Integration: No snails in ExtremeZ 2D – Intergraph Computer Systems ExtremeZ 2D graphics workstation – Hardware Review

Integration: No snails in ExtremeZ 2D – Intergraph Computer Systems ExtremeZ 2D graphics workstation – Hardware Review – Evaluation

Henry Norr

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Recognizing that much of its target market of publishing and graphics professionals is Mac-based, Intergraph Computer Systems Inc. has fitted its new ExtremeZ 2D series of Windows NT 4.0-based graphics workstations with an array of hardware and software features intended to ease the NT experience for Macintosh users.

We tested one such system, an ultratower with dual 300-MHz Intel Pentium II processors (each with 512 Kbytes of backside Level 2 cache), 256 Mbytes of synchronous dynamic RAM (expandable to 512 Mbytes) and a Matrox Electronics Systems Ltd. Millennium II AGP (Advanced Graphics Port) 2-D graphics card with 8 Mbytes of video RAM. Inside the big box were no fewer than seven storage devices: three Wide Ultra SCSI-3 hard drives (with a total capacity of 12.7 Gbytes), a 24x CD-ROM drive, Iomega Zip and Jaz drives, and of course a floppy drive.

The logic board has slots for eight full-length expansion cards – six PCI, one shared PCI or ISA (Industry Standard Association), and one AGP. External expansion options include a Narrow Ultra SCSI-3 port, two Universal Serial Bus connectors and a conventional PC I/O. A 10/100Base TX Ethernet port was built-in. Also included were an excellent 21-inch Intergraph monitor and a keyboard with surround-sound speakers and built-in audio controls.

The MacFriendly software bundle, preinstalled on all ExtremeZ configurations, includes Adobe Systems Inc.’s Adobe Type Manager; DataViz Inc.’s MacOpener, a utility that enables the PC to read, write and format Mac disks; and Miramar Systems’ PC MacLAN for Windows NT.

Intergraph also offers several bundles of software. Our unit came with the Designer Bundle, which includes Adobe Photoshop 4.0.1 and MetaCreations Corp.’s Painter 5.0, Kai’s Power Tools and Convolver Special Effects.

The complete package carries a street price of $8,600. When we tried to put together a similar Power Mac G3/266 configuration (though, of course, with only one processor) at the Apple Store, the price came out to $6,688, and that did not include a Jaz drive or applications. Matching those items would push the Mac price close to the ExtremeZ’s, and if you were to add a PCI expansion chassis to supplement the one slot left free on the Mac, the Apple solution would cost even more.

ExtremeZ systems’ sleek purple enclosure with lots of decorative curves recalls workstation designs from Silicon Graphics Inc. Setting up and networking our test unit went smoothly. Both MacOpener and PC MacLAN lived up to Intergraph’s claims of Mac-friendliness: We had no difficulty reading Mac floppies or connecting to MacWEEK’s AppleTalk network.

The only major glitch we ran into involved the Zip drive. Initially it wouldn’t read anything, and we couldn’t find any Iomega software, preinstalled or not. Intergraph thought the problem was because of an improper jumper setting on the CD-ROM drive, which shares the extended IDE controller with the Zip. That hypothesis turned out to be incorrect (all we really needed was a copy of the Iomega installer), but it gave us occasion to experience Intergraph’s new, one-of-a-kind chassis form factor featuring innovative toolless access that makes it easy for users to upgrade every part of their system.

Unfortunately, the experience turned out to be more like working on a Power Mac 8100 or 9500, with their user-hostile internal design, than on the elegant, easy-open chassis of Apple’s latest models. Intergraph’s boasts about the chassis seem to rest on the fact that users can swing the hinged power supply out of the way. But before you can actually do so, you have to unplug the cables that come out of it – in this case, nine of them!

Even then, we couldn’t reach the jumper we wanted to move. In the end, we had to unscrew the drive from its brackets and remove it altogether to make the change. Since the chassis has a safety interlock that prevents it from powering up unless the case is closed, we had to reassemble the entire setup just to test the effect of the jumper change. It took us more than 15 minutes to get the side panel properly positioned; an Intergraph service rep who later visited had almost as much trouble. And after all that, when it turned out that all we’d accomplished was to disable the CD-ROM drive, we had to go through the whole wretched exercise yet again.

Pedal to the metal

Some people think the Pentium II is a snail compared with the PowerPC 750, but two Pentium IIs, running a symmetrical-multiprocessing OS, are a different story.

Using 50- and 75-Mbyte test files, we compared the performance of Photoshop 4.0.1 on the ExtremeZ, a Power Mac G3/266 and a UMAX SuperMac S900 with dual 250-MHz 604e processors. Out of 15 operations we measured, the ExtremeZ was fastest at 12 of them, including launching the program, opening the file, mode changes, rotations, Gaussian blurs, unsharp masking and despeckling. The Power Mac was, on average, 56 percent slower.

The Mac came in first on two operations: by less than 1 percent when reducing the size of an image, and by 21 percent on a 100-pixel Gaussian blur, an operation rarely performed in real life. (We did it just to confirm that Adobe’s MMX optimizations don’t apply at certain parameters.) The S900 took the gold on one task: saving the file after conversion to CMYK.

That’s discouraging news for Mac fans, but several points are worth emphasizing. First, the PC needed two processors to beat the Mac’s one. Second, both the Power Mac and the ExtremeZ were so fast that the leader’s advantage, however large on a percentage basis, often amounted to no more than a few seconds, even when manipulating large files. A two-pixel Gaussian blur on our 75-Mbyte file, for example, took more than twice as long on the Mac at 2.57 vs. 1.16 seconds.

Finally, because Photoshop was heavily optimized for MMX, our results probably provide the strongest possible case for the Pentium II. In tests with QuarkXPress, the Mac held its own in nearly all operations. And when we clocked the rendering of a complex 3-D model in MetaCreations’ Infini-D, the Mac won by 22 to 36 minutes. (Anyone doing serious 3-D work, though, should consider the ExtremeZ 3D Graphics Workstation, which includes Intergraph’s RealiZm II 3-D graphics accelerator.)

Despite the best efforts of Color Solutions Inc., color management is one of NT’s major weaknesses. The Designer and Creator bundles include Color Solutions’ ColorBlind Viewer, which lets you view the effects of applying profiles to an image, but you can’t apply or create them. The Pro bundle includes ColorBlind ICC, Batch and Edit, which together make it possible to build a color-managed work flow. ICC creates profiles for displays, input and output devices and lets you apply profiles to an image. Batch lets you set up a hot folder for applying profiles as a batch process; Edit lets you interactively edit images via their profiles. But third-party application support is almost entirely absent, and while you can measure a monitor under NT, ColorBlind ICC won’t let you calibrate the monitor to something other than its native state. ColorBlind Professional, currently under development, will also be included in the Pro bundle.

Conclusions

Our tests show convincingly that the ExtremeZ is a faster foundation for Photoshop than any current Mac. But Photoshop isn’t the only program that matters to publishing and graphics professionals, and raw performance is rarely the sole determinant of real-world productivity. Windows NT still lags far behind the Mac in many areas that don’t show up in benchmarks but have both quantitative and qualitative consequences: font management, color management, availability of drivers and plug-ins, ease of configuration, and so on. Faster doesn’t necessarily mean better, but the ExtremeZ offers more than speed. It’s an impressive system in many ways – and one more reminder that Apple had better not take its publishing and graphics customers for granted.

Intergraph Computer Systems Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., can be reached at (205) 730-5441 or (800) 763-0242; fax (205) 730-6188; http://www.intergraph.com/ics.

ExtremeZ 2D

Graphics Workstation

Intergraph Computer Systems Inc

Street price: $8,600*

Hits: Excellent processor and graphics performance; software bundle aids integration or migration; storage options; plenty of slots; excellent monitor and keyboard.

Misses: Windows user experience no match for Mac’s, especially for system management and configuration; no systemwide color management; chassis design makes access difficult.

*Dual-processor system with Designer Bundle.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Mac Publishing

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