Power surge

A customized Millennia 920i from MPC Computers has a 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 and 2G of RAM, and is priced at $2,674.

IBM's IntelliStation A Pro, in versions for Red Hat Linux or Microsoft Windows XP Pro, has, respectively, dual Opteron 248 or 3.2-GHz Xeon processors, 8G or 6G of RAM, and price tags of $12,969 or $10,234.

Look beyond clock speed and RAM to find the the real stuff of super PCs

Today you can buy a low-end, off-the-shelf PC so powerful that it would have been impossible to build a decade ago, even with unlimited funds. The microprocessors, memory and bus designs just hadn't been invented.

A $500 Dell Dimension 2400'today's lowest-priced Dell'comes with a 2.66-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 128M of RAM, a 40G hard drive, a CD-rewritable drive and a 17-inch monitor. That's certainly enough computing power to handle common office tasks and even low-end graphics work. Ten years ago, it would have been from another planet.

Running an operating system with a nongraphical interface, today's least expensive PC would be an extremely powerful computer. It still is if you shut off enough Microsoft Windows overhead.
For some users, a basic PC becomes a super PC by merely adding a DVD burner, fully populated RAM slots, removable drives or a RAID storage controller.

But that's not what I call a super PC. For that, you need the fastest available microprocessor in a PC upgraded with as many top-of-the-line components as you can pack into a large tower.

PCs in the accompanying chart start at $2,500 and go as high as $17,000, but prices could easily top $20,000 if you add special audio options. I don't consider high-end audio and expensive speakers necessary, except for entertainment, so I stuck with basic audio components.
Super PCs can easily justify their existence by tackling jobs that would, a few years ago, have been considered the province of networked slave systems, where rendering or other jobs were parceled out among a dozen or more machines.

What makes a super PC?

  • Fast storage is critical, and there's nothing faster than solid-state. Even the fastest SCSI drives with large caches can't compete. Curtis Inc. of Minneapolis makes a solid-state storage device that fits in a drive bay and has a 12G capacity. Adtron Ltd. of Phoenix just announced a 40G Mil-Std-810F serial ATA interface flash drive. Because solid-state drives can easily cost as much as many of the complete systems listed in the chart, none of the entries include these drives. But you might want to add one if your needs justify it.

  • Fast video, especially fast 3-D graphics from an advanced graphics card loaded with dedicated RAM, is important.

  • For a super notebook PC, the two main items on the must-have list are a very large LCD and long battery life.

  • High-end audio'other than as a signal processing task'isn't a major consideration for most office applications. Even a super PC intended as a simulator needs only modest audio capabilities.

In addition to esoteric items such as bus speed and memory architecture, there is a lot to consider even when making the seemingly simple choice of a processor. Among the considerations is whether your applications can make use of dual processors.

You generally want an Intel Xeon system to create simulations, though tests have shown that the Opteron processor from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., with a much slower clock rate, might be considerably faster for gamers and hence for simulations.

Few users need a PC capable of tackling a lot of different high-end tasks, and it isn't really possible to optimize a super PC fully for all the major tasks. But a very fast, dual-processor system with 4G or more of RAM, a $500 to $1,000 video card, and a couple of fast hard drives can probably be considered an all-around super PC, capable of tackling any specialized tasks other than forensics.

It will be far more capable than the usual office PC but nowhere near as fast in each individual category as a specially built PC optimized for a specific task.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at [email protected].


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