In the October 2004 issue, I reviewed an IBM machine not dissimilar to this one. The IBM I reviewed had some very real problems and I noted them in the review, but had I received this machine first, I can only imagine how much harsher I would have been to the IBM. In a way, I'm glad I was able to review the IBM first, as it wasn't all that bad a machine. But, when considering the purchase of a high-end workstation, you need to comparison shop among large vendors, such as IBM and HP, and smaller vendors, such as this system's builder, Monarch.
The Monarch machine arrived at my house packed snugly in a huge, imposing box that had been nestled carefully into a larger box packed with more Styrofoam. The machine, constructed within a black Lian Li case, could be described only as beautiful. If I had any machines that were stuffed into typical beige boxes, the beauty of this case would make me want to take them outside and smash them with a hammer.
But for me, the external beauty of a machine is not even on my list of top ten features of a machine. A computer is meant to be used, and the case is often meant to exist, gathering dust, under my desk, where it's accessed rarely to pop a CD in the drive or to power off.
As is my habit, the first thing I did when it arrived, having removed it from its cardboard, plastic and Styrofoam womb, was to pop open the case. This is something the Lian Li engineers really get. One screw and the interior of the machine is wide open for your inspection—and what an interior! Although other vendors have caught on to the importance of routing cables properly, Monarch really does a nice job of this, and it's always nice to see it.
The inside of this machine was as beautiful as the outside, and the hardware selected for this machine was top-notch. For storage, four 74GB SATA drives were situated neatly in a drive bay along the bottom of the case, with two optical drives and a 7-in-1 floppy/memory bay in the user-accessible bays in the front. The case allows for an additional two drives in the lower drive bay (for a total of six) and an additional three or four (depending on the model or the determination of the installer) devices or hard drives in the user-accessible bays along the front of the case. As you can see, this machine has ample room for expansion from a storage perspective. The SATA cables are tied off to prevent tangling.
To support all those drives, the machine comes with a 3ware card as well as the motherboard-provided IDE controllers. The Opterons are each cooled with a ThermalTake CPU cooler, and there are two banks of four memory slots each. Topping all of this off, the machine ships with the top-notch NVIDIA Quadro 3000 video card.
Remembering my last review, I think I compared the IBM A Pro to a jet taking off, so if the Monarch was anything but a dull roar, I would have been happy about it. So, I plugged it in and turned it on to find out.
At first, I wasn't sure I had turned it on. I killed my music and then I heard it. It was slightly louder than the small Shuttle-based workstation that I keep tucked under my desk. I communicated this to my editors and they shipped me the sound pressure level (SPL) meter that LJ keeps around for such things. My Intel 2.4GHz desktop measured around 39 decibels, and this monstrously powerful machine came in at slightly more than this, 41 decibels. During some of the more powerful apps I threw at it, it reached 44 decibels. To make a comparison, when I was speaking with my three-year-old, she and I came in at around 48 decibels. But, enough about the mechanical and the construction—how does it run?
Keeping in mind I have the prejudice that most users of this kind of machine instantly blow away any factory load and put in their own, I was pretty happy with the software load—your standard Red Hat 64-bit workstation load helpfully set to a default 800×600 resolution for initial configuration. I was able to bring the resolution up and put X in a high and deep resolution. The system ships with the NVIDIA driver installed, which is a good thing if you want to take full advantage of the serious video card that comes with it.
As you could predict, given the video card the machine shipped with, video and OpenGL performance was very smooth, with the pre-installed applications running very well. But, when I went to build some test applications, I was unable to make a compile complete. The load was not set up for compiling, which is a minor problem, but as a reviewer, it was one I wish I didn't have to worry about. I had no problem getting binaries of some sample applications running on the machine and experienced a smooth ride on Tux Racer and others.
That said, I really like to be able to compile apps, as many 32-bit builds don't run as well as they could otherwise. Considering that 64-bit RPMs still are unavailable for many applications, this should be a standard feature. That said, the machine ships with installation media, so properly loading the features I wanted wasn't a showstopper.
Like the last machine, the sound card was not configured, but a quick run of redhat-config-soundcard fixed that quickly. Unlike the last machine I tested, the sound was crystal clear, with no pops, hums or clicks.
The fantastic, sexy, amazing NVIDIA Quadro 3000 FX video card was equipped with dual-DVI outputs, and Monarch thoughtfully included DVI adapters. I tested the dual-monitor modes to good result.
The machine also shipped containing a handy portfolio with all the manuals, warranty information, passwords and CD-ROMs that came with the individual components, which I also really liked, as it is often handy to have such things around for unforeseen uses of the machine.
In short, if you are looking for a graphics workstation, you could do a lot worse than the Monarch. Damn, this thing is quiet.