An impressive 3-D system

The Silicon Graphics 320 visual workstation is a dual-processor system with a 1GB memory cap. SGI is aiming this system at many markets, including mechanical CAD (MCAD), CAD/computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), computer-aided engineering (CAE), digital content creation, architectural engineering, and desktop publishing. The version I tested came with one 500MHz Pentium III CPU; 256MB of Error-Correcting Code Synchronous DRAM (ECC SDRAM); and integrated sound, graphics, and network interface. SGI supplied a 1600SW 17.3" digital LCD flat panel display monitor and a 9.1GB SCSI disk with a 64-bit PCI Ultra 2 SCSI interface.

The three-chip Cobalt chipset, the heart of SGI's Integrated Visual Computing (IVC) architecture, manages the workstation's I/O subsystems, which include S-video, composite video, CD-ROM quality audio, and Universal Serial Bus (USB) and IEEE-1394 interfaces at the back panel. The workstation also features two 64-bit PCI buses for faster I/O bandwidth with low-to-no bus contention. By integrating the graphics and video functions within the Cobalt chipset—rather than squeezing the functions through interface cards plugged into PCI slots—SGI created a high-speed connection between the chipset's graphics and memory controller and main memory. According to SGI, this path provides a peak bandwidth of 3.2GB per second, which is higher than Intel's Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) 2X path, and even exceeds the newer AGP 4X standard. Figure 1, page 152, illustrates IVC architecture.

The system's graphics capabilities are awesome. SGI demonstrated an early version of the 320 last year by spinning a 2" graphic cube on the monitor, filling each of the cube's six faces with prerecorded video, and adding a live video feed to the background. Rather than bringing the system to a grinding halt, that load merely slowed the six recorded videos from a playback speed of 30 frames per second (fps) to about 22fps to 25fps. Remodeling a 1GB static image was also child's play for the 320 workstation.

SGI dedicated 128MB of the workstation's 256MB of memory to graphics so that the 320 can handle large textures. You can adjust the amount of dedicated memory up or down (to as high as 80 percent of available memory and as low as 32MB) relative to the degree of large texture work you perform. The 320 also uses memory interleaving (which lets the workstation read and write to alternate memory segments simultaneously) to add a performance edge.

Unfortunately, the system uses half-size DIMM sockets for its ECC SDRAM modules, which are also half-size. (SGI reports that modules for the workstation are currently available from Kingston Technology.) Twelve sockets are available, but you'll use at least half of these when you purchase the workstation, and your first memory upgrade will fill the remaining six.

The 320's score on the AIM Technology Workstation Benchmark, in which the workload simulates mainstream 2-D business applications, is lower than the scores that the Windows NT Magazine Lab has seen for comparable systems. The 320 scored 526.7 peak jobs per minute on the AIM WNT Peak Performance test and 202.3 sustained jobs per minute on the AIM WNT Sustained Performance test. (For more information about the AIM benchmark tests, and to read comparative test results, go to the AIM Technology Web site at http://www.aim.com.) These disappointing scores are partially because the 320 workstation isn't optimized for the 2-D environment in which the AIM tests run. The 320 is an OpenGL engine, which accounts for its impressive Viewperf scores: 188.3 on the CDRS viewset, 25.18 on the Data Explorer (DX) viewset, and 2.315 on the Lightscape viewset. (For more information about OpenGL, see Brian Gallagher, "The OpenGL API: What Is It, and Why Should You Care?" July 1998. To check out the Viewperf benchmarks and compare various systems' Viewperf scores, go to http://www.specbench.org.)

I completed initial system setup without problem. Icons scribed into the back panel adequately note which cables belong to which connectors. The only exceptions are for the keyboard and mouse, which are USB devices. The keyboard plugs into the USB connector, not into the Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN) jack labeled with the keyboard icon; the mouse plugs into the keyboard, not into the DIN jack with the mouse icon. You can use the flat panel display monitor on its pedestal base or disconnect the base and hang the display unit on the wall. Disconnected from the base, the display unit weighs 8 pounds and has a depth of 3".

Although the flat panel display monitor will save desktop real estate in comparison with the average 17" monitor, the 320's flat panel monitor and speaker system have power bricks that convert standard 110v AC into the 12v DC voltage these peripherals require. After you plug the monitor's and speaker system's power cords into the wall, you'll need to find a home for the bricks nearby. This is a cumbersome, although not catastrophic, arrangement that left me wondering if SGI couldn't have managed to tap into the system's 485-watt power supply and bypass the need for bricks.

You can access the interior of the 20" x 9.25" * 18.75" screwless tower enclosure by pushing a lever at the back of the case and sliding off the side panel. If you're familiar with typical PC motherboards, your first impression of the 320's motherboard might be that it's densely packed. It is.

Two fans, one in the power supply and an auxiliary unit mounted to the rear chassis, help keep the inside cool. Plastic ducts route air from the vents in the front of the chassis directly across the CPU. Even with both fans running, the 320 is surprisingly quiet.

The workstation incorporates one internal and one external 3.5" drive bay. The SCSI option in the test system occupied one of the two 64-bit PCI slots (a 32-bit PCI slot is available). These slots support only 3.3V cards.

SGI's preloaded software bundle includes Intel's LANDesk Client Manager, which contains Desktop Management Interface (DMI) 2.0 and SNMP. An interoperability toolkit includes connectivity and collaboration solutions for Mac and UNIX environments. You can use the bundle's LCD sensor with the 1600SW display and SGI's ColorLock software to apply or save a specific color calibration. ColorLock is integrated with Adobe's Photoshop 5.0 calibration mechanism and is compatible with major color-management systems, including ColorSync 2.5, Microsoft Image Color Management (ICM) 2.0, and LinoType-Hell's Color Management Module (CMM).

SGI's 3-year warranty for the 320 workstation covers repairs during the first year on site. SGI handles repairs during the second and third years of the warranty through "depot" service. That is, you send the system to SGI for repair. Extended onsite service plans are available, and SGI provides same- and next-business-day coverage and a 24-hour plan for mission-critical installations. SGI customer support is available 24 hours a day, and NT support, free for the first 90 days after purchase, is available on weekdays during regular business hours. Extended support plans are available. SGI answered my calls promptly, and I experienced minimal on-hold time for routing.

Compared with the average corporate workstation, the 320 visual workstation is an investment-class computer. Within the specialty world of graphics and video workstations, however, the 320 is competitively priced. You can tweak the workstation's cost by juggling components. For example, by eliminating the flat panel monitor in favor of a 17" monitor and using an Ultra ATA drive instead of the Ultra 2 SCSI unit (according to SGI, doing so results in a nominal performance loss), you save about $2600. No matter how you configure it, the 320 is an impressive 3-D graphics workstation.

Silicon Graphics 320
Contact: Silicon Graphics * 888-400-4744
Web: http://www.sgi.com
Price: $7448 as configured below
System Configurarion: 500MHz Pentium III processor, 256MB of Error-Correcting Code Synchronous DRAM, Seagate Cheetah 9.1GB SCSI disk with 64-bit PCI Ultra 2 SCSI interface, Polk audio speakers, Teac 532E 32x CD-ROM drive, 1600SW 17.3" digital LCD flat panel display monitor with interface