3D Power to Go

3D Power to Go

Byline: Dan Ochiva

Over the years, the mantra “faster, cheaper, better” has sounded throughout the computer industry. And it’s true. It’s no secret that today’s desktop PCs and Macs, for example, can feature graphics power equal to or exceeding that of high-end workstations.

But did you know that a new generation of CPUs and GPUs (graphics processing units) enables you to take that graphics power on the road? Combine that with the recent trend of lower-priced packages from the top 3D graphics, modeling, and animation companies, and you’ve got an ideal recipe for taking your graphics and effects-heavy productions on the road.

But why would anyone want to do 3D graphics and effects on a laptop in the first place?

Well, consider that corporate video you’ve just shot on location. Showing the client a rough version on your laptop, you’re now able to add once-complicated 3D effects such as particle animation, or show how motion tracking and compositing will work on that last shot.

Opening up more workspace is another consideration. Even if you won’t be taking your 3D chops on the road, a laptop makes tight quarters work better. Small studios can create virtual edit bays by making storage arrays accessible on a plug-and-play basis to any laptop user in the shop.

But until recently, suggesting that you could easily run Maya, Softimage XSI, or 3ds Max on a PC laptop would be met with a skeptical response. Although Apple’s latest PowerBooks have the chops, there wasn’t enough 3D graphics software written for OS X.

But now, new CPUs and GPUs make it possible to take graphics and effects production on the road, matching in power all but the top PC and Mac desktops.

According to one manufacturer, the need to pump up laptop power first came from the desire to shed some weight.

“The real requirement [for portable laptop workstations] came from CAD/CAM engineers who were literally tired of lugging around desktop workstations to their customers,” says Jon Kies, director of product marketing, vertical application markets at Fujitsu PC.

The engineers’ need to run graphics-demanding CAD/CAM programs, says Kies, pushed Fujitsu to develop its Celsius Mobile H laptop, introduced this past August. It just so happens the machine is ideal for 3D graphics, too.

Other graphics-potent laptops include Dell’s Precision M50 and Apple’s Titanium PowerBook.

So what makes a laptop into a hot box these days? Let’s concentrate on the two most important factors: the main processor and the graphics card or chipset. (The smaller chipsets are built into the motherboard, rather than on a separate card.)

Central Processing Power

CPUs, even for the desktop, only recently gained significantly improved capabilities. Intel’s Pentium 4, for example, came out in late 2000. It featured the first new top-to-bottom chip redesign in five years, and graphics users especially benefited from the NetBurst microarchitecture.

NetBurst includes an interlocking feature set that delivers improved bandwidth, along with a new type of cache, deep or “hyper” pipelines, and other boosts to code execution. The NetBurst design specifically improves 3D content creation, audio and video encoding, digital imaging, and multimedia.

Aided by the new 845MP support chipset, the Pentium 4 has a few other important features. A 400MHz internal processor bus bumps the internal data-transfer rate to 3.2GBps, a 3X improvement over the previous generation. The 512KB of on-chip L2 cache is a sizable lump. The chip also supports up to 1GB of DDR 266MHz memory, AGP4X graphics, and six channels of surround sound.

Apple’s 800MHz PowerPC G4 runs its top Titanium PowerBook. Does that lower speed make it inferior to the P4 line?

As anyone attending Macworld or reading the company website can attest, Apple keeps drilling the troops that parts of the G4 such as the Velocity Engine work differently – so direct comparisons of raw speed don’t give you the whole story.

To a great extent, that’s true, at least at the Pentium’s current speeds. (By 2007, Intel estimates it will have crossed the 10GHz barrier, where raw speed makes just about any chip architecture moot.)

The G4 does offer considerable improvement over the previous G3 CPU via its 3X speedup of system bus bandwidth. Improving the CPU’s core pathway moves data faster among memory, graphics, and bus devices – just the things that deliver faster graphics.

The G4 also includes a 1MB hunk of L3 DDR cache memory. Cache RAM improves code execution, since important code can be stored closer to the CPU than RAM. (L1 and L2 caches, built on the same piece of silicon as the CPU, are the speediest. L3 cache is a bit slower, since it is physically separated from the CPU.) The G4’s design requires less power than the P4’s, so there’s no separate mobile version of the G4.

Graphics Chipsets

While CPUs have soared, graphics processing power had remained middling until last year, when the first of a new generation of mobile graphics chipsets debuted from two leading – and very competitive – graphics vendors, Nvidia and ATI.

The constant one-upmanship between Nvidia and ATI delivers great benefits to users. While it had some rocky times financially, ATI is solid again. The Toronto-area company knows it must take league-leader Nvidia head on if it wants to remain a player. This will become apparent in the next few months with the release of a mobile version of ATI’s very fast FireGL GPU, answering the challenge of Nvidia’s flagship mobile chipset, the Quadro4 500 GoGL.

Currently ATI’s top-of-the-line mobile chipset, the second-generation Mobility Radeon 7500 holds up against Nvidia. Apple uses the 7500 in its PowerBook; the chipset also appears in laptops from several PC vendors.

For the 7500 GPU, ATI developed the Charisma Engine, said to deliver improved character animation as well as full TCL (transform, clipping, and lighting) capability for improved 3D detail and performance. The 7500 offers 32MB of 128-bit DDR memory as well as HydraVision, a software/hardware combo that enables users to connect two monitors and build a contiguous workspace.

Meanwhile, Nvidia’s Quadro4 500 GoGL GPU features workstation-level capabilities such as hardware-accelerated anti-aliased lines, OpenGL hardware overlay planes, and two-sided lighting. The 500 sports a 64MB, 128-bit unified-memory interface, which allows dynamic allocation of memory between the chip’s graphics subsystems.

Similar to ATI’s HydraVision, Nvidia’s nView app can control multiple displays. Users can opt to create one contiguous work area with two monitors side by side, or use them as separate workspaces.

Other Factors

It’s the CPU/GPU combination that delivers the most bang to this new generation of workstation-class laptops. But here’s a quick look at some of the other necessary components.

Fast hard drives stand just behind the CPU and GPU in their importance for graphics production. While 4200rpm drives have been standard for some time in laptops, the move is on to 5400rpm for the top systems.

Portable FireWire drives can solve the need for added storage, as internal drives currently max out at 60GB. However, both Dell and Fujitsu employ a modular architecture in their workstation laptops. This allows changing out the CD/DVD drive, for example, and replacing it with another hard drive. The Fujitsu Celsius-H can even handle a third drive, which yields a total of 180GB.

Workstation LCD screens are moving to higher pixel counts, better to handle the four-view port layout common with 3D apps. The high-resolution 1600?200 screen of the Dell M50 and Fujitsu Celsius-H laptops even beat most desktop LCD monitors.

While Apple’s Titanium PowerBook doesn’t offer that resolution, the company did change its screens from 1152?68 to 1280?54 pixels, which yields 23% more workspace, according to Sandy Green, director of PowerBook product marketing at Apple.

To get even more workspace, the PowerBook can control two screens at once, including the knockout 23in. Cinema HD display, which offers 1920?200 pixels.

Whatever your choice, it’s finally the age of workstation laptops.

Dan Ochiva is technical editor of Video Systems and Millimeter magazines. Email him at dochiva@primediabusiness.com.

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