FireGL 8800, Part II
Double-screen Maya without a care in the world

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[Editor's note: In the first part of this two-part review, our narrator came to terms with his need for a dual-monitor setup. Here, in part two, he fulfills it.]

So off I went, scavenging for a good deal on a FireGL 8800 card. It had pretty much just come out on the market, and it was selling fresh for anywhere between $750 and $950. As if by fate, on eBay a nice Canadian man came around to offer his new, but out of the box, FireGL 8800 for $500 with shipping.

Well, after a few heart-fluttering days of waiting for the postman to ring twice, as he always does, I got the card. I unceremoniously unwrapped the plain brown box, carefully ripped open the anti-static bag, put on my wrist strap, and held the card out to the sunlight like a newborn.

The FireGL, perhaps to spite the other pro-level cards, was about ¾ as long as my GVX-1 cards, and half the size (and price!) of the 3Dlabs Wildcats. This is good, as my tower is already swimming in components and the last thing I needed was the AGP card to interfere with my drives or their gaggle of cables.

I shooed my cat off PentiKoosh (my eponymous tower system), opened the case, and popped the sucker into the 4x AGP slot on my P4 Soyo motherboard. I was relieved to learn that the card did not require the adjacent PCI slot for cooling, as do the Wildcats and FireGL 3 and 4 cards. As a matter of fact, it sports one small heatsink fan combo that is not loud at all.

I connected my 19” Viewsonic to the analog VGA port of the FireGL 8800 and then I tried connecting my 17” Envision monitor to the card’s DVI port via an adapter I had lying around (but which should be included with the retail version).

Holding my breath, I turned on PentiKoosh and low and behold, the system ran through its POST routine on both monitors. Once Windows 2000 came up and I installed the Maya-certified drivers I had downloaded from the site, I was again a member of the two-monitor brotherhood; I could once again look down on all the one-monitor pedestrians. I popped open Maya and a few other applications and began working away, trying my damnedest to slow the video system down. The windows popped open faster than a blink, the screen refreshed with a definitive snap, and everything in Maya ran seemingly as fast as my FireGL 4 powered system at work. I was ecstatic. I basked in the glow of my CRTs, feeling pretty good about my $500 purchase.

But then, something went sour.

The next day, I couldn’t wait to rub Chris’ nose in the fact that I had the same video card as he, and that mine cost me a few hundred dollars less than he shelled out for his [see Part 1]. As I rounded the corner to our offices, he stumbled out of his door with bags under his eyes and told me of this monumental issue with the card he spent the night before trying to fix. He was utterly frustrated he was with it.

Under certain circumstances, he pointed out to me, the 8800 locked up Maya when you went to save your scene. It was unusable as far as he was now concerned. “Dude, check it out before you buy it.” He stumbled back into his office, leaving me in the hallway, dumfounded.

I felt $500 shivers shoot down my spine, and I clutched at my chest a la Redd Foxx. “Too late,” I murmured through my tears. I hate Chris.

I went home at lunch to try to replicate the issue in Maya, and sure enough, Maya froze faster than a deer in headlights. I tried reinstalling driver after driver, but the card kept crashing under Maya, the details of which I won’t bore you with.

Now to be fair, the 8800 is a relatively new entry into workstation graphics, and good drivers take time to cook up, so issues like these are very typical with high-end cards running high-end software. So I called ATI tech support in Canada, and they told me of a new driver they were in beta test on. I downloaded it, ran it home after work and BAM! it worked gloriously. I deleted the A|W certified drivers off my system, and I was rolling along in double-screen Maya without a care in the world. Let them eat cake!

The only other issue I’ve noticed that is more of a nuisance more than a serious hindrance in Maya is that the second display does not display the scrub bar in the timeline window or the gray selection box of a marquee selection in any of the work windows.

Seeing as I use the second display only for palettes such as the Multilister and Hypergraph/Outliner, it’s not so much of an issue. Plus, I’m sure it’s a driver problem that will be fixed pretty soon. And by “I’m sure” I mean, “I hope.” And by “I hope” I mean, “they better fix it soon.”

Despite that minor issue, I really thought so highly of the card, especially in comparison to my dual GVX-1s, that I popped open a Word window and started this review of the card. All of a sudden though, even with two monitors, I started feeling a bit claustrophobic on my screen. Shuffling between Maya windows, Word windows, Winamp and instances of my net browser started getting on my nerves.

And then I had a vision. Gwyn Paltrow, in my shower, handful of baby powder. She leans over to me and whispers sweetly, “Multidesk, Multidesk.” The vision flashed away as quickly as it flashed in, and I found myself staring at a little purple icon on the Windows tool bar.

The ATI drivers come with Hydravision software, a display management suite of tools that keep tabs on your window locations, screen resolution, and multi-monitor support. Multidesk, a feature of Hydravision is a nifty little toolbar icon that allows you to switch between multiple desktops.

I laid out a desktop full of Maya windows, another with my Word and browser windows, and a third to accommodate Winamp and my throng of MP3s. A simple click of the toolbar, and I switch back and forth, no fretting over space, no sweating over where I placed my windows. If only my bedroom was so easy.

Now, I’m no gearhead, so numbers and stats and don’t really mean a whole lot to me, and I won’t flood you with them here. I am, however, a critic of how things work sitting on my desk, and I have to say, after having this card installed in PentiKoosh for a number of weeks now, I am totally happy with the FireGL 8800. It is a blazing fast card for the few games I play, and works fast and solid with Maya, despite its slight secondary display issue.

The FireGL 8800 is definitely worth the $500 I paid for it. It offers performance comparable to higher-class cards such as the Wildcats, but at a much-reduced price. It is easy to install, and comes with good drivers and tech support.

If you’re in the market for a workstation class card, give this one a good long, loving look.

The FireGL 8800 runs on the Radeon 8800 chipset from ATI, it sports a hefty 128MB of DDR RAM, and blah, blah, blah; what am I, your mom? Check it out yourself. The specs are at ATI’s web site at http://www.ati.com/products/workstation/firegl8800/specs.html.

In summation, FireGL 8800 – good. Gwynneth Paltrow – great!

But wait!! Just when you though it was safe to get back in the AGP water…. The workstation video war to win over our little animator hearts and minds is heating up! Nvidia is dropping by the PentiKoosh for a drink and a BBQ. We’ll break out the Maya benchmarks, and pit card against card and see which makes our little flat-footed animator the happiest! You may have missed Tyson v. Lewis—which means you didn’t miss much—but don’t miss this!

Dariush Derakhshani is an Animator at Sight Effects in Venice, CA He describes himself thusly: "30. Nicely bald. Fear of commitment. Mostly malaisey. Enlarged nasal turbinates. Taste for irony and digestive biscuits with chocolate. Has no idea how he got here, no idea of where there is to go. Animator. Teacher. A few awards and a couple degrees. Big pores, flat feet." He can be found lurking about his web site at www.painfulurination.com, or he can be reached with a 10 foot pole at dariush@digitallab.com.





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