The SGI 320 isn’t likely to be mistaken for a simple NTbased clone. Although it is built largely around the same technology found in other Intelbased workstations, the 320 is crammed with differences both subtle and striking.
At first glance, the highly stylized and sculpted case will strike most people as an obvious difference. However, with the optional 1600SW digital flat panel display included in our review system, many people didn’t even notice the computer. The display is breathtakingly gorgeous. Colors are vibrant, deep and sharp. Flicker is visually nonexistent and, even from the sides, the image is crisp and bright. Switching to a standard CRT monitor is as simple as shutting the system down and swapping connections. When booting up, the system recognizes the active connection and makes the adjustments.
Yet, as striking as the case and flat panel display are, they are not what make the 320 truly special. The dual CPU capable system we reviewed was built around a single 550MHz Intel Pentium III CPU loaded with 256MB RAM, not an uncommon, or even especially noteworthy configuration.
It is how the system exploits that RAM, the CPU and the SGI Cobalt graphics chipset that really sets it apart. Unlike other NTbased systems, the 320 employs a common RAM architecture where system RAM can be allocated to the graphics subsystem. The unique boot sequence of the 320 includes a screen enabling you to adjust how much RAM is allocated to graphics and how much to Windows NT. With a maximum capability of 1GB, you can allocate as much as 900MB RAM for display usage.
This arrangement provides more than simply a large pool of texture RAM, it also delivers extreme speed. The 320’s internal pipeline between the Cobalt graphics and system RAM is at 3.2GB/second. The pipeline out to the display is 1.6GB/second, as is the pipeline to SGI’s proprietary I/O coprocessor. Current 2X AGP speeds are limited to 512MB/second and even the next generation 4X AGP will only run at 1GB/second.
Data flow other than graphics has also been enhanced. The 320 features two PCI buses, one standard 32bit and the other a highspeed 64bit version. Additionally, the system has a IEEE1394 400MB port. The various data subsystems are all tied together across the main 3.2GB/ second pipeline resulting in high sustainable transfers with fewer data collisions.
The results of SGI’s advanced architecture are obvious as soon as you begin experimenting with the included graphics demo programs. In one demo, you can load a high resolution bitmap image, then distort it in real time with 3Dstyle effects such as ripple and stretch. You can perform the same effects on live video feeds and even map images and live video onto a rotating 3D object and perform those effects without bringing the system to its knees.
According to SGI, with a second CPU installed, the system bandwidth can accommodate multiple streams of uncompressed NTSC or PAL format video without taxing the system. Video capabilities are an integral component of the 320. In addition to integrated audio and networking, the system comes standard with both component and Svideo in and out jacks. Connecting a video source for capture or output is as simple as plugging in the cables.
SGI offers the 320 in a variety of configurations, as well as custom packages. Our system included a 10.1GB Ultra ATA hard disk and an IDE CDROM player. SCSI drive systems are optional. Expansion capabilities are good, especially considering the depth of the integrated feature set. Three PCI slots, a 3.5inch external drive bay and two internal bays are available. Access to the motherboard and expansion slots is good, although you’ll need to remove the quickdisconnect power supply for full motherboard access. The keyboard and mouse are both USB devices, so in order to connect other USB peripherals you’ll need a hub or port expander.
The 320 is the first single CPU system we’ve benchmarked with an Intel processor. As expected, the system performed poorly on our rendering tests, taking approximately twice as long as a dualCPU system at the same speed. However, in the OpenGL tests, the system did much better. The ProCDRS01 score of 15.26 was very respectable, but in the Indy3D benchmarks the 320 excelled. Strangely, the results for the more simple Indy3D tests were merely good, but the more complicated benchmarks yielded results rivaling the best performers we’ve ever tested.
The SGI 320 is truly a unique graphics workstation. If you work with video, 2D and 3D OpenGL graphics, the 320’s outstanding versatility and highbandwidth capabilities make it an excellent choice.
And as strange as it is to write this, one of the best reasons to buy an SGI 320 is its affordable pricing.
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J.V. Bolkan runs Bolkan-Nelson Media Labs in Springfield, OR, where he tests workstations and a variety of other hardware.