Big Alpha Power, Little Alpha Box

The Alpine 275XS from Aspen Systems is one of the few third-party Alpha-based Windows NT machines. Even with only one processor, it blows the chips out of its nearest Intel-based competitors. This is due largely to its 275-MHz Alpha CPU from Digital that sports a 64-bit internal/128-bit external data path, 16KB internal cache, and a minimum of 512KB external cache (128-bit wide write-back, upgradeable to 2MB).

Packed into this desktop case is a wealth of power with plenty of room for options, and with the price at less than $9,500, you'd be hard-pressed to find more for less money in another platform. The test system came equipped with 64MB of RAM, a 1GB IBM Fast/Wide SCSI-2 hard drive, a double-speed Sony CD-ROM (slow but functional, and Aspen says that a quad-speed is an option), a GXE 64Pro 4MB PCI video card from Number 9, and a Cogent PCI Ethernet adapter. Unfortunately, I didn't have the proper drivers for the Cogent, so I couldn't test the networking capabilities.

If this isn't enough for you, there are three PCI and three ISA slots (although two PCI slots are taken up by the video and Ethernet cards), space for up to 1GB of DRAM, an external SCSI-2 connector, plus the standard setup of two serial ports, one parallel port, and a keyboard/mouse. One handy addition is a diagnostic port to which you can attach a modem to perform remote diagnostics over the phone or let Aspen technical support dig into your machine to solve problems remotely.

Performance is certainly not a problem. The Alpine chewed up everything I could throw at it, including older Win16 applications (such as Microsoft Office) that ran as if they were on a fast Pentium. Thanks to Alpine's PCI video card, 32-bit applications fly by, almost faster than you can see. And you won't waste any time waiting for the system while navigating or performing operating system tasks and administration.

However, the Alpine does suffer the same pitfall as PowerPC and MIPS processors--limited DOS emulation that manifests itself in networking problems with 16-bit Windows software. I have learned from knowledgeable sources at IBM and Microsoft that this is a failing in NT's emulation code rather than in the processors themselves. At the moment, only 286 mode is supported. A full 486 32-bit mode is promised for the near future. It should solve all the problems I have observed in programs requiring direct access to hardware. This is also a security issue that has yet to be properly resolved in NT.

The future looks bright for this system and its cousins from Aspen Systems, including multi-processor units, CAD-tuned platforms, and video workstations. With a price significantly less than the currently equivalent Digital systems (either a 266-MHz Alpha or a 275-MHz Alpha at $17K and $39K, respectively), you can't beat the Alpine for price and performance. Look for an upcoming review in Windows NT Magazine on a suite of new products from Digital which may change these numbers.

Alpine 275XS
Contact: Aspen Systems, Inc. * 303-431-4606
Price: $9,500 (as tested, without display)