Windows 2000 - The New Design Platform?

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Setting Up a Windows 2000 system

Tom Arah looks at the theory and practice of buying a Windows 2000 graphics workstation.

When asked to recommend a system setup, my usual advice is to hold off as something better and cheaper is always just around the corner. I made this point when I last looked at hardware issues over three years ago. Back then I had just invested in a 200Mhz MMX system with 64Mb RAM, 5GB hard disk, 1GB JAZ drive, Matrox Millennium graphics card, 17" monitor and 4-speed CD-R running - after due consideration of NT 4 and some regret - under Windows 95. I was already looking ahead, however, to "a multiple processor, 500Mhz Pentium III with 256Mb RAM, an integrated AGP display and a 15Gb hard disk that can be backed up onto DVD-RAM". More to the point I was looking forward to the time when NT5 would emerge as the natural platform for designers by merging the plug-and-play usability of Windows 95 with the reliability of NT 4.

Well I hope no-one waited. The hardware requirements largely fell into place as expected but the all-important underlying OS was repeatedly put off. NT 5 finally arrived over two years late in the form of Windows 2000 and at last all the pieces seemed to be in place for my dream publishing/graphics system. When launch-day arrived I already had my order in for a dual-processor Pentium 700Mhz system with 512MB RAM, 20GB SCSI hard disk, GEForce graphics card, 21" monitor, CD-RW, JAZ and DVD-RAM.

It never arrived, however, because it turned out that despite 2000’s long gestation, none of the DVD-RAM developers had got around to producing a driver for it. This was exactly the sort of thing that had put me off NT 4 in the first place and after four months’ waiting I was on the point of reverting to 98. In the end though I decided that 2000 is patently the platform of the future and that, after unhappy experiences with previous OS upgrades, I’d rather face any problems now with a clean, dedicated system. My first flush of enthusiasm was long gone, however, and I decided to rethink my specification.

The one undoubted performance benefit 2000 offers over 98 is scalability through the support for multiple processors. The simplicity of this idea has always appealed to me – just add in another CPU whenever you need more power. In practice of course it’s not that simple. To begin with both processors must be so finely tuned to each other so that it’s not just crucial that they are the same speed they should really be bought at the same time from the same batch. In other words, SMP systems are actually worse than single processors when it comes to upgrading. More importantly I’ve become less convinced of the performance benefits. To begin with the SMP gain in practice is always considerably below the optimum doubling. More importantly it depends entirely on software support which, with the honourable exception of Photoshop, is currently thin on the ground.

Suddenly the benefits of multiple processing seem more debatable. With single chips already offering speeds of 1.1Ghz I’m not sure that the variable benefits of the dual processor approach make sense unless maximum speed now is imperative whatever the cost. As such, with my scaled-down expectations and requirements, I decided to go for a single chip solution. After good experience with Athlons in the past, I chose its new Thunderbird variation for two reasons. First, the new 256k onboard cache offers faster performance. Second, the new socket-only chip demands a new dedicated motherboard which should guarantee some level of future-proofing. This allows me to go for a cost-effective chip now with the option of upgrading down the line.

The next decision is the memory system. It’s established wisdom that you can never get enough RAM for graphics work and I’ve got used to just doubling the figure with each new system. A couple of readers had got in touch, however, to say that Windows 2000 is less efficient at handling RAM over 256MB. In any case, thinking about it more, I realized that it is literally true that you can never get enough RAM. Using Photoshop with its history states in particular, memory demands are so heavy that it doesn’t take long before you’re writing to scratch disks whatever your RAM. Using my Photoshop benchmark of colour-correcting a batch of digital camera images, for example, quickly requires over 1GB of scratch disk space. As such I decided to stick with 256MB RAM on the basis that I could upgrade both memory and CPU in a year’s time if necessary.

With cache paging and scratch disks the need for fast and large hard disks is stronger than ever, but again I rethought my original choice. The Mac-inspired SCSI (small computer systems interface) has long been the preferred choice for high-end users because it can handle data transfers without involving the CPU, but this speed benefit comes at a serious price. More to the point recent IDE drives aren’t only cheaper and larger, they are almost as fast. Even in its Mac stronghold SCSI is now being replaced by Firewire devices and, while Windows 2000 again disappoints by ignoring Firewire, it’s still pretty clear that SCSI is coming to the end of its useful life. As such I decided to change my spec, doubling up to a fast 40GB IDE drive and still saving money.

The next decision is the display system. For a long time now the GeForce chipsets have dominated the labs tests and originally I was happy to go down this line. Thinking about it more, however, I realized that where these cards score so heavily is in their 3D handling which is largely irrelevant for a 2D-based graphic designer. In the end I summoned up the courage to choose a card based on the Matrox Millennium G400 which came third last overall in the recent Pro labs and is clearly near the end of its shelf life. Apart from the price difference I had two main reasons. To begin with my previous experience with Matrox has always been good and its adverts made much of its Windows 2000 support.

More importantly, with some of the money I’d saved, I was able to choose the G400-TV option which offers a breakout box with TV tuner and video inputs and outputs. Apart from opening up the whole new area of video, the G400-TV also offers dual monitor support which a number of readers have recommended as a solution to the limited working-space/lost palettes problem common to all Macromedia and Adobe applications. With a dual display you can keep all your palettes open in one display while you work on the other. This had the welcome knock-on advantage that I could cut back my planned 21" monitor to a high-quality, flat-screen 19".

The Matrox G400 cards offer dual monitor support.

Now all I had to decide on was storage. This is a particularly important area for designers as it’s necessary to cover backup, archive and distribution. That’s why the loss of the DVD-RAM was such a blow as it promises to offer solid-state, large capacity storage that is universally readable - or at least it would do if the developers would finally agree on a standard. With LaCie now offering 9.4GB storage at over 20MB/sec through an external device, I’m even more upset at 2000’s current lack of Firewire support.

In the meantime my CD-RW would have to fill the gap - and at least nowadays that’s not unthinkable. With my original writer the emulation and writing of a full 650MB could take well over half an hour and, with disks at 5 each, large-scale backup was out of the question. Now with an 8-speed writer capable of on-the-fly over-burning in around 10 minutes and disks at 50p, the use of CD for backups becomes possible even if spanning isn’t exactly desirable. Even better, thanks to packet writing, drag-and-dropping ongoing backups to RW disks should be simple. Thinking about it more, I decided that between the CD-RW, large hard disk and a backup USB drive I use with my notebook, I no longer needed the JAZ drive – especially now that it’s 2GB size and SCSI nature are both looking very dated.

With my new spec in place, the next job was to find a supplier. This wasn’t quite as simple as it might have been as many blanched at the mere mention of Windows 2000 or immediately switched to an entirely new pricing structure. Eventually Carrera came up with the best package: a 900Mhz Thunderbird Athlon, with 256MB 133Mhz SDRAM, generic 40GB ATA-66 hard disk, Matrox Marvel G400-TV graphics adapter, Iiyama Vision Master Pro 450, Sony CRX140E-RP CD-RW and the usual DVD, modem and so on - all for around 2000 excluding VAT. As I’d managed to save more than this by cutting back on my original specification, the whole system was effectively free (well you know what I mean).

First impressions were largely positive. My Photoshop benchmark took 420 seconds on an Evesham 800Mhz Athlon Windows 95 system but came in at just 290 seconds on the Carrera – a surprisingly large improvement of 30%. The luxury of a 20GB drive dedicated to scratch disks and video files is also impressive and I’ve yet to feel cramped by the 256 RAM no matter how many applications I’m running. In fact my main concern was that the system was too powerful as in use it sounded like an aircraft taking off. Removing the cover revealed the problem with no less than four fans grinding away. It also revealed a major surprise in the form of a slot-based processor! In other words this wasn’t a Thunderbird.

As you’d expect in the circumstances, Carrera was very apologetic and within two days an engineer had replaced both the CPU and the motherboard and, after checking temperatures, switched off the worst of the fans. Now my benchmark ran at 260 seconds providing a very worthwhile 10% improvement from the Thunderbird’s onboard cache. Even better was to come. The engineer had plugged all my drives into the normal IDE connectors but the CD and DVD were no longer recognized. By shifting the hard disk to the motherboard’s new UltraATA100 IDE controller, these drives reappeared and, more importantly, my benchmark dropped to 220 seconds. It turned out that Carrera had provided me with a Maxtor UltraDMA100 drive which made me feel a lot better about the wrong processor. By setting the BIOS to recognise that my SDRAM ran at 133Mhz rather than 100Mhz my benchmark dropped again to 190 seconds. Overall the move to Thunderbird/ATA100 had speeded up my system by over 25%. Even better, without the noise, I can now bear switching it on.

In terms of the display system I was disappointed to find that, despite its adverts stressing Windows 2000 compatibility, this actually only applied to the core Matrox G400 boards. For the G400-TV version I’m still having to make do with beta software at the time of writing. The good news is that, while the bundled video applications are definitely flakey, the core driver has been very solid. In fact I’ve been pleasantly surprised. In the past I’ve never felt comfortable running 19" screens at anything more than 1280 x 1024, but with the Iiyama, the board is able to produce a 1600 x 1200 display at a rock-steady 85Mhz refresh rate.

This extra screen real estate is very welcome, particularly when trying to work with Dreamweaver’s page, site and HTML windows simultaneously. It’s particularly useful as the dual monitor support hasn’t been a great success. The problem is that, unlike the basic G400 boards, the G400-TV only supports output to a secondary TV. By their nature TVs are limited in resolution, and Windows 2000 doesn’t allow different resolutions on the two displays so that you end up with the worst of both worlds with a cut-down monitor resolution and an almost unreadable TV display. I haven’t given up on the idea however and hope that the forthcoming G450-based boards will support secondary output to both monitor and TV or that a future release of Windows 2000 will enable separate display resolutions.

The G400-TV’s secondary output is a bit of a disappointment but it makes up for it with its inputs. This comes in the form of a break-out box with video connectors and its own in-built TV tuner. I don’t suppose that I should be so impressed at being able to run TV in a window, but I am. Even better is the in-built hardware MJPEG decoder that helps cut out lost frames and keep file sizes down. When I first tried this on full-screen 704x576x25fps video I would get occasional but regular lost frames but after the Thunderbird/motherboard upgrade it’s virtually impossible to lose a frame. The resulting MJPEG AVI recordings can only be viewed on G400-TV systems, but using the cut-down LSX-MPEG 2 Transcoder you can convert them to even smaller MPEG files ready for distribution. If you’re serious about video you can upgrade to the full version which offers batch conversion.

With in-built TV-tuner and video capabilities the G400-TV moves into new territory.

Of course if you’re really serious about video you’ll want to be moving to DV for input and output and DVD-RAM for archiving which again takes us back to the lack of Window’s 2000 support for Firewire. Even so with its combination of speed, disk space and hardware-assisted recording, I’m happy that my system is ready for the demands of video editing. Unfortunately while it might be ready, it will have to wait a while longer. Preparing the original AVI or MPEG files is one thing but editing them is another. The G400-TV comes with Avid Cinema software to let you do this – but it won’t install on a 2000 machine.

This compatibility problem becomes even worse when it comes to the issue of backup and storage. One of the reasons I specified the Sony CD-RW was the range of software it comes with including CeQuadrat’s PacketCD to enable ongoing backup to rewritable disk and PowerQuest’s highly-recommended DriveImage and DataKeeper for complete system and ongoing backup. Naively, with Windows 2000’s heavy promotion of its security and reliability, I assumed that that this would be plain sailing. It was something of a surprise therefore to find that installing PacketCD led to a blue screen of death and the inability to boot!

Fortunately this was salvageable by booting in safe mode and uninstalling, but it made me even more convinced that I needed a safe drive image that could be restored should disaster strike. I saw that the version of DriveImage shipped with the Sony didn’t boast 2000-compatibility so upgraded to DriveImage Pro 3 which does. When it came to create the image, however, the only drive recognised under DOS was my floppy which would be a little impractical. It turned out that images can only be stored on FAT partitions so I would have to create one with DriveImage Pro’s bundled version of PartitionMagic. But the version in the box didn’t support Windows 2000!

This has been just one of a whole range of similar incompatibilities and limitations. Some have been pretty fundamental such as AOL’s current lack of 2000-support. Others have been more minor. McAfee Uninstaller installed happily but wouldn’t offer installation monitoring and roll-back, while DataKeeper provided backup but wouldn’t offer background archiving. Other limitations are more bizarre such as CompuPic Pro’s refusal to offer instant zooming on NT security grounds, and its total freeze if you try and produce a Picture CD. I can even create an instant and total system crash by calling up the beta Matrox PC-VCR program from a 32-bit display mode.

Problems caused by 2000 range from fundamental to irritating.

For the leading-edge OS from the world’s largest software company whose major advantage is supposed to be industrial-strength reliability this is a strange state of affairs. From hardware specification through to software setup, Windows 2000 has acted more like an obstacle course to be overcome rather than a plug-and-play enabler. I now fully understand why the suppliers try to steer most standalone users to the safe waters of Windows 98 and I’ve often wished that I’d joined them.

No doubt I will do again at times in the future, but a month or so down the road I have to say that my feelings have changed. The difference is that under day-to-day running with the main software from the leading developers, Windows 2000 does feel completely solid. Under Windows 98 the longer the system had been on the more likely the crash, but with 2000 you never feel the need to reboot from one week to the next. When I’m feeling generous I can even forgive the obstacle course as in a way that’s the point - hardware and software have to pass the rigorous test to ensure reliability. And it’s clearly better to sort out potential problems during set-up than face ongoing instability.

After the pain comes the gain and generally I’m now very happy with my new system. Despite the severe cut-back in its specification, the combination of processing, memory, display and storage systems feels seriously powerful and ready for anything that’s thrown at it including the challenge of video. In many ways though the real difference comes down to the OS. Where previous systems always felt like PCs, this 2000-based system is the first to feel like a serious graphics workstation.

Despite the teething problems, Windows 2000 feels like a workstation OS.

Again then my advice is to hold off. This time not just because systems are always improving but also because the 2000-compatibility problems will lessen with every month that goes by. On the other hand, make sure that you don’t wait too long.

Tom Arah

September 2000

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