The Question Isn't How Fast It Can Go but How Fast It's Allowed to Go

There's no question that Digital Equipment's Celebris XL 5133 Dual-Processor Workstation is fast. It may be the fastest Pentium-based workstation I've tested. It's so fast, in fact, that it may well outstrip the capability of most of the software that's currently available for it.

If it's speed you want, the Celebris XL 5133 delivers. What's more, it delivers this blinding speed at a price that's well below the stratospheric levels of some of its competition. Want still more? The Celebris can be upgraded to be even faster by unplugging a processor board and installing a set of ultra-fast Alpha processors.

While the Celebris performs well in this rarefied atmosphere, there aren't necessarily many jobs that really take advantage of its power. In a sense, using the Celebris for most routine tasks is like driving an F-16 fighter to the drugstore--you have the potential for great speed but not in that application.

A Look at the Dual Processor
Digital delivers the Celebris XL series as an upgradeable platform in a mini-tower case. These computers are intended to be workstations, and while they will run--and are certified for--a number of network operating systems, they're physically aimed at the workstation market. For this reason, they're not only fairly small, but they have limited space for expanding the number of disk drives and other internal accessories.

There are only five drive bays in the Celebris. Three of them are taken up with the 31Ž2" floppy disk drive, the CD-ROM drive, and the hard disk. You still have room to add another hard disk and perhaps a 51Ž4" floppy drive or a second CD-ROM drive. For most users, that's plenty.

Inside the Celebris, quarters are tight, but there are still six expansion slots. One of those slots is a shared PCI/ISA slot which is normally occupied by a graphics adapter when the machine arrives. Digital uses a Matrox Millennium Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) graphics adapter as standard equipment, although our early-production machine came equipped with a Diamond Stealth 64 video card. Otherwise, there's nothing cluttering up the inside of this computer, because Digital has an integrated SCSI controller as well as integrated serial and parallel ports.

When the time comes to add peripherals or upgrades, Digital's choice of an unusual design for its mini-tower case makes the job unusually easy. Unlike other computers that require that you remove the entire outside covering to get inside, Digital has two sliding side panels. To get inside, you simply slide back the one that's on the side you need.

Testing the Celebris
Digital normally equips this machine with 16MB of RAM and a 512KB burst-cache. For this review, I had the machine upgraded to a more rational 32MB of RAM. Otherwise, I left the configuration alone, using the standard 1GB SCSI hard disk and the built-in controller that the unit normally ships with. As I mentioned earlier, Digital substituted a Diamond Stealth video card for the Matrox that's usually shipped with this computer. I added an Intel EtherExpress Pro 100 network card.

The Celebris XL series is normally shipped with Windows NT already installed, so I used the operating system as it comes from the factory. I tested this machine using the BAPCo SYSmark for Windows NT as well as two applications known to soak up a lot of CPU time: Adobe's Photoshop and Ray Dream Designer 4 (see the sidebar "Ray Dream Studio Animates Images."). The tests confirmed the speed of this machine, but they also confirmed that in many cases, the speed was dependent on the ability of the software to take advantage of dual processors.

The BAPCo SYSmark of 266 is quite fast indeed. See the "Buy the Numbers" sidebar on page 70. In fact, it was dramatically faster than a similarly configured NEC RISCstation 2000 computer equipped with a pair of 150-MHz MIPS R4400 processors (which scored 176). Interestingly, the Pentium 133-based Digital computer was actually slower than the NEC in the application test that used Microsoft Word, but the Celebris made up the difference in the other application tests.

Likewise, the dual-Pentium design of the Digital was considerably faster than a similar machine with a single 133-MHz Pentium. CPU-intensive tasks were about 80% faster on the Digital than on a single-processor Micron Millennia also equipped with 32MB of RAM, a SCSI controller, and a Diamond Stealth video card. No question about it, the Celebris is fast!

Making Fast Work of the Celebris
The question about computers such as the Celebris XL 5133 Dual Processor isn't how fast it can go, but how fast it's allowed to go. If you're planning to use this machine, you should confirm that it's actually going to run the applications you need faster than a single-processor machine. For example, I found that some applications, such as Adobe Photoshop, which are multiprocessor-aware, run faster on the Celebris. A check of the NT System Monitor confirmed that Photoshop keeps both processors busy most of the time something demanding is happening.

Other packages, however, used one processor heavily but barely tax the other at all. Ray Dream Designer 4, for example, used both processors, but mostly one at a time. A CPU-intensive task, such as rendering an animation file into a movie, seemed to use one processor for a while, then the other, but rarely both at once. As a result, this process wasn't any faster on the Celebris than it was on a single-processor machine.

You should also note that the Celebris XL 5133 Dual Processor shares the same video card and disk controller with its brand mates. As a result, it will perform similarly in applications that are primarily limited by the disk or graphics subsystems. Likewise, in an NT environment, you'll frequently get more of a performance boost by adding memory than by adding another processor when you're going from 16MB to 32MB. That's why I started with that number in the first place.

Finally, you should realize that most business applications aren't particularly CPU-intensive. The performance gains will be realized mostly by applications, such as imaging and graphics, that move lots of information around in memory, as well as by those that use a lot of math, such as CAD programs and some compilers. Graphics users will probably want to upgrade the 2MB of video memory that the machine comes with, as well as add more system memory.

Should You Get One?
Quite frankly, I found the speed of the Celebris exhilarating. Images in Photoshop usually popped into place, making you forget that there was once a time when large images took forever to create. Likewise, while rendering in the Ray Dream Studio was not particularly speedy, running the animations was fast--and it used both CPUs. This meant I got fast, smooth animations that really looked like they might be on film.

More importantly, Digital has designed the Celebris XL series to fit easily into the work environment. It's small, quiet (two variable-speed fans help keep the noise down) and easy to set up and run. A number of convenient touches, such as a caddyless Digital CD-ROM drive, make the Celebris XL 5133 a pleasant companion.

Adding to the ease of ownership is well-written, accurate documentation, and superb customer service. I made it a point to call Digital's customer-support center at midnight on a holiday weekend to ask an obscure question relating specifically to the dual-Pentium design and Windows NT. I got an accurate answer in minutes.

Probably because Digital is actively involved in supporting NT for Microsoft and in selling support for other companies, its support staff appears to be unusually well trained. I finally gave up trying to think of questions that might stump them. While most users might never have to call customer support for a computer, companies with widespread enterprises can find themselves in immediate need of help for a mission-critical system, so it's important that the help is there when it's needed.

About the only thing I'd find to gripe about are the small size of the case and its effect on both the drive-bay space and the internal expansion space. While Digital's design will work fine for most users, the growing importance of peripherals such as recordable CD-ROM drives and tape back-up units make drive-bay capacity more important than it might have been in the past. A larger case would make this expansion easier to accomplish.

With that quibble aside and with the limitations of available software in mind, I found the Digital Celebris XL 5133 Dual Processor to be a fast, capable machine. It's well designed for NT, which makes good use of its dual-processor design, and it delivers impressive performance in a package that will work well with the needs of most companies. Cap exceptional performance with solid support, and you've got everything most companies are likely to need. This is one impressive machine.

Test System
Digital Celebris XL 5133 Dual Processor configured with 32MB of RAM, 512KB of burst-cache, an integrated SCSI controller, a Diamond Stealth 64 PCI video, a Digital 4X CD-ROM drive, a 31/2" floppy drive, a Seagate ST31230N 1GB hard disk, an Intel EtherExpress Pro 100 Fast Ethernet (100Base-T) network interface card (Novell IPX/SPX, NetBEUI, and TCP/IP), and Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 3.51 (with Service Pack 2).

Celebris XL 5133 Dual Processor
Contact: Digital Equipment * 800-354-9000
Base Price: $5749