The PowerPC shines under multimedia lights

In the Windows NT marketplace, the PowerPC has a place: multimedia. Here the PowerPC can put its floating-point RISC power to work on CPU-intensive tasks such as 2D and 3D graphics rendering, video capture (with encoding and decoding), digital-linear editing, and CAD. With a price/performance point better than standard Pentium systems and even in line with the new Pentium Pro machines, you need PowerPC systems on your list of powerful multimedia development workstations to look at this year.

Add symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) to this already potent architecture, and you have the FirePower Powerized MX. FirePower, a company that provides system boards to companies such as IPC Technologies, was the first to market SMP boards using PowerPC chips. Now, FirePower offers complete systems that OEMs sell. Because FirePower does not sell directly to end users, the prices in this article are estimated street prices.

Although the PowerPC processor does not have the wealth of native application software that the Pentium has, more is coming out all the time, and the emphasis is definitely on multimedia packages. (Microsoft plans to release a true Win32 Intel-emulator for all RISC platforms some time in 1997.) Companies such as in:sync (with Speed Razor Mach III for video editing) and Avid (with Elastic Reality for 2D morphing) have formidable chunks of software for multimedia development on the PowerPC. Other hardware and software vendors have come out with video capture and conferencing products, such as VideoPhone from Connectix, for the corporate environment.

Everything You Need
On one compact board, FirePower has all the I/O capabilities, video, and sound you need, as figure 1 illustrates. This solution reduces the number of peripheral cards you need to install to build a fully functional system. In fact, you probably won't need to install any.

On its standard PCI bus, FirePower has embedded Fast SCSI-2 (with internal and external connectors), Digital's 10 Base T Ethernet (with an external RJ-45 connector), and a "riser card" that provides two PCI and two ISA (two half-length and two full-length) expansion slots that are perpendicular to the system board. It also has an embedded enhanced IDE controller, two DB9 serial ports, one DB25 enhanced parallel port, and PS/2-style keyboard and mouse connectors. But, because the system is in a desktop case, it doesn't have many drive bays (the low number of card slots is not as big a problem, because everything you need is already on the system board). It has space for one internal half-height 3.5" drive, with two front-access half-height 5.25" bays (a 4X CD-ROM drive takes up one), and two half-height 3.5" bays (the floppy drive takes one).

The system board has full integrated audio support, giving you Digital Audio Tape (DAT)- and CD-quality sound input and output (a Crystal Semiconductor full-duplex codec provides 48-KHz and 44.1-KHz stereo at 16 bits). It has stereo ins and outs, with microphone and headphone and line levels (four connectors total), so you get all the connectivity, hardware, and software (including drivers) you need for multimedia and Web applications, conferencing, and (shhh!) games.

Video, however, is where the FirePower MX really shines. It uses a custom chipset on a 66-MHz 128-bit memory bus, rather than on the 33-MHz 32-bit PCI bus, for accelerated graphics and video capture (which is something you don't find on most desktop workstations). The four dual-ported VRAM SIMM slots for up to 4MB of memory can support a resolution of 1024x768 pixels at 24-bit color, or 1280x1024 at 16-bit color.

Integrated video capture is available without your having to add an expensive third-party card. So, you can use your NT system as a video phone, video conferencing system (using NT's built-in networking and no extra hardware or software), or video editing station. The FirePower MX has a single RCA input jack for composite video. This jack attaches to a heavy-duty video sampling subsystem. Also on the memory bus, a 64-bit Philips Video controller (capable of operating in NTSC and PAL formats, with multimode support) can capture an uncompressed full-screen (640x480), full-color (24-bit), full-motion, 60-fields-per-second (30-frames-per-second, dual-field) video stream. Two VRAM SIMM slots provide up to 2MB of frame storage. With Windows NT's Fast and Wide SCSI-2 support, you have to add only an audio/video (A/V) hard drive or multidrive stripe set (and appropriate controller, such as an Adaptec 2940W), and you're ready to turn your workstation into a full-fledged digital-linear video editing system. Or, you can use your regular hard drive to capture small video streams for conferencing and training applications.

What's more, the PowerPC 604's 32-bit floating point-performance (see graph A in "Buy the Numbers," on page 69) with the FirePower MX's memory and bus architecture make this system ideal for such applications as MPEG encoding and decoding. In fact, this system can do in software (such as with the shareware program, Berkeley MPEG Encoder) what most other machines need a $5000 add-in card to do, and in some cases, this solution is even faster.

Processors and Memory
You can configure the FirePower MX with one or two CPUs and clock speeds of 100, 120, 133, or 150 MHz. Depending on the applications you're running, investing in the second processor can be worthwhile.

Although the operating system and drivers are optimized for an SMP system, not many PowerPC-native applications can use a dual-processor architecture. Some packages, though, such as PhotoMorph from North Coast Software, are designed for SMP, and more are being released all the time. But beyond the OS multitasking of individual processes, you won't be able to take advantage of multiple CPUs right away. To really put NT's 32-bit multithreaded power to work for you in the future, you need specialized graphics applications (3D animation and rendering, CAD, etc.) that specifically support SMP.

The CPUs sit on a 66-MHz, 64-bit bus, so data throughput to their shared 512KB Level 2 cache is fairly high (a larger dedicated cache for each CPU would speed things even more, but the change in architecture would undoubtedly require a much higher price). This bus is bridged to the system's double-wide 128-bit memory and asynchronous I/O buses, giving applications simultaneous access to compute, memory, and I/O resources. You can handle compute- and memory-intensive tasks such as animation and video capture through the operating system and standard hardware, instead of having dedicated peripherals (capture cards, graphics accelerators) process and store information.

Our test system came with 64MB of RAM, but the FirePower MX can access up to 256MB of error-correcting code (ECC) memory through eight SIMM slots. For imaging applications, 64MB is probably all you need for optimum performance, without breaking your bank account.

A Speedy System
The FirePower MX is a speedy system. Our test unit had two 150-MHz 604s. In lab tests, its performance was right in line with other equivalently configured PowerPC systems (see graph A in "Buy the Numbers," above). Again, larger independent caches for each CPU would improve its performance, but the fast-and-wide memory bus makes up for this shortcoming. The FirePower MX is more expensive than either of the other two PowerPC systems the Windows NT Magazine Lab tested (an IPC PowerPlay and a Motorola PowerStack) because of the SMP board and second processor. Although the FirePower MX was a little slower than the Motorola in the Elastic Reality test, remember that OS overhead is involved in supporting multiple CPUs, and this program is not optimized for SMP. SMP applications such as PhotoMorph can take advantage of this system's architecture, and the small shared cache is not a deterrent.

In addition to processing power, the FirePower MX has extensive multimedia capabilities, but there is a catch. Although this system has the hardware for television-quality video capture, you need to make sure you provide it with an appropriate place to put the data. We found that the system's standard Fast SCSI-2 hard drive is not up to the task, so you will need to get at least a dedicated A/V drive and controller to do full-screen full-motion video. A better solution is a Fast and Wide PCI SCSI-2 controller (2940W) and a four-drive stripe set because even most A/V drives can't sustain the 20MBps bandwidth of a full-motion video stream.

The system can still work with the files (previously digitized sequences). But to store the stream and output the final product, you need a dedicated drive that can maintain a consistent, yet very high, data transfer rate, and a tape storage device. The software that comes with the computer can compress the video stream so you don't overwhelm even an A/V drive (which is as fast as they come), but even compression isn't enough with only a standard SCSI-2 disk system. Note, though, that at smaller screen sizes or lower frame rates, the capture works just fine.

This problem was the only one we ran into with the FirePower MX. The software that comes with the system is enough to get you started doing multimedia (such as limited edition video conferencing and capture programs, and demos of morphing and desktop publishing software). Once you whet your appetite with these applications, you'll probably want more sophisticated packages for digital-linear video editing, 2D morphing, enterprise network video broadcasting, etc.

The advantages of SMP, and especially of a powerful RISC microprocessor such as the PowerPC, is that you can keep processor-intensive tasks such as 3D rendering (using NT's included OpenGL routines) on the CPU, instead of offloading them to extra accelerated graphics cards. The system can handle all these tasks in its main CPUs. Properly programmed and multithreaded graphics applications will give you performance rivaling much more expensive workstations and even Alpha-based systems.

Consider the Alternatives
Multimedia developers need to know that alternatives to Pentium-based systems can offer much better performance without a huge price increase. And, corporate users need to know that one standard configuration can give you full in-house video-based training, network conferencing, and more.

With all the packages vendors are porting to the PowerPC, it makes a good high-speed office automation and desktop publishing system, too. Integrated audio and I/O capabilities will fit into future computer telephony, voice-response, and faxing technologies, and because this system is fully PowerPC Reference Platform-compliant, it won't be outdated any time soon.

FirePower Powerized MX
System Configuration: Dual 150-MHz PowerPC 604; 64MB of RAM, 512KB Level 2 Cache; 2GB SCSI-2 hard disk, 4X CD ROM
FirePower Systems * 415-462-3000
Price: $8000 to $12,000 (depending on configuration)