Dell Precision Workstation 360
Dell builds a solid entry level workstation for DCC, CAD applications

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As corporations move to cut costs and bring corporate media, CAD, digital video editing, and other DCC jobs in house, computer manufacturers have taken note that many companies, especially the smaller businesses don't have the need for the latest dual Xeon workstations.

These companies have been increasingly going the entry level route with regard to workstations, not only to save money, but also to acquire more seats to run the creative applications that are used. They aren't necessarily sacrificing performance with these systems. And to put icing on the cake, system manufacturers are going all the way to certify many DCC applications, qualming any potential fears about compatibility.[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Dell engineers should stick a four-pin FireWire port underneath the front panel, next to the USB ports.

Dell, one of the leading purveyors of PC workstations, has introduced a relatively inexpensive system that features Intel Pentium 4 processors and chipsets and has coupled it with the latest graphics card from NVIDIA, the Quadro FX 500, an entry level card that enables you connect a legacy analog display, or take advantage of the latest digital displays, all in a solution that won't break the budget.

The Dell Precision Workstation 360 runs on Microsoft's Windows XP professional and features a 3.0GHz CPU with Hyper-Threading technology and an 800MHz frontside bus, Intel 875p chipset, 1GB DDR400 ECC memory (expandable up to 4GB) a 120GB Seagate Serial ATA 7200RPM hard drive, a DVD+RW/CD-RW drive, and a DVD-ROM drive. In addition to the standard connections, the Precision 360 is expandable via four PCI slots, two 3.5-inch hard drive bays, two 5.25-inch peripheral bays, two USB 2.0 slots up front and four USB 2.0 slots in the rear. A floppy disk drive is optional, and there are four RAM slots. One nice design feature about the RAM slots is that one pair of slots are slanted so you don't have any trouble installing or removing the memory modules).
Two standard six pin FireWire ports in the rear would benefit users greatly.

The graphics subsystem is powered by NVIDIA's new Quadro FX 500 graphics card with 64MB of graphics RAM. The Quadro FX 500 is an entry level graphics card that offers the capability to power an analog or a digital monitor in a single AGP 8X configuration. Through its programmability and through NVIDIA's collaboration with software vendors, the Quadro FX 500 can competently run applications from such companies as Alias|Wavefront, Digital Immersion, Discreet, Softimage, and SolidWorks. Network capabilities are provided by an Intel PRO/1000 MT Gigabit5 Ethernet LAN on Motherboard solution. A 56k modem is available as an option. This particular unit had integrated AC'97 Full-Duplex Audio, though a SoundBlaster 2 Audigy card with on-board Firewire is available as a $79 option and is highly recommended.

Initial testing on the Dell Precision 360 showed it to be faster in some respects than the current Gateway Digital Filmmaker 3.0Ghz system we have in the lab. Using the DMN 41MB test video file and Sorenson Squeeze Compression Suite, the Dell system churned through the compression scheme (converting a 41MB AVI file to QuickTime progressive), in a mere 30 seconds, a full 7 seconds faster than the last 3.0GHz system that we ran the test on. It is to date, the fastest we've seen a 3.0GHz system compress the test file. However, on the Adobe Photoshop test, applying a Gaussian blur with a radius of 6.3 pixels, to a 9MB image file, the Dell was slower by a full 9 seconds. You would think that the results would be similar given that the processors are the same, but in this case, the results were very different. So if you think all systems are virtually the same these days, they aren't.

Application Certification
The following applications have been certified by Dell to run competently on the Precision 360: Adobe After Effects, InDesign, Illustrator, Premiere, and Photoshop, QuarkXPress, NewTek LightWave 3D, Discreet 3ds max, Softimage, Alias|Wavefront's Maya, Avid XPress DV, and Pinnacle Edition.
CAD application certification has been obtained by ProEngineer, CATIA, UG, I-deas, SolidWorks, SolidEdge, Autodesk Inventor, Autodesk AutoCAD, Bentley, and ESRI. Some of these applications are available from Dell, and all of them include 24/7 phone support via Dell's three year warranty. Surprisingly, no DVD authoring applications, which is currently one of the hottest sectors of the DCC market, are certified, but I am certain that DVD Workshop from Ulead Systems runs just fine on the Precision 360, and am sure that Adobe Encore will as well once it ships.

The Case
Ever since Apple Computer simplified the opening of a PC case with its tool-less, single hinge design, some PC manufacturers have tried to emulate that. Dell has also tried to make it easier to access the internal components of the PC. Though not as elegant as that of the Macintosh, Dell's case designers have made an effort to make it easier to open the computer up for upgrades. Two buttons are located on the top and bottom of the case, and when depressed, you can coax the case open. It isn't as elegant as that of the Mac nor does it open as easily, but no tools or screws are required to open the tower. For security, a built in locking mechanism is included.

First Impressions
The Dell Precision workstation 360, at $2,331 as configured, offers ample room for upgradeability, is fast, has an intelligently designed motherboard, and comes with one of the best warranties in the business--three years parts plus onsite labor. While the Precision 360's case is a tool-free design, and it is a marked improvement over any other PC case design out there, it took us several attempts to get the box open. But hey, it's tool-less right? Also, the open 3.5-inch drive bays make for a tight fit to get two disk drives in that space. While Dell keeps it tool-less by providing disk drive rails designed to slide a drive in and out of the bay without a screwdriver, I was unable to fit a second drive in the allotted space.

This system needs a FireWire port built onto the motherboard, as FireWire devices such as portable hard drives, video cameras, scanners, and other peripherals are becoming increasingly common in the corporate media world. In fact, one four pin in the front and two six pin in the rear would be a great benefit. It would have also been nice to see a dual DVD-R/RW/DVD+R/RW burner in the system rather than the DVD+R/RW solution. The DVD dilemma of choosing between the two competing formats could be mitigated with one of the dual drives from Sony or Pioneer, and would become a non-issue for those who prefer one format over the other.

For smaller, corporate settings, the Precision 360 could be the ticket to acquire several seats relatively inexpensively. For larger settings that are manipulating huge data sets, it might be wise to check out some of Dell's dual CPU-capable Xeon offerings, such as the Precision 450 and 650.
The Dell Precision 360 workstation provides a solid entry level solution that is certified to run the more popular DCC and CAD tools, and combines this with the support and service that Dell has successfully cultivated over the years.
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