FireGL X2-256t
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 5 (May 2004)

FireGL X2-256t

ATI has been producing the FireGL line of OpenGL graphics cards for quite some time. Starting with Diamond, and then continuing with ATI after a merger, the FireGL cards always have been solid performers. You can find them configured in high-end workstations from most of the major systems vendors. The FireGL X2 series of cards is the newest in the line and is incredibly fast. The cards are also reasonably priced, setting a new standard for price and performance in the high-end workstation market.
The ATI FireGL X2-256t is a high-performance graphics card offered at an affordable price point.

The FireGL line of cards has gone through several incarnations and different chipsets. The FireGL X2-256t is powered by the FGL 9800 Visual Processing Unit, the big brother of the chip that powers ATI's FireGL X1. Developed by ATI, the FGL chips are custom-made with four geometry engines and eight separate pipelines for pixel processing. The FireGL X2 has 256mb of DDR video memory with a 256-bit data path, which should provide plenty of room for geometry and textures.

Modestly sized, the FireGL X2-256t card shares a layout similar to ATI's popular Radeon cards. Because its back end extends only about three inches past the AGP slot, it should fit into almost any case. On the back of the card is a Molex connector to get extra power from the system's power supply. A massive heatsink with plastic ducting dominates the center of the card. While the fan is huge, it is thin enough that the FireGL does not require that the neighboring PCI slot be empty. Regardless, it's a good idea to keep this slot open, as the card needs lots of cooling. Like most high-end cards these days, this accelerator supports dual monitors. The back of the card is equipped with two DVI connectors, which can be used with analog monitors through the supplied adaptor.

The card is supported under Windows and Linux, but not Mac OS X. I tested it on a machine running Windows XP, and installation was easy. (Also supported are OpenGL and DirectX 9.) The Windows drivers provide a robust control panel that enables you to tweak just about every parameter of the card. Included with the software are drivers for Discreet's 3ds max, providing an extra performance boost.

Dual-display mode is configured with the use of the control panel. Once configured, ATI's Hydravision utility enables you to manage the placement of application dialogues between the displays. Hydravision also provides control over such features as window transparency. Display resolution tops out at 2048x1536 per display, which should drive most large monitors. It's still not quite large enough to drive the ultra high-end, 9-megapixel displays, but that's still a small market segment. One nice thing about the card is that it supports 24-bit-per-pixel color, which means that you can display more than 16.7 million colors on your monitor. For people working in motion pictures or with other high-resolution images, this feature should be incredibly helpful.

I benchmarked the card using View-perf 7, the standard test for OpenGL-based cards. The results were excellent, with the FireGL X2-256t offering a 3ds max score of 24.26, a 34.53 in Pro/E, and a UGS score of 38.56. These figures were roughly 10 percent lower than those published on the ATI Web site. Because I did not do any optimizations on my system, my results should be considered typical for most users. My results put the FireGL X2-256t only slightly behind the nVidia Quadro FX 2000 in terms of performance. Considering the ATI card costs several hundred dollars less, the FireGL X2 offers an excellent price/performance ratio.

Of course, benchmarks are a rather synthetic way to test a card. I used the card for several days on a 3ds max project I was developing, and had no problems in either OpenGL or DirectX mode. The FireGL card helped me with some compositing in Adobe's After Effects and Photoshop. Again, these applications presented no discernable issues.

I really enjoyed the FireGL X2 card, and found it to be very stable. Most important, it is perhaps one of the fastest cards on the market today, and it's certainly the fastest sub-$1000 card available. Offering users a great bang for their buck, the FireGL X2-256t would be an excellent addition to any 3D workstation.

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

ATI Technologies
Price: $899
Minimum System Requirements: Intel Pentium 3, Pentium 4, Xeon AMD Athlon XP/MP/Opteron or compatible, 128mb of system memory (256mb or more for best performance), a motherboard with a free AGP slot and correct AGP chipset driver, a CD-ROM drive, and Windows 2000 with Service Pack 1 (or higher), Windows XP, or Linux XFree86 4.X.0.