Clean, Powerful Hardware--but Where's the Software?

The First Windows NT PowerPC Machine
The PowerPC floodgates have been opened with the introduction of Austin Computer Systems' (now IPC Technologies, Inc.) PowerPlay 604/100. As its name implies, this Windows NT system offers the latest wrinkle in the microprocessor revolution by using Motorola's recently released PowerPC 604 chip running at 100 MHz.

However, this new platform faces a dilemma common to most machines using new processor technology: a relatively severe lack of native software. On first inspection, the hardware is clean and powerful, but once the machine is powered up, its fabulous CPU isn't given much of an opportunity to perform.

While IPC can't be blamed for these software limitations, as the first PowerPC system available for NT, it will be some time before its potential can be tapped. Software vendor support will continue to be a major stumbling block in the early days of this machine's lifetime, making it a tough sell in an Intel-biased market.

Inside
The system came equipped with 32MB of RAM, a 1GB internal SCSI hard drive, and a 4X CD-ROM with SoundBlaster-compatible Crystal audio, all sitting on a 33-MHz PowerPC Reference Platform (PReP) compliant FirePower ES4100 motherboard. The unit also ships with a 17" multisync monitor (which has a handy status LCD on the front panel showing video mode, etc.), 2MB of VRAM (upgradeable to 6MB) on a FirePower accelerated video chipset, and a PS/2-style keyboard and mouse.

To take advantage of the PowerPC 604's advanced RISC architecture, the PowerPlay runs the native version of Microsoft's Windows NT Workstation 3.51, including the new easy-to-use Explorer GUI. Thus, in the operating system at least, the system can show off NT's 32-bit capabilities. Several Win16 test applications--meager Intel emulation is built into this release of NT Workstation--successfully ran under the new interface, making them even easier to use. General system operations occur in the blink of an eye, so there is much less time spent waiting for windows to open and close, etc. Also, if you're coming from a UNIX or X-Window environment, you'll like the look and feel of the new interface. It's sort of a cross between Sun's Solaris and the Open Software Foundation's Motif.

The PowerPlay utilizes the IEEE 1275 industry standard for Open Firmware under Windows NT. This compliance enables it to fully support big- and little-endian operating environments, allow the booting of multiple operating systems, and provide for processor-independent automatic configuration of add-in cards and peripheral devices.

To facilitate upgrades, the PowerPlay implements industry-standard interfaces for IDE, ISA, SCSI-2, and 32-bit PCI (but not, as yet, the new 64-bit 66-MHz standard), giving it access to a wide variety of third-party peripherals.

Networking, a key feature for any NT system, is enabled by the PowerPlay's 10-BaseT Ethernet connection, which is built onto the motherboard (chipset supplied by Digital Equipment). Drivers have been preloaded, and the system should auto-detect any network connection.

OS Compatibility
Standard DOS/Intel applications, such as multimedia and games, don't work on the PowerPlay. This is somewhat understandable, since these programs were compiled to run on Intel-based architectures, but the absence of DOS emulation on the PowerPC limits those users who want to replace older 80x86 machines with this workstation.

Win16 applications work but with many exceptions, such as 16-bit network/Internet software or other applications that make similar calls to a specific 80x86 computer architecture. However, since these applications run in Win16-emulation mode, they are not blazingly fast offering high-end 486 or low-end Pentium performance, at best.

Precious few Win32 applications for NT are available. Standard Intel-compiled Win32 programs won't run on the PowerPlay, as an emulation mode is not supported. However, once specific applications are optimized for NT on the PowerPC, system performance should exceed that of a 133-MHz Pentium by 30% to 60%.

Target Market
The PowerPlay is aimed at professionals in need of a high-performance workstation for CAD/CAM, 3D animation and rendering, graphics processing, video special effects, desktop publishing, and so forth. Its $4000 price tag for a base configuration, combined with its currently limited software might, however, scare off more casual users. This machine is definitely for the serious application developer and graphics designer. Users with limited system needs may find the PowerPlay overkill for their purposes.

Upgrades and the Future
IPC plans to offer various turn-key computing solutions based on the PowerPlay 604, including digital video mastering, CD- ROM authoring, document image management, desktop publishing, Internet and World Wide Web servers, and file/application servers.

Future versions of the PowerPlay desktop system will incorporate both single and dual 604 and 603e PowerPC microprocessors on a 66-MHz bus; dual-processor systems will be optimized for Symmetric Multi-Processing (SMP) under NT. And, IPC intends to support additional operating systems, such as OS/2, AIX, and Solaris, as they become available for the PowerPC platform.

PowerPlay 604/100
Contact: IPC Technologies, Inc * 512-339-3500
Price: $3995