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[Review of the Indy, Byte Magazine, January 1994]

Digital-Media Power

Silicon Graphical new Indy workstation is low on price but high
on graphics performance and it works with both Macs and PC's

By Ben Smith

[Indy Picture] I usually avoid spending words on ease of installation. After all, you install a workstation once; you run it every day. I'm making an exception for the Indy, however. In taking a second look at Silicon Graphics, Inc.'s new low-cost workstation, I found the Indy exceptionally easy to set up and use, as well as entertaining. In a month of hands-on use and testing, I also found it as fast and capable with graphics, sound, and video as I'd expected. (For hardware details on how the Indy achieves its performance, see "Apple, SGI Blaze Video Trail," September 1993 BYTE.)

The fun begins as soon as you open the Indy's shipping box. Next to the keyboard and mouse, you'll find red, blue, and yellow rubber balls-for juggling-and a colorful poster that shows how to assemble your system. If you resist an attempt at juggling, you can easily have the system up and running in under 15 minutes.

Serious Fun

The system comes with software loaded. Press the power button on the front of the compact system, and you'll soon find yourself on an introductory musical-video tour of what SGI and the Indy can do. The theme is "serious fun," and the three juggling balls show up as video icons that lead you through a pleasing collage of graphics, video, sound, and voice, all forms of data that can be used seriously in what SGI terms digital-media communications.

The IRIX log-in screen has icons for each user. Beside root, guest, and tutor are two accounts that will attract your attention: EasySetup and OutOfBox. You click on EasySetup to give your system a name and network address and to set up the account for the major user. OutOfBox restarts the colorful introductory tour. The guest account holds all the demo applications; the tutor account gets you up to speed with SGI's new Indigo Magic user interface and its associated work spaces, buttons, windows, and icons.

The Indy is a new system with a significant amount of new hardware and an entirely new design of the operating-system interface. In fact, the operating system is different right down to its core. IRIX 5.1 is an SGI-enhanced release of Unix SystemV release 4.1 with all of its capabilities for memory-mapped files, dynamic shared libraries, and run-time linking, plus facilities for real-time event handling.

More for Less

Compared to the Indigo, SGI's original venture into the general-purpose computing market, the Indy is visually less cute and more practical. From an ergonomical point of view, the Indy is even quieter than the quiet Indigo, and its compact workstation form factor fits the desktop better than the Indigo's mini-tower. More important, the Indy is faster at general computing operations while costing substantially less than the Indigo it replaces in SGI's workstation line.

Even more so than with the Indigo, SGI has priced the Indy for commonplace computing, desktop publishing, computer-based communications, database access, and graphical image manipulation. Prices start at $4995 for a diskless workstation with 32 MB of RAM, 8-bit video, and a 15-inch monitor. The hardware emphasis is on 2-D graphics, rather than the 3-D graphics performance that SGI built its reputation on.

The Indy's main memory expands to 256MB, and there are two bays for mass storage devices. Drive options include hard drives of up to 1 GB in capacity and a 21MB floptical drive that can read and write MS-DOS and Mac 3.5" high-density disks. The base model comes with an 8-bit color display system and a 15-inch monitor (1024 by 768 pixels), but you can up grade to 24-bit color and larger monitors (up to 19 inches diagonally).

Besides a keyboard and mouse, a digital color camera (IndyCam) and a microphone also come standard with the Indy. Other standard capabilities include built-in Ethernet ports, four-channel stereo, several types of video port, and an ISDN connection. The system that I evaluated came with the 24-bit color graphics option, 64 MB of RAM, a 1GB hard drive, and the floptical drive, as well as an external CD-ROM drive for loading sound, images, and software updates and other licenses. The total hardware list price for this configuration is $23,695.

The Indy gets its performance from a Mips R4000 CPU. The R4000 RISC chip uses superpipelining and runs internally at 100 MHz. I ran BYTE's Unix benchmarks as well as our new portable low-level benchmarks. The Unix benchmarks show the Indy to be 6.5 times faster than a Sun SparcStation 1 running SunSoft 4.3. The low-level benchmarks show the Indy to be roughly 1.5 times faster than a 60MHz Pentium with a 256-KB cache, a 64bit data path, and 24MB of RAM.

All SGI systems are source code compatible. Models like the Indy that come without high-end graphics processors use their CPUs to create effects done in hardware on the graphics boards of other SGI systems. The Indy is not a Reality Engine capable machine (see "Damn the Torpedoes!," November 1993 BYTE), so many of these effects are done with system software rather than in the hardware. But with its R4000 CPU running at 100 MHz, even these advanced effects are in reach.

Beyond the Macintosh

Despite the hoopla about the advanced digital-media communications features of the Indy (and Apple's AV Macs), networks that support videoconferencing and the conferencing software are just emerging. It will be a year or two before those capabilities will be an important consideration.

The current need for a system like the Indy is in digital-image manipulation, as in prepress image computing, where traditional machines have been either very expensive or computationally inadequate. (If you want time to juggle, try manipulating 100-MB images on even the most fully configured Mac Quadra.) Adobe has ported both Illustrator and Photoshop to SGI's hardware using Quorum's Latitude porting tools. Even without taking advantage of the pixel manipulation-specific operations of the SGI, they have achieved at least twice the performance as on a Quadra.

Coupling the Indy's relatively low price for high-powered pixel operations with its abilities to communicate with DOS and Mac machines over Ethernet ports (and read DOS and Mac media), Indy is a perfect match for Photoshop, with its tens of thousands of graphics and prepress professionals. Optimize Photoshop and its associated third-party tools for the Indy, bundle the two, and you should end up with heaven for graphics professionals.

Users moving onto the Indy from the Mac will find the Indy's user interface not only similar but superior to the Mac's. Of course, you will now be working on a Unix workstation, but you'll seldom be aware of it, since Unix is so attractively dressed. The hidden advantage is that you get real multitasking and can connect directly to large Unix servers for managing files and heavy-duty computing.

Grievance List

Playing back video images captured from the Indy's digital camera occasionally caused a core dump and a hung session. I also had problems with some network operations between the Indy (running IRIX 5.1) and an older Indigo (running IRIX 4.03), but none between either machine and other Unix workstations. And I was disappointed that the voice-command software was not yet part of the operating system. By the time you read this, SGI should have resolved these problems and shipped the developer tool kits as well.

The power button is on the front panel, and while it's easily accessible, it's too exposed. Only too often, I accidentally brushed against the button and shut down the system. An intermediary confirmation, like that provided on Next computers, would avert unwanted shutdowns. As it is, one accidental brush of the button and you reboot your system, risking loss of data in open files.

Another element of concern is the lack of any S-video or NTSC video-out port. While the Indy provides both composite video and S-video input ports, you will have to purchase an optional GIO-bus (graphics 1/0) video expansion card at $3395 for video out.

Digital Media for the Common World

When you buy an Indy, hard copy documentation is an option. You shouldn't miss it, however. While the Indy has the usual Unix man pages (and the X Window System application xman for reading them), there's also a complete set of SGI-specific documentation in an inviting digital media format (and available with the Help button in the user environment). In fact, the SGI documentation is the finest example of electronic publishing I've seen.

SGI Insight documents start as FrameMaker files. An SGI-developed program takes FrameMaker's MIFF files and produces SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) files. Among the SGML markup instructions are hypertext jumps, external references to image files, sound, and animation. A second program takes the SGML files and compiles them into InSight files. SGI's InSight documentation viewer interprets the links and pointers, turning text into sophisticated hypertext. You end up with a documentation set that not only is easy to search and navigate but also includes images, video, sound clips, and buttons that launch associated elements of the documented applications.

According to Jim Clark, founder of SGI, the future of 3D computing and digital media is the general consumer market (see "Roots and Branches of 3D," May 1992 BYTE). With low-cost systems like the Indy, that prediction can become a fact. Before the time a data superhighway is in place, we have a chance to develop a great repository of valuable interactive digital material. We have tools to import existing text and develop it into sensually rich interactive documents.

The 500 cable channels of the near future need not be wasted on interactive versions of the Mickey Mouse Club. By generating images and animation, we now have real opportunities to enrich the world with high-bandwidth consumer communications. And because the Indy is so affordable, you can be part of the process.

Ben Smith is a testing editor for the BYTE Lab and the author of Unix Step-by-Step (Hayden Books, 1990). You can reach him on the Internet at ben@bytepb.byte.com
Indy (base price): $4995

Silicon Graphics, Inc.
2011 North Shoreline Blvd.
Mountain View, CA 94043

(800) 800-7441
(415) 960-1980

Circle 1078 on Inquiry Card.



BYTE's benchmark results are indexed. On the Unix benchmarks, a Sun
SparcStation 1 running SunSoft 4.3 = 1. The results below show SGI's
Indy to be roughly 6.5 times faster overall than the SparcStation. For
individual low-level portable benchmark tests, a 60-MHz Pentium with a
256-KB cache, a 64-bit data path, and 24 MB of RAM running MS-DOS with
a 32-bit DOS extender = 1. The results put the Indy at roughly 1.5
times faster than the Pentium.

TEST UNIX Benchmarks Arithmetic test (double) 8.7 Dhrystone 2 (w/o register variables) 4.5 Execl throughput 5.2 File copy (30 seconds) 16.2 Pipe-based context switching 2.2 Shell scripts (eight concurrent) 2.9 Portable Benchmarks Numeric sort 0.89 String sort 0.43 Bitfield operations 1.48 Emulated floating-point 2.20 Simple math 2.15 Transcendental math 1.25

Thanks to Nick Daisley for scanning in the article for me

Ian's SGI Depot: FOR SALE! SGI Systems, Parts, Spares and Upgrades

(check my current auctions!)
[WhatsNew] [P.I.] [Indigo] [Indy] [O2] [Indigo2] [Crimson] [Challenge] [Onyx] [Octane] [Origin] [Onyx2]
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