Pros: Top-notch rendering and real-time performance based around excellent new technology from Intel and AMD.
Cons: Less RAM than we’d like. Large case for a single-chip workstation.
Armari’s Magnetar NS+ is the first workstation we’ve seen that’s based on Intel’s brand new Core i7 platform for single-processor computers, which was codenamed Nehalem. This introduces some faster chips – including the 3GHz Intel Core i7 Extreme 965 model used here – but also gives the architecture an overhaul to boost overall performance.
Core i7 ditches the traditional front-side bus link between the chip and the motherboard, and places the memory controller and system I/O on the same unit as the CPU. This allows much faster movement of data between the chip and memory, and between the chip and the graphics card (via direct connections to the PCI Express interface).
The chips themselves are the first to be true quad-core units – rather than being two dual-core set-ups spot welded together on a single base, as was the case with previous Core Extreme models. This again boosts performance. The Core i7 chips also reintroduce Hyper-Threading (aka SMT), which uses some nifty tricks to make each core appear as two to the Windows to crank every last bit of power from them. Hyper-Threading was retired when quad-core chips were first introduced – it seemed redundant – but with many creative applications capable of tapping to eight cores, its reintroduction seems timely.
Our testing showed that Hyper-Threading does make a noticeable difference to performance in CPU-hungry tools. With it turned off, the Magnetar NS+ obtained a score of 16,787 in Cinebench’s rendering test – 25 per cent faster than the similar speed chip from Intel’s previous generation of quad-core processors used by the Xworks X8i-C2Q workstation we looked at in April. With Hyper-Threading turned on, this rose to 18,551 – 10.5 per cent faster than with it turned off, and a massive jump of 39 per cent over the older chip.
However, users with higher needs will still want to look to true eight-core workstations with two quad-core chips, as the current generation of models – as seen in our October 2008 group test – offers up to 25 faster performance than the Magnetar NS+.
The chips also introduce Turbo Mode, which boosts the speed of individual cores when the computer detects that only one or two are being used – which is largely irrelevant to high-end creatives, but will make your next Far Cry 2 session run better.
The chip’s memory controller has three separate channels for data throughput, so for best performance you should use only three of the motherboard’s four memory slot – which is why the Magnetar NS+ has a seemingly odd 6GB of RAM. The architecture also doesn’t limit you to using memory modules in pairs – which is a big change.
The faster memory bandwidth and performance is probably behind the Magnetar NS+’s excellent Photoshop score. Both models we’ve used for comparison here have 8GB of RAM, but as Photoshop CS3 is a 32-bit application, it can only use 3GB of that – so the faster memory wins out. The new Photoshop CS4 has a 64-bit version, but this is for Vista only and wasn’t available when we looked at the other models (and only really helps with much larger files than our 300MB test file).