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Budget Workstations: Professional-Grade CAD Power for $2,000 or Less

Cadalyst Labs Report: We examine four state-of-the-art desktop systems and find that 2D/3D CAD power is well within the reach of money-minded users.

Xi MTower PCIe
@Xi Computers

Highly RecommendedIt should come as no surprise to our regular readers that @Xi Computer earned top marks — by a large margin — for the performance of its Xi MTower PCIe workstation. However, to afford its two performance-enhancing options — an overclocked CPU and a Corsair solid-state SATA-3 hard drive (with 0.3-ms seek time) — and stay below the $2,000 price ceiling for this roundup, the company had to make a tradeoff: Hard drive storage was limited to 120 GB.


System configuration. The Xi MTower PCIe is built around the Asus P8Z77-M PRO motherboard, which is ideally suited for overclocking the Intel i5-3570K CPU (four cores, four threads) to 4.6 GHz from the standard 3.4 GHz.

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A Corsair sealed water-cooling system, with a 4.75" dedicated fan, dissipates the extra heat generated by this processor-on-steroids. In addition, the tower case, which measures 8.75" x 18.75" x 19.25" (WxHxD), provides generous ventilation on five sides. However, this creates a direct path for internal sounds to leak, producing a slight but discernible noise from beneath the desk.

After accommodating the graphics card, the Asus motherboard has three free expansion slots: two PCIe 2.0 x 16 slots and one PCIe 2.0 x 1 slot. Due to our price ceiling, @Xi Computer could not include its standard choice of the mid-to-high–range NVIDIA Quadro 4000 graphics card — so it did the next best thing and included a Quadro 2000. This card, which includes 1 GB of DDR5 memory, provides one dual-link DVI-I port, two DisplayPort connections, and a 3D stereo jack. It supports two monitors simultaneously at a maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 with 32-bit color.

Xi MTower PCIe
The blazingly fast Xi MTower PCIe workstation keeps its cool thanks to ample ventilation, numerous fans, and a sealed water radiator system.
The Xi MTower PCIe provides a tremendous amount of expansion space for drives, with four 5.25" (three free) external drive bays as well as six 3.5" (five free) and two 2.5" (both free) internal bays. As for connectivity, more options are available than anyone should ever need. The front panel includes two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and headphone and microphone jacks. The rear panel includes four USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA ports, one network connection, an S/PDIF port, another pair of headphone and microphone jacks, and an old-fashioned PS-2 port.

Completing the configuration are 8 GB of 1,866-MHz DDR3 non-ECC (error-correcting code) memory (two 4-GB DIMMs, each with a large Corsair heat-spread); an extremely generous 850-watt Corsair Ultra-Quiet power supply (minimum 80% efficiency); a DVD+RW/DL+/-R/CD-RW 18X optical drive; a Logitech Deluxe Windows keyboard; and a Logitech optical wheel mouse.

Test results. Using our current testing configuration of AutoCAD 2012 with the c2012 benchmark and Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit operating system, @Xi's work-station proved to be 27–35% faster than the competition, as measured by the overall index. That substantial edge in performance is amazing, and most of it is attributable to the overclocked processor. The full set of c2012 scores were as follows: total index of 614, 3D graphics index of 1,239, 2D graphics index of 517, disk index of 342, and CPU index of 360.

Cost, warranty, and tech support. The Xi MTower PCIe, as configured for this review, costs $1,990. This price includes a three-year hardware warranty with express advance parts replacement, parts and labor, and return shipping costs — and @Xi Computer includes a 30-day money-back guarantee (excluding software), the best of any in this review. Tech support is free for the lifetime of the system.

The Xi MTower PCIe shines in this roundup of systems costing less than $2,000. It has more than enough power to do serious 2D work as well as entry- to mid-level 3D modeling. It definitely has expansion capacity to spare, should you need to upgrade at a later date. An additional 500 GB of hard drive space can be had for $89.

@Xi Computer's 25 years of experience in the CAD market is obvious in the engineering and manufacture of its workstations. The Xi MTower PCIe delivers superb performance for the price — it's an exceptional value. Highly Recommended.


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