Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 5 (May 2003)

Wildcat VP870


By George Maestri

The Wildcat VP 3D graphics accelerator comes from 3Dlabs, now a division of Creative. (Some years ago, 3Dlabs took over Intergraph's Wildcat business.) To complement its higher-end cards and build upon the Wildcat name, the company has introduced a line of mid-range cards called Wildcat VP. These boards are aimed directly at Nvidia's high-end models, both in price and performance, and they are certainly heating up this segment of the workstation card market.

The Wildcat VP comes in four models. On the high end is the VP970 with 128mb of memory, which costs around $1000. The low end is the VP560, which has 64mb and costs under $250. The card reviewed here is the $599 VP870 with 128mb of RAM.

The Wildcat VP cards come in four models and are aimed directly at Nvidia's high-end boards, both in terms of price and performance.




The Wildcat VP was designed as a workstation card first, but may be of interest to gamers as well, as it supports both OpenGL 2.0 and DirectX 9. Unlike the high-end Wildcats, which can fill up two card slots, the Wildcat VP card is a simple and fairly compact AGP device. The card is sparsely populated with chips and has the requisite heatsink to cool the visual processing unit (VPU). On its front are two ports, one digital DVI, the other analog SVGA. There is also a connector for 3D shutter glasses.

The core of the Wildcat VP is 3Dlabs' P10 VPU. Most graphics cards have a single large graphics processing unit (GPU), which resembles a computer's CPU. 3Dlabs' VPU consists of many small, single-instruction, multiple data (SIMD) processors tied together in a supercomputer-like array. The Wildcat VP has over 200 of these processors on a single chip, which allows the card to parallel-process image information, theoretically making it much smoother and more responsive than a typical graphics card.

These small processors can also be split up and used for different tasks, and they can off-load tasks normally completed by the CPU. This is undoubtedly where professional 3D graphics is headed, as it allows rendering times to be cut significantly. These processors can handle anything from antialiasing pixels to calculating high-order surfaces to performing such esoteric tasks as wavelet compression and photoreal rendering.

3Dlabs claims that the card will also be easy on developers and programmers. Although the Quadro4 and FireGL 8800 feature pixel shaders, these are programmable only up to a point. The P10 VPU is fully programmable and supports such advanced features as automatic parallelization of applications to put processing power where it's needed most. The VP870 has four pixel pipelines and can process eight textures per pass. The card is also the first to support virtual memory, delivering up to 16gb of addressable space.

I received the card when it was released last fall, but encountered problems with the first set of drivers. The new set seems to have relieved my earlier concerns, and it now comes with 3Dlabs' Acuity window manager. This is a must for those using multiple displays, as it allows you to control the size of each display and how windows will appear on them.

Performance is always the big issue with graphics cards, and the Wildcat VP is no slouch. I tested the card on a dual 1.4ghz Pentium III with 1.5gb of RAM. Viewperf scores were good: The card turned in a 3ds max score of 10.4, a ProE score of 12.3, and a UGS score of 13.1. This compares favorably to Nvidia's Quadro4 cards, and places the VP near the front of the pack in terms of performance. In real-world tests using Maya, I found the card to be as fast or faster than the Quadro4 XGL, which costs several hundred dollars more.

As for compatibility, 3Dlabs supports a huge list of 3D software. For those using 3ds max, the software includes custom drivers for 3ds max 4.X. Over the course of a week, I tested the software against 3ds max and a number of other applications, including After Effects, Photoshop, and Maya. The card ran great. Still, I did notice on the Maya Web site that the card is specifically listed as not supported. On 3Dlabs' Web site, however, it is listed as certified for Maya under Windows XP, with Windows 2000 pending. I had no problems, but Maya users should certainly double-check before purchasing this card.

Overall, this card is a solid performer. The multiprocessor architecture is unique among graphics cards and offers many possibilities for expansion and customization. The Wildcat VP is a terrific choice for anyone wanting a workstation class graphics card at a reasonable price.

George Maestri, a contributing editor, is president of Rubberbug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio specializing in character animation.

Stats

Price: $599
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 98/Me/2000/XP-based machine with Intel-compatible processor and AGP slot

3Dlabs, a division of Creative www.3dlabs.com
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