Originally published in the May 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.



Low-end desktops

In the $5,000 price range, Pentiums sporting Unix give HP and SPARC systems a run for their money.

By Curt Aubley & Arlie Barber

Despite the shift of yesterday's high-powered server technology into today's workstations, companies can't afford to place a multiprocessor system with endless disk and RAM resources on every desk. What computer will have the horsepower, expandability and application support that your users demand, but at a price you can afford? Even with a budget of only $5,000 per desktop, you have several worthwhile options. In this review, we take a look at computers in this price range to help you determine which option will best meet your needs.

From the invitations to seven vendors, we garnered five workstations: a Hewlett-Packard 9000 712 model 60 running HP-UX, a Sun Microsystems SPARCstation 4 running Solaris 2, an Integrix SPARCstation 5 clone running Solaris 2, a 90-MHz Pentium from Mobius Computer with SCO ODT, and a 90-MHz Pentium from VA Research (formerly Fintronic Linux Systems) running Linux. (We also invited IBM and Digital Equipment to provide systems in the $5,000 price range, but they did not offer any in time for our review.)

Keep in mind that it's applications, not hardware, that's key. Make a list of all the apps your users require and the Unix each runs on before you start shopping. When buying a Unix for PCs, we recommend you purchase the OS and PC together and make the seller install and configure the combination. Your stomach lining will thank you for it.

Comparing architectures
When the topic of Unix workstations comes to mind, RISC architectures commonly receive most of the attention. Since RISC iron typically carry high price tags, we added some high-end PCs to the mix. With the advent of the higher MHz Pentiums available in lower cost computers, the PCs put on quite a show.

Each of the computers we tested is capable. The top honors went to VA Research's Pentium computer, based on an Intel Pentium-90/PCI architecture, and the Integrix based on the microSPARC-II 100-MHz/SBus architecture. Both displayed a good balance of computational power and I/O subsystem performance.

Despite a few glitches, Mobius's Pentium shined with its computational power, leading the pack in CPU/RAM performance. This, of course, was in part due to Mobius's cramming 64 megabytes of system RAM into its workstation (twice that of the others) while still keeping a price point near $5,000.

Both the HP and Sun offerings performed well and boast established architectures and a plethora of software.

What does $5,000 buy?
These computers have much in common. In the networking department (a must today) all support both 10BaseT (twisted pair) and 10Base2 (AUI) network interfaces. Each also includes Unix, a 15-inch or larger color SVGA-quality monitor, at least one serial port, one parallel port, one external SCSI-2 interface, an internal hard disk drive (storage capacities varied greatly), and a 1.44-megabyte 31Ś2-inch floppy drive. All came configured with 32 megabytes of RAM, except for the Mobius, which has 64 megabytes. In the I/O department, all use the SCSI-2 fast bus system. From here, the differences became more evident.

Integrix SPARCstation 5 compatible SWS5
Integrix's idea of an entry-level computer differs from its competitors. Taking advantage of a large installed base of SPARC customers and a variety of applications already available, Integrix concentrates on building high-quality SPARC products at competitive prices. The Integrix SWS5 is a SPARCstation 5-compatible workstation centered around a microSPARC-II CPU running at 100 MHz with Solaris 2.4 installed. Following Sun's lead, the Integrix limits cache to the on-chip microSPARC-II standard of 24 kilobytes.

What distinguishes the Integrix from the others is its expandability. The SWS5 came with a 1-gigabyte internal hard drive, a single external SCSI port, and a TGX120 8-bit graphics accelerator that occupied one of the five 32-bit SBus slots available. The cabinet can support up to two internal hard drives (for a total of 2 gigabytes) and an internal CD-ROM. RAM can grow from the base 32 megabytes to 256 megabytes via 32-megabyte SIMMs. Also, a single 64-bit AFX bus graphics slot allows direct access to memory and, in theory, speedier graphics performance.

VA Research Pentium with Linux
Rather than offering traditional RISC systems running Unix, VA Research sells PCs with Unix preinstalled. We tested a mini-tower configuration with an Intel 90-MHz Pentium CPU, 32 megabytes of RAM (expandable to 128 megabytes), a 1-gigabyte disk drive, and a 15-inch monitor with a Number Nine GXE64Pro video accelerator with 2 megabytes of memory and a PCI bus. Linux 1.1.72 and Open Look as the GUI were preinstalled.

For those unaware of Linux, it is a free implementation of Unix developed by a group of volunteers working mainly through the Internet. Linux has spawned a cottage industry of PC resellers preinstalling Linux (which is otherwise free on the Internet) on PCs, as well as several CD publishers bundling Linux with documentation and freeware. The Linux kernel uses no code from AT&T or other proprietary source, and offers the functionality of Unix turning most any Intel x86-based computer into a multitasking Unix workstation. The operating system, GUI, networking utilities, software-development environment, and other tools consumed approximately 210 megabytes of disk space, leaving plenty of free space on the installed 1-gigabyte drive.

The VA Research computer performed quite nicely. Linux ran surprisingly fast. The 64-bit PCI-based video card with 2 megabytes of VRAM performed at a high level in video tests and will satisfy most users' needs.

Mobius Pentium Tower with SCO Open Desktop
Mobius Computer Corp.'s Protˇgˇ model P5100EPD mini-tower came in a single CPU configuration with an Intel 90-MHz Pentium CPU, 512-kilobyte write-back cache, 64 megabytes of RAM (expandable to 128 megabytes), a 1-gigabyte disk drive, and a 15-inch monitor with a 1200 by 1024 ATI Ultrapro video accelerator with 2 megabytes of memory. With a total of five drive bays, room remains for additional disk drives and a CD-ROM or other devices.

The Protˇgˇ came with the Santa Cruz Operations (SCO) Unix with Open Desktop as the GUI. SCO is one of the leading developers and suppliers of Intel-based Unix software. The OS, GUI, networking utilities, software-development environment, and other tools consumed approximately 200 megabytes of disk space. With the 1-gigabyte drive installed, ample space remained for applications and user files. Mobius also offers PCs with UnixWare, Solaris x86, and Windows NT pre-installed.

Despite the reassuring slogan on Mobius's packaging ("Just plug it in it works!), we encountered a couple of problems with our evaluation unit. First and foremost, each time we shipped the unit it would not boot on arrival. Jostling during shipping caused the CPU to be improperly seated in its socket. By removing and reinserting the CPU, we resolved this problem.

Several weeks into the review the secondary cooling fan began making abnormal noises. A call to Mobius revealed that machines shipped in early 1995 include a faulty fan (at press time Mobius reported the fan's failure rate hovered around 5 percent), and the company is recalling these units and fixing the problem at no charge to customers.

Another quirk: Unless you request otherwise or order a dual-OS (DOS and Unix) computer, Mobius will ship its Unix-based PCs with the Turbo and Reset buttons disabled. It seems these buttons can cause problems for Unix, but DOS users may want to make sure they get a chassis with functional Turbo and Reset buttons.

Once the Protˇgˇ was running, we were able to appreciate its responsiveness. The performance and feel of Open Desktop from SCO was fantastic. The ATI Ultrapro video accelerator combined with the Pentium quickly opened apps and moved windows, performing as well as many large, expensive systems. Furthermore, the Protˇgˇ excels as a number cruncher. On the downside, the Mobius system's potentially speedy I/O architecture was crippled by SCO ODT, which could not take full advantage of the Protˇgˇ's generous RAM due to the operating system's lack of dynamic buffering. By contrast, similar hardware running the Linux operating system exhibited relatively strong I/O throughput performance.

HP 9000 712 model 60
Last year, the Advanced Systems Test Center (ASTC) looked at the 712/60's big brother, the model 80. (See "A trio of desktop winners," September 1994.) The model 60 is very similar; however, under the hood of the model 60 you won't find much. This can actually be a good thing. Based on our experience with more than 100 workstations, this model contains one of the smallest and least-populated motherboards on the block. This is due, in part, to HP's tight integration of functionality onto a single VLSI chip.

The 60-MHz PA7100LC integrates several components, including a floating-point processor, cache controller, 64 kilobytes of cache, main memory, and an I/O controller. HP reduced these functions onto a single chip in an effort to lower manufacturing costs and improve performance. Another interesting feature incorporated onto the PA7100LC is an MPEG decompression utility that HP claims will allow full-motion video at up to 30 frames per second without the need for additional hardware.

Even with this technology (which exhibits good floating-point performance), adhering to the $5,000 price point proved challenging for HP. In fact, the 712/60 tipped the scales a bit with its current price tag. The reviewed system included two 260-megabyte hard drives with HP's Desktop-UX 9.05 operating system installed. Beginning this June, HP expects to offer a system with the same configuration but with one 525-megabyte drive for $5,035. (At a slightly higher price, this system can include a 1-gigabyte internal disk drive and an unabridged edition of HP-UX.) The stripped-down version of the OS lacked some friendly features like man pages and a proper C development environment. It did, however, include HP's friendly Visual User Environment, SAM (a system administration tool), and full network support. The 712/60 also included 16-bit audio and expandability options that included two proprietary HP-GSC expansion slots and RAM upgrades to 128 megabytes.

Sun SPARCstation 4
Sun, in an effort to improve its low-end price performance, recently replaced its SPARCclassic with the new SPARCstation 4, which closely resembles a SPARCstation 5 sans some expansion ports. This specimen employs the microSPARC-II 70-MHz CPU with 24 kilobytes of on-chip cache -- 14 kilobytes for data and 8 kilobytes for instructions. The microSPARC-II utilizes a SPARC reference memory management unit with a reasonable 256 contexts, which is a great improvement over the microSPARC-I. The SPARCstation 4 also came equipped with a SCSI-2 external connector and system RAM expandable to 160 megabytes.

In an attempt to create an affordable entry-level workstation, Sun eliminated additional levels of cache and provides only limited internal expandability. After Solaris 2.4 was loaded, there was room for locally installed applications on the 535-megabyte disk drive. Like HP-UX, a slim version of Solaris 2.4 can be configured easily on clients as a user-only system; the minimal Solaris installation requires roughly 120 megabytes of disk space.

Understanding that the SPARCstation 4 could find itself used as a high-end X terminal or as a client in a client/server configuration, Sun equipped the system with an integrated 8-bit pixel-accelerated color system on the motherboard. This accelerator helped OpenWindows respond adequately in our tests, but you may consider using the one available SBus slot for a higher-powered 24-bit accelerator, such as the TurboGXplus, if you need better graphics performance. The manufacturing quality of this solidly built system is impeccable.

Ultra-low-priced alternative
VA Research also supplied a PC powered by an Intel 486. This computer was configured with an Intel 66-MHz 486DX2 CPU, 16 megabytes of RAM (expandable to 64 megabytes), a 730-megabyte disk drive, and a 15-inch monitor with a Number Nine GXE64Pro video accelerator with 2 megabytes of VRAM. (The same video card is used in the more expensive Pentium.) As expected, the performance could not compete with that of the others. However, if your budget is well under $5,000, you can still get adequate performance for almost half the price of the other computers tested.

RISC apps vs. Pentium apps
Among the RISC computers evaluated, HP-UX and Solaris are the standards for their respective chip architectures. For the Intel Pentium architectures, however, there are now many Unix options, including Solaris 2.4 for x86, SCO Open Desktop, Linux, and Novell's UnixWare. For the review, Unix-on-Intel operating systems were chosen for their availability and support from the participating vendors. SCO has one of the largest installed bases among Unix-on-Intel vendors, and consequently supports a fair number of applications. Linux is a new competitor with good points and bad. One one hand, Linux is free, its complete set of development tools are free, and it has a near-rabid group of hackers advancing its code. On the other hand, Linux has no commercial apps. Linux does claim to support a compatibility package that will allow use of SCO binaries. This is something we would like to test in the future, as compatibility packages historically are prone to trouble. Of course, PC platforms benefit from the variety of non-Unix OS alternatives.

Closely analyze your needs when deciding on an operating system. Consider support, growth, performance, and -- most importantly -- which applications you must have. A vendor claiming support of several thousand applications may sound impressive, but if the applications you need are not among those supported, the claim means little.

Measuring performance
No matter what the price, we all want good performance. Few places demand good response times more than a user's desk. A fast CPU, adequate memory, decent I/O performance, and a reliable operating system are the cornerstones of computer performance. To help compare the workstations' strengths and weaknesses with the hope of gaining insight in these areas, the ASTC ran a variety of industry benchmarks, including SPECint92, SPECfp92, x11perf, and the Neal Nelson Business Benchmark 2.4.

These systems don't come close to the performance of high-end systems, but then again, they won't empty your bank account so quickly, either. All of these machines are capable of driving your favorite Unix applications. All, as you might expect, displayed obvious strengths and weaknesses.

SPEC92: Your mileage won't even come close
The Advanced Systems Test Center has a love/hate relationship with SPEC92 that has recently veered strongly toward the latter. SPEC92 is advertised as a vendor-neutral benchmark of integer and floating-point performance. SPECint92 consists of six freely available C programs that exercise a chip's integer math unit. SPECfp92 is a collection of 14 Fortran and C programs that rely on floating-point calculations.

The problem with SPEC92 is that, over time, vendors have tuned their compilers and have added preprocessors, so failing to replicate a vendor's steps exactly when running SPEC yields results that pale in comparison to the published numbers. SPEC92 is the Indianapolis 500 of benchmarks, but without the pesky safety rules.

Consequently, Advanced Systems recommends buyers use SPEC92 numbers for comparing computers from the same vendor where the same team of benchmark specialists have tuned the results. (For a more detailed explanation of SPEC92, send an e-mail message to spec92@advanced.com.)

With our anti-SPEC caveat established firmly, we'll now list the SPEC92 numbers. Intel claims its 90-MHz Pentium offers a SPECint92 of 106 and a SPECfp92 of 81. Due to our limited time with the PCs, we were unable to replicate the SPECint values, and due to a scarcity of Fortran compilers for Linux and SCO, we were unable to generate any SPEC floating-point results. Intel's 66-MHz 486DX2 numbers are 40 SPECint92 and 19 SPECfp92.

Sun claims the SPARCstation 4 generates a SPECint92 of 60 and a SPECfp 92 of 46. HP claims its 712/60 offers a SPECint92 of 58 and a SPECfp92 of 75. Integrix promises its SWS5 offers a SPECint92 of 74 and a SPECfp92 of 63.

If you are going to run SPEC tests all day long, the computer to buy is one with the sticker that says "Intel inside."

Painting pictures
The graphics display can make all the difference in the world on a desktop. Using the x11perf benchmark, we measured each system's graphics, text, and windowing performance. Running x11perf is a relatively straightforward task, but two systems did give us a fight.

The HP system did not come equipped with the proper imake facilities for transforming the machine-independent x11perf makefiles to an HP-ready makefile, but HP support pointed us to the University of Wisconsin's FTP server (quite an HP-UX repository, by the way), and the appropriate imake source tree was downloaded to create an imake environment.

Problems in compiling x11perf on the Mobius systems stemmed from the do_tests.c program. This program initializes several structures. The compiler on the Mobius yielded a Too many initializes error. Mysteriously, a second try at building x11perf reaped success.

As seen in the accompanying x11perf graphs results, no one system dominates in all categories. The Integrix system did seem strongest by a narrow margin.

Neal Nelson benchmarks
To add another facet to the performance evaluation, we used the Neal Nelson Business Benchmark 2.4, an independently developed suite of 30 benchmark tests (commercially available from Neal Nelson & Associates, Chicago) designed to show both the strengths and weaknesses of a computer system.

The Integrix and the VA Research systems deliver the most balanced performance, while the Mobius stood out as the number-crunching leader. For CPU-intensive tests (tests 12 and 13), HP and Sun delivered comparable scores, but faired poorly relative to the Pentiums. HP and Sun did redeem themselves, however, in I/O-specific tests (tests 18-29), where they kept up with the pack. Refer to the sidebar Analyzing the Business Benchmark 2.4 for a more in-depth review of the tests.

Final judgment
Although similar in price, the strengths of each of these machines differ. If you need a desktop computer with excellent number-crunching potential and a good math library, check out the Mobius and VA Research Pentium computers. Among the RISC computers, we like the high-MHz Integrix for CPU-heavy work.

If I/O is a primary concern, avoid the SCO ODT-based Mobius -- or any SCO-based system for that matter -- since SCO's OS delivers low marks in this area in its default configuration.

Before writing a check to VA Research, note that while the Linux operating system impresses, it is young and its I/O is not as well tuned as the more mature operating systems. While there are many free applications for Linux, there are no commercial apps, and support is liable to be uneven. For a hobbiest on a budget, however, Linux's price and fevered on-line development community can't be beat.

HP and Sun offer solidly constructed hardware, but lackluster CPU benchmarks landed the SPARCstation 4 and 712/60 at the bottom of the performance spectrum. HP and Sun (and Integrix, as well) scored extra points due to their mature development environments and the wealth of available applications.

Integrix's 100-MHz SWS5, a high-speed SPARCstation 5 clone, earned the highest rating of the five computers reviewed for its expandability, application availability, solid architecture, and well-rounded performance. Solaris users will find much to like in this attractively priced desktop workstation.

About the authors
Curt Aubley (curt.aubley@advanced.com) is a Senior System Engineer for Neal Nelson & Associates and formerly evaluated the latest technology for the U.S. Army's Technology Integration Center. Arlie Barber is a Senior Computer Engineer working for the U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command and has been evaluating computer systems for the past 10 years. Both have evaluated systems ranging from notebooks to large-scale multiuser systems.

SPARC vs. Pentium: Which offers more bang for the buck?

For years Sun Microsystems has claimed its low-end workstations outperform comparably priced Intel-based PCs. Believers of this mantra and their opponents have presented anecdotal evidence and benchmarks on various Usenet newsgroups supporting both sides of this issue. We decided to weigh in to the debate by running a series of popular applications and Unix commands on a SPARCstation 5 and Pentium PC.

Both computers sported 32 megabytes of RAM, identical 500-megabyte boot and 4-gigabyte data drives, and comparable monitors. (We did not include the cost of the 4-gigabyte drives in our price calculations.)

The SPARCstation 5 -- the Unix workstation market's most popular model to date -- employs a 70-MHz microSPARC II processor with 16K/8K of on-chip cache and no external cache. With Solaris 2.4, it costs $5,664 after the usual Sun discounts, though some large sites may get sharper prices.

The guts of the PC is an Intel Premiere (a.k.a. Plato) ISA/PCI motherboard found in many PCs today. It uses a 60-MHz external/90-MHz internal Pentium processor with 16K internal cache. The motherboard had 256K of 20ns static RAM cache and a BusLogic 956C PCI SCSI controller. The street price for this PC, including monitor, is $3,989.

The Intel machine ran Solaris 2.4 for most of the tests. Our copies of WordPerfect and SPSS for Intel would run with SCO Unix only, so we ran these two with SCO ODT 3.0.

The tasks performed and the software products used were as follows:

We at Neal Nelson and Associates tested each computer at increasing user load levels, including 1, 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28, and 32 simultaneous users. At each user load level we performed a number of different tests, including integer and floating-point calculation, and disk-intensive tasks.

We performed 209 functions with a total of 1,786 separate measurements on each machine. We cannot detail the results here, but the measurements indicated a solid advantage to the less expensive Pentium. Does a low-end SPARCstation offer more bang for the buck than a high-end PC? For the real-world applications we tested, the answer is an emphatic No. -- Neal Nelson

Dueling architectures: Dollar for dollar, Intel's faster

			Favoring			Favoring 
			Pentium1	Equal2		SPARC3

Informix Online 5.0 133 353 41

WordPerfect 5.1 64 119 25

SPSS 5.0 82 6 0

oleo 1.6 173 106 0

Solaris 2.4 mailx 15 102 0

Unix commands 288 254 25

Total 755 950 91

1Number of measurements where a Pentium PC outperformed a SPARCstation 5 by 11% to 593%.
2Number of measurements where the Pentium and SPARC differed by less than 10% or 2 seconds.
3Number of measurements where a SPARCstation 5 outperformed a Pentium by 11% to 63%.

Source: Neal Nelson and Associates, 1995. To get a white paper with full results and details of the test methodology, contact Neal Nelson & Associates at 312-755-1000 or don@nna.com.

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Last updated: 1 May 1995.