Beat the blues with a novel workstation

The new workstation from Silicon Graphics has Webcentric desktop and comes with a “blue blob” hard drive. So what does it do? Sutherland Lyall explains

The arrival of the Silicon Graphics O2 desktop, with case design by 12-year-old US product design practice Lunar Design, signals the first time a mainstream computer company has had the courage to totally redesign and reconceptualise the box. The monitor looks the same as it always did, but the rest looks good – blue and unassuming with no flat surfaces. Early adopters are going to kill for it. At just over 5000 you get the box with 32Mb memory, a 180MHz MIPS R5000 chip, a measly 1Gb hard drive, a modest CD-ROM, a keyboard, mouse and 17in colour monitor.

The system you’ll want to buy is the R1000 150MHz version with 64Mb memory with a more reasonable 2Gb or 4Gb drive at 10 000. Top of a pile of nine variations on the theme is a 175MHz version with a price tag of a trifle more than 15 000. Inside the box is some serious movie and still- image processing and compressing gear integrated into a high bandwidth memory system. Stuff you’d expect to run in software on a Mac here runs in hardware: triangle rasterisation, texture mapping, stencil planes, anti-aliasing and image-mapping support. And an unlimited amount of memory can be allocated to textures and the video-editing.

So how does it run? According to one of the backroom boys at SGI, it does a bit more than the Indigo2 did a year ago before SGI slapped the IMPACT technology into that excellent animator’s workhorse. The official line is the modest assertion that this new machine is ten times faster than the bottom of the range Indy workstation – and costs 500 less. Its evangelists say it will render 375 000 gourad-shaded, z-buffered, lit 3D triangles per second. How fast that really is in real life over a sustained period of time we can’t tell since it has only just come out. And – this is a major point – not all the promised software support has firmed up. Discrete Logic isn’t on the list, which means you can forget doing Flame and Flint on this model – despite the fact that it is claimed to be binary compatible with other SGI marques. And Adobe has been slow in doing its conversions – especially Photoshop. Our best advice is that the software issue means that it will take at least a year before this machine starts making inroads into the Mac arena – and a year is a long time in computer terms. If this is correct, SGI has 12 months to agonise over its software prices before finally bringing them in line with the sub-grand range of Mac and even PC application prices. No one is going to pay 5000 for the O2 kit if not all the software is in place and it’s going to cost a whole lot more to buy it.

Mac people who have been astonished at the rendering speed of NT machines, especially those with multi-processors, will recognise that SGI’s main target in almost halving its hardware prices of the O2 is the grown-up PC – the NT machine running at 200MHz and faster. NT technology is owned by Microsoft, which ploughs its own furrow and can be very inflexible in pursuit of the only true way. Right now Apple looks as though it might be capable of flexibility for the first time in its lofty existence. It will be selling NT machines itself next year and it’s importing QuickTime over to the NT this very minute. The advice we’ve been offered is that we should put money on designers who incorporate O2 machines into their existing Mac mix, not as replacements but as complementary technology.

So what about the design? Lunar’s official line claims the design’s complexity of surface and form should echo the complexity of Silicon Graphics’ hard- and software, and be “in keeping with Silicon Graphics’ design and technology leadership position”. Cutting through the customer- stroking blurb, here’s what sounds like the nub: “Our second objective… was to design the product to be visually discomforting at least initially for some people.” That’s not what a computer is supposed to look like. And in that, Lunar has very happily succeeded.

The company is coy about who devised the way the back works. Instead of having to undo nuts and fiddle around with static-prone plug-in cards with unexpected sharp bits and recalcitrant slots and more screws, the happy upgrader of the O2 has only to squeeze the appropriate plastic levers at the back and the relevant card/drive neatly slides out.

If you still think it’s only a sad blue blob, you can see one in the flesh at SGI’s training joint in London’s Soho Square.

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