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- Insight: Understand monitor technology in the context of CAD applications.
- Advice: What are the options that are most important for your application?
- Reviews: Compare 6 new monitors
- And more!
The most compelling reason to install multiple GPUs is to drive multiple high-resolution displays. The secret’s out that “multi-mon” is the single best way to improve your productivity. Anyone who’s gone to two displays (or three — or more!) will tell you they could never go back to one. And more graphics cards can display more pixels across more monitors.
Which Graphics Card Works for You?
That said, you don’t necessarily need to populate two cards to run two monitors, so pay attention to the cards you’re selecting. NVIDIA’s Quadro with nView and Mosaic technology can support two displays across most of the product line. A single high-end AMD FirePro V7900, with its Eyefinity technology, can handle four on its own, thank you very much. As such, if your performance demands have you buying midrange or high-end cards, you might get all the screen real estate you want with one card. But if you’re much hungrier for pixels and screens than you are for polygons per second, you might consider two less-expensive, dual-monitor cards.
On top of multi-monitor support, you can use that extra slot to turn your workstation into a supercomputer. An exaggeration? Not to some. General-purpose computing on GPUs (GPGPU) technology is still evolving, but many of the applications that show the most promise are the ones of most interest to engineers and other CAD users: applications such as computational fluid
dynamics (CFD) and finite-element analysis (FEA). Simulation software developers such as ANSYS and Abaqus are porting code to harness GPUs to deliver big speed-ups — in many cases tenfold or even 100- fold increases — over CPU-only computation.
High-end graphics cards usually require more power than the 75 watts supplied by the typical x16 PCI Express interface. Workstation OEMs accommodate their extra needs via auxiliary power cables drawn from the supply. Some high-end and virtually all ultra high-end graphics cards are dual-slot thickness. They insert into one PCI Express x16 connector, but their thickness means an
adjacent x16 slot may be blocked and rendered useless.
Make the Right Choice
When purchasing a workstation online, the OEM’s product configurator should let you know if the chosen card or cards will mate to the chosen system, with respect to power supplies and connectors, the number of available PCI Express x16 slots, and whether a dual-slot card has sufficient clearance. For example, when outfitting graphics on a smaller chassis that can’t accommodate two dual-slot cards, chances are the OEM will only offer the option of two entry-level or two mid-range cards, both of which are single slot width.
For that matter, if you’re perusing the latest flavor of entry level workstation, full-length cards may not have clearance lengthwise. Again, the online configurator should ensure compatibility, so you shouldn’t have to worry about these issues.
This series focuses on helping our readers understand what CAD workstations cost and how much they are going to have to spend to find a machine that meets their CAD production needs. The first part focused on entry-level systems. This post will discuss mid-range ($2,500 to $7,000) and high-end (more than $7,000) systems.
Mid-Range and High-End
Stepping up to the mid-range and high-end, you’ll typically find dual-socket Intel Xeon processors along with full tower enclosures to handle more slots and drive bays. Spring for a dual-socket system and you’ll get twice as many CPU cores, twice as much memory bandwidth, and twice the memory capacity.
Some OEMs are going to great lengths to show off the enhanced speed of processors and increased capacity of both graphics cards (for multi-monitor or high-performance computing support) and larger storage capabilities. For example, BOXX’s top-end 4800 and 8500 series workstations feature overclocked CPU performance that provides a 25% higher frequency rate — that is, an Intel 2600k (Sandy Bridge) processor running at 4.5 GHz instead of 3.4 GHz. These workstations also provide support for as many as eight drive bays and an incredible seven PCI Express slots, allowing users to populate 18 TB of total storage and house seven single-width or four dualslot graphics cards.
But there’s more to be had at the upper end of the market, as vendors are taking a page from Apple’s book and investing an impressive amount of time and money to engineer hardware aesthetics and ergonomics, resulting in advances such as tool-less and (almost) cable-less designs; carefully designed air flow; and custom, workstation-specific, high-efficiency power supplies.
Start with Your Base Requirements
So do you really need a mid-range to high-end workstation? Will an entry-level CAD workstation do? The place to start is the base requirements for your CAD software of choice, then plan a system purchase accordingly. Note that this information makes a good starting point for configuring your workstation. We consider that the baseline, and you probably want some room to grow for software upgrades.
Also if you are doing any 3D modeling, look for faster and more capable processors, more RAM, more available hard disk space in addition to free space required for installation, and a graphics display adapter capable of at least 1,280 x 1,024 resolution in true color. The graphics card needs to have 128MB or more memory, support for Pixel Shader 3.0 or greater, and Microsoft Direct3D capabilities. (Again, consider these a starting point.)
Previously we covered the important characteristics to look for when choosing your next CAD display. Here, we finish our discussion with some suggestions about shopping and costs, as well as what you will need to get the best possible image out of your new display.
Seeing is Believing
As the old proverb states, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” If possible, view your potential display up close and personal — before you buy. Ideally, you should view the candidate displays under the same lighting conditions as those of your office. Also, don’t be afraid to bring an 8× magnifying loupe with you. You can learn a lot about a display by examining it at the pixel level. Quality displays will have well-defined, tightly packed groups or rows of red, green, and blue dots. These are the primary colors for the additive color process of light, as opposed to cyan, magenta, and yellow, which are primary for the subtractive color process of pigments. (Hah—I worked in a quick physics lesson.) Lesser displays will look blurry or fuzzy at the pixel level.
What You Should Expect to Pay
What you pay for your display depends on several factors, including the size, quality, and feature set, as well as where you purchase it. At the low end, budget at least $500 for a medium-quality 24″ display. On the other hand, you can easily spend $2,500 for a high-quality 30″ display. Without mentioning vendors or models, if we were in the market today for a CAD display, we would be looking at a good-quality 27″ LED backlight LCD display at a cost of about $1,000. Remember, you are going to be spending a lot of time with your choice of display, spend the extra money now, so you don’t have regrets later.
Adjusting Your Display
After you have made your decision and have your new display in hand, don’t stop there. Get the most out of your new LCD panel with DisplayMate for Windows ($69; downloaded), an excellent software-based utility for fine-tuning your display. Cadalyst has used DisplayMate, from Sonera Technologies (www.displaymate.com), for all of its monitor reviews since it first earned our Highly Recommended rating in 1995.
This wraps up this series. We hope you find it helpful when you are shopping for a display. In a future blog, we will take a detailed look at DisplayMate for Windows.
Author: Art Liddle
What is the single most important hardware decision for any CAD user? Their choice of display. This is especially true given the short half-life of today’s workstations. You may have to live with your display through two, or even three, different workstation purchases.
Where to Start
First, the biggest factor affecting your choice of display is cost. Please: Do not scrimp on your display budget. If you must cut back on costs, hold off on that extra system memory or hard drive storage (you can upgrade both later).
Second, buy the largest display that fits your budget and quality specifications, as well as workspace. The bare-bones minimum size for even semi-serious CAD work is 24″. If you buy anything smaller, you will regret it every time you execute an extra zoom or pan to get the required view: During the course of a single workday, there might be hundreds of such productivity-killing distractions. We strongly recommend a minimum 27″ display for anyone that works fulltime with CAD.
Third, the transition away from CRT- based displays is complete. Today’s display choices are LCD-based. The newest type of displays, sometimes listed as LED, are really just a type of LCD panel that uses energy-efficient LEDs for the backlight. These present a more pleasing and evenly distributed light to the screen.
Other Things to Consider
Here is a list of other factors, listed roughly by importance, to consider when
shopping for your next display.
- Resolution: For 24″ class displays the maximum resolution should be at least 1920 pixels across horizontally. At the high end, expect 2560 pixels for 30″ displays—see note below about graphics card.
- Brightness: Measured in cd/m2 (candelas per square meter), look for a minimum rating of 250, and preferably 300 and above.
- Contrast: Rating of at least 1000:1 is ideal. (Not to be confused with dynamic contrast, which may be listed as 1,000,000:1 or higher.)
- Response time: Should be no higher than 8ms; shoot for under 6ms. Some high-end displays now claim 2ms response times.
- Viewing angle: At least 170° is reasonable. Newer displays now offer 178°.
- Screen surface: This factor may be more or less important to you, depending on how harsh the light is in your workspace. In general, you will give up some brightness for more glare control.
- Color depth: Today’s minimum of 24bit (16.7 million colors) is fine for most CAD users.
- Color Accuracy: Not essential for most of you, unless you are creating drawings or renderings for publication where it is important to match colors for printing.
- Connection options: Expect at least D-sub and DVI connectors; many new displays now support DisplayPort, the latest video/audio standard.
- Graphics Card: To ensure that you get the most out of your new purchase, double-check that your graphics card handles the display’s maximum resolution and supports its best available connection option.
Author: Art Liddle
Previously in this series, we’ve talked about using Eyefinity with older displays and how to find the right adapter for non-DisplayPort monitors.
Obviously this confusion will fade away as older non-DisplayPort monitors are gradually replaced by new DisplayPort-savvy displays. For reasons of cost though, don’t expect to see that too soon. Until then here are some rules of thumb.
- A maximum of 2 VGA/DVI/HDMI monitors can be enabled simultaneously by using a passive DisplayPort adapter/dongle on FirePro cards. (about $22)
- To enable support for more than 2 VGA/DVI/HDMI monitors, active DisplayPort adapters/dongles are required (about $28 but included for free, one for each DisplayPort output, w/ the latest generation of FirePro cards).
- To support a dual-link DVI monitor, a powered, active DisplayPort to DL-DVI adapter/dongle is required (about $80)
- DisplayPort monitors of any resolution require no adapters/dongles
- VGA monitors can be supported via:
- Native VGA connector from the graphics card
- DVI-I connector + passive DVI to VGA adapter
- Active DP to VGA adapter
Eyefinity is a game-changing technology for boosting productivity at very low cost and low power. By including active adapters in the new FirePro line, AMD is making the user experience for Eyefinity significantly better and thus more pervasive.
I actually read a Twitter post the other day that seems relevant here: “RT @cavemanjim: Biggest takeaway from AMD Fusion Summit is that AMD actually cares about user experience. It’s not a means to an end, it is the end.”
Author: Tony DeYoung