Experience Alpha!

If you've got speed-hungry applications and clients who are waiting on your every move, you should look at the Summit from Aspen Systems and the Poly Alpha 300 from Polywell Computers. Aspen aimed its 300-MHz Alpha 21164-based system at the NT graphics market and fine-tuned it to be a beastly powerful rendering engine. Because this performance comes at a price of more than $17,000, you may want to consider the Poly Alpha 300. It offers excellent performance for less than $8000.

Aspen System's Summit
Reaching for the Pinnacle of Performance
The Alpha definitely shines in floating-point performance. For compute-intensive tasks such as 3D rendering and animation, fast floating-point performance more than makes up for lesser integer performance. The Summit is still faster than all the other machines I've reviewed.

So, what do you get for your $17,148 (or $12,204 without the extra 96MB of RAM)? Quite a lot, actually: The Summit system has all the exciting features you've come to expect in a high-end workstation. In addition to a lightning-fast CPU (see the sidebar "The Alpha 21164" on page 76), you get Aspen System's proprietary mini-AT-style system board with a 128- or 256-bit data path, which features a 267MB-per-second (MBps) direct memory access (DMA)-write bandwidth. You also get a 33-MHz 64-bit PCI bus, which features a 260MBps transfer rate. There are two 64-bit (32-bit compatible), one shared 64-bit, and two 32-bit PCI/ISA bus-mastered slots. The Summit is tailored for data-heavy applications, such as 3D graphics and CAD.

The CPU supports up to 16MB of user-upgradeable L3 cache. (My test unit came with 2MB.) There is also 8KB instruction/8KB data of L1 cache and 96KB of L2 cache on the chip. You can set the Summit's memory architecture for either 128-bit or 256-bit data paths, depending on how much memory you've installed. My system, which had 128MB of RAM, used the 256-bit data path. You have room for up to 512MB of RAM housed in eight 72-pin SIMM slots with automatic error control and correction.

The Summit comes in a standard desktop case with a 300-watt power supply to support its sizable CPU and all the peripherals. There are three front-access 51Ž4" half-height drive bays and a single internal 31Ž2" half-height drive bay. The system board can accommodate two floppy drives, and you can get a PCI SCSI card for anything from SCSI-1 to Fast/Wide Differential SCSI. The test unit had a standard SCSI-2 card to control a quad-speed CD-ROM and a single 1GB hard disk.

The Summit has a built-in remote-diagnostics serial port for system maintenance via a modem line. This is handy when you don't want to ship the machine back for minor system glitches. It also has two standard RS-232 serial connectors, an enhanced bidirectional parallel port, a PS/2 mouse port, and an AT-style keyboard connector. The PCI bus supports accelerators and high-end graphics cards. My test system included a Number 9 Imagine 128 graphics card and a Zynx 10/100 megabit-per-second (Mbps) 10Base-T Ethernet card.

Performance and Compatibility
I had no problems loading software and testing the machine with the Windows NT Magazine Lab's custom scripts, although the extreme speed of the device can cause compatibility problems with third-party hardware, such as the Perception Video Recorder (PVR) from Digital Processing Systems (DPS). The Summit's CPU and bus are so fast that other hardware simply can't keep up: This can cause errors and crashes. DPS is working on a new release of its PVR board and expects that it will be compatible with the faster systems.

I also tested some native graphics applications (see the sidebar "Buy the Numbers" below for test results with Elastic Reality and Pro/JR.), and this is where the Summit's performance really peaked: It showed at least a four-fold increase in rendering speed over a 100-MHz Pentium computer. Specialized graphics accelerators, such as OpenGL and GLINT cards, will push it even further.

If you're looking for improved compatibility, look at FX!32 from Digital. It offers 32-bit Intel-compiled code compatibility (Win32) at 70% of native Alpha speed. FX!32, which was introduced at Comdex in November 1995, will open a new world of possibilities for the Alpha platform because it enables anything that runs on an Intel processor to run on an Alpha system. FX!32 will be well into beta-testing by the time you read this article. Look for a review in an upcoming issue of Windows NT Magazine.

Although the Aspen Systems Summit is more expensive than a comparably configured 21064-based system, such as Aspen's Alpine or Telluride computer, the Summit is nonetheless worthy of its price. If processing power is your main consideration, the Summit is one of the best places for you to look.

Polywell's Poly Alpha 300
Alpha Power at an Entry-Level Price
If you want a high-speed Alpha system but don't want to pay a premium, take a gander at Polywell Computers' Poly Alpha 300, an Alpha 21064-based workstation running at 300 MHz.

At less than $7600 (without a display), the Poly Alpha 300 offers a price and performance point that make the machine a viable alternative for the NT graphics professionals who want to leave their old Amiga or Intel-based system in favor of a high-end workstation, without making an enormous investment.

As you can see from the benchmarks I ran (see the sidebar "Buy the Numbers" on page 78), the 300-MHz Poly Alpha is not as fast as a machine with an equivalently clocked 21164, but it's still significantly faster than a Pentium system. It's about 2.5 times faster on office automation and even faster on graphics applications such as 3D animation and rendering. But because you wouldn't buy this kind of computer to use as a word processor, the Elastic Reality and Pro/JR. tests are more meaningful.

The test system came equipped with 32MB of RAM (upgradeable to 1GB in eight SIMM slots), a 2MB L3 cache module, a 4X Panasonic SCSI CD-ROM drive, a Diamond Stealth 64 PCI video card (2MB of VRAM), and a 2.1GB Quantum SCSI-3 hard drive that is controlled by a Q-Logic PCI Fast/Wide SCSI card. This all came packaged in a mini-tower case with seven half-height drive bays (three external 51Ž4", two external 31Ž2", and two internal 31Ž2"), and seven expansion slots (four PCI, three 16-bit ISA). The unit supports a PS/2-style keyboard, a PS/2-style mouse, one parallel port, two serial ports (one DB-25, one DB-9), and an external SCSI-2 connector.

The 21064A comes in at about half the speed of the 21164 running at the same clock rate (shown in the BAPCo benchmark results). But at half the price, it's an even trade.

I did, however, see a significant boost in performance when I added memory. Bumping the system's memory up to 64MB almost tripled its speed on the Pro/JR. script (partly because it cut the amount of disk swapping), which is a floating-point-intensive task. I was initially concerned that the architecture of the machine was somehow faulty and causing unexpectedly poor floating-point performance. The extra memory freed the system so that it could flex its CPU for more realistic runtimes. Otherwise, the Poly Alpha ran well with the software I used.

Reliability and Operability
I had a few functional problems with this system (crashes and boot failures), but nothing I couldn't resolve. After working with Polywell technical support, another manufacturer tipped me off about the possible source of the fault: The Alpha CPU is so large and heavy that it has a tendency to come loose during shipping. The other vendor solves the problem by putting a styrofoam block over the chip, bracing it in place against the cabinet's interior. Reseating the CPU in the Poly Alpha seemed to do the trick, and it has since run without incident.

The only other difficulty I had with the machine was with cooling: With the case closed, it was prone to crashes. With the case open to allow free-flowing air around the CPU, it ran fine. Again, these are resolvable problems. My advice to Polywell is to find a way to lock down the CPU and redirect the air flow over the chip with a duct or secondary heat-sink fan.

The Poly Alpha 300 is a good entry-level Alpha workstation. It can burn through your applications without burning a hole through your checkbook.

I would ask for the few improvements I just mentioned here, plus some new documentation. The book provided with the Poly Alpha appears to be a carryover from older Intel-based systems and contains no information specific to this Alpha computer.

Aspen Summit
Aspen Systems * 303-431-4606
Price (without display): $17,148 (with 128MB of RAM); $12,204 (with 32MB of RAM)
Poly Alpha 300
Polywell Computers * 415-583-7222
Price (without display): $7580 (as tested); $8860 (with 64MB of RAM)
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