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COMPUTING

Six NT workstations churn out intense performance

April 23, 1999
Web posted at: 6:00 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT)

by Michelle Speir, with testing by Andreas Uiterwijk & Pat McClung

From...
Federal Computer Week

(IDG) -- A year ago, an "NT workstation" was often just a personal computer with a fancy label running Microsoft Windows NT. Unix workstation users sneered, pointing out that these "workstations" contained neither the graphics capability nor the I/O architecture to handle immense image files or datasets.

What a difference a year makes. Today's NT workstations offer graphics abilities ranging from shouting to screaming. The new generation handles large chunks of data better too. Although this is outside of the scope of this review, perhaps the most compelling reason to consider a Windows NT workstation is high-end applications, previously the domain of Solaris and HP-UX, are now available on NT.

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Federal Computer Week compared six NT workstations. Only one, Sys Technology's PowerHouse G-500XD, fell into the "souped-up PC" category. The other five, from Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, are all true, workstation-class machines. (We also looked at, and fell in love with, SGI's unique 320 Visual Workstation, which uses a different Intel CPU, and we did not want to compare it side-by-side with the others.)

All six are powered by single 500-MHz Intel Pentium III Xeon CPUs, the top-of-the-line for Intel today. All are capable of operating with two CPUs; our test machines each had one. All contain 256 megabytes of RAM, and include 21-inch monitors. The SGI 320 Visual Workstation makes do with a cheaper, 500-MHz, non-Xeon Pentium. (Xeon CPUs offer additional instructions for handling graphics and multi-tasking chores with alacrity.)

As you would expect, benchmarks focussing on CPU performance generate similar results. Our SYSmark/98 business applications benchmark results were so close (scores ranged from 194 to 217) that the differences were negligible.

Such consistency was not the case for graphics performance. We ran the Viewperf suite of graphics benchmarks, testing at 1,280-pixels-by-1,024-pixels and true-color resolution. Six of the systems fell evenly into two tiers, with the seventh, the SGI system, landing 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 Xeon systems use the Intense 3D Wildcat 4000 graphics card. (At the time we ordered these systems, Intergraph manufactured the Wildcat 4000. Intergraph has since spun-out its graphics division, which is now called Intense 3D.) The Wildcat 4000 is actually two cards -- one AGP and one PCI -- connected by a cable. The pair features 64 megabytes of texture-mapping memory and 16 megabytes of frame-buffer memory. The Wildcat 4000 shreds the other graphics cards, but you pay for its ferocious performance.

Computers without the Wildcat 4000 cost between $5,000 and $6,500. Computers with with the Wildcat 4000 range in price from $7,130 to $10,520, perhaps a reflection of the card's list price of $2,400. (Intense 3D does not sell the Wildcat 4000 separately.)

The three Wildcat 4000-powered systems earned the top three scores in our review because we weighed graphics performance -- the primary reason for buying a workstation over a pedestrian PC -- more heavily than business applications performance.

Which system should you buy? If you need a calculator and database file clerk, the lower graphics performers are a good choice because of their lower prices. Don't pay for graphics capabilities you do not need. However, if you work on animation, computer-aided design, or video, pick a high-end graphics performer.

In depth

  1. Dell Computer Precision Workstation 610. Score 8.22
    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.
  2. Compaq Computer Professional Workstation SP700. Score: 7.58
    Its graphics performance is in the same class as Dell and IBM because all three use the Wildcat 4000. The Compaq also earned high scores in system design and management, and its price is competitive, although a bit less than Dell'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.
  3. IBM IntelliStation Z Pro. Score: 7.10
    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 other two. 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.
  4. Gateway E-5250 500. Score: 6.95
    At $5,372, it had the lowest price of all the systems we tested. But, like the HP and Sys units, it was hurt by the Viewperf scores generated by a 3DLabs Oxygen GMX 2000 graphics card, which sports 16 megabytes of video frame buffer memory and 80 megabytes of local texture memory.
  5. Hewlett-Packard Kayak XU PC Workstation Model D6342T. Score: 6.93
    The HP gets it graphics urge from an Evans and Sutherland AccelGalaxy graphics card with 15 megabytes of video memory and 16 megabytes of texture memory. E&S is a high-flyer in the high-end graphics world, though its benchmark scores were the lowest (although not by much) in four of the six Viewperf categories.
  6. Sys Technology PowerHouse G-500XD. Score: 5.96
    We liked the many options and settings included with the PowerHouse G-500XD system, especially for its Elsa Gloria XXL graphics card, but overall it falls short in system management. The price probably should be a bit lower for what you get.
  7. SGI 320 Visual Workstation. Score: Not ranked
    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. Viewperf does not measure such large amounts of graphics capacity, and is not a fair test of the 320 Visual Workstation's capabilities. Its price is competitive.

Testing conducted by Andreas Uiterwijk (andreas@fcw.com) and Pat McClung (pat_mcclung@fcw.com).


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