Graphics Powerhouses

Last year, most so-called Windows NT workstations were little more than souped-up PCs. They just couldn't hold a candle to Unix-class machines.

But what a difference a year makes. Today's NT workstations are screaming graphics performers, running applications created especially to take advantage of Windows NT's strengths. We tested six Windows NT workstations in our lab, and the results make it clear that the current crop is giving Unix machines a run for their money.

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 are all true work-

station-class machines: Compaq Computer Corp.'s Professional Workstation SP700; Dell Computer Corp.'s Precision Workstation 610, Gateway Inc.'s E-5250 500, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Kayak XU PC Workstation Model D6342T, and IBM Corp.'s IntelliStation Z Pro.

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).

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

Such consistency was not the case for graphics performance. We ran the Viewperf suite of graphics benchmarks, which consists of six tests that measure 3-D animation, layout and visualization, data visualization, 3-D lighting and shading, with two tests for 3-D modeling.

Three of the six systems-from Dell, Compaq and IBM-performed well ahead of the other three, and the SGI fell squarely in the middle. The reason is simple: The top three systems all use the same graphics solution-the Intense 3D Wildcat 4000. The card features 64M of texture-mapping memory and 16M of frame-buffer memory.

You will pay for its superb performance. While the systems without the Intense 3D card were priced from $4,900 to $6,500, the machines with the Intense 3D card range in price from $6,916 to $9,059, a reflection of the card's list price of $2,400, although the card is not sold separately.

(At the time we ordered these systems, the card was made 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. Compaq has since branded the system under its own name, the PowerStorm 600.)

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 8.14; Compaq's Professional Workstation SP700, which finished in second place with a final score of 7.59; and IBM's IntelliStation Z Pro, in third place with a score of 7.17.

The three lower-end graphics performers rounded out our review. HP's Kayak XU PC Workstation Model D6342T finished in fourth place with a score of 7.09, Gateway's E-5250 500 was fifth with a score of 6.67, and Sys Technology's PowerHouse G-500XD was sixth with a score of 5.82.

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 one of these high-end graphics performers.

- Michelle Speir, with testing by Andreas Uiterwijk and Pat McClung

*****

SGI's Workstation a Trailblazer

We had no choice but to hand Silicon Graphics Inc.'s 320 Visual Workstation our Technical Excellence Award. Instead of following the Intel Corp. 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. (Viewperf scores do not point to this system as the top graphics performer because Viewperf is not designed to measure such large amounts of graphics capacity.) Amazingly, you get all this power for the low price of $5,796.

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