XI Computer MTower XPD – When Specialization Pays Off

XI Computer doesn’t sell entry-level systems at Montgomery Ward’s. The company only sells graphics workstations and those are sold only direct or through a small group of VARs. This specialization is one of the reasons XI is among the leaders in getting new technology to market, and getting it right.

The MTower XPD from XI is a mid- to high-range OpenGL workstation built around Intel’s latest 440 GX chipset. The unit we received for review came outfitted with dual 550MHz Pentium III Xeon processors, as well as a separate set of 550MHz Pentium III CPUs.

The Xeon CPU, in conjunction with the 440 GX motherboard, features an L2 cache that runs at the full speed of the processor, in this case, 550MHz. The Pentium III and systems built around the 440 BX chipset access the cache at half the CPU speed. This difference isn’t very apparent when running standard business applications, or even simple graphics. However, when churning through intensive 3D scenes, the throughput advantage of the faster cache can be significant. In the ViewPerf ProCDRS-01, the Xeons outperformed the Pentium IIIs by about 15 percent. In some 3D Studio MAX tests, the difference was as great at 33 percent.

A fast processor and advanced chipset are good if all you’re doing is assembling a render farm, but a true graphics workstation requires a high-performance OpenGL card and a robust configuration. MTower XPD delivers both-sort of.

XI included the new Diamond FireGL 1 card. The card’s revolutionary design holds down its cost significantly, while simultaneously providing outstanding OpenGL performance-under most conditions. The secret of the FireGL 1 is its use of the second CPU in dual-processor systems such as the MTower XPD. Most mid- and high-level OpenGL cards have an expensive on-board geometry processor for handling complex 3D operations, but the FireGL 1 sends the work out to the second Pentium III Xeon, which is more than capable of the task. The caveat is that sometimes, the second CPU is in use, forcing the card to wait for the information to be returned.

On the MTower XPD, the FireGL 1 returned some outstanding benchmark scores, especially considering its price. However, in a couple benchmarks, the system was brought to its knees, particularly the Indy3D MCAD150, animation and simulation tests.

In many ways, the FireGL1 is akin to the nursery-rhyme character who was very good when she was good, and very bad when she was bad. The trick with the FireGL 1 is avoiding situations where both CPUs are near full utilization.

There are few caveats among the rest of the components of the MTower XPD. The hard disk system is outstanding, built around an Adaptec hardware RAID controller with 16MB dedicated RAM and a pair of fleet Seagate 10K Cheetah Ultra-Wide SCSI-II 9.1GB drives, you won’t have to wait long for

even the largest file to load. A Plextor 44X SCSI CD-ROM and 3.5-inch floppy round out the storage system.

There is plenty of room to expand the storage system, thanks to five free accessible full-size bays and an open 3.5-inch internal bay. The motherboard includes an IDE interface if you need it.

If there is a weakness in the system’s upgradeability, it is in the expansion slot area. There was only one of each PCI, PCI /ISA, and ISA slot available in the system we reviewed.

A 10/100 Ethernet adapter and a Creative Labs Awe64 sound card join the RAID controller in almost filling the slots. The 256MB RAM in our system can be upgraded to as much as 2GB, and the 300wt power supply should provide plenty of power for even a full house of drives. As you’d expect, the motherboard has a pair of USB ports and the standard complement of serial and parallel ports.

The full-sized tower case is pretty unremarkable. The panel giving access to the interior is bolted on-a minor throwback in the era of tool-free chassis. Worse, the front of the case is blighted by a cheesy sliding plastic cowling that seems to serve no purpose other than to cover either the top or bottom half.

XI provides good, three-year parts and labor warranty, with the first year on-site. Replacement parts are available within 12 hours, and the company provides full-time phone support in addition to a Website with technical information and updates.

The MTower XPD is an outstanding value at the direct price of just less than $6,000. If the FireGL 1 graphics suit your work patterns, the MTower XPD can provide performance equal to workstations costing thousands more.

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