When Dell announced the new Precision T1700, reviewers went wild. Is this compact workstation truly that innovative? After all, Lenovo and HP already had compact workstations well before Dell jumped on the mini wagon. As a latecomer to the world of CAD compactness, the true innovation in the Precision T1700 is not so much the size of the machine as the price. This workstation sells for about the same amount as a high-end desktop computer. Is it worth raving over?
Dell Precision T1700: The Design
The Precision T1700 comes in two designs: the compact mini tower and the small form factor design (SFF). It’s ideal for situations where there isn’t space available for a full-size CAD workstation. The small size is made possible by the innovative chassis design, which layers the components inside on top of one another. The only downside to this configuration is that it makes internal expansion almost impossible. Servicing the components can also be an issue in the confined space.
Dell Precision T1700: The Power
Powered by a single Xenon quad core processor and Quadro graphics, the Precision T1700 offers a total of eight USB ports, four on the front and four on the back. Two of the ports on the front are 3.0 ports, ideal for high speed hard drives. The rest are 2.0 ports, perfect for slower peripherals like a mouse and keyboard. It also features an Ethernet port, two audio ports, a serial port and three display ports (one on the motherboard and an additional port on the Quadro K600 card). Additionally, the Precision T1700 offers one VGA port and one DVI port. It is ISV certified, and features a tray loading DVD drive.
Another limitation of the Precision T1700 is that it will only accept two monitors at a time. While this isn’t a problem for most managers and supervisors who only need to review and sign off on the work that’s already done, it isn’t usually adequate for CAD production workers, who need greater levels of performance.
Dell Precision T1700: The Usability
The Precision T1700 is also quite lean in terms of preloaded software. Its operating system is essentially Windows 7 Pro, and it does feature the Dell Precision Performance Optimizer, which tweaks the system settings for performance when running ISV certified programs. The workstation also comes with Autodesk Maya and Dassault Systems SolidWorks, and does feature enough memory to download and run free CAD programs and the normal data sets and apps used by engineers and scientists.
For the exceptional price (under $1,000), the Dell Precision T1700 offers a solid performance CAD workstation. It’s ideal for managers and supervisors in the scientific, medical, and engineering fields, as well as many graphic artists whose work doesn’t necessarily demand the highest level of CAD workstation performance. But it won’t cut the mustard when it comes to hands-on, in the trenches CAD work. Essentially, it’s an upgrade from a desktop PC, and a downgrade from a full size, high powered CAD workstation.
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Last week, I talked about why Intel’s latest generations of graphics-enabled CPUs might make CAD professionals think twice about paying extra dollars for a discrete graphics card on their next workstations.
As I mentioned previously, the low-cost Entry 3D segment has seen steady gains over the years, for a logical reason … as average street prices fall and capabilities climb, the Entry class satisfies more and more of the workstation community. But then right around the start of 2011 — precisely when Sandy Bridge comes out of the chute in workstations like HP’s Z210 —Entry 3D shipments start to flatten and then decline (albeit modestly).
Why are Entry 3D sales more indicative than other segments of a possible erosion from integrated Sandy Bridge graphics? Well, if recent buyers were to opt for Sandy Bridge graphics, the discrete card they’d most likely be opting against would be an entry-class product. Those shopping for a mid-range or better card aren’t going to be enticed by CPU-integrated graphics. Such buyers have both the need for performance and the dollars to pay for it. So if Intel’s new push into professional-brand integrated graphics were to have an impact, we would logically see the effects first in Entry 3D. And that appears precisely to be the case, albeit at a far-from-dramatic rate.
Don’t expect the impact of CPU-integrated graphics to be either dramatic or fast-paced. For the near term, while Intel’s “good enough” graphics performance can satisfy a big chunk of the mainstream, it will be an appropriate choice for only the most budget-conscious professionals. Still, the trend line, as it was in mainstream graphics, is pointing just one way: up. Sandy Bridge’s successor, Ivy Bridge, has just recently begun shipping in the market, and it again provides a substantial bump in performance and features over its predecessor.
Give it time, and integrated solutions will eventually hold significant share among CAD pros … not to the extent it does in mainstream PC markets, but significant share nonetheless.
Intel had been promising that its latest generations of graphics-enabled CPUs would make CAD professionals think twice about paying extra dollars for a discrete graphics card on their next workstations. And it appears those promises are holding true … not in dramatic fashion, but valid nonetheless.
The thought of CPU-integrated graphics is a new proposition for buyers of professional-caliber looking to speed their CAD workflows. Prior to Intel’s Westmere generation, released in early 2010, virtually ever workstation shipped with a professional-brand graphics add-in card installed. The vast majority have been Nvidia Quadro models, with a minority share of units bearing AMD’s FirePro brand.
Westmere’s CPU+GPU combination first raised the question — could integrated graphics perform well enough for CAD duties to allow buyers to save some cash on the add-in card? The answer in 2010 was generally “no.” Performance was not up to snuff, even for entry-class CAD use, and as a result, most workstation OEMs still required the presence of a Quadro or FirePro card in any machine leaving the factory. That choice made sense, as the last thing HP or Dell would want for their professional customers is a poor graphics experience that might turn them off workstations altogether.
But then came 2011 and the launch of the Sandy Bridge generation of die-integrated graphics. With Sandy Bridge, Intel more than anything else focused performance improvements in graphics. And for the first time, the company began actively marketing its graphics for professional use (the “P” prefix in the P3000 signifying “professional” grade). The combination of Intel’s posture and Sandy Bridge’s substantially improved graphics were enough to get OEMs like HP to (for the first time) allow buyers to choose integrated graphics and pass on the graphics add-in card.
Now, Sandy Bridge’s graphics can’t compete head-to-head with Quadro or FirePro … it’s not intended to. What it is intended to do is provide competent graphics for CAD professionals who don’t have the highest demand for performance and whose budgets are especially tight. How did Intel do on its goals? Well, a look in the past few quarters at the add-in card attach rates for low-end systems and the distribution of the add-in cards sold should give a clue.
Anecdotally, OEMs are reporting that, while attach rates remain quite high, they have dropped with Sandy Bridge. And those reports seem to be validated by shipment numbers seen for professional graphics add-in card segments, specifically the low-cost Entry 3D segment. That segment sees steady gains over the years, for a logical reason … as average street prices fall and capabilities climb, the Entry class satisfies more and more of the workstation community. But then right around the start of 2011 — precisely when Sandy Bridge comes out of the chute in workstations like HP’s Z210 —Entry 3D shipments start to flatten and then decline (albeit modestly).
Next week, I’ll continue this discussion by explaining why Entry 3D sales more indicative than other segments of a possible erosion from integrated Sandy Bridge graphics.
The incessant pace of progress and innovation for workstation technology never slows.
Less than a quarter after every major workstation OEM launched a full trio of models based on Intel’s Sandy Bridge-EP (a.k.a. Xeon E5), the industry leader in CPUs has already released its follow-on processor generation, code-named Ivy Bridge. And subsequently, we are now seeing the first Ivy Bridge workstations hitting the market, including Dell’s Precision T1650 and HP’s Z220.
How Does Ivy Bridge Affect the CAD Workstation Market?
What benefits can Ivy Bridge offer to those plying their trade in CAD? Well, there’s the usual broad-based boost in performance that any good generational upgrade will provide, as Intel expects a 20 percent performance improvement for general computation from Ivy Bridge (though of course mileage will vary by application). But there’s more appeal for this upcoming product family than just the usual generation-to-generation performance bump. Because while that appeal extends across applications and usage models, there are a few special nuggets of technology in this generation that will pique the interest of workstation-wielding CAD professionals.
Intel’s lead in silicon process manufacturing continues to grow, and the benefits of Ivy Bridge should prove an ideal vehicle to showcase that lead. Just as competitors are getting their 32 nm process, with Ivy Bridge Intel’s jumping a full generation ahead with a 22 nm process that allows for millions more transistors in the same silicon area.
That’s a win for workstation buyers especially, as they represent a professional community that certainly care about CPU performance, but demand a lot more. First off, a shrink buys room for more cores, and we’ll eventually see some Ivy Bridge SKUs with eight or more cores (not at first launch, but later in the product lifecycle). Far from being one-trick-ponies, today’s MCAD professionals have to be jacks-of-all-trades — a competitive market, tight budgets and tighter schedules all demand it. Drawing is just one piece of the daily workflow, complemented by a host of other critical compute tasks, from simulation to styling. And chores like finite element analysis and computational fluid dynamics multi-thread quite well, making 50% more available cores a serious weapon in driving computation time down and achieving the ultimate goal — boosting productivity.
Improved Integrated Graphics
The extra silicon space also allowed Intel to dial up the performance and functionality of its integrated graphics hardware. For example, Ivy Bridge’s P4000 GPU populates more on-chip graphics engines and supports advanced features like hardware tessellation, a proven tool that can deliver finer, more realistic 3D surfaces in less time. With its range of upgrades, Ivy Bridge can claim full DirectX11 support that its predecessor could not. And with more of those bigger, faster graphics engines, Intel can claim a 30% increase in performance for Ivy Bridge’s graphics over Sandy Bridge’s. And that means CAD professionals on a budget can now more seriously consider choosing a low-cost CPU-integrated graphics solution like the P400.
Support for Three Monitors
But looking beyond performance, Ivy Bridge’s graphics is going to provide another big draw for the MCAD professional: native support for three monitors. While the mainstream is now just discovering the benefits of dual monitors, many mechanical designers are already using three: for example, one for drawing, one for simulation and one for visualization. Prior to Ivy Bridge, a desktop with three high-resolution monitors mandated at least one discrete add-in graphics card. But with this generation, a cost-conscious MCAD user could go three-wide and stick with base platform graphics.
MCAD Users: Same Performance, 50% Fewer Watts!
With more cores to speed CAD simulation and ultra-realistic rendering, as well as a 30 percent graphics improvement, Ivy Bridge promises to be a tide that raises all boats, as all workstations — deskside or mobile — will benefit. But there’s one unique advancement debuting in Ivy Bridge that’s a particular boon to the MCAD pro on the go. You see, Ivy Bridge’s 22 nm technology introduces a revolutionary new transistor structure called TriGate that offers the same performance at 50% fewer Watts than Sandy Bridge’s 32 nm.
And that’s allowing leading vendors HP, Lenovo, Dell and Fujitsu to introduce new mobile workstation models that dramatically extend battery life at the same performance level, or deliver far more performance, with the same battery life. Either way you look at it, it’s a win when computation demands are high. And few corners of the computing world demand more performance/Watt than mechanical designers trying to accomplish demanding design work on the road.
This post reflects industry analyst Alex Herrera’s views and does not necessarily reflect the opinions, product plans or strategy of either Dell or Intel.
A disconnect has been emerging between the perception and reality of mobile workstation sales and usage. Since its emergence almost a decade ago, I’ve viewed the mobile workstation as a slam-dunk when it came to replacing conventional corporate/consumer notebooks, as they are far more appropriate devices for hard-core graphics professionals. But especially recently, the buzz about mobile machines becoming more than road-warrior tools — but instead deskside replacements —has gotten louder.
Now, I haven’t been talking up a major shift to mobiles, despite the buzz, as I’ve maintained there are fundamental reasons workstation users won’t make the move en masse the way the mainstream has. While the mobile workstation has indeed established itself as a major contributor (roughly a quarter of all units sold), desksides are still the dominant majority. Mobiles remain a critical tool for the hard-core workstation user, but unless that user’s really out of the office for the majority of his time, the mobile isn’t going to replace the deskside, at least not in the majority of cases.
A while back, Intel CEO Paul Otellini officially declared the end of the desktop’s reign as the leading PC form factor, having been passed in volume by notebooks (and all its derivative mobile forms). But as one might expect after thinking about typical professional usage models, the workstation market doesn’t play by the same rules.
Contrary to the perception of some, the mobile form factor’s share of the workstation market has been flat for the past two years (bouncing around the 25% level) and really hasn’t changed that much since four years ago, when it accounted for about 20% of sales.
Now there’s no doubt the mobile workstation will remain a vibrant and valuable segment of the workstation market — and might take the place of desksides in niche pockets to address special circumstances. But the fact that its share flattened after a strong period of growth reinforces the notion that it won’t be a broad-based replacement for its more traditional, fixed-location sibling
Would you give up your deskside CAD workstation for a mobile? Why or why not? Leave a comment and let us know.