ATI FireGL Visualization Series
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 5 (May 2005)

ATI FireGL Visualization Series

PCI Express is taking the graphics world by storm. The new interface offers much higher bandwidth and features for high-end graphics applications. Graphics card vendors have been understandably busy creating new cards that take advantage of this new technology. With the introduction of PCI Express, ATI began shipping a new line of its venerable FireGL professional graphics boards. They all offer a wide range of capabilities and take advantage of the speed provided by PCI Express.
The top-of-the-line V7100 and midrange V5000 proved valuable in 3D animation and compositing applications.

ATI shipped four different cards for evaluation-its entire line of PCI Express cards, save one (the V3200). The product family encompasses the entry-level V3100 and V3200, both with 128mb of RAM; the midrange V5000 and V5100, also with 128mb of RAM; and the 256mb V7100.

The FireGL cards received were well designed and share common physical attributes with ATI’s Radeon cards. The FireGL cards differ from their Radeon cousins in that they fully support the OpenGL standard and are verified to work with major 3D applications. Those using programs such as Alias’s Maya and Softimage’s XSI will need a compliant OpenGL card to take full advantage of the software.

The V5000 is the most compact of the bunch and should run fairly cool, as its chips are manufactured using a smaller processor that shares a common lineage with ATI’s laptop chips. This compact card should work well with any system, including the new smaller-format machines, such as those from Shuttle. The V5100 and V7100 are a bit bigger with much larger heatsinks, making them more appropriate for a system housed in a larger case. The top-of-the-line V7100 is also a little bit more power-hungry than the rest, requiring an extra cable that attaches to the power supply.

The FireGL cards support dual displays, and all but the entry-level V3100 sport two DVI connectors. Two of the cards, the V5000 and the V7100, boast Dual Link DVI support for increased display quality. This hardware connection is used for high-end, high-resolution displays, including 9-megapixel models and the new 30-inch Apple Cinema monitor. The caveat to using ultra-high-resolution displays is that they require a significant amount of video RAM to power them. It puts the 128mb V5000 at a slight disadvantage: almost half of its memory would be used to drive a 9-megapixel display, leaving half for processing 3D data. The 256mb V7100 is the logical choice for those who need fast 3D and an ultra-high-resolution display.

ATI supplies a unified driver software with its FireFL cards, and it worked well for all the cards reviewed. The control panel allows you to set up multiple displays, manage color, and customize OpenGL settings. The drivers proved to be highly stable, and I encountered no real problems.

Each card performed admirably under test conditions. I used Viewperf 8.01 to run the numbers. The V7100 scored a 37.56 on the 3ds max test, 44.32 on the Maya test, and 27.36 on the UGS-04 test. These numbers place the V7100 toward the front of the pack in the race for fastest graphics card. The V5100 and V5000 were very close to the V7100 in terms of speed. As a result, the V5100 and V5000 provide the best price-performance ratios in the product line.

Application performance was solid for each of the cards. I find that real production work is always a good test for new hardware, so I used the V5000 and V7100 cards in my studio’s production machines to animate and composite some 3D characters with live action for a TV series we’re producing. My staff and I spent a few solid weeks working in Alias’s Maya, Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s 3ds max, and Adobe’s After Effects with both cards, and we encountered no issues whatsoever.

The cards that stood out from the pack were the V5000 and V7100. The V5000 is notable because it is the smallest of the cards, supports Dual Link displays, is the most power efficient, and has the best price-performance ratio of the line. I chose the V7100 simply because it is currently ATI’s top-of-the-line card and is quite fast.

Overall, the FireGL cards from ATI represent a strong lineup for those who need professional features and performance at modest prices. The cards are well-built with stable drivers, take full advantage of the speed offered by PCI Express, and are a good choice for anyone involved in 3D animation, compositing, or design work.

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

ATI Technology
Price:$1099 for the V7100, $799 for the V5100, $699 for the V5000, $399 for the V3200, and $249 for the V3100
Minimum System Requirements: Intel Pentium 4/Xeon, AMD Athlon/Opteron, or compatible CPU; PCI Express x16 lane bus; 128mb of system memory; CD-ROM drive; and a 300-watt or greater power supply.