Specifications (as tested): 2x 2.0 GHz Xeon processors; 512 MB PC800 RDRAM; 2 x 40 GB ATA-100 hard drives; 48X IDE CD-ROM and 24X/10X/40X CD-RW; Nvidia Quadro7 700XGL graphics card
Pros: Excellent price for a powerhouse machine; works out-of-the-box with Red Hat 7.3 drivers; plenty of expansion space for storage and cards
Cons: Mini-tower chassis is huge; cover is hard to close
Until a few months ago, my personal Linux software development workstation was an old HP server, with dual 600 MHz Pentium III processors, three 18 GB SCSI hard drives, half a gig of memory, and a copper gigabit NIC. For years, I’ve reused old servers as desktop machines because I wanted the extra power and reliability that a server-class platform offered. Now, for the first time in at least five years, I’m back to a desktop machine: Dell’s Precision 530n Workstation, with dual 2.0 GHz Intel Xeon processors. When I got it, it was the first desktop (that I knew of) to offer that kind of power — and I’ve never looked back.
First, the tech specs. The Dell 530n has two Intel Pentium 4 Xeon processors, a 400 MHz front-side bus, a 256 KB L2 cache, and what Intel calls “Hyper-Threading” — each processor offers a limited version of parallel processing, making each processor look like two separate processors to a compatible operating system. For example, Red Hat Linux 7.3 thinks that this dual-processor box is a four-way workstation! (It really isn’t.) Despite the hyper-threading, each processor only has a single L1 and L2 cache. Still, it’s pretty neat.
For storage, the computer has two integrated disk controllers, one for ATA-100 (“IDE”) hard drives, the other for Ultra-160 SCSI. Dell also offers a variety of RAID controllers, and even an Ultra320 SCSI controller.
There are three 3.5-inch hard drive bays inside the computer chassis, and three half-height 5.25-inch bays. I’ve set up my system with two 40 GB ATA-100 hard drives on one ATA-100 bus, and two half-height optical drives from Dell, one a CD-ROM reader, the other a CD-RW drive, on the second ATA-100 bus. A half-height bay is still unused. I also configured the box with 512 MB of PC800 RDRAM.
There’s also plenty of room for expansion. The system has three 32-bit 33 MHz PCI slots, two 64-bit 66 MHz PCI slots, and one 4x AGP slot for a graphics card. The only slot I’ve used so far is the AGP slot, which has a nice Nvidia Quadro4 700XLGL board with 64 MB memory.
Red Hat Linux 7.2 installed fine on the machine — all the drivers were there, including the drivers for the integrated 3Com 10/100 NIC and Nvidia display card. After Red Hat 7.3 came out, the upgrade went very smoothly. USB support was fine, working out-of-the-box with my Microsoft USB-based Trackball Optical pointing device.
Dell built in some nice touches, too. For example, the precision 530n has two USB and one IEEE 1394 FireWire connectors on both the front and rear of the computer, and all can be used simultaneously. There’s also a headphone jack on the front of the workstation.
What don’t I like about the Precision 530n? Really only one thing: although Dell calls it a mini-tower, it’s HUGE. It’s bigger than many of my pedestal servers, at 20 inches tall, 9 inches wide, and 19 inches deep. Don’t even think about putting it on your desktop. The case is funny, too. The plastic cover is hinged to make it easy to access the components without having to remove screws or mess with sheet metal — but it’s hard to relatch. Worse, there’s a removable plastic air deflector inside the computer that’s easy to take out, but seemingly impossible to replace correctly. I only hope it’s doing its job.
Bottom Line: Buy
Beyond some minor physical imperfections, I’m very pleased. And I’m even more pleased with the price.
The base price for this model, with one 1.8 GHz Xeon processor, 128 MB RAM, and one 20 GB hard drive, is $1,449; the dual-processor, dual-drive, dual-CD-ROM, 512 MB RAM system reviewed here priced out at $3,040. That’s with three-year, next-day, on-site service, too.
Take the time to price out the same system with both Windows and Linux. Dell occasionally offers rebates on certain models. In some cases, the same hardware bundled with Windows instead of Linux is cheaper. Unfair? Perhaps. But at least Dell is one manufacturer that gives you Linux as an option.
Alan Zeichick is principal analyst at Camden Associates. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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