1.466GHz CPUs, 1GB RAM, and Professional OpenGL Hardware--What can't you create?
by J.V. Bolkan
as configured: $10,700 (Models starting at $1,990)
Although the recently announced 1GHz CPUs are garnering all the attention lately, dual-processor systems running Windows NT crossed that threshold long ago--at least when running multi-threaded applications.
The Hewlett-Packard (HP) Visualize X-Class currently contains 1.466GHz of processing and rendering power, thanks to a pair of Intel Pentium III CPUs at 733MHz each. Because AMD Athlon processors still lack a dual CPU chipset and dual Intel 1GHz models have yet to ship, this configuration is the current (if short term) champ for raw CPU speed in the i386 Windows NT/2000 arena.
The core power of the HP X-Class is indisputable and as the 1GHz chips become available (early Q2 according to HP sources) that power will only increase. However, HP doesn't have an exclusive on dual-Intel systems. Pure rendering/CPU performance is an important component when evaluating a workstation, but it can also be misleading.
We rendered a trio of scenes in Kinetix 3Dmax on the X-Class and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the 733MHz version of the Pentium III, its chipset, and cache architecture deliver superior results. Compared to the results from a dual 600MHz Pentium III Xeon, the X-Class configuration was nearly 75% faster.
If your entire workload consists of rendering 3D output, you can stop here, knowing that the newest generation of Pentium III processors are extremely fast. Go buy a few stripped down no-name PIII-733 clones and add them to your render farm.
Even if you do have a render farm, someone still needs to create the scenes, models, and other content. Additionally, running simulations, animations, and video playback are all critical steps in most creation processes. These are the stations that the X-Class was designed for.
The X-Class we received came loaded with 1GB RAM, little benefit for pure rendering, but critical if like most content creators you keep multiple applications running simultaneously, paste elements between applications, and demand performance under all circumstances. The system can accommodate as much as 4GB. HP hasn't adopted the new RAMBUS RAM architecture in the X-Class yet because performance gains have been minimal compared to the much higher cost of RAMBUS memory (this is a problem with the Intel chipset, eventual RAMBUS performance is expected to be vastly improved and prices should drop as RAMBUS is widely adopted.)
In addition to the generous RAM allocation, the X-Class features HP's highly capable and time-tested Visualize fx6 OpenGL adapter in the AGP slot. Once among the truly elite OpenGL graphics cards in the high-performance world, the fx6 remains a formable contender, but is showing some signs of age. HP is nearing the release of a new crop of Visualize cards, including the fx10.
Results from the widely used SPEC Pro CDRS-02 OpenGL benchmark show the X-Class fx6 combo just below the current NT-based leaders. With a handful of systems surpassing the 30+ range, the X-Class posted a score of 25.65. It is important to note that the Pro CDRS-02 test is not multi-threaded (doesn't utilize the 2nd CPU) nor does it reflect image quality. In other 3D benchmarks, such as the Indy3D animation and simulation tests, the X-Class results were comparable. In the Indy3D MCAD-150 test, the X-Class posted a score nearly twice as fast as a recently tested 650MHz Athlon system
As with CPU speeds, raw OpenGL performance by itself can be misleading. Virtually all OpenGL cards produce at least the occasional artifact. Although much more difficult to quantify with benchmarks, the quality and true capability of an OpenGL adapter can be as important to overall efficiency. The fx6 is an excellent card in both image quality and capability-the drivers and OpenGL implementations are mature and the hardware is robust.
Naturally, even the critical content-creation specific components and "core" of the system don't stand alone. One of the strengths of HP is its reliance on top-quality components in every area. The X-Class comes standard with a high-speed Adaptec 29160 SCSI Dual channel adapter and 9.1GB 10K Quantum hard drive. Our review system was configured with a pair of the 160MB/Second (burst SCSI rating) drives. The standard configuration comes with connections for three hard drives (HP offers an 18GB 10K SCSI drive, boosting total storage capacity to 54GB).
The interior of the system is spacious, well laid out, and a pleasure to work in. Attention to detail is evidenced by the industrial-quality cooling components. CPUs are enclosed within a metal housing with a dedicated sensor-enabled fan. The chipset is cooled by its own fan, in addition to an oversized system exhaust fan. Despite the heavy-duty circulation system, even with the large mid-tower case opened, the X-Class is remarkably quiet, another indication of high-quality components.
Although the RAM and drive expansion capabilities are good to excellent, HP is a little stingy with expansion slots. The fx6 graphics adapter not only utilizes the AGP slot, but takes the adjacent PCI slot, presumably for the hardware geometry engine. This leaves only two standard PCI slots free, and one of those is limited to a shorter card due to the width of the fx6 adapter. There are two 64-bit PCI slots, one filled with the Adaptec SCSI controller. There is no legacy ISA slot. Sound and 10/100 Network capabilities are integrated on the motherboard.
Other HP touches include a case sensor that causes the BIOS to display a warning message if the case has been opened, even if the system has been powered down. Wake-on-Lan, HP diagnostics, and a moderately verbose front panel status indicator are among other minor, but nice touches. Even the keyboard is slightly above average, featuring a number of customizable controls for audio and browser functions.
Fit, finish, solid performance, generous configuration and one of the most respected names in the workstation market--The Visualize X-Class has the entire package. Of course, it has a price that reflects all of this. Our test system, with HP's 21-inch A4576A monitor, would sell direct for approximately $10,700.
Before sticker shock sets in, remember that the 1GB of RAM alone costs nearly $3,000, the fx6 OpenGL card, loaded with texture RAM and a dedicated geometry processor is another $2,600, and prices for Pentium III 733MHz CPUs are still very high. The X-Class base model is listed at less than $2,000.
The Visualize X-Class is a serious 3D creation workstation. You can find cheaper systems or you can find a handful of systems that exceed its benchmark performances. However, you'll have an extremely difficult time matching the X-Class for overall quality, craftsmanship, and implementation.
Pro CDRS-02 - 26.65
3D Max 2.5 Renders