Design Platform - Time to Upgrade

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The new MMX-based hardware platform

Tom Arah explores the decisions to be made when trying to set up the ideal PC graphics and publishing system (well at least those available for under 3,000).

Writable CDs are a huge step forward

Moore's Law says that every 18 months the number of transistors on a chip doubles, a fact that has enormous practical repercussions. Approximately every year and a half you will notice that everyone in your office is using a more powerful system than yours. Eventually a friend or a relative will ring to see if the mainframe they are thinking of buying will be powerful enough for the job they have in mind. Suddenly it will hit home that the machine they intend to keep recipes on will be far more powerful than the one you use to make a living. At this stage the cycle is complete and the only viable option is to upgrade your own system.

As this has just happened to me - and I'm regularly asked about setting up systems - I thought it would be useful to share what wisdom I've gained in the process. Obviously for graphics-based users, whose work is intrinsically demanding, the performance benefits of upgrading are particularly important and tend to revolve around the four fundamentals: processor, memory, video, and storage.

MMX

The processor is the engine of the computer so it should be a simple question of finding the most powerful and buying it. Under normal circumstances that would currently mean the Pentium Pro. However the Pro only shows its true benefits with a 32-bit operating system, ie NT, and, for various reasons I plan to cover next month, I'm just not ready to make that move. More to the point, Intel have muddied the waters by bringing out the MMX extensions which offer potentially huge benefits for the graphical user. At the time I was making my decisions, MMX was only available on the Pentium platform and so the processor decision almost made itself as a 200Mhz MMX.

The increase in size of the online cache, from 16 to 32k, and the increase in its efficiency, thanks to the import of branch prediction technology from the Pentium Pro, immediately give a general performance boost of between 10 and 20% compared to the non-MMX equivalent processor. For the serious graphics user though these are just the beginning of the benefits. For tasks that do not need floating point processing, Intel has enabled the register to be re-used. Working in this multimedia mode means that, as the register is 64-bits wide, two 32-bit elements or four 16-bit or eight 8-bit elements can be handled simultaneously.

Even better are the 57 new commands that Intel have introduced. The majority of these have been designed with graphics use in mind. Most are based on an SIMD (Single-Instruction-Multiple-Data) architecture that allows the same command to be applied simultaneously to a table or matrix of values. Since a bitmap is simply a matrix, the potential advantage for applying filters or colour correction is clear. Intel has also appreciated that manipulating graphics makes some special demands. The new command that adds up to a maximum, for example, automatically recognises that adding 30% black to an existing 70% black or a 99% black pixel will both have the same 100% result without the need for further processing.

So far the only serious program rewritten to take advantage of MMX is the latest Photoshop 4.0 though when MMX-enabled compilers arrive the benefits should quickly spread. As a standalone user, I'm not exactly in a position to do extensive Labs-style testing, but I did work on the latest PC Pro Photoshop benchmark and running this gave some striking results. Overall, the complete test which involves resizing, zooming, filtering, layer work, colour correction and importing and exporting took over twenty minutes on a 16Mb/100Mhz 486, around thirteen on a 32Mb/150Mhz Pentium and less than three on the 64Mb/200 Mhz MMX.

Much of this difference will be down to memory and video factors, but breaking down the tests and looking at individual filters shows the MMX effect more clearly. Applying an "intelligent" filter such as the artistic coloured pencil effect where the sheer MMX number-crunching cannot play so big a part still takes around 55 seconds on the MMX compared to around 130 on the base 486, a relatively minor improvement of approximately 250%. Applying comparatively simple filters such as unsharp masking or gaussian blur, on the other hand, takes around twenty seconds on the 486 and less than four on the MMX an improvement of over 500%. The difference between the two sets of improvement is around 200% which, all other factors being equal, must be primarily due to the MMX effect.

Don't get too excited - nearly a minute is still a long time to be twiddling your thumbs so there is still huge room for improvements in sheer processing power. This looks set to come with the next generation of chip the Klamath/Pentium II which will integrate the advantages of MMX and the Pentium Pro. With an expected fast ramp up in speed to the 400Mhz mark and beyond, it seems clear that these chips will deliver near workstation performance. If your needs aren't pressing it's definitely worth hanging on to see what premium Intel will be asking for the technology after the initial hype. Be careful though. Pentium Pro pioneers have been seriously left in the lurch by MMX and there are always arguments for staying in the mainstream pack. Especially with the Deschutes multiple-processor-enabled version already in the pipeline.

RAM

One of the major bottlenecks for graphics use has always been RAM. As the work I do is more likely to involve size-for-size photos than A2 posters, I decided that I could make do with 64Mb. I'm already beginning to regret it. The problem is that 24-bit images simply eat up RAM. A single standard 15cm x 10cm photo at 150 dpi will take up 9.66Mb, but that's only the beginning. To be able to offer an instant undo, for example, an unaltered copy must be kept in memory and with the increasing use of layers, the RAM required can jump astronomically.

More problems come from the fact that a powerful machine with 64Mb RAM makes an ideal working Office system. Suddenly it's very feasible to open Photoshop, Corel Draw, PageMaker, Word and Outlook simultaneously. In terms of working practice that's great, but of course all the extra RAM has immediately gone. If you have installed it, the Microsoft System Information application - called up with the Alt + Ctrl + F1 shortcut from Word - gives a useful insight into what's happening. Under perfectly normal conditions as I write now, I have a swap file of near 70Mb and 25% usage. At least I did take the precaution of specifying a system that could accept more RAM in future. Again be careful as many of the cheaper Office-based systems have a 64Mb limit.

Display

The other potential bottleneck for graphics work is the display subsystem for moving and colouring the all-important screen pixels. The one given is that you will want to operate at full-colour 24-bit depth and at as high a resolution and refresh rate as your card, monitor and eyesight can comfortably manage. So far I've never earned enough to justify the costs of a 21 inch monitor but living in hope, it's sensible to plan for the future. Many cards even with 4Mb of RAM still do not offer full colour at resolutions of 1024 x 768. The one card that does, can be expanded to 8Mb, offers a refresh rate of 100Hz at 1,280x1,024 and regularly wins awards for speed is the Matrox Millennium.

As reliability and 2D performance was top of my list, this was the card I specified, but if 3D is important to you there are now a rush of competing products such as Matrox's own Mystique. All support Microsoft's new version 3.0 Direct3D architecture, but apart from this each seems to offer a different mix of functionality with support for triangle primitives, textures and chroma keying being the most obvious discriminating factors. Again if possible, it might be worth waiting six months as the imminent AGP (Advanced Graphics Port) will offer massive functionality and performance gains by allowing textures to be stored in system RAM.

As well as a good graphics card of course you will need a good monitor. This is the piece of kit you will be looking at day-in day-out so this isn't the place to save the odd 20. I've already said that I've never been able to justify the cost of a 21", but it's worth bearing in mind that the monitor is the one item that doesn't necessarily become obsolescent with each system upgrade. I was able to order a cheaper Goldstar 15" monitor, for example, because I intended to take over my 17". In the end this was just as well as, although the Goldstar's image was sharp, the gamma was bizzare.

Fixed Storage

Apart from the need for speed, the need for space is almost as crucial for the serious graphics user. Nowadays the Office entry level seems to be around 1.5Gb, so for the graphics user this can pretty much be doubled. After ten years of using computers the one thing I can guarantee is that you will fill any space given, so if possible go for more. SCSI devices are intrinsically faster as they cut down on CPU involvement in moving data, but the price premium on large SCSI drives is enormous. In the PC Pro hard disk review the IDE Maxtor DiamondMax 5Gb's performance pushed the SCSI devices and adds comparatively little to the overall cost of the system.

Of course fixed storage is only part of the equation. With the continuous need for backup, archiving and the need to exchange huge files, the graphics industry has always been at the forefront of removable storage technology. In the past this meant one name, Syquest, but now the competition is intense. The new standard of exchange, at least on the PC, seems to be Iomega's 100Mb Zip drive. The drive itself costs just over 100 and, at 10 each, the disks offer a storage price of about 10p/Mb. This is certainly an attractive option, but it's not perfect. Backing up the 5Gb hard drive for example would need 50 disks and cost around 500.

Removable Storage

New solutions, built on larger and faster disks, take removable storage into completely new areas. Syquest's new 270Mb drive and Xyratec's 540Mb, for example, can be used for ongoing backup, storing clipart and even for installing and running software. In the end the option I went for was Iomega's 1Gb JAZ drive. At around 320 this is relatively expensive, particularly as the drive - unlike the Zip - will only work with a SCSI adaptor. However when you factor in the supplied cartridge and ongoing costs of only 6p/Mb things look much more reasonable. In fact after around 5Gb of use, the JAZ will actually be working out cheaper than the budget Zip. It's the JAZ's speed though that makes the real difference as it really is impossible to tell whether an application is being run from a cartridge or from the main hard disk.

The JAZ is definitely a star, providing an infinite hard disk, a backup of ongoing work, and a way of getting large files to the typesetter. Even so it's not the answer to all storage needs. To backup the 5Gb disk, for example, would still cost 300 and even for archiving of past work 60 a cartridge is just too expensive. A comparatively new alternative is CD-R. With recordable disks costing around 5 and offering 650Mb storage the cost per Mb is well under 1p. With drives costing around 400 - less if you remember that you can save the price of the normal CD-ROM - you only need to produce around 10 full disks to overtake the cost-effectiveness of both the Zip and JAZ.

This is true, but the comparison shouldn't really be made as CD-R is a very different beast. Obviously it's not possible to rewrite the disk, but at the price that wouldn't be too much of a problem. Far more important are the size, speed, convenience and functionality of the medium. 650Mb is a reasonable size but not adequate for easy backup of large hard disks. In terms of speed, the latest 4x speed recorders, such as the TEAC 50SK, should be able to record an entire disk in around 15 minutes which compares well to tape. In practice though this is rarely the case. Files cannot be simply dragged and dropped onto the CD-R, so it's necessary to go through dedicated CD software such as Corel CD Creator or WinOnCD. After the occasional buffer underrun, which destroys the disk, I ended up writing image files to disk, dropping to 2x speed and emulating the whole process before final burning. The end result is a process that takes near on an hour and in which the computer is completely inaccessible!

The convenience for the producer is pretty hopeless then, but the unbeatable advantage of CD-R is the convenience for the user. An ISO9660 formatted disk offers instant random access on just about any machine bought in the last two years, whether PC or Mac. Let's face it the medium is also sexy - having my entire work archive instantly accessible from four CDs gives a perverse pleasure. Most importantly, CD-R offers new functionality with the ability to create Audio CDs and multimedia work. It's not often that a new field of work - and potential income - is opened up by hardware, but CD-R does just that.

Between the JAZ, CD-R and my existing tape drive I've covered just about all the necessary storage options, but obviously this belt-and-braces approach is hardly ideal. Again if you can hold off buying a system now, the future shape of storage is becoming clearer and much simpler. DVD (Digital Versatile Disk) will offer massive storage of up to 18Gb per CD-sized disk. This will be more than suitable for backup and archiving especially as thanks to UDF (Universal Drive Format) it will be possible to copy files directly from Explorer. As DVD has been designed with video in mind, it will also be fast. Sadly the current incarnations are read-only, with the eventual rewritable version, DVD-RAM, just a proposed specification.

Speccing

It's certainly worth knowing about technology trends, but eventually you have to accept that to get work done you have to make do with the choice of current hardware. With the specification for my ideal existing system falling into place, it became a simple question of choosing a supplier. Knowing about the latest hardware is very different to installing it, so my first concern was to find a company prepared to ship a complete system ready-to-go. That ruled out most of the early contenders such as Dell and Gateway who concentrate on standardised Office set-ups. Eventually the choice came down to Dan and Carrera and in the end Carrera edged it with friendly staff, reasonable maintenance and the unique ability to supply systems within a couple of days rather than weeks. After all this agonising I was very keen to get my hands on the machine before it was already outdated.

In total the system (200Mhz MMX Pentium, 64Mb RAM, 5Gb hard disk, 1Gb JAZ, TEAC 4xCD-R, Adaptec SCSI adaptor, 4Mb Matrox Millennium, 15" Goldstar monitor and on-site maintenance) came in some way under 3,000 - well at least if you ignore the VAT. And how does it feel in everyday use? First impressions have been very positive. In the past, the main feeling after the excitement of upgrading has usually been anti-climax. After all, the new machine is still only a computer like the last, but slightly faster. With this latest machine though, all the different hardware components seem to have combined together to produce a system that is appreciably more than the sum of its parts.

Of course, however pleased I am with the system, thanks to Moore's Law, in 18 months time I will again be embarrassed into upgrading. More to the point, I can already see how the move to a quad processor, 500Mhz Pentium III with 256Mb RAM, an integrated AGP display and a 15Gb hard disk that can be backed up onto a single DVD-RAM will be well worth making. In the meantime, the improvements to be gained today in terms of processor, memory, video and storage might not be so dramatic, but they do still combine to produce a new base platform for the graphics and publishing user. Well, at least for the immediate future.

Tom Arah

July 1997


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