workstation is often used with some alacrity to describe the computers
game artists work on every day. Few, however, would truly be considered
an heir to the title passed down from the SGIs of yesteryear. This month
I took a look at two products that both live up to the title and at least
one that redefines the way CG artists can work.
Boxx Technologies' 3DBoxx
First up is Boxx Technologies' 3DBoxx, featuring dual AMD Athlon 2000+ processors, 1GB 266MHz DDR memory, an Nvidia Quadro 4 900 XGL 128MB DDR video card (which supports two monitors), and an 80GB hard drive. Though it comes equipped with two Ethernet ports, there is no Firewire port as a standard feature, which is unfortunate, as any modern graphics workstation should be able to support DV camcorders, a variety of hard drives, and other peripherals that need the superior bandwidth of Firewire over USB.
It's hard to look at a desktop workstation these days and see its true value. After all, in the world of www.cheappartsforyourpc.com and with the geekish nature of game developers, we feel we could make more for less than buying a turnkey solution. And if you perceive your purchase as merely the buying of parts, you may be right. But what is the value of your time and sanity? Would you rather spend weeks researching which motherboard works with which processor (and with how much RAM) and then trying to find a good video card that doesn't have issues with all of the above and, on top of it all, performs well with your software? Or would you rather just take a machine out of the box, plug it in, and go to work? With a machine like the 3DBoxx, that's precisely what you do. Throw in one year of 24-hour guaranteed part replacement, and suddenly that extra premium you paid is looking better.
Upon unpacking the 3DBoxx, two things struck me. First was its weight (or lack thereof). While it feels quite solid, the case and mountings are made of aluminum, rather than traditional steel. Not only does this make the machine more portable, but, given the qualities of aluminum, it turns the entire case into a gigantic heat sink, dispersing the tremendous amount of heat given off by today's high-end processors. The second and definitely more noticeable aspect of the machine is the industrial design of the case itself. With its retro black-and-brushed-metal look, dipswitches, and gigantic, bright LEDs, the machine just looks powerful. But it also manages to stay traditional enough so you don't feel you are paying a premium simply for the case design.
After I plugged everything in, I hit the power button. In a seeming assault on my senses, the bright power LED and cooling fans came to life. Now, I realize the need to keep the chips inside cool, and the simple physics of fan blades chopping through the air at high speed are bound to cause some noise, but the amount of racket this machine puts out is quite astounding. Most artists, myself included, keep our workstations at our desks, and the constant white noise of the fans began to grate on me after a while. It would be interesting to see a commercial workstation vendor like Boxx start using one of the existing liquid cooling systems.
Perhaps the noise level is justified, however, because this machine just screams. Twenty minutes out of the box, I had both Maya and Lightwave installed and running. This is one of the main arguments for purchasing a workstation, rather than a bunch of parts: Everything not only worked (and worked well), but also worked well together. I had no device conflicts, driver issues, or odd dipswitches to set, and this on a Windows 2000 machine (which is the preinstalled OS, though I had no trouble installing Red Hat Linux as a dual boot solution).
The Nvidia Quadro 4 video card is a true beast, pumping out a 3DMark of 8820 at the default settings. Complex scenes in Maya with GL fog, shadows, and large amounts of textures were swallowed whole. Because the Quadro 4 supports hardware overlay planes, many of Maya's features that rely on them, such as 3D Paint, really displayed the prowess of the system in a production environment. Unless you're working on some super game platform unknown to man, this system should handle any modern videogame art asset without a problem. The only issue I had within both Maya and Lightwave was a tendency for viewports in the background to not be updated. This is hopefully something that can be rectified within the next few driver releases from Nvidia.
Dell Precision Mobile Workstation M50
The other machine I had a look at was the Dell Precision Mobile Workstation M50. For such a corporate-sounding name, this is one sexy machine, and without a doubt one of the most impressive pieces of hardware I have had the pleasure of using. My test system held a Pentium 4 running at 1.8GHz, 512MB of DDR memory, a 40GB hard drive, and an Nvidia Quadro 4 500 Go GL 3D with 64MB DDR memory. This is a true portable workstation. I hesitate to use the word laptop, because the heft of this system, as well as the heat it generates, would give pause to anyone wanting to keep this machine on his or her lap.
Featuring a crisp, clear 15-inch display that runs at a native 160031200 resolution, the machine is equipped with a bevy of ports. In a taunting game of one-upmanship with the 3DBoxx, the Dell does feature a Firewire port. Lacking, however, was an integrated 802.11b networking solution. Any portable in this class should feature such technology as standard, rather than as the option it is available.
My other major gripe was the pointing devices integrated into the keyboard. Featuring both a touchpad and a pointing stick, the users have a choice as to which way they wish to navigate around the UI. However, neither features a scroll wheel or third button. Most of the applications I run in my day-to-day existence require that middle mouse button, so I found myself carrying around an external mouse.
O.K., enough with the griping and on with the good stuff. Putting it simply, this machine is unbelievable. Sure, laptops have served as desktop replacements for years now, but the thought of a portable that would run a 3D program, never mind run it faster than 99 percent of the computers people work on every day, is astounding to me. Running Maya on it was a dream, and earned oohs and aahs from my coworkers. I could easily tumble around complex models numbering in the hundreds of thousands of polygons. I could run cloth simulations in near real time and render out animations with surprising speed. Hard drive access was a little slow, but a slower hard drive lets the M50 conserve power, giving it a respectable average battery life of two hours and 12 minutes of actual use. Dell includes a handy utility that gives a fairly accurate display of remaining battery life in time, rather than a percentage as many similar utilities do.
I didn't need to take any long trips while I was conducting the review, but I can definitely see the value of having a machine of this caliber as a portable. The ability to run all your tools and programs wherever you go, be it a recruiting trip, a professional conference, or just going outside and working in the fresh air for a while is truly worth the premium you pay for portability.
Also equipped with an Nvidia chipset, the M50 performed well against the Boxx in the 3DMark, scoring an impressive 4855. Interestingly, neither 3DMark nor Right Hemisphere's Deep Exploration recognized the video chip as anything above a GeForce 2, so I could not use any of the pixel shader features of Deep Exploration nor run the pixel shader tests of 3DMark. Again, I hope this can soon be rectified through a driver release.
Max Power's the Name
If you are in the market for new workstations for your staff, I can't recommend the 3DBoxx highly enough. Though the noise can get a little distracting, the intense, raw power it brings to the table makes it worth it. Maybe we need to bring back the days when workstations were kept in a super air-conditioned room well away from the animator? You pay a premium for service, but with 24-hour part replacement and the personalized service Boxx offers, it's more than worth it, especially if your staffing budget doesn't allow for full-time IT support.
If you need to hit the road often, or you just like the idea of truly being able to take your work home with you, the Dell M50 is worth every penny and every pound. Sure it's heavy, lacks the essential third mouse button, and will scorch the hair off your legs if you actually put it on your lap, but it's really a true workstation disguised as a laptop. While I'm waiting for Dell to ask for its return, I am in fact writing this review on it. They'll get it when they pry it from my cold, dead hands.
Looking at these two machines, both of which retail for less than what I paid for a 286/16MHz 10 years ago, all I can say is Moore's law is really, really cool.
Three Months Later...
They say that first impressions are all that matter. Whoever "they" are apparently my editor isn't one of them. I say this because I'm here to give a follow up on the two workstations I recently reviewed for Game Developer magazine.
Mainly, my opinions have been amplified. I have been thoroughly impressed with the stability of the 3D Boxx from Boxx Technologies. The promising news is I haven't suffered a single crash. When you're running Windows that's saying something. I think the main thing you're paying for with a workstation is uptime. The last thing your boss wants to see when walking past your little cube prison is you playing Game Boy while the computer services guy is crawling around under your desk swearing. Combine that stability with the intense speed of the machine and you just get more done.
If you recall, I had issues with the fan noise. I wish I could say I became accustomed to it. Alas, it is not so. At times I just wanted to turn to it and scream to just shut up. Obviously, this wouldn't really do much, but it might have made me feel better. The good news is Boxx has addressed the issue, and newer workstations include quieter fans. A good indicator or their commitment to their current customers is the fact they will retrofit the workstations already out there. That to me is going above and beyond the call of duty for your customers, and one that should be applauded. It's one more thing that shows the "added value" of purchasing a workstation rather than building one yourself.
One other thing, which I came to appreciate over time, is the overall speed of all aspects of the system. Sure, you can look at how fast something renders to judge the speed of a processor, or look at how fast Quake runs to judge the video card, but it's all the other things that make up a system that often get overlooked. A speedy hard drive, like the one in the Boxx, lets you save and retrieve files quicker. If you think about it, saving 10 seconds on a save doesn't seem significant. But if you save every five minutes or so, as any good paranoid 3D artist does, that's 2 minutes an hour. 18 minutes a day. That adds up to an hour and a half a week. Suddenly, we are talking real time, and therefore real money.
The other system covered in the review was the Dell M50 portable workstation. I was very enthusiastic about the M50 in my original review, and while I still think it is a great machine, some of my complaints have been exacerbated and made all the more apparent with time.
First was an issue with the video subsystem. NVidia terms the video chip the "Quadro4ToGo" but unlike the Quadro4 video card chips, which are based on the Geforce4 and therefore the Geforce 3 chipset, the 2Go chip is based on the GeForce 2. This is why the features supported by geforce 3 chips, like pixel shaders do not work on the M50. The chip is plenty fast and I have no complaints there, and I suppose my complaint would be with nVidea more than Dell.
If you remember, I pretty much refrained from calling the M50 a laptop, instead choosing to call it a portable, since the M50 was to heavy and ran too hot to keep on your lap. Maybe I'm just a wimp, but I got tired of dragging the M50 around with me after a while. With a portable you have to make some tradeoffs between power, functionality and weight, it's a given, but I would have given up some of the machines capabilities, like the floppy drive, for a little less weight.
Overall, my impressions of both machines hasn't changed too drastically. Boxx has impressed me with their dedication to customer satisfaction, and bring new meaning to the term "value added". They provide a speedy, stable platform, and my issues with sound obviously have the attention of their engineers. This bodes well for their upcoming machines, and their offer to replace existing fans is appreciated by this particular user. While I still feel the Dell M50 could serve as a viable desktop alternative, it does this by giving up some of the qualities people look for in a portable, like being lightweight.
More than a few people emailed me after the original review asking "Which would you buy?" The obvious answer is both. But seeing as last I checked boys were made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails rather than money, I'd have to go with the 3D Boxx. Value, support and the ability to easily upgrade components wins out over portability with this artist.