Octane graphics unit has a full tank

+ Best-of-class visual rendering
+ Designed to maximize throughput
+ Impressively flexible features and

A substantial group of government computer users do their daily work at Unix
workstations. Most users, however, have no experience beyond Microsoft Windows running on
PCs with Intel Corp. chips.

This review puts me in between the two groups. I have had some experience with Unix
file, mail and Web servers, but little experience with graphics-oriented Unix
workstations. To put it mildly, I was intrigued when an Octane MXI workstation arrived
from Silicon Graphics Inc.

When I tried my first computer’s paint program years ago, I remember how clumsy it
was. Even after gaining experience on every kind of PC and Apple Macintosh, I still feel
let down by desktop PC graphics.

What would it be like to work, I wondered, on the machines that produce real-world
engineering simulations and Hollywood special effects?

Right out of the box, the Octane was obviously quite different from the PCs with which
I was familiar. The advantages of its modularity were equally obvious. A good thing,
too—the demo unit arrived with damage likely caused by shipping.

It took a new motherboard and a visit from an SGI technician to get us up and running.
Replacement of the modular power supply took no more than three minutes. Try replacing a
PC power supply—or any other component—in that same amount of time.

The top-end Octane MXI as tested had two 195-MHz Mips R10000 processors, 256M RAM, 9G
hard drive, 4M of texture cache, 20-inch monitor and external SCSI CD-ROM drive.

Standard equipment includes a number of audio and video ports, such as a fiber-optic
digital audio 24-bit 8-channel ADAT connection. The Octane has one half-size and two
full-size PCI slots to accommodate SCSI, Fibre Channel, Fiber Distributed Data Interface
or asynchronous transfer mode connections.

SGI has upgraded the Octane with the 250-MHz Mips R10000 processor, but the 195-MHz
version I tested is still available on government contracts.

The considerable software bundle included tools for collaboration, networking, Internet
connectivity and handling digital media. Also there were demo versions of applications
that run under Irix, SGI’s Unix operating system.

The breadth and variety of demos was amazing but, because versions of the same software
package can differ depending on the platform, we could not accurately benchmark the
difference in performance between the Octane and PC workstations.

Silicon Graphics does publish results from many industry benchmarks as part of a
technical specification sheet, which appears online at http://www.sgi.com/octane/tech_info.html.

I did see superior performance of several applications on the SGI platform every single
time. The demo version of Adobe Photoshop 3.0 on the SGI machine performed some filter
operations two to four times faster than Photoshop 5.0 running on a 300-MHz Pentium II
under Microsoft Windows NT.

The operating system and bundled tools were all easy to use. Irix has a graphical
interface but is not totally divorced from command-line underpinnings. I would call it a
little more difficult than Windows NT and much more flexible.

Stability was about equal to NT’s. I did occasionally encounter a lock-up that,
more often than not, seemed to stem from a particular sample or demo program.

Graphics is obviously the Octane’s strong suit, but it has impressive audio
capabilities and brute-strength power, too. Some of the demos were no more impressive than
PC applications, but a few were obviously well beyond the capabilities of anything
I’ve seen on a PC.

These generally centered around texture display in 3-D renderings and manipulation of
digital media.

The Octane did have drawbacks. Its standard speakers were worse than many on low-end
PCs. The bundled microphone seemed more an afterthought than a usable piece of equipment.
The 20-inch monitor had acceptable screen size, resolution and refresh rates, but its
color quality and contrast were a little faded.

Access to the front interior was easy through a front bezel that came off after pushing
two tabs.

The Octane’s three 31'2-inch drive bays accommodate only hard drives or tape
drives. Having a 51'4-inch bay would make possible an internal CD-ROM drive—an
option that should be available.

The rest of the hardware was accessible through modular bays at the back. The
motherboard and option slots were all easy to remove and reinsert, though thumbscrews
would have been even better.

It would be nice to see some of the Octane architecture make it into PCs, but that is
unlikely to happen soon because of the need for backward compatibility and low cost.

Not until Intel Corp. brings out the 64-bit Merced processor will PC makers undertake
major redesign. Despite advances in technology, today’s PC architecture differs
little from that of the original IBM Corp. PC almost 15 years ago.

So for now, the sorts of applications that workstations such as the Octane can run will
stay out of reach for PC users. And by the time PCs catch up, who knows what SGI will have

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