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Xi's New MTower PCIe Workstation in a Stryker Tower

By Rande Robinson, April 12, 2013

My first impression of Xi’s new MTower PCIe workstation was – this is HUGE! This is one big, unique-looking computer with a handle. Thank heavens for the handle, too: if it weren’t included, this workstation would be one beast of a computer to move around. I thought by today’s standards my old Dell Inspiron 530 was a pretty big box but the XI Stryker case could swallow two - maybe three - of them without any trouble.

The black and white metal Stryker case is an $89 option from Xi, measures 24” high, 24” deep and 9.5” wide. My daughter’s first reaction when she saw it next to my desk was simply, “Cool, can we keep it?” She then took a picture of it with her phone to take to school and show her computer teacher.

Figure 1: Left side view of the Xi MTower PCIe workstation

Not only does the Stryker live up to its name (it looks striking), it is the quietest PC that I have ever used. If it weren’t for the various system lights inside the case, I wouldn’t know it was on. The most “striking” feature has to be the clear panel on the side. It allows an unobstructed view of the case’s spacious and well laid-out interior. Should you have trouble seeing inside the case, you can push a button (found below the system power switch) to throw some light on it. Clicking this button turns on what I would call mood lighting, for those times when you and your computer want to be alone.

Figure 2: Stryker "mood lighting"

As one would expect from such a large case, there is an amazing amount of space for upgrades and connections. As far as external connections go I count six USB 3 ports, nine USB 2 ports, three eSata ports, five slots for memory cards and interestingly enough two gigabit Ethernet ports on the back of the PC. One might ask why two Ethernet ports? According to the motherboard user’s manual this allows the PC to serve as a network gateway for managing traffic between two separate networks.

Figure 3: Ports on the front panel

Not only does the system supply all of these ports but at least one of every type of port (excluding the Ethernet port) is easily accessible on the front of the machine (something I wish every PC maker would do). There is also space for at least eight 5.25” devices of your choice, such as hard drives and DVD burners or a Blue Ray player. While I’m reviewing the PC with an eye towards CADD and engineering uses, the MTower PCIe workstation would also make a great gaming machine or media machine. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the six audio I/O connections. Which allow for the attachment of not only a microphone and head phones but for various combinations of speakers. One can attach a simple set of stereo speakers or 2.1, 4.1, 5.1 or 7.1 channel speakers. One other thing of note is that not only is the system power button on the top front panel (where it is easily reachable) but that there is also a Reset button below and off to the right. Now I know that modern CAD programs never lock up the system <g>, but it is reassuring to know where it is.

Figure 4: Rear view of the computer

The Xi MTower PCIe Workstation is designed for speed and power. However, speed and power in a computer often have an unfortunate result of heat. The Stryker case is designed to help the MTower PCIe workstation keep its cool. Every opening - from the front drive bays covers to the rear punchouts - is covered with a black mesh that looks good and allows air to flow freely through the system. When coupled with the sealed water-cooling system, this case seems to me to have the heat issue well in control.

Here the pricing for the review machine

Xi MTower PCIe Workstation,  base price: $1,119.00

Part#    Description Price
00013   Xi MTower PCIe Workstation (Base Configuration)    $1,119.00
01819   Intel Core i7 3770K @ 4.5GHz Silent Sealed Water Cooling 8MB Shared L3 Cache DMI Quad-Core 3rd Gen. 22nm   $489.00
02260   16GB DDR3 1866MHz Corsair Vengeance Heatspread   $219.00
04471   NVIDIA Quadro K2000 2GB 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   $429.00
05015   No Monitor (credit)   ($140.00)
03166   240GB Solid State Drive Corsair Neutron Series GTX SATA 6Gb/s 550/470MB/s Seq.R/W <.3ms seek Shock Resistant 1500G. 5 Yr. Mfg. Warranty CSSD-N240GBGTXB-BK   $179.00
32131   Optional 2TB 7200RPM SATA 6.0Gb/s Seagate Barracuda 64MB Cache NCQ ST2000DM001   $149.00
17012    HDD Std Ctrl. accordingly to Motherboard and HDD Type Selected   Incl. w/ Base
23011   SATA/SAS trays accordingly to case selected    Incl. w/ Base
06061   DVD+RW/DL/+R-R/CD-RW Double Media 4.7/8.5GB 18x   $29.00
07024   75 in 1 Rosewill Multi I.O. Memory Card reader Internal 3.5" + 3x USB 2.0 Hub + eSATA -RCR-IM5001   $15.00
09007   On-Board sound accordingly to motherboard specifications   Incl. w/ Base
12001   On-Board Network port(s) accordingly to motherboard specifications   Incl. w/ Base
13001   Logitech Corded Black Windows Keyboard   Incl. w/ Base
14010   Logitech Corded 2+ Wheel Mouse Black Optical   Incl. w/ Base
16084   Genuine Microsoft Windows 7 Professional Edition 64Bit on DVD (32Bit & XP Pro downgrade avail. on request)   $59.00
35022   McAfee VirusScan Plus Anti-virus/Anti-Spyware/Firewall/Web Site Safety Rating one year w/media OEM (WSL)   Incl. w/ Base
35023   Adobe Digital Creativity Suite on DVD w/Premiere & Photoshop Elements OEM bundle (WSL)   Incl. w/ Base
35025    Mouse Pad & Balsa Glider w/ Xi logo. (Assorted, design may vary).   Incl. w/ Base
22273   Asus P8Z77 WS Intel Z77 Express C.S-4xPCIe 3.0/2.0 x16 (Dual x16 or x16/x8/x8/Quad x8)-2xPCIe 2.0x1-Dual Ch.DDR3 2400(OC)/1333-2xGb Etherneti-2xSATA6Gb-4xSATA3Gb RAID 0/1/5/10-Digital Audio-8CH-S/PDIF-8x/4xUSB 2.0/3.0-DVI Port   $179.00
44037   1000W Cooler Master SilentProM 80 Plus Bronze 135mm Ultra Silent Fan 85% efficiency- Active PFC- RSA00-AMBAJ3-US   $89.00
27213   Xi MTower CM-Storm STRYKER Black & White Quiet High Ventilation 2x12cm+1x14cm+1x20cm Quiet Fans -Front, Side & Top Grid-FrontUSB2/3.0+1394+eSATA- 8x 5.25"- 8x 3.5"-13x2.5" (converted with 2x4-in 3 HDD Modules)-1x 2.5 external   $89.00
18001   Standard Xi Warranty w/Express Advance Parts Replacement, One Year on System, Mfg. on Monitor   Incl. w/ Base
47002   NEMA 5-15P to C13 Wall Plug, 125 Volt, 16AWG, 5 Feet. Standard Computer AC power Cord   Incl. w/ Base

Sub Total:   $2,904.00
Discounts:   $0.00
After Discounts:    $2,904.00
CA Sales Tax:   $0.00
CA e-Waste Recycling Fee:   $0.00
Shipping (each):   $145.92
Total Each:   $3,049.92
Quantity:   1
Total Delivered:   $3,049.92

While this is not what I would consider a cheap workstation, you get what you pay for and so this workstation seems to provide an excellent bang for the bucks.

A few more observations about the Xi MTower as it was delivered to me. First I’m sure you noticed from the proceeding list that it was sent sans monitor. This system really deserves at least one great monitor (two if you can afford them) preferably 24 inches or larger at the highest resolution you can afford. I tested the system with an HP L1940T 19 inch monitor (1280x1024) and a Samsung SyncMaster 2220wm 23” monitor (1680x1050). The included NVIDIA K2000 Kepler graphics card worked fine with both of them but neither display really taxed it. Would love to see what it would do with a really high resolution display.

Figure 5: The loot that accompanies the workstation

The system included a very basic Logitech k120 keyboard and a generic Logitech optical mouse, which I didn’t like. While the two are included in the base price, I recommend higher quality input devices, which you might already have. When paying more than $3000 for a system, I feel input devices should have a premium feel too. (The quality of the input devices is my opinion and does not reflect negatively on the performance of the MTower itself.)

I was very impressed with sets of cables, covers, wire ties, Windows 7 OEM CD, driver disk, and five balsa wood airplanes included. I asked Xi about the planes, they explained they were shipped with all their computers. Apparently it is one of the company’s most popular features, because it seems most Xi users are really just kids at heart.

Nevertheless, I would have liked to seen an quick start guide and a user manual specific to the MTower workstation - in addition to the separate manuals for the mother board, disks drives, case, and power supply. I understand that these systems are custom-built workstations and so the components change, but it is nice to have a single place to go for basic information.

Benchmarks

When I was first asked to write this review, the question came up: “Which benchmarks was I going to run?” In 30 years of using computers, I have never asked a vendor about benchmarks, or even considered them when recommending and purchasing PCs and workstations. That is not to say I never look at them; most reviews include a variety. I guess I could never keep track of what the numbers actually meant. That said, I solicited suggestions from various people and decide on three: Windows Experience Index, MicroStation Graphics Benchmark Report, and PassMark Performance Test.

Windows Experience Index

The first benchmark is the simplest to run, the Windows Experience Index. While most don’t consider this a big time benchmark, it is one anyone can run on their Windows 7 or 8 PC. It helps pinpoint areas where the computer might be slow. The result for the the Xi MTower PCIe is as follows:

The Xi workstation gets top marks in all areas except for graphics board.

As a simple comparison, the Windows Experience index for my Dell Inspiron 530 desktop computer is as follows:

So in this simple test, the Xi is twice as fast as my current home desktop machine.

MicroStation Graphics Benchmark Report

The next Benchmark I ran is one that most people probably aren’t familiar with, the MicroStation Graphics Benchmark Report (MGBR). According to Bentley Systems, it is designed to determine how well MicroStation performs on a computer by rendering an image to the screen three times. The result is reported in frames per second. The tests it runs are named Drawing Tests, Shadows Comparison, Buffer Tests and The Walkthrough Diagnostic. Bentley’s description of these test and the results for the Xi MTower PCIe are shown below.

Drawing Tests are used to determine the basic graphic performance of your system. While they are geared toward testing the performance of your video card, they are also directly impacted by your desktop resolution, CPU speed, RAM, operating system, and even other programs running on your computer. In this category of tests, larger results are better. There is no single threshold for a "good" card and some categories of drawing tests may be more important to you than others based on your usage of MicroStation.

Drawing Test Name  

 Screen #1

B-Spline Surfaces  

 169.0 fps

Filled Hidden Line  

 176.7 fps

Geometric Primitives  

 120.6 fps

Geometric Primitives (Anti-Aliased)  

 122.6 fps

Pattern Fill  

 102.3 fps

Raster  

 75.7 fps

Shaded Mesh  

 96.2 fps

Text  

 151.2 fps

Average(s)  

 126.8 fps

The Shadows Comparison is used to determine the impact of shadows. The goal of this test is to determine the delta between the two results, and not to rate the performance of individual tests. Enabling shadows generally has a notable performance penalty, which can vary between systems.

Shadows Disabled    3651.6 fps
Shadows Enabled    778.5 fps
Delta(s)    -2873.1 fps

Buffer Tests are used to determine how well your video card can present data to the screen after it is done rendering. Poor buffer performance can lead to overall sluggish performance and lag, especially for element dynamics. In this category of tests, larger results are better, and should be significantly larger than other categories.

Copy Buffer 5837.3 fps
Element Dynamics 13993.4 fps

The Walkthrough Diagnostic is used to determine how well your graphic card and driver support a specific capability called "occlusion testing" that is used heavily for rendering shaded views. Graphic cards or drivers that don’t perform this function well will have significantly lower frame rates and may appear “sluggish” when rotating shaded views or performing walkthroughs. The goal of this test is to determine the delta between the two results, and not to rate the performance of individual tests. Most systems will have a positive delta (e.g. 10% or more). A negative delta suggests that your graphic card or driver does not adequately perform occlusion testing. If this is the case, you may wish to forcefully disable it in MicroStation (use the "view quickscan off" keyin)

Occlusion Testing Disabled 45.9 fps
Occlusion Testing Enabled 54.1 fps
Delta(s) 8.2 fps

For comparison, here are the MGBR numbers for two CAD machines I use daily at the office.

  HP probook 6440b HP xw4600
Drawing Test Name    Screen #1    Screen #2  Screen #1 Screen #2
B-Spline Surfaces    50.7 fps    5.6 fps 81.4 fps 82.1 fps
Filled Hidden Line    11.1 fps    4.0 fps 62.1 fps   63.1 fps
Geometric Primitives    20.2 fps    4.7 fps 32.4 fps   33.0 fps
Geometric Primitives (Anti-Aliased)    15.2 fps    4.1 fps 14.8 fps   14.6 fps
Pattern Fill    16.7 fps    4.6 fps 46.6 fps 47.8 fps
Raster    9.2 fps    3.6 fps 11.5 fps 11.4 fps
Shaded Mesh    9.5 fps    3.4 fps 9.8 fps 9.8 fps
Text    39.5 fps    5.3 fps 66.8 fps   67.8 fps
Average(s)    21.5 fps    4.4 fps 40.7 fps  41.2 fps
Shadows Comparison  
Shadows Disabled    208.0 fps    6.1 fps 226.5 fps 239.5 fps
Shadows Enabled    46.4 fps    5.2 fps 49.3 fps 48.9 fps
Delta(s)    -161.6 fps    -0.9 fps -177.2 fps -190.5 fps
Buffer Tests
Copy Buffer    257.0 fps    6.1 fps 338.1 fps 347.1 fps
Element Dynamics    5878.7 fps    506.5 fps 7660.9 fps 7779.7 fps
Walkthrough Diagnostic 
Occlusion Testing Disabled    9.9 fps    3.6 fps 13.9 fps 13.9 fps
Occlusion Testing Enabled    11.5 fps    5.3 fps 12.6 fps 12.9 fps
Delta(s)    1.7 fps    1.8 fps -1.2 fps -1.0 fps

As one can see the MTower PCIe outshines both of my HPs considerably. The MTower PCIe workstation is three times faster in the drawing tests, 15 times faster in the Shadows Comparison, two times faster in the BufferTest and eight times faster in the Walkthrough Diagnostics. Bottom line here is that the Xi MTower PCIe workstation would make a fantastic MicroStation platform.

PassMark Performance Test 8.0

The third benchmark I ran on the MTower workstation seems to be well respected, the PassMark Performance Test. The results are as follows:

General Information    
Performance Test Version 8.0.1017
Baseline ID 62136
Operating System Windows 7 Service Pack 1 build 7601 (64-bit)
Benchmark Scores    
PassMark Rating   4,701
CPU Mark   11,826
2D Graphics Mark   1,052
3D Graphics Mark   1,762  
Memory Mark   3,053  
Disk Mark   4,272  
Hardware    
CPU Type   Intel Core i7-3770K @ 3.50GHz
CPU Measured Speed   3.50 GHz
Motherboard   P8Z77 WS
Memory   16GB, Corsair CMZ32GX3M4X1866C10
Video Card Tested   Quadro K2000
Hard Drive Tested   Corsair Neutron (240 GB)

Bottom line is that the Xi MTower PCIe workstation is fast, faster than any PC that I use daily. For that matter, it is by far the fastest PC I have ever used. The benchmarks brought to my attention just how “slow” my general CAD PC is, at least according to the hard numbers.

The questions we have to ask are, however, do we really need the speed? What is it worth to us? And is the difference noticeable? For general 2D/3D CAD work, I would probably answer, “No.” For rendering, visualization, 3D design, and simulation, we could do a lot worse for a whole lot more money. As for the question - is it noticeable? The answer is yes. While the MTower PCIe workstation won’t make you type or draw any faster, you will notice that windows and programs seem to leap onto the screen. Simple things like scrolling around Bing Maps or Google Earth are smooth and seamless. The speed of the Xi MTower PCIe workstation simply leads to a better overall PC experience.

Conclusion

The MTower PCIe workstation is one large, fast PC. Everything about it from its futuristic looking case with 16 GB of DDR3 memory to the 240 GB solid state disk drive is engineered for speed and ease of use. If you are looking for the cheapest CADD PC then the Xi MTower PCIe workstation isn’t for you. If on the other hand you want a fast well engineered workstation at a reasonable price then look no further the Xi MTower PCIe workstation. It will provide you with all the power and speed you need for general 2D/3D CADD and gaming today and for several years to come.

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Additional Information

Corporate product page - www.xicomputer.com/products/mtowersp4.asp

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About the Author

Rande Robinson has over 24 years of experience in IT, construction, bridge and roadway engineering with 2 state departments of transportation and several community colleges. He trains and supports users with engineering and design applications. Rande holds a civil engineering degree and has written several articles on the use of IT in engineering. More…

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