$8,000 Dell WorkStation can take on $20,000 Unix rivals

Achieving the fastest rating is
relative when chip makers can always crank up clock speed a notch.

The 300-MHz Pentium II may be just another step up the clock speed ladder for Intel
Corp. But the dual-processor WorkStation 400 from Dell Computer Corp. cranks up speed in
less obvious ways.

The GCNdex32TM benchmark scores hint at the raw power and response you get when using
the new Dell PC. A 16M GLoria L/MX video card from Elsa Inc. of San Jose, Calif., delivers
fast 3-D graphics for imaging and computer-aided design work.

The GCN Lab staff found that one 3-D rendering application running under the OpenGL
graphics standard could produce full-screen XGA output at an average of 150 frames per
second. That's a heck of an improvement over a standard 8M two-dimensional card on a
high-end PC, which could output only about six frames per second.

The Elsa card with 8M video RAM and 8M extended data out RAM earned a respectable 17.74
on the GCNdex32 2-D performance test. The lab's highest scores for 2-D cards have run
around 22. Average cards score between 6 and 10.

In 2-D rendering with Adobe Systems Inc. Photoshop, the WorkStation 400 could apply a
Gaussian blur filter to a 100M TIFF image in 49 seconds. On a 200-MHz Pentium PC, applying
that same filter took three minutes.

The Elsa card lets you specify the application you want to optimize. The optimization
list, which appears with a click on the task bar, includes two dozen apps such as Computer
Associates International Inc.'s CA-Unicenter, Autodesk Inc.'s AutoCAD and Bentley Systems
Inc.'s MicroStation 95.

Dell also offers high-end Matrox Millennium 2-D graphics cards from Matrox Graphics
Inc. of Dorval, Quebec, which cost less than the Elsa card and would be preferable for
developers or database crunchers who need processing rather than rendering power. A
separate video card from Dell can run two monitors from the WorkStation simultaneously.

The Ultra-Wide SCSI hard drive performance wasn't as optimized as I expected, compared
with an Enhanced IDE drive. The 4G drive was split into two 2G partitions and formatted to
a 16-bit File Allocation Table rather than the 32-bit Microsoft Windows NT File System,
which might have boosted drive performance.

But again, to judge performance you simply have to sit in front of this workhorse and
watch it perform like a thoroughbred.

The Seagate Technology Inc. Barracuda SCSI hard drive, like those in Compaq Computer
Corp.'s top-of-the-line Deskpros, made a high-pitched whining noise. I found it mildly
irritating, but some lab staff members could not hear it.

The Dell CD-ROM drive's speed varied between 12X and 24X, and its GCNdex score reached
26X, thanks to the SCSI backbone.

Dell has put the WorkStation 400 components inside its standard OptiPlex desktop
chassis, which is easy to open and is recyclable. Or you can order a minitower chassis
with the same features.

The interior, though crammed with components, was logically organized. The two Pentium
II processors took up a huge chunk of room with their mammoth heat sinks and a molding to
direct the cooling fan's air flow.

The card cage lifted out easily. The Elsa card and Ultra-Wide SCSI cards occupied two
of five PCI slots, two of which were also shared ISA. Two drive bays--one 51Ž4-inch
external, one 31Ž2-inch internal--are vacant for expansion. There were integrated
Fast Ethernet and sound connections as well as two Universal Serial Bus ports.

Priced at around $8,000, the WorkStation 400 seems costly for a PC but can hold its own
against $20,000 Unix workstations. And users won't need separate systems to access common
office applications.

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