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Peter K. Sheerin

Xi Computer 700MHz Athlon Workstation

AMD-a longtime rival to Intel in the general computing market in terms of price for low-cost and mid-range systems, has now beefed up its processors' performance to a level suitable for CAD work. Take a look at how the AMD-based workstations from Xi handled our benchmark suite.  There have been many computer-industry pretenders to Intel's throne. But until now none have been a significant challenge to the company's dominance. The wannabes have either been too slow, too late or too incompatible to seriously interest the market. But with the previous generation K6 and now the current Athlon (K7) Pentium-class processor, AMD has become a serious contender in the high-performance market and has forced Intel to drop its prices significantly because of the real competition. AMD is now neck-and-neck with Intel on raw clock speed, offering 650MHz and 700MHz Athlon processors. It has even gotten to the point that some big-name workstation vendors have, off-the-record, admitted experimenting with offering CAD workstations based on AMD's processors.

But the first vendors to offer AMD-based CAD workstations have been the smaller vendors who are sometimes a little more willing to try something different and create change in the market-in this case San Clemente, CA-based Xi Computer. One recent development has also increased the viability of the AMD processor and its ability to compete with Intel's flagship Pentium III and its SSE 3D extensions. AMD's 3DNow! instruction set is similar in many ways to Intel's SSE instruction set-both are SIMD (single instruction, multiple data) designs and both are particularly adept at improving 3D graphics performance. But until now most software support for 3DNow! has been in the game market, with graphics card vendors focusing their efforts on modifying custom game APIs to take advantage of the instructions (Microsoft got into the game, too, by modifying Direct3D to support 3DNow!). But several graphics card vendors have now written OpenGL drivers that gain a performance boost from 3DNow! for cards targeted at the CAD market, such as the Diamond Fire GL1 and the 3DLabs Oxygen GVX1.

The resulting performance from this workstation makes it very attractive for CAD use. On the 2D AutoCAD test and the SolidWorks benchmark the system performed significantly better than most of the dual Pentium III 600MHz workstations we tested in the December 1999 issue and did so for a very good price (see "CADENCE Lab: The Last Fast Workstations of the Millennium," pp. 42-52). In the rest of the 3D tests the results were close to those systems, but sometimes higher and sometimes lower. Since the configurations were different (only one processor instead of two, and 256MB of RAM instead of 384MB), a direct comparison of price vs. performance could not be made. (In particular, the 700MHz Xi workstation performed significantly better than any of those systems on the SolidWorks 98Plus test.) 

The 700MHz Xi workstation offers good expandability in terms of memory, add-in cards and drives; very good OpenGL graphics cards and well-designed cases. The showing this AMD-based workstation makes in the performance department is a great thing for the workstation market... it means that Intel is now facing enough competition that end-users stand to benefit from greater performance and lower prices when buying workstations in the future.

The Xi 700K MTower SP

The Xi 700K MTower SP workstation provides very good performance at a very reasonable cost, and its case improves on the design of earlier Xi workstations.

Pros: Great 2D and 3D AutoCAD performance.

Price: $2,699

Xi Computer Corp.

The Xi Computer 700MHz Athlon Workstation
The case design used on this workstation is improved over previous models we have tested from Xi. It has a bright white case with a translucent blue accent on the front, playing off the iMac just a little bit. The left side panel can be removed just by depressing a couple of tabs-dispensing with the need for a screwdriver. When it came to performance, the Xi workstation performed very well, besting the fastest score on the SolidWorks 98 Plus benchmark achieved by the 600MHz Pentium III workstations we reviewed last month. The Dell Precision 410 with an Intense3D Wildcat graphics card came in at 2.54, while the Xi system turned in a score of 2.73 with a 3DLabs Oxygen GVX1, and costs several thousand less. It also achieved a score of 171 seconds on our CADMARK 2D AutoCAD test, besting the top score of 228 seconds in last month's Pentium III workstation review, showing that very little compromise must be made when selecting an AMD processor over a genuine Intel chip.

Peter K. Sheerin is technical editor of CADENCE. He can be reached at psheerin@mfi.com.

For A In-Depth And Full Review  AMD-Powered Workstations from Xi 
Peter K. Sheerin

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