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Twice the View

ATI graphics card lets power graphics users run multiple apps simultaneously.

Dual monitors bring a huge productivity boost to computer-aided design (CAD) and digital content creation (DCC) users, video editors and power users of all stripes. For these users, there’s an immediate benefit to having more information in their field of view, with less time spent tabbing through hidden windows.

Many consumer desktop display adapters can support two monitors, but workstation display adapters with graphics processing units that are specifically designed for dual displays provide better resolution and application management. It’s hard to justify the cost of high-end cards for anything other than complex graphic modeling or data-set work, but the limitations of low-end cards are readily apparent.

Enter the ATI FireGL V5600, a midrange dual-display adapter that delivers quality workstation graphics performance without breaking the bank. ATI’s latest 5000-series graphics card reduces the memory bus to 128-bit, but upgrades the memory to Graphics Double Data Rate, Version 4; doubles the memory to 512 megabytes; and delivers more than 50 percent more memory bandwidth. The V5600 employs Unified shader architecture and supports OpenGL 2.1 and DirectX 10’s Shader Model 4.0.

I installed the V5600 in a Hewlett-Packard system running Microsoft Windows XP Pro SP2 (32-bit version) and an identical machine running 32-bit Windows Vista. Two 19-inch LCD monitors were set to 1280x1024-pixel resolution. Two Dual Link DVI-I ports (with two DVI-to-VGA adapters) allow any pair of analog or digital monitors to be connected, including 30-inch widescreen displays at resolutions up to 2560x1600 each.

Why It Works for IT

ATI’s Catalyst Control Center defaults to a wizard-based system to configure the displays, but a more advanced, intuitive console is available at the click of a button. A feature called AutoDetect transparently distributes graphics power as applications are opened, eliminating the need to configure settings for individual apps.

The FireGL V5600 clones monitors to display the same information and lets you use both displays to stretch or extend the desktop. Stretching treats the monitors as a single display and locks them to identical settings. This may seem simpler, but it is limiting. Using extended mode, the second display is “attached” to the primary display to expand the desktop area. Extended mode allows independent control of each display’s resolution, refresh rates, color-quality settings, rotation and position.

ATI’s FireGL series is certified by major CAD and DCC application manufacturers for compatibility and stability. I don’t do high-end CAD or complex modeling, but I do run a lot of applications simultaneously. Each workstation ran separate 2D and 3D design applications, a full market-data application and eight other desktop or web-based apps. Each responded with crisp images, great color and clarity. The size and position of windows were retained as they were opened and closed, and within minutes I had my work flow fully established.

Because none of this seemed to slow the V5600, I added a DVD to the mix. The movie played without a hitch, and the video quality was excellent. I then ran a fairly detailed 3D virtual home tour, and the motion frame rates were remarkably smooth, considering that the other apps were still running. ATI’s AutoDetect seemed to be doing its job, as performance was consistently good in Vista and XP, across both screens and from one application to the next.

What to Watch For

A small problem occurred during installation: Although the V5600 has no audio component, the installation wizard, by default, disabled the on-board audio and installed drivers for a nonexistent device. I may have missed an option to omit the ATI audio driver, but I couldn’t uninstall it separately. I had to reboot and enable the on-board audio in the BIOS, then disable the driver in the operating system. Downloading and installing driver updates does not replicate the problem.

CDW•G Price: $398.99

Nov 05 2008