|By Alexander Murray, August 4, 2014||
Every now and then, I am challenged by the dilemma of whether to reach beyond the highly touted, proven computer brands, and instead direct myself towards something else that totally catches me by surprise. Maybe it's the fancy commercial, the enticing logo, or the promise of social acceptance that keeps us connected to our legacy systems. Nonetheless, I wonder why it takes so long to recognize the capabilities of other brands.
In this case, I am speaking of Xi Computer - a brand that is new to me. I had the opportunity to test their MTower LE workstation (see figure 1). I found a mini tower computer that held its own as one of the fastest within the context of system performance, yet was competitively priced in a market of main contenders. I would be remiss in not recognizing this system as a contender by its performance, configuration, and reliability - instead of quirky commercials and familiar catch phrases.
|Figure 1: The MTower LE workstation from Xi Computer|
When I go computer shopping, I have just one request of the salesperson: to remove all fluff and show me how - and why - this product will help me. I have worked many years as an engineering designer and educator, and so I know and understand that unreliable computer workstations are the difference between completing projects on-time, and missing milestones due to faulty tools.
There is comfort in knowing that the MTower LE workstation is designed for the complexities of running engineering applications, especially 3D CAD modeling. These programs have a tendency to stall or wipeout if the computer isn't running with a significant amount of RAM. This wasn't much of an issue as I operated the Xi workstation with these specs:
Clearly any designer trying to push the limits of part analysis or time savings in rendering and control would find satisfaction in this sound, yet cost effective computer system.
Furthermore, I found that the MTower LE flawlessly handled computer-generated computations and other daily modeling activities with the agility and speed that I would expect from an advanced workstation. I had no concern when running multiple applications simultaneously.
In past design roles, I found often that technical support associates disregarded the processing speed and the performance of other internal components pertinent to CAD. And so, these sub-par computers always led to increased downtime from system crashes. As design software updated at a fast pace, the needed computers were stagnant. Consequently, designer frustration set in, along with multiple questions of, "Why can't they get it right?" For nearly 18 years I have installed and used several design applications on multiple computer workstations with varying results.
With this in mind - and to sum up my point - if you can buy an affordable and proven workstation such as the MTower LE without compromising on performance and budget, then why not? For example, the starting price of this base workstation is $799, with an as-reviewed price of just $1,369.
"What's the catch"? Every hard-core designer, gamer, or production associate is going to pose this question, because there has to be a catch, or maybe a glitch in the pricing matrix. In this case, however, the catch comes in the form of a quality workstation that just happens to be competitively priced for both professionals and entertainment enthusiast. Figure 2 shows the price list:
|Xi MTower LE Workstation (base configuration)||$799.00|
|Intel Core i7-4790 3.6/4.0GHz-1C Turbo Boost 8MB Shared L3 Cache DMI 2.0 Quad-Core 4th gen. 22nm||$119.00|
|16GB DDR3 @1600MHz Dual Rank Interleave||$149.00|
|NVIDIA Quadro K600 1GB DDR5 Kepler™ Architecture PCIe 1x DVI-DL- 1xDP Dual Head-3D Pro Support-DX11-OGL 4.3- Shad.M 5.0-Optional Low Profile||$139.00|
|No Monitor (credit)||($100.00)|
|250GB Solid State Drive Samsung 840 EVO SATA 6Gb/s 540/520MB/s Seq.R/W <.3ms seek Shock Resistant 1500G||$159.00|
|HDD Std Ctrl., according to motherboard and HDD type selected||Incl. w/ Base|
|DVD+RW/DL/+R-R/CD-RW Double Media 4.7/8.5GB 18x||$29.00|
|On-Board sound, according to motherboard specifications||Incl. w/ Base|
|On-Board Network port(s), according to motherboard specifications||Incl. w/ Base|
|Logitech® Corded Black Windows Keyboard||Incl. w/ Base|
|Logitech® Corded 2+ Wheel Mouse Black Optical||Incl. w/ Base|
|Genuine Microsoft® Windows® 7 Professional Edition 64Bit on DVD (32Bit avail. on request)||$69.00|
|McAfee® AntiVirus Plus w/Anti-Spyware/Firewall/Web Site Safety One year lic.||Incl. w/ Base|
|Mouse Pad & Balsa Glider w/ Xi logo. (Assorted, design may vary).||Incl. w/ Base|
|MSI® H97M-E35 Intel® H97 C.S-Military Class 4: Top Quality & Stability-1xPCIe x16-2xPCIe x1-1xPCI-DDR3 1600 to 16GB-1xGb LAN-6xSATA6Gbs - Audio - 6/6 USB 2.0/3.0-DVI-HDMI-VGA||$6.00|
|Power Supply specifications included in selected case||Incl. w/ Base|
|Xi® MTower™ LE Mini Desktop 1x8cm Quiet Fan-2x Front USB 3.0/2.0- 5 in 1 Card Reader-HD- 1x 5 1/4" 1x 3 1/2"- 4x Low Profile Expansion slots-300W UL Power Supply||Incl. w/ Base|
|Standard Xi Warranty w/Express Advance Parts Replacement, One Year on System, Mfg. on Monitor||Incl. w/ Base|
|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)||Incl. w/ Base|
Figure 2: The MTower LE workstation pricing options
For the designer, creating 2D CAD drawings on this computer are a breeze and probably wouldn't require as many upgrades beyond the base configuration, but those seeking a great 3D modeling experience will not be disappointed with the as-reviewed MTower LE (see configuration from above). For instance, I found the build time, rendering, and rotational performance of 3D CAD assembly operations to be fairly solid. To this regard, the graphical enhancement of the NVIDIA K600 video card at $139 is a good fit. From my designer's point of view the $1,369 price is more than a bargain.
My experience in using both 2D and 3D parametric modeling applications, such as AutoCAD, Revit, and Inventor, on the MTower LE is nothing less than impressive (see figure 3). In the case of this workstation, my requirements of "show me" were met; and the repulsive "fluff" was replaced with a well balanced, high performing yet moderately priced computing tool.
|Figure 3: 3D Autodesk Inventor Model: Created on the Xi MTower LE|
From first glance, it is apparent that there is no problem in finding a spot in your office cubicle or area for the MTower: it has a compact casing and weighs just 11 pounds (5kg), fitting a desk without compromising much surface space. Such a set up is ideal for someone like me, who likes having the system at an arm's length on top of the desk, and not needing to reach underneath the desk on the floor.
The case is held up by two brackets that lift the workstation just high enough to hide the power cord, which also connects from the bottom. One could really benefit from the miniature size of the Xi MTower LE which blends in well with other components that often end up on top your office, or home desk.
Equally important is a set of multiple inputs to which to attach a variety of devices. At the front of the MTower LE are the following connectors (see figure 4.):
|Figure 4: The MTower LE workstation from Xi Computer|
USB 3.0 connections are capable of transferring data more than 10 times faster than the traditional USB 2.0 connection, although 4x is more typical. The DVD player satisfies the need of anyone wanting to watch a tutorial or a movie. Now, I'm not saying that professionals work while watching entertaining DVD movies, but just knowing that we could enjoy this feature at an optimized level, while running other software applications and completing work tasks, is something worth noting.
The rear of the workstation is even more capable (see figure 5):
|Figure 5: The MTower LE workstation from Xi Computer|
Inside the computer, there are three expansion slots for additional input/output needs, if needed. Since this is a mini-tower, only half-height cards will fit.
When it comes to the graphics board, my review unit included NVIDIA's Quadro K600 half-height video card with 1GB of DDR5 memory and Kepler GPUs. It is designed for professional grade workstations that are used within manufacturing, entertainment, and energy industries.
Last but, not least I cannot forget about the big flashy blue LED light on the power button, which I first noticed upon entering my office when the lights had automatically turned off. Of course this is a simple negligible feature, but for those individuals that are easily distracted like myself, it is nothing less than cool.
The Windows Experience Index Score on this workstation was 6.8. This is a measurement of the systems hardware and software components, with a current range of 1.0 to 7.9. As figure 6 illustrates, most of the components within this workstation, other than the video card, are at or near the highest 7.9 score; the system scored 6.8 due to the lower subscore form the K600 video card. The Xi MTower LE has the potential of meeting a higher score with a minimal upgrade.
|Figure 6: Windows Experience Index Score for system components|
Now, you could of course move up to a more robust video card from Xi's premium selections. In my opinion, the added cost isn't necessary, unless you are engaging in high level 3D animation and interaction that would require a Quadro K4000 level card or better.
Another test is known as the PassMark Benchmark (see figure 7). It illustrates performance metrics for this computer that either exceed or match up well with other computer systems. I suspect that the upgraded processor contributes significantly to the computing performance; the video card still holds to the lower rated performance. (As noted earlier, it will hold its own for design production.)
|Figure 7: PassMark comparison with other systems|
Aside from my professional work duties, I am completing advanced graduate courses that demand a high-caliber system configuration, one that the MTower LE just happens to provide. Its reliability enabled me to access videos and download large files, all while completing programming activities simultaneously. For instance, compiling code from programming routines happened at a swift rate and did not stall during the build process. This is something that at first I didn't consider necessary, but then I realized that this is an inherited benefit of a powerful workstation.
Considering that it is not unusual these days to pay $1,400 for just a very thin laptop, paying this amount for a rugged engineering workstation seems like a bargain. The MTower takes up little desk space, runs CAD applications speedily, and offers a host of connectors that satisfy my needs.
|Alexander Murray is a technology and design instructor in Columbus, Ohio. He has experience as a part modeler, training and development of design employees for mechanical and civil industries. He holds a masters degree in science in industrial & systems engineering with emphasis in engineering management from Ohio University. More…|
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