2019 will go down as the year that AMD really took the fight to Intel.
The chipmaker’s 3rd Gen AMD Ryzen CPUs (the 3000 series) not only delivered excellent multithreaded performance (thanks to more cores than Intel at similar price points) but impressive single-threaded performance as well.
For designers, engineers and architects, the benefits for ray trace rendering were clear but, more importantly, there was very little compromise in CAD or BIM software where single-threaded performance is king, something that could not be said for 1st or 2nd Gen AMD Ryzen.
AMD launched its first Ryzen 3000 CPUs this summer, with five models ranging from the 6-core Ryzen 5 3600 (3.6GHz, 4.2GHz Turbo) up to the 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X (3.8GHz, 4.6GHz Turbo), which we reviewed in August.
Now there’s a new 16-core model, the Ryzen 9 3950X (3.5GHz, 4.7GHz Turbo), that boosts multithreaded performance even higher.
And at £625*, it’s exceptionally good value.
A few years back, a processor with that kind of spec was almost unheard of and would have set you back several thousand pounds.
BOXX is one of the first workstation manufacturers out of the blocks, making the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X available in its Apexx A3 workstation.
To see what the 16-core CPU was capable of, our first port of call was the pushbutton ray trace rendering tool KeyShot.
Here, the Apexx A3 completed our 4K, 128pass rendering in 135 secs, nearly twice as fast as an 8-core Intel Core i9 9900K overclocked to 4.9GHz.
But what does this really mean to your average CAD user, who also uses ray trace rendering software?
Rendering the same scene with 64 passes at FHD resolution took a mere 18 secs and with 128 passes, only 35 secs.
At this speed, you really can render and adjust without interrupting your flow.
At the other end of the spectrum, rendering a top-quality 256 pass, 7,680 x 4,758 resolution scene took just over 18 minutes.
In short, you no longer need to leave jobs like these to run overnight. Single-threaded performance is equally impressive.
In the past, it was unthinkable to have so many cores in a CPU without negatively impacting performance in CAD, but with the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X, you really can have your cake and eat it too.
It completed our single-threaded Solidworks IGES export test in a mere 80 secs. Of all the workstations we’ve tested for this magazine, only the 8-core Intel Core i9 9900K overclocked to 4.9GHz beat this with a time of 75 secs.
With 128GB memory spread across four 32GB DDR4 DIMMs, our test machine is fully loaded and set up to handle some very large datasets.
Most CAD-centric workflows should be fine with 64GB, which would considerably bring down the overall cost of what is quite an expensive machine.
Graphics is courtesy of the excellent Nvidia Quadro RTX 4000 (8GB), which is a great match for mainstream real-time viz and VR workflows.
In the arch-viz focused Enscape, for example, we got a decent, if not silky-smooth 19 frames per second at 4K resolution using the very complex museum model.
The Quadro RTX 4000 is also good for GPU rendering, but if you’re considering a CPU with 16 cores, you probably have established CPUcentric rendering workflows anyway.
The other benefit of going down the CPU route is having a massive 128GB to play with for loading in complex models, HDRi environments and materials.
With the Quadro RTX 4000, you have to shoehorn everything into 8GB. When it comes to storage, there’s room for improvement, both in terms of performance and capacity.
Fitted with a single 500GB Samsung 960 Pro M.2 SSD, BOXX UK concedes that the machine would usually be configured with the more modern Samsung 970 Evo plus or 970 Pro M.2 SSDs.
Howwever, both of these drives are still PCIe 3.0, so can’t take advantage of the increased bandwidth on offer in the PCIe 4.0 Gigabyte AMD Ryzen X570 Aorus Ultra motherboard.
To put some figures behind this, the Scan 3XS WA6000 Viz and its Corsair MP600 PCIe 4.0 SSD was 16% faster at copying 4.6GB of 3ds max data (comprising 60 large scene files and 4,400 smaller materials) and 6% faster at copying 2.1GB of Solidworks data (comprising 3,400 parts and assemblies).
Of course, not all workflows will benefit from PCIe 4.0 and reliability is equally, if not more, important when it comes to workstations – and we’ve never had a Samsung SSD fail on us.
With regards to capacity, if 500GB is not enough, this is easily remedied by specifying a larger M.2 SSD (or a second), or up to two 3.5-inch Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) with capacities of up to 8TB.
As we’ve come to expect from BOXX, the Apexx A3 is very well-built, made from ‘aircraft-grade’ aluminium, and with a strength and rigidity beyond that of offthe-shelf cases.
And at 174 x 388 x 452mm, it’s also very compact, significantly smaller than Scan’s 3rd Gen AMD Ryzen Threadripper workstation.
The CPU is liquid-cooled, connected to a large radiator with two fans at the front of the machine.
In extended rendering tests, the CPU maintained an impressive 4.0GHz (0.5GHz over its base clock speed), but fan noise was noticeable.
In fact, we found the fans to be a little erratic on the whole, revving up and down from time to time, even when idle. It wasn’t particularly loud – but the change in tone could be distracting to those who work in quiet offices.
It’s telling that the two workstations we have in for review this month both feature AMD CPUs.
This would have been unthinkable a few years back, given Intel’s long-standing dominance in the workstation market, but the tide seems to be turning.
Architects, engineers and designers who are 100% focused on CAD or BIM may still fare better with Intel but, if you’re into CPU rendering or other multi-threaded workflows like point cloud processing or simulation, which can take full advantage of the many fast cores on offer, there’s now a compelling argument for AMD Ryzen, or indeed AMD Ryzen Threadripper.
And as an agile independent workstation manufacturer, BOXX offers both, giving it a distinct advantage over Dell, Fujitsu, HP and Lenovo, who are still 100% focused on Intel.
With the Apexx A3, the execution is good and the build quality of the compact custom chassis superb.
The only downside is the erratic fan noise which some may find distracting.
The BOXX Apexx A3, as reviewed, is available for a special price of £4,400 during January and February 2020, including delivery.
» AMD Ryzen 9 3950X CPU (3.5GHz, 4.7GHz Turbo) (16 cores)
» Nvidia Quadro RTX 4000 GPU (8GB GDDR6 memory)
» 128GB (4 x 32GB) DDR4 2,666MHz memory
» 500GB M.2 NVMe SSD (Samsung)» 174mm (w) x 388mm (h) x 452mm (d)
» Microsoft Windows 10 Pro 64-bit» 36 month return to base (RTB) warranty as standard
» £4,400 (Ex VAT) special price Jan/Feb 2020
» CPU benchmarks
CAD (Solidworks 2019 IGES export) – 80 secs (smaller is better)
Rendering (KeyShot 8.1) – 135 secs (smaller is better
(V-Ray Next Benchmark) – 23,714 kSamples (bigger is better)
» Graphics benchmarks
(frames per second @ 4K res) (bigger is better)
Viz (Enscape) Museum – 19
Viz (Lumen RT) Roundabout – 20
» GPU rendering benchmarks
(Solidworks Visualize 2020) 1969 Camaro car @ 4K
• 1,000 passes – 316 secs
• 100 passes + AI denoising – 37 secs (smaller is better)
(V-Ray Next Benchmark)
262 mpaths (bigger is better)
*All prices Ex VAT. Taken from scan.co.uk on 4/12/19.