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Source: http://www.caddigest.com/exclusive/cad_hardware/092414_xi_mtower_pcie_worskatation.htm

 

Xi MTower PCIe Workstation
By Ryan Reid, September 24, 2014

 

During my 15 years involvement with engineering and CAD, I've built my own CAD workstations, as well as purchased preconfigured and customized Dell computers, and even ran software on the occasional Sun Microsystems computer back in the day. These days, my options are limited to Dell for reasons of tradition, as well as confidence in their support system and hence their brand name.

For me, the problem has been that I always want something more than a preconfigured, off-the-shelf system that was developed for the masses. I want something tuned to its maximum by the hardware manufacturer, a machine whose tuning is supported by the manufacturer. And so I have always felt wanting, because I knew that the stock settings of big-name brand-built system CPUs were underclocked for safety, reliability, and warranty. CPUs are not the only determining factor of a CAD workstation's performance (and yes, almost all CAD programs utilize only one core for the most time-consuming tasks, like sketching and modeling). But if we can minimize the substantial bottlenecks, then we have very happy CAD users.

A Big Box from Xi

I had never heard of Xi before. I had heard of some of its competitors, but none of its competitors that I looked at offered water-cooled, optimized, big-box machines. Xi is different: they build theirs from the ground up, selecting parts that are optimized for the tasks of engineering.

Now to the meat and potatoes of the review; I can say that the box that I received was not what I expected. It was huge. It took up the better part of my car's back seat to get it home from the FedEx office (see figure 1).

Figure 1: The Xi MTower desktop computer is a huge beast

Once I got it open, though, I was very impressed with the enclosure. The Xi MTower is a big, beefy, serious looking piece of machinery. At roughly two feet, it is tall, but with a relatively standard width and depth. The exact dimensions are 9.1" x 22.8" x 21.9" (WxHxD). Sitting it next to my Dell T5400 was like parking a Hummer SUV next to a Ford F150 pickup truck. Both probably could get the same job done, but the one just looks so-o-o much more capable than the other.

Checking Out the Ports and Graphics

Upon turning it on, the MTower lit up with tasteful but not gaudy lighting; much of the lighting is actually functional. Ports, it's got ports. Too many? But when does anyone ever have too many ports, really? I usually always find a way to use up all the ones provided to me.

On the front:

  • Three USB 3.0 ports
  • Two USB 2.0 devices
  • SATA connections
  • Two fan speed controllers
  • Full card reader bay
  • DVD drive

On the back of the computer (see figure 2):

  • Four external 3.0 ports (of which two are used by other equipment in the tower)
  • Two 2.0 ports
  • One VGA connector
  • One DVI video connector
  • Two HDMI connectors
  • Ten expansion bays (number of free slots varies according to the options selected)
Figure 2: The rear of the Xi MTower workstation

The ports are plentiful thanks to the ASUS Z97-A motherboard. It comes with sufficient onboard video options (VGA, DVI, and HDMI) in case I want to specify setups that don't require workstation-level graphics. My machine came with a double-slot NVIDIA Quadro K4000 graphics board that had 3GB of DDR5 RAM.

In my experience, the CAD workstations that I have had were mostly limited by their CPU power. Graphics power is nice, but my design work rarely requires intense video capability. As long as I had extra RAM in the video card and correct drivers to support applications, I rarely had problems displaying my CAD models. Of course, this doesn't mean that other users don't require it though. And so Xi has us covered for when we venture into realms that require higher video horsepower. The NVIDIA Quadro K4000 graphics hits all of the marks I could imagine, from a mechanical engineering standpoint.

Water Cooling, Over Clocking

Transitioning to the larger concern of CPU horsepower, Xi has a winner on its hands here, too. They supplied my machine with Intel's Core i7 (4790K) running 4.3GHz in high-performance mode. Since CPUs generally are limited to running at slower than 4GHz, Xi added water cooling to handle the over-clocked chip. I really appreciated this, because I did not need to risk overclocking a competitor's computer under warranty. But here, it was done, setup for me: I could just start working and not have to worry about reliability or warranties -- this was a major benefit to me.

Let me get into more detail of how it is cooled down. New for me (and immediately noticed upon unboxing of the machine) were standoffs that are required on the bottom of the machine. They allow the coldest air possible to enter the system. The air enters through cleanable air filters on the bottom (near the PSU, power supply unit) to make sure that the system gets consistent cold air throughout. On one side, there are massive fans that light up; there are more fans at the back (near the PCI card slots), and at the front (near the hard drives).

On the top of the box, there are adjustable louvers that allow maximum air flow through to the water cooling system. The water cools the CPU. All in all, the air and cooling delivery system appeared well thought out to me, and proved to be very functional. With all that, the computer is surprisingly quiet, being no louder than my off-the-shelf machine.

Entering the Machine

To get to the guts of the machine, there are two thumb screws on the back. When I took off the back, my first glance caused me to ask, "Where are all the wires?" They were nearly invisible, for Xi did an excellent job in routing the wires behind the motherboard. I shouldn't say they are "invisible," because I could see them where they plug in to the system. Nevertheless, the interior is so clean that I felt embarrassed for the off-the-shelf manufacturers with whom I am used to dealing.

So that's a lot about of the functionality and details of the machine, and its appearance. Xi's base price for this system is $1,079; the system I review added the components listed below, and brought the as-tested price to $3,114:

  • Intel Core i7-4790K @ 4.3GHz hi-perf sealed water cooling 8MB shared L3 cache with DMI 2.0, quad-core 4th gen 22nm w/Arctic Silver 5 thermal compound
  • 16GB DDR3 2400MHz w/high performance aluminum heat spreader professional
  • NVIDIA Quadro K4000 3GB DDR5 Kepler-architecture, PCIe 16x 2.0-1x DVI-DL-2xDP-1x stereo, dual head, 3D Pro support, DX11, OGL 4.3, Shad.M 5.0
  • No monitor (credit)
  • 500GB solid state drive Samsung 840 EVO SATA 6Gb/s 540/520MB/s seq R/W <.3ms seek
  • Optional 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6Gb/s Seagate Barracuda hard drive with 64MB cache
  • HDD std ctrl. according to motherboard and HDD type selected; SATA/SAS bay module according to case selected, may require add'l controller to support SAS drives.
  • 18x DVD+RW/DL/+R-R/CD-RW double media (4.7/8.5GB)
  • 74-in-1 Rosewill USB internal 3.5" multi memory card reader w/ 1x USB Port
  • On-board sound, according to motherboard specifications
  • On-board network port(s), according to motherboard specifications
  • Logitech corded black Windows keyboard
  • Logitech corded 2+ Wheel mouse, black, optical
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Professional Edition 64-bit on DVD (32-bit avail. on request)
  • ASUS Z97-A Intel Z97 Chipset-2xPCIe3.0/2.0x16-1xPCIe2.0 x2-2xPCIe2.0 x1-2xPCI-Dual Ch.DDR3 3200(OC)/1333-1xLAN-1xSATA Express, 1xM2 Socket3, 4xSATA 6Gb/s RAID 0/1/5/10-HD Audio-8CH-8x/6xUSB 2.0/3.0-DVI-D&HDMI-DP-SLI&FireX supp.
  • 850W Rosewill 80 Plus Bronze silent 135mm 2 ball-bearing blue LED Fan 87% efficiency active PFC
  • Xi MTower™ RW Thor™ V2 Black 3x23cm + 1x14cm quiet fans-2x speed control-front-side-top grid-4x front USB 3.0/2.0-1xe-SATA- 5/6x 5 1/4" external bays 6x 3 1/2" internal bays- E/XL-ATX support
  • Standard Xi warranty w/express advance parts replacement, 1 year on system, mfg. on monitor
  • NEMA 5-15P to C13 Wall Plug, 125 Volt, 16AWG, 5 Feet. Standard Computer AC US Power Cord or other major countries standard Power Cord (AU/CH/DE/FR/IT/NZ/UK)
Benchmarking Systems

Yeah, ok great, specs look good, the box looks great. It has great day to day functionality, but how does it stack up in benchmarks against competitors? Figure 3 shows the results from the machines I benchmarked using Cinebench:

Figure 3: Results from Cinebench benchmarking. From left to right:
Xi MTower PCIe Workstation = 9.42, Dell M4800 workstation laptop = 5.85, and dual-processor Dell T5400 = 6.73

Then I went on to run the Viewset benchmark on the top two systems, Xi MTower and Dell M4800. The Dell laptop has similar specs to the Xi desktop, running at 3.2GHz with 32GB RAM and solid state drive, but a Quadro K2100 mobile graphics board. Viewset simulates a variety of CAD systems (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Results from Viewset benchmarking for Xi MTower PCIe Workstation and Dell M4800 workstation laptop

As you can see from the results, the Xi MTower tends to run CAD programs twice as fast at the Dell.

Safety Through the Warranty

For businesses, warranty coverage is important, and so is a major concern of mine when thinking about going away from any big brand-name manufacturer, who tends to have 3-year on-site manufacturer warranties.

The good news is that Xi offers the same level of warranty. As figure 5 illustrates, Xi seems to have an option to cover any type of warranty that I would need.

Figure 5: Additional warranty coverage options from Xi
Conclusion

With an as-tested price of $3,114, I consider this Xi workstation a very reasonably-priced and competition-shattering consideration for managers who control the company CAD workstations budget. I recommend that they keep a close eye on Xi as they replacing aging machines or upgrade systems from the no-longer-supported Windows XP. As a CAD user and administrator, I know that I would appreciate the performance improvement.

 

 


 

 


 

 

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