The chip wars between AMD and Intel have being going in the former’s favour for the last few years – at least as far as workstations are concerned, and increasingly so in the server business too. In the past month though, Intel has launched a major offensive with the recent release of its Xeon 5100 range – previously codenamed ‘Woodcrest’ and based on the same chip technology behind the company’s Core Duo processors – and AMD has returned fire with its Opteron 2000 range.

So which of these two technologies is the best for workstations? To help us find out, Armari built us two near-identical systems based around two equivalent versions of each chip. Unusually, these are nearly equal in speed – two dual-core 2.66GHz Xeon 5150s against two dual-core 2.6GHz Opteron 2218s – as well as price, when you factor in the overall cost including the motherboard and the relevant types of RAM.

To give the processors the chance to strut their stuff, each workstation included 8GB of RAM, a top-rated ATI (soon to be AMD) Fire GL V7300 graphics card, two 10,000rpm hard drives and a copy of Windows XP 64-bit. This pushes the overall price towards the £4,000 mark, but it would easily be possible to design a more affordable system around either chip.

Xeons show greatest leap

Of the new chips, Intel’s Xeon’s 5100 line is the greatest leap from the previous generation. The chips have two processor cores and 2MB of Level 2 cache, and the front-side bus speed has been raised to 1.3GHz. They add support for FB-DIMM DDR2 memory, which is apparently more reliable than previous types, and use a lot less power than older Xeons (keeping your power bills down and helping save the planet). It’s the change to the Core architecture that’s made the most difference, boosting overall performance dramatically.

These are also the chips used by Apple’s first Intel-based workstation, the Mac Pro.

Our two 5150s were fixed to a Supermicro X7DAE motherboard, which uses Intel’s 5000X ‘Greencreek’ chipset. Unfortunately, the cooling required for this and the RAM meant that it had to be housed in an enormous, noisy Supermicro SC743T-645 chassis (right) – though Armari says that it will have a quieter configuration using a traditional-sized case by the time you read this.

AMD’s Opteron 2200 range is less of an upgrade than the Xeon 5100s. It uses a new connection known as Socket F but its main advantage for creatives is support for faster DDR2 memory. Our test system used a pre-production Asus KFN32-D motherboard with an nVidia MCP55Pro chipset, and sat inside Armari’s traditional Supermicro SC733T-645 chassis (below) – and was much smaller and quieter than the Xeon set-up.

We tested the workstations mainly using 3D rendering tests, which are very demanding of processing power across all chips. For comparison, we’ve also included the results from the fastest processing set-up from Digit magazine's last 3D workstation group test, Apple’s Power Mac G5 2.5 Quad with two dual-core Power PC G5 chips.

The standard rendering test uses LightWave 8.5. However, that application didn’t recognise either multi-processor set-up automatically and the Opteron-based workstation’s score was worse than older models – leading us to believe that the results weren’t a true reflection of either processor’s ability. LightWave 9 wasn’t available to use – so we’ve used the latest version of Maya to test these systems.

We also ran our standard graphics-processing test in Photoshop – though this is largely RAM-based, the application isn’t 64-bit native and can only access up to 3GB of RAM (excluding plug-ins).

The results show that Intel has reclaimed its crown in a majestic fashion. The Xeon 5150s were 35 per cent faster in Maya software renderer and 16 per cent faster in mental ray than the Opteron 2218s. Intel’s chips also gave an 18 per cent boost to Photoshop over AMD’s rival.

The performance over the Power PC G5s was equally impressive. The 5150’s Maya software rendering time was a whopping 90 per cent faster, and its mental ray score was 32 per cent faster. It was also 27 per cent faster in Photoshop – though this is not something you could translate to the new Mac Pros as an Intel-native version of Photoshop is still at least six months away.

Our experience with LightWave 8.5 reminds us that you should always check that new processors are supported by your applications of choice, but assuming they are, Intel currently offers the most bang for your buck.


Both chips offer huge processing performance but the choice for a workstation is as much to do with the apps you want to run as the raw power of the processors. In this case, however, the edge goes to the Intel Xeon 5100. Intel is back.