Graphics powerhouses

Tested by Andreas Uiterwijk and Pat McClung

When we last looked at Windows NT workstations [Government Best Buys, March 1998], we found that many vendors were billing souped-up PCs as workstations rather than offering true workstation-class machines. Those so-called workstations just could not compete with Unix.

Today vendors are offering true workstations. These machines have screaming graphics performance, and they're giving Unix a run for its money. Vendors have developed applications that take advantage of Windows NT's strengths, and it is looking as though Windows NT is the wave of the future for workstations.

Of the six systems we looked at in this review, only one, Sys Technology Inc.'s PowerHouse G-500XD, fell into the "souped-up PC" category. The other five, from Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp., are all true workstation-class machines. We also looked at a unique system from Silicon Graphics Inc. that contains a 500 MHz Pentium III chip (not a Xeon); it earned our Technical Excellence Award (see sidebar, Page 29).

All of the systems are priced to include 21-inch monitors, and they are all dual-processor-capable, although we tested them with a single 500 MHz processor. All of them have 256M of memory, and all feature Intel Corp.'s Pentium III Xeon chip with the new Katmai instruction set. As a result, our SYSmark/98 business applications benchmark results were so close for all the machines that the differences were negligible. The systems turned out good scores that ranged from 194 to 217.

Such consistency was not the case for graphics performance, however. We ran the Viewperf suite of graphics benchmarks, testing at 1,280-pixels-by-1,024-pixels true-color resolution. Six of the systems were divided evenly into two tiers, with the seventh, the SGI system, falling squarely in the middle. Viewperf consists of six tests that measure 3-D animation, layout and visualization, data visualization, 3-D lighting and shading, and two tests for 3-D modeling.

The reason for this two-tier division is simple: The top three systems all use the same graphics solution, the Intense 3D Wildcat 4000, which Compaq has branded under its own name, the PowerStorm 600. (At the time we ordered these systems, this card was manufactured by Intergraph Corp., which has since separated its graphics division, now called Intense 3D. Therefore, the software and drivers we looked at still used the Intergraph name.) The setup actually consists of two cards - one AGP card and one PCI card - connected by a cable. The Intense 3D Wildcat 4000 features 64M of texture-mapping memory and 16M of frame-buffer memory. It beat the others hands-down, but you will pay for its superb performance. While the non-Intense 3D systems are priced between $5,000 and $6,500, the machines with the Intense 3D card range in price from $7,130 to $10,520, a reflection of the card's list price of $2,400 (although the card is not sold separately).

The three systems that feature the Intense 3D card received the top three scores in our review because we weighed graphics performance - the primary reason for buying a workstation over a desktop PC - more heavily than business applications performance. The top three were Dell's Precision Workstation 610, our Best Buy Award winner with a final score of 8.22; Compaq's Professional Workstation SP700, which finished in second place with a final score of 7.58; and IBM's IntelliStation Z Pro, in third place with a score of 7.10.

The three lower-end graphics performers rounded out our review. Gateway's E-5250 500 was fourth with a score of 6.95, HP's Kayak XU PC Workstation Model D6342T finished in fifth place with a score of 6.93, and Sys Technology's PowerHouse G-500XD was sixth with a score of 5.96.

So which system should you buy? If you do mainly calculations and database work, the lower graphics performers are a good choice because of their reasonable prices. There is no need to pay extra for graphics capabilities you will not need. However, if you plan to do work such as animation, computer-aided design or video, you'll definitely want a high-end graphics performer.

**

Dell's Precision Workstation 610

Taking first place in three of the six Viewperf categories, Dell's Precision Workstation 610 ran away with our Best Buy Award with a final score of 8.22. Although the IBM IntelliStation Z Pro also took first place in three Viewperf categories, Dell's competitive price of $7,130 was $3,000 less than the IBM, which gave it the edge.

Dell's excellent system design starts with a cover that is easier to remove than any other we've seen. Simply push a button, and it lifts right off. The external drive bays feature quick-release tabs, and the entire hard drive bay pops out when you pull down a large handle. The extremely modular design features good airflow across the CPUs, which is important for these large Xeon processors. The internal expansion slots are easy to reach, and memory is easily accessible.

We awarded the Dell system a score of good for setup/ease of use. It features color-coded plugs for the keyboard and a three-button mouse. It comes with Dell Accessories software, which includes service and support phone numbers and manufacturing information as well as a program disk maker and a bootable diskette containing utilities.

We liked Dell's OpenManage client software, which helped this machine earn a very good management score. This software is part of Dell's strategy for managing the client on a network, and we found it easy to use. The system is Desktop Management Interface 2.0-compliant.

This system was one of the three in this review to contain the top-performing graphics solution, the Intense 3D Wildcat 4000. Although this card does not feature as many user-definable settings as some of the other graphics cards, it still performed better than the others. It adds two tabs to the Display Properties in the Control Panel: Intergraph Settings and Intergraph Monitor. The Intergraph Settings tab lets you view the card's settings and change some of them, such as allowing customized settings. The Intergraph Monitor tab lets you choose cabling and monitor options, set gamma correction and select a display type (single-, double- or quad-monitor setup).

With superb graphics performance, good processing power, excellent system design, easy-to-use management software and a very reasonable price, we highly recommend the Dell Precision Workstation 610 for anyone needing to buy a quality workstation-class machine without breaking the bank.

**

Compaq's Professional Workstation SP700

Our second-place finisher was Compaq's Professional Workstation SP700, with a final score of 7.58. This machine also uses the top graphics solution (branded the PowerStorm 600), and the Viewperf scores show it. The Compaq turned in high scores across all six categories, very near the top-scoring Dell and IBM systems. At $8,861, this system also features a competitive price.

As with the Dell, we awarded the Compaq a system design score of excellent. The unit is extremely modular, and memory is easy to access. The hard drive is secured by thumbscrews, and the CPUs are held in with a large screw knob that is easy to loosen. Compaq still uses standard screws for the external expansion drives, but on the plus side, an extra set is included. Finally, the system's fan setup creates good airflow across the CPUs.

The Compaq unit earned a score of very good for setup/ease of use. The system includes a desktop Getting Started icon that points to a folder listing Compaq support numbers and links to World Wide Web sites. You can set up an Info Messenger feature that will automatically inform you of updates. Compaq diagnostics, network drivers and PowerStorm drivers come with the system on CDs and diskettes. A SmartStart CD also is included. The mouse is the three-button variety, designed for CAD and engineering applications.

This system landed a score of excellent for expandability because of its jaw-dropping maximum memory capacity of 4G of Error Code Correcting (ECC) SDRAM. That's twice as much as all the other units in this review.

Compaq's Insight Manager contains a host of management capabilities, including Wake on LAN, that render the system DMI 2.0-compliant. Unfortunately, there was no DMI client installed, which knocked the system's management score from an excellent to a very good.

The Compaq unit gives the Dell system a run for its money. Its graphics performance is in the same league as the Dell and IBM machines because it uses the same graphics solution. It also earned high scores in system design and management, and its price is competitive, although a bit less so than the Dell workstation's. The largest score discrepancy between the two systems was in technical support, with the Compaq receiving a satisfactory score and the Dell earning a very good.

**

IBM's IntelliStation Z Pro

Rounding out the top three graphics performers in our review was IBM's IntelliStation Z Pro, which landed a final score of 7.10. It is no surprise that this system fell within the ranks of the top graphics powerhouses because it also uses the Intense 3D Wildcat 4000 graphics solution. The IntelliStation Z Pro grabbed the top scores in the three Viewperf categories remaining after the Dell nabbed high scores in the other three. What kept the IBM behind the Dell and the Compaq was its higher price of $10,520. This was the highest-priced system in the review.

The IntelliStation Z Pro did not fare as well as the Dell or the Compaq in system design. The case cover is stubborn to remove. All drives are held in by standard screws. Accessing the memory is a bit difficult, and the system is a bit crowded inside. It also is not modular . Airflow across the CPUs is good, and the case cover features a key lock. Overall, the IBM received a good score for system design.

We liked IBM's setup/ease of use and gave the unit a score of very good. The system comes with a Welcome Center that is comprehensive and easy to use. It includes a Getting Started section with instructions on how to partition hard drives, add software, set printers and more. From there, you can access the impressive online library, which includes a quick-start guide, a user's guide and an IBM Universal Management Agent Guide. Utilities with drivers and diagnostics are included on CDs, and there's a Via Voice Gold CD.

The IntelliStation Z Pro comes with a host of applications for DMI 2.0 compliance, including Intel's LANDesk - one of the better management applications out there. It also includes the IBM Universal Management Agent. The IBM system earned a final management score of good.

Like the Dell and the Compaq, the IBM is a graphics powerhouse, using the same Intergraph card. Shortcomings include a high price and a system design that is good but not nearly in the same league as the design of the other two systems. Improvements to the cover removal, the interior working room and the modularity of the system, as well as a price cut, would elevate the IBM to the level of the Dell and Compaq systems.

The Compaq, Dell and IBM workstations were the only products in this review to score above a 7.0 on our scale of 1 to 10, earning our official stamp of approval as recommended systems.

**

Gateway's E-5250 500

The Gateway E-5250 500 landed in fourth place with a final score of 6.95. At $5,372, it had the lowest price of all the systems we tested. But, like the HP unit, it was hurt by its Viewperf scores, which fell into the lower tier in this review.

The tall E-5250 500 chassis offers a lot of working room inside. The memory is easy to access, and there is good airflow across the CPUs. However, the unit is not modular, and everything is secured with standard screws. One nice innovation is a single bar fastened with two screws that holds in all the PC Cards. Simply unfasten this bar, and you can access all the cards at once. The Gateway earned a system design score of good.

Gateway ships the system with a Microsoft IntelliMouse, which features a scroll wheel that can be used as a third button. Color-coded plugs make the keyboard and mouse connections easy to recognize. Gateway lost points by including a bootable CD-ROM rescue disk that only supports Windows 95 and 98 but not Windows NT. This lowered the setup/ease of use score from a very good to a good.

The system is DMI 2.0-compliant and received a score of very good in management for its inclusion of Intel's LANDesk Client management software.

The E-5250 500 ships with a 3DLabs Inc. Oxygen GMX 2000 graphics card with 16M of video frame buffer memory and 80M of local texture memory. This card only adds one tab to the Control Panel's Display Properties and is not very configurable. You can set a few Open GL settings and choose the monitor type, but there is support for only three applications.

As with the HP unit, we would not recommend this workstation for extremely high-end graphics work. But at such a low price, this solid system makes sense if your work is mostly with databases and calculations.

**

HP's Kayak XU PC Workstation Model D6342T

The HP Kayak XU PC Workstation Model D6342T has a big name but a small price. At $5,829, it is the second lowest-priced system in our roundup and one of only two that cost less than $6,000. It finished in fifth place with a final score of 6.93. The HP's scores suffered on the Viewperf benchmark, carrying the lowest (although not by much) scores for four of the six Viewperf categories.

This workstation features one of the best overall designs we've seen from HP in the past few years. The case cover features a key lock and is extremely easy to remove. Thumbscrews secure the hard

drives and CPUs. The external drive bays are held in by two standard screws in the front of the unit, which isn't as nice as having quick-release tabs, but it is still better than an awkward screw configuration that requires you to reach inside the unit. There is a lot of room to work inside the unit, which unfortunately is not modular except for the hard drives. The well-directed airflow includes a separate fan for the hard drives. We liked the fact that sound ports are located on the front as well as the rear of the unit, and the keyboard features fully programmable hot keys.

The best part of the system design, however, is the diagnostic LCD panel located on the front of the machine. We've never seen anything like this before. The panel is easy to read and navigate, and it displays all kinds of system status information. We awarded the HP a system design score of excellent.

The HP unit scored a very good for setup/ease of use. The system comes with a handy online document titled "Get to Know Your HP Workstation," which contains links to Web sites and drivers. Adobe Systems Inc.'s Acrobat comes installed on the system, and a bootable diagnostics CD-ROM is also included.

This workstation earned an expandability score of good. Its maximum memory is 2G of ECC SDRAM, and it features three free PCI slots and one free shared slot after factory configuration. It also includes a PCI extension slot for adding a Redundant Array of Independent Disks card. There are three free external drive bays and one free internal drive bay after factory configuration.

The HP Kayak XU is DMI 2.0-compliant and ships with the HP TopTools client manager interface, which is almost as thorough as Intel's LANDesk. The system also includes a remote management console, intrusion-detection device, fan-speed control, voltage monitoring and remote flash BIOS updating, all of which helped the HP earn an excellent management score.

The system includes an Evans and Sutherland Computer Corp. AccelGalaxy graphics card with 15M of video memory and 16M of texture memory. One AccelPanel tab is added to the Control Panel's Display Properties. From there you can change the factory settings and enter custom settings. There is a list of graphics applications to choose from, although this list is not as long as the one included with Elsa Inc.'s Gloria XXL graphics card, which comes with the Sys Technology system. When you select an application, the system displays preset optimal driver settings for that application.

The Kayak XU PC Workstation Model D6342T is a good, solid machine that comes at a very low price.

However, if you need super graphics performance, this machine may not meet your needs.

But if your work will consist primarily of handling databases and calculations, this would be a sensible choice.

**

Sys Technology's PowerHouse G-500XD

With a sixth-place final score of 5.96, the Sys Technology PowerHouse G-500XD was the most basic system in our review. It is more like a souped-up PC than a true workstation-class machine, and its Viewperf scores landed in the lower end of graphics performers. While not expensive at $6,449, this price is still higher than the HP and Gateway systems.

The Sys Technology machine received a good system design score. Cables are neatly tucked away, the memory is easily accessible, and there is good airflow across the CPUs. The CD-ROM drive features quick-release tabs, but the hard drive and floppy drives are secured with standard screws. The unit is not modular.

The system features color-coded plugs for the keyboard and mouse. We liked the unique mouse, which features vertical and horizontal scroll wheels as well as an additional small third button on the side. Sys Technology ships the unit with CDs and diskettes that include SCSI drivers, graphics drivers and dual-wheel mouse drivers.

There was no setup software or other "getting started" help, so the PowerHouse G-500XD earned a satisfactory score for setup/ease of use.

The maximum memory this workstation can hold is 2G of ECC SDRAM, and the system earned an expandability score of good. It leaves four PCI slots and one shared slot free after factory configuration, and it has three free external drive bays.

The PowerHouse G-500XD is DMI 2.0-compliant, but it does not come with any management applications. Sys Technology should consider including management software to make this a more manageable corporate workstation.

We gave the system a satisfactory score for management.

This workstation comes with the Elsa Gloria XXL graphics card with 16M of display memory and 24M of local 3-D memory for the Z-buffer and textures. The card adds an Elsa Gloria Settings tab to the Display Properties in the Control Panel. There is a long list of applications to choose from and, as with the Evans and Sutherland AccelGalaxy card, selecting an application brings up a set of optimized driver settings for that application. There also are many options with which you can create your own configuration.

We liked the many options and settings included with the PowerHouse G-500XD system, but overall it is a very basic unit that falls short in the management arena and is really more like a fancy PC than a true workstation. The price probably should be a bit lower for what you get in this package.

**

Conclusion

In deciding which workstation to purchase, government buyers should focus on graphics. If your work will involve large graphics applications, you definitely should buy one of the high-end graphics performers.

But if your focus is on databases and calculations, the other systems offer lower prices while churning out virtually the same level of performance on business applications. If you need mega-graphics capabilities and want to try a fresh approach, we strongly suggest considering the innovative SGI 320 Visual Workstation.

*****

PRODUCTS TESTED

* Compaq Computer Corp.Professional Workstation SP700Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.58

* Dell Computer Corp.Precision Workstation 610Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 8.22

* Gateway Inc.E-5250 500Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 6.95

* Hewlett-Packard Co.Kayak XU PC Workstation Model D6342TAvailable on the GSA schedule.Score: 6.93

* IBM Corp.IntelliStation Z ProAvailable on the GSA schedule.Score: 7.10

* Sys Technology Inc.PowerHouse G-500XDAvailable on the open market.Score: 5.96

*****

SGI's 320 Visual Workstation: A unique trailblazer

Written by Michelle Speir

Tested by Andreas Uiterwijk

If we had to use one word to describe Silicon Graphics Inc.'s 320 Visual Workstation, it would be "unique." We had no choice but to hand this trailblazer our Technical Excellence Award. Instead of following the Intel standard, SGI has taken a proprietary approach in designing the system. One result is the capability to handle massive graphics files - larger then any other system in this review could handle. (The reason our Viewperf scores do not point to this system as the top graphics performer is that Viewperf is not designed to measure such large amounts of graphics capacity.) Amazingly, you get all this for the low price of $6,037.

In the Viewperf test results, the 320 Visual Workstation landed right in between the three top-scoring Intense 3D Wildcat 4000 card users and the three lower-scoring systems. But again, remember that this benchmark suite is not designed to take advantage of a setup like SGI's.

The chipset is where things get really interesting. SGI's proprietary ASIC - in place of an Intel chipset - allows a different approach to memory allocation and video. Because the SGI's DIMMs are half the size of regular ones, you must use SGI's custom memory modules. This design has doubled the data path to and from memory, providing for much faster access time.

The graphics system in this machine is totally unique. Instead of using a separate graphics card, the 320 Visual Workstation allows users to allocate up to 80 percent of the high-speed system memory for video memory. There also are two types of video ports: one for a flat-panel display and one for a standard monitor. The flat-panel display that you can order with this workstation is extra wide, which is nice, but the panel is not good for animation because it cannot redraw fast enough to keep up with the system.

SGI also takes a different approach to setup. Instead of a BIOS, this machine uses a Programmable Read-Only Memory chip that has a Unix-like look and feel. From the PROM, you can access system utilities and install software. One downside to the PROM becomes apparent when Windows locks up. Upon rebooting, the system does not automatically come up with a list of boot mode choices (safe mode, DOS, etc.) like most Windows computers. Instead, you must access the PROM, manually select a default mode and then click Start. Once a mode is selected, the machine will continue to boot in that mode until you change it yourself, unlike most other systems that automatically default to regular Windows mode.

The SGI's expandability is somewhat limited. Only one external and one internal drive bay are free after factory configuration. The maximum memory is 1G, but that is standard for a Pentium III chipset.

This machine is Year 2000-compliant as well as DMI 2.0-compliant, and it includes Intel's LANDesk Client Manager and the SGI Interoperability Tool Kit. The system also comes with McAfee's VirusScan, Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator 4.5 and McAfee's WebScanX, which protects the system from malicious ActiveX or Java scripts that might be downloaded from the Web. SGI further includes voltage monitoring and temperature monitoring.

The 320 Visual Workstation offers many more user settings for graphics than some of the other systems we saw. It adds two separate applets to the Control Panel. One is the Color Lock system, and the other is the Silicon Graphics Video Control. Color Lock works with the flat-panel display and, on the hardware side, features a sensor that hooks over the panel and reads color levels. The software allows you to "lock in" a particular set of colors so that they will always look the same when that particular project is printed. This functionality is important for artwork projects. The Video Control applet allows you to set the color as it enters and exits the system through the video jacks. You can adjust sharpness, meet TV and video standards and reduce noise.

Two tabs are added to the Display Settings in the Control Panel. The Silicon Graphics settings feature a drop-down list of project types, such as desktop publishing, CAD and image manipulation. The Display tab enables you to select the video mode, gamma value and gamma correction.

If your needs include a system that can handle massive graphics projects, take a serious look at this workstation. A lot of innovation makes this system stand out, and it all comes at a very reasonable price.

Any review of the 320 Visual Workstation wouldn't be complete without detailing the Silicon Graphics 1600SW flat-panel monitor, which includes a number of features that make it unique and innovative. When we tested the SGI, we looked at both the 1600SW and a standard 17-inch VGA monitor.

The 1600SW flat panel was extremely easy to install, and the system auto-configured it for us. The 1600SW measures 17.3 inches diagonally, which allows for a superwide 1,600-by-1,024 resolution. That means you can display two full pages of data side by side. This resolution at 24-bit true color allows for a total of 16.7 million colors. The 1600SW also features an ultra-fine dot pitch of 0.23 mm.

The most innovative feature included with this monitor, however, is the Color Lock system that works in conjunction with the 320 Visual Workstation. This system allows you to set color consistency across multiple devices, such as printers. To use the Color Lock system, simply access the Color Lock application, place the special Color Lock sensor on the flat panel and lock in the color settings of the data you have currently displayed. This system is an extremely useful tool for people who want color printouts to match the colors displayed on the screen.

The only issue we had with the flat-panel monitor - which won't affect most people - was the redraw rate of the screen. Our benchmarks were running so fast on the SGI that sometimes it looked as though the 1600SW was having trouble keeping up with the screen refresh rate that the system was generating.

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