January 23, 2012
Hardware Review: 3DBOXX 3970 XTREME Workstation
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Jeff Rowe - Managing Editor

by Jeff Rowe - Contributing Editor
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Although generalized, so-called consumer-grade computers have made huge strides forward in terms of performance, some users still need some extra computing horsepower based on the applications they run and the work they perform. In other words, not all computer users need an engineering workstation-class machine, but many still truly do, especially with graphics- and computational-intensive applications, such as Inventor, Alias Design, and 3ds Max. While some relatively high-powered workstations usually come with a price premium, you actually can pay a relatively small price for higher levels of performance, and it is usually worth it. One of the most notable, compelling, and economical premium computers that I've encountered in a number of years is the 3DBOXX 3970 XTREME desktop workstation that offers rock solid build quality and amazing performance for the price.

The 3DBOXX 3970 XTREME has high levels of performance, as well as design and build quality.

Just about every engineering and manufacturing company today has a couple users who need a little extra computing horsepower than is available in a generic desktop computer where a standard desktop PC might be perfectly suitable. However, heavy graphics and especially 3D can tax a standard PC fine beyond its limitations. For these types of applications and users, seriously consider a workstation. Even in 2011, workstations aren’t a major requirement for everyone. But, if you need a powerful PC to work with graphics and 3D tasks, and willing to pay a bit extra for optimized hardware for these types of tasks, the 3DBOXX 3970 XTREME deserves a serious look.

Justifying A True Engineering Workstation

Not all that long ago, the decision of to go with a consumer-oriented PC versus an engineering workstation was easy – either you could afford the latter or you couldn't.

Today, however, the price differential is actually quite small for what you are likely to get in terms of increased performance. The single most expensive component of any workstation is the graphics card, and you can spend a lot of money on one, if you need it. However, for the majority of MCAD users, the graphics cards offered as standard equipment on most true engineering workstations are more than adequate for modeling and rendering purposes. This was certainly the case with the NVIDIA Quadro 4000 with 2GB memory that came with the 3DBOXX 3970 XTREME review machine. It performed quite well and never bogged down with anything we subjected it to, including some animations and multi-physics simulations.

The bottom line is that today you don't really pay much of a premium for a true engineering workstation compared with a generic consumer box, so is definitely worth considering. In fact, I've found that the price/performance ratio really favors the engineering workstation.

A Look Inside the 3DBOXX 3970 XTREME

From the outside, you'll immediately notice the distinct appearance of the 3970. It looks solid with a real serious “engineering” look that means business. The exterior case is completely fabricated from metal – a nice departure from the flimsy plastic cases enclosing many other computers these days.

The interior of the computer is very easy to access. Just unscrew two thumb screws on either side of the case and you're in. No tools required.

Once inside, you'll notice the clean layout and routing of wires and cables. You'll also notice the massive heat sinks on the motherboard and graphics card, as well as three relatively quiet air cooling fans located on the front (one fan) and back (two fans) of the case for efficient cooling. Speaking of cooling, the 3970 is also liquid cooled using an Asetek system for keeping the overclocked CPU cool. All in all, very cool – no pun intended. The only thing I question is whether running the CPU on a constant overclocked basis could be detrimental to the life of the CPU – I guess only time would tell.

A response from the manufacturer on our overclocking concern: “BOXX has been shipping overclocked systems since 2008 and throughout these past four years, we have not experienced a processor failure rate any different from that of standard processor systems. This is because we work closely with our partner (Intel) to ensure that we stay within the parameters of safe overclocking, providing increased performance without applying significantly larger increases in voltage. All BOXX workstations (whether they be overclocked, liquid-cooled XTREME editions or our standard 3DBOXX models) are backed by the same three year warranty.”

The review machine came with a 7200-rpm, 1TB SATA drive which was fast, but the real bonus for performance was the Intel 20 GB cache solid state drive (SSD). Although still a bit pricey at present, the SSD provides noticeable improvements in data retrieval, and just one of the many reasons the 3970 has such high levels of performance. The SSD also provides higher levels of reliability. The 3970 incorporates Intel’s Smart Response and Rapid Storage Technology that combines responsiveness similar to a high-performance SSD with the capacity and relative low-cost of a hard drive. The two technologies (SSD and HDD) appear as a single C:\ drive in the3970.

Measuring Performance

When we received the 3970 XTREME, we had high expectations for performance. The objective and subjective tests we ran confirmed and satisfied our expectations. Keep in mind that the tests were performed with the machine in an “out of the box” state, nothing was tweaked or optimized to skew performance. I actually get more out of the subjective testing because it's more “real world,” but the raw numbers from the benchmarks are also useful, as well as a means of comparison. Your mileage on these evaluations may differ from mine, but they do provide a point for comparison.

For objective testing, we ran two benchmarks NovaBench (geared more toward overall performance) and SPECviewperf 11 (geared more toward graphics performance).

NovaBench Benchmark Test:

8168 MB System RAM (Score: 225)

-.RAM Speed: 17,805 MB/s

CPU Tests (Score: 887

- Floating Point Operations/Second: 207,582,872

- Integer Operations/Second: 1,075,200,168

- MD5 Hashes Generated/Second: 1,504,527

Graphics Tests (Score: 345)

- 3D Frames Per Second: 976

Hardware Tests (Score: 75)

- Primary Partition Capacity: 931 GB

- Drive Write Speed: 203 MB/s

Total NovaBench Composite Score: 1,532

The 1,532 composite score is especially impressive because the average score of other workstations in this class was 708. So, the 3970 XTREME provided more than double the performance in relative terms.

SPECviewperf 11 Benchmark Test:

The scores for the various tests (CATIA, Solidworks, Lightwave, Ensight, NX, and Pro/ENGINEER) are the best I have ever personally encountered and averaged approximately 30% better than any other desktop workstation I have benchmarked and reviewed.

For subjective testing, I ran Autodesk Alias Design, Inventor, Simulation, and 3ds Max. I used a data set of standard models that I have created over the years for this testing, including a model with 50,000+ parts, renderings of complex surfaces, advanced FEA, and animations. The 3970 XTREME's performance did not bog down with whatever I threw at it. I could have run software from other vendors and suspect I would have experienced similar levels of performance, but chose to use only the Autodesk design suite in the interest of time.

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-- Jeff Rowe, MCADCafe.com Contributing Editor.


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