By Joe Greco
IBM, known for its mainframes in the '60s and '70s, made a successful transition to the personal computer in the 1980s, introducing some of the most popular models of that decade. The '90s were a little rougher for Big Blue, as competition from the PC arena spilled over into a new class of systems called workstations. But in the new millennium, IBM has still been able to maintain a foothold as a major player in the workstation market.
The company's current line of workstations are called IntelliStations. There are four main categories and literally dozens of models. I tested a unit from the highest-end Z Pro category-Model 686611U. Though this machine is dual-processor capable, my review unit was based on a single 933mhz Intel Pentium III Xeon processor.
|The 55-pound Z Pro 686611U comes in a case that is 6 to 8 inches deeper than that of comparable workstations.|
Enclosed in a simple black rectangular case, the Z Pro is one of the largest workstations I have seen in this class. Viewed from the front, its measurements of 8.5 by 17 inches are about normal, but its 24-inch depth is approximately 6 to 8 inches greater than most comparable systems. It is also one of the heaviest workstations I have ever reviewed, weighing in at over 55 pounds. However, don't use up all your strength carrying the Z Pro, because you will need a lot more of it to open the machine, as its side panel doesn't slide back very smoothly.
As expected, the real estate inside the Z Pro is impressive. For starters, there are two 5.25-inch drive bays for removable media, one occupied by a 48X CD-ROM drive. There are also six 3.5-inch bays, one of which was occupied by the 9gb hard disk that came with the system. And there are six PCI slots, two of the 64-bit variety, with a single 4X AGP slot.
The 490-watt power supply keeps everything running, including four cooling fans that contribute to a noisy system. In fact, while I wrote this article in my office, I could easily hear the Z Pro humming away in my lab 15 feet away. It nearly drowned out the fan noise from the computer right at my feet.
The system's four RAMBUS memory slots are capable of housing a total of 2gb of RAM, although my evaluation unit came with 256mb. The memory communicates with the processor and the other components via a 133mhz bus. Upgrading the memory is a bit trickier than with some systems, as a daughterboard that holds the chips has to be removed.
On the outside, the Z Pro has a front door similar to that of the Intergraph Zx10, except this one opens on side hinges to reveal the CD-ROM and a floppy drive residing on its side. Unlike the computer itself, the keyboard was very quiet, though I would have preferred a wheel mouse over the standard 3-button mouse that came with the unit.
In addition to the keyboard and mouse ports, the Z Pro houses two serial and USB ports, as well as a parallel port and 10/100-base-T Ethernet for networking. There are also three standard audio ports, a MIDI port, and an Ultra Wide SCSI port.
The graphics system is controlled by one of the most popular high-end cards found in today's workstations, the Wildcat 4210, now sold by 3Dlabs (formerly Intense3D). The Wildcat is loaded with 256mb of memory, with an additional 32mb for direct pipeline memory (see pg. 82 of the August 2000 issue for more details about this card).
Under Windows 2000, the 4210 can support two monitors via twin 29-pin DVI connectors. An adapter is included for those users needing a standard 15-pin connection. This thick card occupies the AGP slot as well as the neighboring PCI slot, because of a daughterboard that adds a Genlock BNC connector, and stereographic support. Another PCI slot is lost because of the two small cooling fans sticking out of the card.
The Wildcat in my system was driving a new IBM T86a 18-inch flat panel display. This screen can be rotated 90 degrees, and the software automatically adjusts the imagery from landscape to portrait view. I found the image quality excellent, although there was occasional slight ghosting that was noticeable not so much during mouse movements, but when an item such as an open window or dialog box was repositioned or closed.
The system included software developed by IBM called ViaVoice, which is used to turn speech into text. This software sets up easily via a wizard that demonstrates everything from how to install and test the microphone to the basic training of the voice recognition. Unfortunately, due to some conflicts with other applications (which I didn't have time to resolve), I couldn't fully test this voice recognition technology. The computer also came with diagnostics software that can test both the hardware and software components of the Z Pro.
To test the Z Pro, I used two of the Standard Performance Evaluation Corp. (SPEC) benchmarks, the SolidWorks 99 tests and Viewperf 6.1.1, a suite of application-based benchmarks. (Updated versions of the SPEC benchmarks were issued this summer, but until those have been tried out for a while longer, I'm continuing to use Version 6.1.1.) The Z Pro results were excellent (see the "Comparative Bench marks" chart at left), besting most systems in its mhz range that I have tested over the last several months.
Overall, despite the noise and a boxy look, the Z Pro 686611U is a fine unit, backed by a 3-year warranty. While it represents good value for the money, about half of its $8428 price tag covers the Wildcat 4210 card. For users with less demanding performance requirements, substituting this card with the Elsa Gloria II, the other and still relatively powerful video option offered, may be a good way to save $3000.
Joe Greco is a freelance writer specializing in CAD-related topics. He can be reached at joe3D@home.com.
Price as configured: $8428
System configuration: 933MHz Pentium III Xeon processor; 256MB of RAM; 9GB hard disk; Wildcat 4210 graphics accelerator