When Silicon Graphics announced that it intended to produce a Wintelbased system, some thought the writing was on the wall for the O2.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as we take the first-ever look at the new, all-round impressive, NTbased system With Microsoft's ever-increasing stranglehold on the OS market, it is not surprising that NT is being pushed as the professional OS of choice. Apple, while coming back from the dead, doesn't have a highend solution at the moment, and Sun and other Unix vendors are feeling the pinch in the server market. The one company that continually provides solutions for the most demanding users is Silicon Graphics, whose Unix-based systems are used in nearly every high-end application you can think of. Many have misinterpreted SG's move as being away from Unix. Unlike Intergraph, however, SG is developing both systems and strives to offer the best solutions for either OS.
So just what is SG bringing to the party? Well, to clarify a couple of things immediately, the new boxes will not replace the O2. Rather, the two NT models straddle the O2 in terms of performance. The 320 mini-tower is the entry-level unit, supporting up to two Intel Pentium II processors. In terms of power, the O2 is next in the pecking order, followed by the full-tower 540 system, supporting up to four Xeon processors.
We got hold of the first 320 of the line and put it through its paces.
What we found was impressive. The grey and blue case design features a curved fin that not only looks great, but hides a generous air-intake grille.
The smooth, curved front is broken only by a sliding panel which glides down to reveal the CD and floppy drive. Access is also provided to a spare bay, allowing a zip or tape drive to be installed if required. The back of the unit is also well designed with a logical organisation of the various connectors. This machine is the Bang and Olufsen of the PC world.
Looks can be deceiving, but not in this case. We tested a basic single processor 400MHz model and, to use a South Park phrase, it kicked ass!
The secret of this success is the design of the motherboard and its innovative use of memory. SG has employed a radical Integrated Visual Computing Architecture for the motherboard design. This means that the system is not restricted to performing one task at a time. In this way bus bottlenecks are removed and, with its unique memory design, traditional graphics bottlenecks have also been reduced.
The memory structure inside the SG box is very different from traditional systems. Unlike the usual set-up, with a pool of application memory and a pool of graphics, SG has designed its PCs with a single memory bank available for both graphics and applications. This in effect means that you need 1Gb of video RAM, the maximum that can be installed in the machine. The 256bit wide memory bus provides 3.2Gbps graphics memory bandwidth. Resolutions of up to 1920x1200 with 24-bit double buffered true colour are supported, with a built-in Open LDI multi-pin LVDS digital interface for the SG 1600SW flat-panel monitor also provided. It has to be said that if you're thinking of buying either of these PCs you'd be mad not to get the 1600SW to complement it.
The Cobalt Professional Graphics Chipset installed in both systems features rasterisation of point, line, triangle and rectangle primitives along with attribute interpolation set-up, anti-alias line set-up from primitive vertices and vertex attributes. Off-screen buffers also allow faster buffer-to-buffer. 3D performance is further improved as up to 80 per cent of total system memory can be used for textures and for bilinear and trilinear MIP mapping.
All the models are produced on a build-to-order basis, allowing you to get the machine you need without ever having to open the case. With the 320 you have a choice of 6.1Gb to 14.4Gb Ultra ATA/33 or 9.1Gb Ultra 2 SCSI hard drives. SCSI is not provided as standard on the 320, but can be installed as an option if required. A 32X CD-ROM is fitted as standard.
The smaller case of the 320 provides three PCI slots, two fulllength 32/64 33MHz and one halflength 32Mhz to 33Mhz slots.
The audio and video subsystems have been placed on the motherboard rather than in slots.
This frees up PCI slots but has the potential of making the system inflexible. To get around this, SG has provided professional quality audio and video functionality using RCA composite video in and out (NTSC and PAL), mini DIN S-Video in/out and two IEEE 1394 Firewire connectors. Firewire is not yet supported by Windows and as such the market is not yet saturated with Firewire devices. NT 5.0 promises full support for Firewire along with much else. Both analogue and digital video can thus be captured in uncompressed format. Sixteen-bit, 44.1KHz stereo sound is also provided both in and out.
I/O functionality has also been built on to the board, including RJ45 auto-sensing 10/100 Base-T Ethernet. Two USB connectors are provided, as are microphone and speaker ports, a 25-pin parallel port and one nine-pin serial port.
This machine is powerful, looks fantastic and has the backing of one of the most forward-looking companies in the industry. If you are considering buying NT workstations, you'd be crazy not to put this high on your list. It's a great piece of kit and provides real power at an attractive price. SGI has designed this machine with 3D in mind, making it ideal for architectural modelling and visualisation. If you only ever do 2D drawings, you don't need this machine; if, however, you're into 3D, there's little out there that can beat it.