Two Wildcat II Graphics Cards Reviewed

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including the maze of El-Hazard versions, Oh My Goddess! and the influential Mobile Suit Gundam.

The Wildcat II 5110 and 5000 graphics cards from 3Dlabs are two tremendous products for the 3D artist. There are many good graphics cards available to the 3D animation professional. These include the Nvidia Quadro 2 and Quadro DCC based cards, ATI's Fire GL series, and 3Dlabs' Oxygen GVX1 and GVX420. How do these products differentiate themselves? The main areas where they focus their efforts are graphics processing chipsets, memory architecture and drivers. (In September's review of the Quadro DCC we looked at how graphics cards work.)

Formerly the workstation graphics card line from Intergraph (which 3Dlabs acquired last year), the Wildcats have a great lineage. The Wildcat IIs are stable, fast and reliable. Both are physically huge cards -- filling the entire length of the test machine's ATX case. They occupy the AGP slot and the empty PCI slot below it for purposes of heat dissipation. (Neither card boasts cooling fans; instead they rely on heat sinks. Be sure your case has serious cooling before adding one of these monsters.) The 5110 is hungry for power -- its AGP Pro50 interface allows it to draw up to 50 watts. The 5000 runs on the more common AGP 2.0 standard and consumes less power.

Installation

Installing a Wildcat II card is a straightforward process. First, uninstall the previous card's drivers. Next, power down, unplug and open the case. Then, replace the old card with the (did I mention, monstrous?) Wildcat II. Close the case, plug it in and fire it up. When Windows asks for drivers, point it to the drivers that 3Dlabs provides on CD. After one more restart you are ready to go.

The Wildcat II 5110 card. This physically huge card is hungry for power. All images © 3Dlabs, Inc

The Wildcat II 5110 card. This physically huge card is hungry for power. All images © 3Dlabs, Inc

Once installed, the Wildcat II control panel allows you to select optimized settings for all of the major 3D animation programs, as well as manually fine-tunes them. After 10 minutes of back-and-forth between the control panel and your 3D software it is possible to tune it to your own optimal speed vs. quality settings. For example, the better looking the full scene anti-aliasing, the slower the framerate. These tweaks can be saved as a new preset.

Wildcat II 5110 Impressions

Before we go any further, I'll get this out of the way: the Wildcat II 5110 is the best graphic card I've used to date for OpenGL 3D content creation. It is packed with 128MB of RAM split between frame buffer and texturing, can drive two monitors simultaneously without a hitch and is fast. As in four times faster than the previous Wildcat 4110! It obliterated the synthetic and real-world benchmark tests and made working in Maya, 3ds max, Softimage XSI and Lightwave a pleasure.

The 5110 uses a ParaScale architecture to run dual-pipelines of geometry and raster operations on multiple processors. The large buffers keep your data on the card longer, minimizing slow traffic over the AGP bus to retrieve scene data. These processor and memory architecture designs are responsible for the card's great speed.

On the left is an image created without full-scene anti-aliasing. On the right, the same image using the Wildcat II 5110 and SuperScene full-scene anti-aliasing.

On the left is an image created without full-scene anti-aliasing. On the right, the same image using the Wildcat II 5110 and SuperScene full-scene anti-aliasing.

The dual-monitor capability of the Wildcat II 5110 is wonderful. I haven't used dual-monitors since my PowerMac days, and I somehow forgot how sweet it is. The ability to leave material palettes, schematic views, function curve editors and the like open on a second monitor is incredibly useful and timesaving.

Now the bad news: you can't buy the 5110 as an upgrade for your current workstation. It is only available as a $2,000 to $3,000 option on pre-built workstations. (Look at the Dell Precision 330/530 and Compaq EVO or check their Website for a list of system integrators.) Why can't you buy one on its own? Perhaps 3Dlabs figures that customers would blow up their cards and motherboards due to the general confusion surrounding the AGP Pro standard. The hardware requirements are high enough that they like to leave it up to the workstation manufacturers to build a stable configuration.

Wildcat II 5000 Impressions

The Wildcat II 5000 represents the first foray into the end-user market by a Wildcat card. Available through authorized resellers, this is really the 5110's little brother. It feels the same as the 5110 in many regards, just not as powerful or fast. It sports half the RAM, and by the looks of the card itself, is built on nearly the same circuit board as the 5110, with two large processors missing. I'm no engineer, but I'm guessing that the missing parts account for the single-pipeline nature of the card. The 5110's dual-pipeline makes a big difference; the 5000 can drive only a single monitor (analogue or digital, CRT or flat panel), with about half the raw polygon-crunching power of its older sibling.

The 5000 will integrate easily into most modern workstations, thanks to its compliance with the AGP 2.0 standard. This slot is available on most motherboards today. Installation, drivers and control panels are nearly identical to the 5110.

Comparisons

In programs like Maya, 3ds max, Softimage XSI and Lightwave, the 5110's pure speed and high quality anti-aliasing make it a justifiable expense for the professional animator. For the slightly more budget-minded, the 5000 (under $900 street) is worthy of consideration, but it's in a performance range shared by some competitors like the cheaper Elsa Gloria DCC.

In most tests the 5110 rates two to three times faster than the 5000 and the Quadro DCC. The 5000 beat the Quadro DCC in most SPECviewperf tests, but was tied with or beaten by the Quadro in real-world Maya and 3ds max tests. The strengths of the Wildcats are in real-time lighting and wireframe, while the Quadro's strengths are in texturing and rasterizing.

Compare Wildcat II 5110 (left) and NVIDIA Quadro2 Pro's images of textures at 4004934.26 units from the point of origin.

Compare Wildcat II 5110 (left) and NVIDIA Quadro2 Pro's images of textures at 4004934.26 units from the point of origin.

One disappointment with the Wildcat cards is their lack of support for real-time shadows in Maya and their lack of pixel and vertex shader effects in 3ds max. Many software companies are adopting the Nvidia nfiniteFX standard -- it will be interesting to see how 3Dlabs, ATI and others respond.

Also, the current lack of DirectX support on the Wildcats can be a hindrance. While most 3D software uses OpenGL, many video editing programs and games require DirectX. Game developers may find it impractical to have a content creation card that can't also be used to run their game engine. 3Dlabs plans to address this problem with future products. For now, the Nvidia cards may be a better bet for game developers. Film, broadcast and post-production animators, however, will hardly notice the problem.

To sum it all up, the Wildcat II 5110 is the most powerful card out there for the hardcore 3D animator. It speeds up your workflow significantly, making it worth the substantial investment. If something cheaper is in your sights, things are a little less clear. The excellent Wildcat II 5000 is available as an add-on to your current workstation, but so are a number of other competing products. Future reviews will reveal how they stack up.

John Edgar Park is a 3D animator, instructor and writer based in Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia.

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