Extreme Speed-Six Workstations Push the Limits31 Oct, 2004 By: Ron LaFon
The systems submitted for this roundup are the most varied I've seen in one of our roundups for some time: AGP-based systems, PCI Express systems, single-processor workstations, and dual-processor systems. One vendor submitted a workstation for the first time—Alienware, a familiar name in the industry. Among the six systems we tested for this roundup, a few produced scores at or above 150 on our Cadalyst Labs C2001 Benchmark Total Index—the fastest group of systems we've ever seen.
Reviewers Report Card
I've run our C2001 Benchmark more times than I can count and am accustomed to seeing a steady and incremental increase in performance over time as CPUs, graphics cards, and other system components become faster. Watching the test run on some of these systems was simply remarkable.
Both Intel Pentium and AMD processors made appearances in several speeds and variations, as did PCI Express graphics cards. For the first time, some systems didn't include the once-standard 3.5" floppy drive. Cases were generally smaller, if not significantly quieter, and all had PCI Express buses. The Dell Precision 370 system was built around the newest offering from Intel, a 3.8GHz Pentium 4 processor.
Life in the Fast Lane—watch for speed bumps
Performance isn't simply a matter of CPU speed or a given microprocessor. It also has to do with determining which components actually work well together, rather than relying on what ought to work. Building workstations is an art, and many of the vendors whose systems tested here excel at their art and their craft.
Based on performance figures and a close examination of the test results for individual systems, Intel has once again gained the upper hand in terms of performance. This is a result of improvements to the basic chipsets on the motherboards and increasing processor speeds. A year ago, AMD was the performance champion, in part due to some less-than-stellar performance from the then-current Intel processors. That situation seems to have reversed itself, with Intel currently shining in the speed arena. AMD has some new processors scheduled for release in the near future, so this situation may well reverse itself again before long. Impressive computer systems have been and continue to be built around both processor families, as evidenced by the test results posted by systems in this roundup.
If you're considering new workstations for your team, you're sure to find something you like among the speedy systems reviewed here. There's been a definite leap in both performance and technology. These well-designed systems, generally offered at very good prices, will help you get your work done better and faster without breaking your budget in the process.
XI 3600E MTOWER@Xi Computer
Star rating: 5 stars out of 5
The @Xi Computer 3600E MTower delivers a winning combination of the highest performance figures in this roundup and the lowest price—$3,499, some $389 less than its nearest competitor, even equipped with 2GB of DDR2 RAM. This double distinction earned it a Cadalyst Labs 5-star Highly Recommended rating.
The Xi 3600E MTower from @Xi Computer offers the fastest performance of any workstation in this review at the lowest price.
The 3600E MTower system I received used an ASUS P5AD2 Deluxe motherboard with the Intel 925X chipset. This supported a 3.6GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor with 1MB cache. The system features an 800MHz front-side bus and a Maxtor ATA133 160GB (80+80) RAID 0 array of two hard disks. I experienced some problems reading custom-written CD-ROMs using the LiteOn 48X/24X/48X drive. The system includes the speedy NVIDIA Quadro FX 3400 graphics card using NVIDIA's v220.127.116.1177 drivers. I used NVIDIA's MAXtreme v6.00.07 accelerated driver for the 3ds max benchmark series.
The system I tested was housed in a matte black case with a clear Plexiglass side panel that can be removed with no tools. Other case colors and options are available. The 3600E MTower has nine available drive bays that, with the beefy 460W AMS power supply and additional case fans, provide plenty of expandability options.
Other components of the @Xi 3600E included a Logitech Optical mouse and a Logitech Deluxe black Windows keyboard. Among the connectivity options are single parallel and serial ports, a FireWire connector on the front of the system, and six USB 2.0 ports—two on the front of the system and four at the rear.
As with other workstation systems from @Xi, the 3600E MTower is available with a broad range of accessories, peripherals, and system options. You can configure systems online with different options to check the pricing.
The @Xi Computer 3600E MTower turned in a speedy 154.74 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 Total Index, both the highest score in the roundup and the highest score of any system tested at Cadalyst Labs. On the SPECviewperf 7.1.1 proe-02 viewset, the 3600E MTower produced a score of 49.36. On the MAXBench 4 benchmark, the @Xi 3600E MTower posted an averaged high/low frame rate of 92.98 (70.10 with the default Windows drivers and 115.85 using the NVIDIA MAXtreme v6.00.07 accelerated driver for 3ds max).
@Xi has done it once again—great numbers and a great price win it yet another 5-star rating from Cadalyst. Highly Recommended.
Star rating: 4 stars out of 5
Price: $5,965 (with three-year warranty)
Alienware is as well known for its extreme gaming systems as it is for its distinctive system styling. The Alienware MJ-12 X2 is the company's first system tested at Cadalyst Labs. The MJ-12 X2 is based on dual Intel 3.4GHz Xeon processors using the Tumwater (Intel E7525) chipset. System RAM as delivered for testing was 2GB of dual-channel DDR2 ECC registered 400MHz memory, with a possible 4GB on the motherboard when it's fully populated.
Alienware's MJ-12 X2 is based on dual Intel 3.4GHz Xeon processors and can power multiple displays.
The case on the Alienware MJ-12 X2 is distinctive, somewhat large (it measures 22" X 9.5" X 22.5"), and not likely to fit everyone's taste. The housing is a high-gloss black that I found easy to mark up, but this is strictly a cosmetic matter. Continuing the alien theme, Alienware offers a custom Windows interface based on Stardock's WindowBlinds. I didn't use this interface enhancement for any of our benchmark testing.
On the test bench, the MJ-12 X2 produced scores of 128.59 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 Benchmark, 40.18 on the SPECviewperf 7.1.1 proe-02 viewset, and 80.10 on the averaged high/low frame rates with MAXBench 4. With NVIDIA's MAXtreme 6.00.07 accelerated driver for 3ds max, the averaged score was 100.89. Not bad scores at all—just not as fast as some of the single-processor systems in this pack of fast systems.
The Alienware MJ-12 X2 system received for testing came with many extras. Among these were two, 120GB Seagate and two 250GB Western Digital two hard disks, each pair a distinct RAID array, as well as both a Pioneer 16X DVD-ROM and a Plextor PX-712A 12X DVD±R/W. Video was handled by an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3400 PCI Express graphics card, which I tested with drivers v18.104.22.16821. The FX 3400 ships with 256MB of on-board memory. Though components such as these make for a great and useful system, their inclusion adds to the overall cost, which in this case is $5,965 as configured for testing, with three years of warranty coverage added. This price, though it includes many niceties, was significantly higher than the average for the systems reviewed here. As a result, it pulled the overall rating for the MJ-12 X2 down to a four-star rating. The system comes with a one-year warranty on parts and labor, but to accurately compare systems I added $265 to upgrade to a more standard three-year warranty. Pricing with a one-year warranty only is $5,700.
Lots of expandability options are available on the Alienware MJ-12 X2, which offers four external 5.25" drive bays and eight external 3.5" bays. Eight more 3.5" slots are accessible internally. This largesse in available drive bays is backed by a 660W Enermax power supply to handle any additional power drains created by peripherals. The MJ-12 X2 provides eight USB 2.0 ports, four on the front of the system and four in back.
Alienware offers a wide range of configuration options when building systems for customers—see the company Web site for expanded information on available options.
Dell Precision 370Dell
Star rating: 5 stars out of 5
Measuring a compact 17.5" X 6.5" X 18" (hXwXd), the Dell Precision 370 is proof that good things do indeed come in small packages. This is certainly one of the smallest workstations that has ever passed through Cadalyst Labs. It also happens to be one of the fastest. The motherboard in the test system was populated with 2GB of dual-channel DDR2 memory with up to 4GB possible.
The highly recommended Dell Precision 370 workstation is small, but offers all the power of a larger system.
Based on an Intel 3.8GHz Pentium 4 microprocessor, the first ever to come through Cadalyst Labs, the Dell Precision 370 proved to be extremely quiet, certainly living up to Dell's trademarked QuietCase acoustic environment. At times it was even difficult to tell whether the system was turned on and booting up for the tests.
I tested the Dell Precision 370 with Microsoft Windows XP Professional, which I used to run a series of benchmark tests, and with Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS and Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS 3 for Intel EM64T.
The system I reviewed included an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3400 PCI Express graphics card with 256MB of onboard memory installed. Testing was completed with graphics driver v22.214.171.12462 and MAXtreme 6.00.07 for part of the MAXBench4 benchmark test. Support is incorporated for new PCI Express graphics cards rated up to 150W.
The compact aspect of the Dell Precision 370 does limit the expandability options because of its fewer available drive bays and 350W power supply. But if workstation size is an important factor in your purchase decision, this is an excellent option. Despite its small size, the Dell Precision 270 accommodates up to 1.2TB—yes, terabytes—of internal system storage. The system features a 1GB Ethernet card and eight USB 2.0 ports.
When it comes to benchmarks, the Dell Precision 370 is a real performer. It achieved a score of 153.42 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark, which was, as it turns out, the second-highest score ever achieved with this benchmark. The Dell Precision 370 turned in the highest score for the SPECviewperf 7.1.1 proe-02 test with a blazing 49.42. Performance on the 3ds max MAXBench4 tests were well above average, but not at the top of the field: a score of 69.93 was generated using the default video driver, and 119.11 using the NVIDIA MAXtreme 6.00.07 accelerated driver. The averaged 3ds max score was 94.52.
The Dell Precision 270 received A- scores in two categories: pricing ($4,066), and the return policy—all other vendors in this review provide an additional week or more. In addition, the system received a B+ for its somewhat limited expandability. Still, even with these less-than-perfect scores, the Dell Precision 370 received a Cadalyst 5-star rating. Highly Recommended.
IntelliStation A Pro 6224IBM
Star rating: 5 stars out of 5
The IBM IntelliStation A Pro 6224 is a compact but heavy system. It's also one of the fastest systems I've ever seen in Cadalyst Labs. Based on the new AMD Opteron 250 running at 2.4GHz and combined with the speedy new NVIDIA Quadro FX 4000, this is a machine built for performance. For those who think that AGP is dead, this system handily refutes the notion that you must have PCI Express to achieve great performance.
The IBM IntelliStation APro/6224 achieved the fasted ever Cadalyst Labs Index Score for a workstation with an AGP graphics card.
As is typical of IBM workstations, the IntelliStation A Pro is solidly built, with excellent engineering. The finish and attention to detail are outstanding throughout. Thanks to its speedy performance, the IBM IntelliStation A Pro received a 5-star rating from Cadalyst Labs despite its lower score for overall system price, which is a bit on the expensive side at $5,488.
The IntelliStation A Pro achieved a Cadalyst Labs C2001 Total Index score of 149.03—the fastest ever for a workstation with an AGP graphics card, the speedy NVIDIA Quadro FX 4000 in this case. Other benchmark scores included 45.08 on the SPECviewperf 7.1.1 proe-02 viewset. The MAXBench 4 test produced an averaged high/low frame rate score of 97.44, 69 using the default v126.96.36.19976 graphics driver and 125.87 when using the NVIDIA MAXtreme 6.00.07 accelerated driver for 3ds max.
An extremely wide range of configuration options is available for the IntelliStation A Pro, including multiple options for virtually every component used in the system. With the options included in this system, it was both stable and speedy, and I encountered no problems whatsoever.
Table 1. Workstation Features
Although the system tested had a total of 2GB of PC3200 ECC DDR SDRAM rated at 400MHz, a fully populated motherboard accommodates as much as 16GB of RAM. Incorporated HyperTransport technology supports up to 19.2GB-per-second peak I/O bandwidth per processor—though I tested a single-processor configuration.
The included keyboard was a typical IBM keyboard that, to me, seemed a bit mushy, although this certainly falls into the realm of personal preference. The pointing device is an IBM PS/2 three-button mouse. The IntelliStation A Pro 6224 featured one 64-bit 133MHz slot and four 64-bit 100MHz slots. It offers two 5.25" and one 3.5" externally accessible drive bays, plus three internally accessible 3.5" drive bays. Though the motherboard accepts dual processors, I tested with a single AMD Opteron 250 processor. The workstation comes with a standard three-year warranty on parts and labor.
Table 1. Workstation Features continued
Poly 1100A-150Polywell Computers
Star rating: 5 stars out of 5
Although this system is as compact as what Polywell usually provides, the Poly 1100A-150 came in a different case than I've seen previously. The 16.8" X 7.5" X 19" (hXwXd) system was housed in a matte black case with a matte silver faceplate. Tool-free access to the case is possible using two release levers that you depress to remove the side of the case. The removable side panel has a fan cowl that fits directly over the AMD Opteron 150 (2.4GHz) CPU fan assembly in the system, so it vents directly through the side of the case.
A wide range of configuration options is available for Polywell systems, including other form-factor cases and graphics cards.
With this particular system, a BIOS-related problem caused the system to lose all the BIOS information, such as date and drive type, each time I booted the system. This problem was likely specific to this system. Once I got the system information stored in the BIOS and started the test suite, the Poly 1100A-150 turned in stellar performance scores.
The Poly 1100A-150 from Polywell, priced at a reasonable $3,888, offers stellar performance.
On the total index score of Cadalyst Labs' C2001 benchmark, the Poly 1100A-150 produced a score of 152.64. The system posted a 44.29 score on the SPECviewperf proe-02 viewset. The MAXBench 4 test resulted in an averaged high/low frame rate of 93.23, 71.24 using the default NVIDIA v188.8.131.5225 graphic driver (the highest of any workstation in this roundup for just the basic driver) and 115.22 using the same driver but adding the NVIDIA MAXtreme v6.00.07 accelerated driver for 3ds max.
The Poly 1100A-150 is compatible with Windows XP (used for this benchmark series)/2000/ME, Linux, FreeBSD, Netware, and OS/2.
Priced at $3,888, including 2GB of 400MHz DDR ECC RAM, the system handles as much as 4GB when fully populated. This is a very good price for a speedy workstation. The motherboard is based on the NVIDIA NForce 3 Pro 150 chipset with an AMD Opteron 150 (2.4GHz) microprocessor. The Poly 1100A-150 housed an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4000 AGP 8X graphics card with 256MB of onboard RAM.
The system offered four externally accessible 5.25" and two 3.5" drive bays. Inside the case were four additional 3.5" drive bays to handle a range of peripherals. The Poly 1100A-150 incorporates six USB 2 ports, a single parallel port, and a single serial port. Power is supplied by a RaidMax 420W power supply with a company Quiet Fan.
The warranty for the Poly 1100A-150 cover 60/36/12 months for labor, parts, and onsite service, respectively. The coverage of labor for 60 months is especially good. Highly Recommended.
Vision FX A/V/DVelocity Micro
Star rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Velocity Micro produces a wide range of systems geared to a number of diverse applications, including gaming, digital media and content creation, home and home office use, and business applications. Its product line encompasses servers, workstations, and mobile computer systems.
Previous systems received from Velocity Micro featured distinctive enameled cases, but the Vision FX A/V/D system was housed in a more conservative matte black mini-tower that offered significant room for expansion.
The Vision FX A/V/D from Velocity Micro earned a B+ for performance and an A- for pricing.
Performance figures were well above average, if slightly off the fast pace set by other systems in this roundup. The Vision FX A/V/D produced a score of 130.97 on the Cadalyst Labs C2001 benchmark total index and 40.44 on the SPECviewperf 7.1.1 proe-02 viewset. Its best scores were achieved on the MAXBench4 benchmark, where the Vision FX A/V/D scored a 97.63 on the averaged high/low frame rates, 67.50 with the default graphics driver, and 127.76 when tested with the MAXtreme v6.00.07 accelerated driver for 3ds max.
Priced at $4,545 as tested, the Vision FX A/V/D was fitted with Windows XP Professional Service Pack 2 and featured the AMD Athlon 64 FX-53 microprocessor. The ASUS A8V Deluxe motherboard used the Via K8T800 Pro chipset. A total of 2GB of DDR 400 RAM was included—4GB of RAM can be incorporated on a fully populated motherboard.
Star Ratings Explained
Additional system components included a LiteOn 48X CD, 12X DVD+/-RW Optical, and a Microsoft Explorer mouse. The system has an integrated 10/100/1000 Broadcom network card and measures a relatively compact 20.6" X 8.1" X 18.6" (hXwXd). There are four external 5.25" and two 3.5" drive bays, with four internally accessible 5.25" and six 3.5" drive bays. A SunMax 500W power supply supports the generous expandability options. The Vision FX A/V/D that I received contained two Western Digital SATA 74GB drives.
The slightly slow relative performance earned the Vision FX A/V/D a B+ for performance, and the slightly high price (due in part to extra components) resulted in an A- grade. Expandability options, however, earned this Velocity Micro system an A+, one of only two awarded in any category for this roundup. It all averaged out to a Cadalyst Labs 4.5 star rating for the Vision FX A/V/D workstation.
Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor, and computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.