Issue: Volume: 22 Issue: 12 (December 1999)

Reviews: Professional Workstation AP550

By Joe Greco

When computer users think of high-end graphics workstations, Hewlett-Pac kard, Intergraph, Sun, IBM, and SGI probably come to mind. But many will be surprised to learn that Compaq has been building workstations since 1996, and that the company's latest effort, the AP550, is its fifth-generation workstation and among the first of any on the market to incorporate the new Intel 840 chipset.
The Compaq AP550 converts easily from tower to desktop unit, as its drives can be quickly reoriented to suit a vertical or horizontal configuration.

The AP550 can house either one or two Pentium III processors running at 600 or 733mhz, with 256K of L2 cache integrated. The new chips are optimized for better 3D graphics performance, and provide faster access to data in memory via the chip's built-in RAMBUS.

This machine has more than enough power to handle just about any chore. Users have a choice of either 128 or 256mb of memory, and the system will handle more than 2gb of memory when 512mb chips become available. Customers who are not ready to move to this new technology can configure their systems with a memory expansion card to run standard SDRAM.

Hard disk choices include 9 and 18gb Ultra3 SCSI drives, 10 and 20gb Ultra ATA/66 drives, and a 36.4gb option.

System designers at Compaq view the market for graphics controllers as divided into five segments, and they have provided an option for each. For 2D users, the company recommends the Mat rox Mil lennium G400, while that company's Productiva G100 is installed for users needing multiple monitor support. Entry-level 3D modelers can go with the Elsa Synergy II or move up to the 3Dlabs Oxygen GVX1. For paramount performance, Compaq's own Pow erStorm 600, built around the popular Wildcat 4000 adapter, is available as well.

My AP550, which lists for just under $5000 was handsomely configured with 256mb of RAM, one 733mhz processor, and a 9gb SCSI hard drive that was pre-partitioned in two 4gb segments. (Ac cord ing to technicians at Compaq, the gigabyte was lost because of the way Win dows NT 4.0 handles partitioned hard drives.) The Windows NT service pack 4a was included, as was a 3Dlabs Oxygen GVX1 graphics card with its maximum 32mb of SGRAM, which is used for both frame buffering and texture mapping.

It took me only a few minutes to set up the Compaq AP550, as each connection was clearly marked. To make this tower a desktop unit, you don't just lay it on its side-you "convert" it by snapping out the front panel and pushing a latch that allows the three external drives to slide out. (Compaq should have provided slightly longer data cables, as these currently have to be unplugged.) Once the drives are out, you rotate them to the proper orientation and slide them back in-possible because the drive bay is a perfect six-inch square. The front bezel, which houses the Compaq logo and frames the drive bay, also pops out for reorientation.

While I had the machine open, I found it easy to access the four memory slots, four PCI slots, and one AGP Pro 4x slot. Inside are SCSI Ultra 3 and ATA/66 controllers and two internal drive bays. One aspect of the system I didn't like was the considerable noise made by its two fans, the one used to cool the 375-watt power supply, and the other to circulate air though the machine.

I tested various applications, including SolidWorks 98, Mechanical Desktop, 3D Studio Viz 3.0, and Rhino. All were in the neighborhood of 300 to 350% faster in both modeling and rendering when compared to a Windows NT machine with a 350mhz processor, 128mb of memory, and a basic graphics card.

Professional multimedia users may need to add the CD-R drive and perhaps a DVD player. They will also need to boost the video capabilities, as there is no composite or S-Video support built in.

These quibbles aside, the Compaq AP550 provides excellent value. With its numerous memory and storage options, convertible chassis, and powerful new processors, it provides plenty of power at a reasonable price.

Joe Greco is a writer and trainer specializing in CAD and 3D products.

Price as reviewed: $4973
Configuration as reviewed:
Single 733MHz processor, 256MB of memory, 9GB hard drive, 3Dlabs Oxygen GVX1 graphics card