VAR Station II
Manufacturer: VA Research
Price: $3650 US
Reviewer: James T. Dennis
A couple of months ago I agreed to do a review of VA Research's VAR Station II. Although I've built or purchased dozens of systems over the years, it's pretty hard to sell me a new system for personal use. When I picked up the review system, I realized that currently my main system was the old 386 I built eight years ago. It's the one I use for reading all of my mail and news, surfing the Web, compiling and testing new software and most of my programming and writing. The beauty of Linux is in how well it supports my old system. With the new system, I knew I was in for a bit of trauma, as it meant forcing myself to use the system for my daily work after almost a decade with my old reliable. (Quit laughing, it's not that funny—well, maybe it is.)
The other thing I knew would be difficult to overcome was my text-mode bigotry. The VAR Station II is obviously intended to be a graphical workstation—I couldn't do it justice if I stuck with my usual suite of text-mode applications. Normally, I've only made the occasional foray into X to use Netscape, ghostview, xdvior, xv and/or xpaint.
The VAR Station II is built around a 266MHz Intel Pentium II. This is currently the fastest production x86 processor—although I think I spotted an announcement for a 300 MHz model on the horizon. Although this may seem tame next to the DEC Alphas at 500MHz (and some as high as 600), there are some advantages to sticking with an x86 processor. The most obvious advantage is that you can install a copy of DOS, Windows 95 or NT if you have occasional need for a Microsoft application, or you're doing any sort of cross-platform development or testing on any other PC OS. Some users also might need access to iBCS (SCO or other PC Unix binary compatibility) or WABI (Windows 3.x under X Windows) or to some other application that's available for Intel Linux but not for any of the ports to other processors (we're thinking of commercial Linux applications here—which are appearing in increasing numbers).
I'll admit I've considered adopting some other hardware architecture—Alpha or PowerPC, maybe even SPARC. However, my informal survey suggests that the various ports of Linux to other platforms have simply not progressed far enough to offer a performance advantage. For whatever reasons, a 500 MHz Alpha just doesn't appear to be 90% faster than a 266MHz Pentium under the current ports of Linux.
Despite the advantages of the x86 architecture for this sort of system, VA Research's choice of the Intel Pentium II chip was also a distressing feature for me. Just prior to picking up the review system I discovered that a new floating-point math bug had been reported (and confirmed by Intel) in that particular microprocessor series. I asked VA Research about this bug. They let me know that Intel would be able to ship a software fix that would patch the microcode in the processor.
The current Pentium II and MMX processors are basically RISC chips at their core—and they run a set of microcode routines that provide the CISC functions. In the case of the Pentium II and MMX chips there is also a small bank of flash ROM where some upgrades to the processor's microcode can be loaded to permanently “fix” them.
At this time, I haven't received the fix disk. However, despite my concerns about the processor, the hardware seemed to perform flawlessly.
Setting up the hardware consisted of unpacking two boxes (monitor and CPU) and plugging in about five cords (monitor, power, keyboard, mouse and Ethernet). With 64MB of RAM and a fast SymBIOS SCSI controller this machine makes my Pentium 150 (another system that I use just for testing and mostly for NT) feel like sludge. I won't even compare this to “old reliable”. The system came with a sound card installed and pre-configured—but no speakers or patch cord. Naturally, the first speakers I acquired came with the wrong sort of cords.
One quirk I noticed about this SCSI adapter—it doesn't seem to support the new bootable CDs. The recent Red Hat releases are written on bootable CDs, which is nice for installation and downright handy for recovering from your latest typo at the root prompt.
The VAR Station II ships with a three-ring binder that holds some custom documentation and has vinyl floppy pocket and pamphlet pouches. The first page of the custom documentation is a printout describing how to log in, start X and configure the networking parameters (via the Red Hat Control Panel or a text editor).
They ship the systems with a custom user account already added, so I was able to just log in as “jimd” and go. That is a nice touch and hopefully discourages new Linux users from doing normal work as root.
The other pages list all of the settings for all of the installed adapters including the IRQs, DMA channels and I/O ports that are in use. Although I didn't add any additional adapters, this is the exact information that I hate to track down when I do system upgrades so I'm glad they provide it in such a clean, organized fashion.
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