsports, a manufacturer of aluminium-bodied Roadster cars, has been testing the FirePro V8800 prior to launch and uses three monitors side by side.

SolidWorks is run on the main 37-inch display, with SurfCAM on a second 23-inch screen and live video from webcams used to monitor its shop floor CNC machines on a third. Previously, in order to support this amount of monitors, Kirkham had to use multiple graphics cards in a single machine, which according to Steve Kirkham often caused problems.

With its four DisplayPort connectors, the ATI FirePro V8800 can support up to four high resolution displays up to 2,560 x 1,600 resolution. That’s an incredible amount of desktop space for running concurrent 3D applications

Driving powerwalls

Increasing screen real estate on the desktop is one thing, but Eyefinity also has the potential to change the game when it comes to performing design review and digital mockup on powerwalls. In recent years this market has been dominated by Nvidia with its high-end Quadro FX cards and Quadro Plex systems, but AMD is confident that the FirePro V8800 can offer the sector a much more cost effective solution.

With the FirePro V8800, a single card is able to power a 4k projector (one featuring a resolution of 4,000 pixels wide) on its own. In the past, two or three graphics cards would have been required to do this. Unfortunately, the price point of 4k projectors still remains high.

Backing up its powerwall credentials, AMD’s optional FirePro S400 synchronization module also works with the FirePro V8800. This allows multiple workstations to be connected together to sync images for extremely hi-res powerwalls or immersive 3D stereo. Up to four displays per graphics card can be synchronised at one time, making it possible to produce incredibly high-res display walls made up of multiple arrays of thin bezel monitors.

The benchmarks

No graphics card launch would be complete without the obligatory benchmarks scores and AMD has published charts showing comparative scores relating to Viewperf 10. This put the FirePro V8800 at over 1.3 times faster than its predecessor, the FirePro V8700. AMD did not make direct comparisons with the Quadro FX 4800 or FX 5800, Nvidia’s current offerings in the high-end and ultra-high end graphics sector. This is probably because Nvidia is set to launch new products in the near future. 

While we were suitably impressed with the benchmark scores presented by AMD, we’re not a huge fan of Viewperf, which is a synthetic benchmark. As a result we also put the card to work on actual 3D applications with benchmarks inside SolidWorks 2010 and 3ds Max Design 2010.

Our test workstation was a colossus of a machine from Armari, and featured two six core Intel Xeon X5680 processors running at 3.33GHz, 24GB RAM and Windows 7 (64-bit Edition). It is certainly the fastest machine we’ve ever seen at DEVELOP3D and with the ATI FirePro V8800 providing the graphics power it re-wrote the record books under SolidWorks 2010, putting in a score of 56 frames per second in our in-house benchmark.

To put this in perspective the previous high score was 38 frames per second, which was set by a Quadro FX 3800 in a machine from Workstation Specialists sporting two 2.80GHz Intel Xeon X5660 processors and 12GB RAM. We appreciate this is not a level playing field, both in terms of CPU and the relative positioning / age of the graphics cards, but it is still a huge leap in performance none-the-less.

Unfortunately we were less successful with 3ds Max Design 2010, where we found the application to be unstable and were unable to get any meaningful results from our tests. However, it is worth noting here that Autodesk does not support 3ds Max Design 2010 on Windows 7 and we were also using an early graphics driver.

In addition to the test workstation, Armari also provided a 27-inch Dell U2711 monitor (2,560 x 1,440 resolution) to demonstrate another feature of the FirePro V8800, that of 10-bit colour. The Dell U2711 is one of a new generation of monitors that can support 10-bit colour, or to put it simply, one billion colours - 64 times that of normal 8-bit monitors. While we don’t know of any CAD applications that offer 10-bit support yet, this technology will certainly be of interest to Photoshop users who want to experience exceptional colour depth in their work. AMD currently supports this in Photoshop CS4 with the FirePro V8800 and a number of other FirePro cards.

The future

In addition to its current capabilities, AMD was keen to highlight that the FirePro V8800 is well set for the future. The card currently supports DirectX 11 and OpenGL 3.2 and will also be ready for OpenGL 4.0. While the 3D applications that support these latest graphics APIs are still thin on the ground, it means the foundations have certainly been laid for the software developers to catch up.

AMD was also keen to emphasize that with 1,600 stream processors the card is built from the ground up for compute processing on the GPU (graphics processing unit), for tasks traditionally carried out by CPUs (central processing units).

Over the past few years GPGPU (general purpose GPU) compute processing has been led by Nvidia using its proprietary CUDA technology. However, in the CAD/CAM/CAE arena with the exception of a couple of applications from Autodesk and Ansys, most of the CUDA implementations have been bespoke.

AMD believes the future of GPGPU is with open standards and is fully backing OpenCL 1.0 (Open Computing Language). This was recently ratified and has widespread industry support from the likes of Intel, IBM and Apple as well as Nvidia and AMD.

Eric Demers, chief technology officer of AMD Graphics Division is convinced that OpenCL (and Microsoft’s DirectCompute) will become increasingly relevant to CAD/CAM/CAE over the next 18 months as supporting applications are brought to market. These will use a combination of multi-core CPUs and GPUs, depending on the available resources. This also puts an interesting angle on AMD’s Fusion technology, which is due to launch next year and will combine CPU and GPU in a single package.

Conclusion

It’s still early days for AMD’s new generation graphics card and as with any new graphics hardware we expect driver optimisations to help release additional performance over the course of the year. However, from what we have seen from our limited tests it’s clear that AMD already has a highly-capable 3D technology on its hands.

Of course, the ATI FirePro V8800 is just one of a range of new cards set to be introduced by AMD in the coming months. And with Nvidia also expected to release a new wave of Quadro FX cards shortly, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at all this new graphics technology in the coming months.

While it’s essential for any new generation graphics technology to deliver increased levels of 3D performance it’s hardly a surprise when benchmarks reveal record scores. Don’t get me wrong, the FirePro V8800 certainly delivers the frame rates, but what I find more exciting about the product is the potential for Eyefinity.

Being able to drive a powerwall from a single machine is an exciting proposition, and one that could help bring large scale visualisation into the hands of smaller organisations. But, transforming a desktop into an extended 3D accelerated workspace is even more compelling and with display prices tumbling all the time, well within reach of all companies, big and small. And as more and more engineers and designers get involved with simulation, rendering and design direct on the desktop the timing couldn’t be better.

www.amd.com

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