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Star Power

TriStar delivers a mid-range CAD workstation based on Intel’s Core 2 Extreme CPU in the StarStation III.

The TriStar name has been around for a long time. Nearly 20 years ago, TriStar Computer Corp. built high-performance workstations specifically targeted at the CAD, engineering, and manufacturing markets. In 2002, Tri CAD/CAM Systems was formed to sell Pro/Engineer and other PTC software. That company bought the TriStar brand and continues to sell engineering workstations and servers. The company’s StarStations, with single and dual-core CPUs, are aimed at CAD, while its PowerStations, with dual Xeon processors, are targeted toward finite element analysis (FEA) and intensive CAD modeling.

For this, our first review of a TriStar system, the company sent us a StarStation III equipped with a 2.93GHz Intel “Conroe XE” X6800 Core 2 Extreme processor and 4GB of memory. Although quad-core versions of this CPU are now available, the StarStation III is the first system based on the X6800 that we’ve ever tested, so we were quite interested to see the results. Based on a 65-nanometer fabrication process, the Intel X6800 installs in an LGA775 socket with a 1066MHz front side bus, consumes 75 watts, and provides 4MB of L2 cache.

The TriStar StarStation III.

The StarStation III is housed in a black Antec Design tower case measuring 8 in. x 18.75 in. x 17 in., with a total of five front-panel drive bays: three 5.25 in. bays and two 3.25 in. bays. There are three more 3.25 in. bays inside. To access the interior, you must first remove two thumbscrews and then slide two latches to remove the left-side panel. Inside is an Intel D975XBX motherboard, an ATX form-factor board based on the Intel 975X Express chipset. The motherboard provides four 240-pin DDR2 SDRAM dual inline memory module (DIMM) sockets, supports both 677 and 533MHz DDR2 DIMMs, and can accommodate up to 8GB of system memory. Our evaluation unit came equipped with 4GB of RAM, installed as four 1GB 677MHz DIMMs.

In addition, the Intel D975XBX provides five expansion slots, a primary PCI Express x16 slot (x16 or x8 electrically), a secondary PCI Express x16 slot (x8 electrically), an additional PCI Express x16 slot (x4 electrically), and two conventional PCI connectors. The x16 slot in our evaluation unit was filled with an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500 graphics accelerator, while the other slots remained empty. The motherboard provides full support for all I/O including Intel High Definition Audio, Gigabit LAN, USB 2.0, IEEE 1394 FireWire, IDE, diskette drive, and SATA drives with RAID support.

Two of the accessible drive bays on our evaluation unit were filled with a 16X Sony dual layer DVD+/-RW optical drive and a 3.5 in. floppy while one internal drive bay housed a 80GB Seagate Barracuda 7200rpm SATA hard drive. The 400-watt Antec power supply provides ample power. There’s also plenty of cooling, with fans behind the front and rear panels, and a fan over the CPU (which exhausts out a ducted port on the removable side panel) as well as the fans on the NVIDIA graphics board and in the power supply. In spite of all those fans, the TriStar StarStation III was still very quiet.

The TriStar StarStation III motherboard.

What proved lacking, however, was sound: there is no built-in speaker of any kind (and thus no indicating sounds during system startup). But there are lots of audio connections. A small plastic door on the front of the case conceals microphone and headphone jacks as well as a pair of USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire connection. The rear panel provides five more audio mini-pin jacks — microphone, headphone, two line-out, and one line-in — as well as optical and coax outputs. There are also four more USB connections on the rear panel plus another FireWire connection, a serial port, a parallel port, RJ45 network, mouse, and keyboard connections.

Users should be pleased with the performance of the TriStar StarStation III. Its dual-core CPU and speedy graphics accelerator yielded very respectable results, placing it near the top among systems we’ve tested recently. On the SPECopc viewperf graphics benchmark, the TriStar  StarStation III surprised us somewhat by turning in the fastest scores on three of the eight datasets. (Click here to access an XLS file of the benchmark results.)

On the SPECapc SolidWorks benchmark, which is more of a real-world test (and breaks out graphics, CPU, and I/O performance separately from the overall score), the results were more in line with what we expected. The TriStar StarStation III completed the SolidWorks test in just over 212 seconds, just a bit faster than the HP xw8400 equipped with a pair of slower quad-core CPUs, but behind other high-end systems equipped with faster processors.

A look inside the TriStar StarStation III.

As we have pointed out, however, readers need to be aware that these standard benchmarks do not account for the parallel processing possible with multicore CPUs. To illustrate the advantages of dual- and quad-core processors, we have recently added a new benchmark to the DE repertoire. Based on AutoCAD 2007, the benchmark records the time needed to render a complex model at 1280 x 1024 pixel resolution using AutoCAD’s highest preconfigured render settings. Since the mental ray renderer in AutoCAD is multithreaded, systems with multicore CPUs clearly show off their advantage. Thanks to its Core 2 Extreme CPU, the TriStar StarStation III rendered our test scene in an average of 266 seconds, certainly faster than earlier generation dual-core systems, but well behind the latest dual- and quad-core systems.

Extras
TriStar rounded out the system with an excellent Microsoft 105-key Digital Media keyboard and an optical Microsoft wheel mouse. Windows XP Professional came preloaded. TriStar also included the actual CDs for the operating system, the Intel motherboard, and various add-on programs, such as WinDVD, Ulead Video Studio, Farstone RestoreIT! Gold, Norton Internet Security, and Nero. The company backs its systems with a three-year warranty that covers repair or replacement of returned systems during the first year, and the exchange of returned replacement parts during the second and third years.

Prices for the TriStar StarStation line start at $1,399, with StarStation IIIs priced from $3,195. Our evaluation setup sells for $3,989, providing pretty good bang for the buck. While there are other systems out there that deliver higher performance, many cost significantly more. TriStar may not be a household name, but it definitely deserves consideration as you shop for your next CAD workstation.

 

StarStation III At a Glance

TriStar
Phoenix, AZ

Price: $3,989 as tested
Size: 8.0 in. x 18.75 in. x 17.0 in. (W x D x H) tower
Weight: 32 pounds
CPU: Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz
Memory:  4GB
Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500
Hard Disk: Seagate Barracuda 80GB 7,200 rpm SATA
Floppy: 3-1/2 in. floppy
Optical: Sony dual layer 18X DVD+/-RW
Audio: integrated high definition audio w/ microphone, line-in, headphone, line-out, and optical out jacks
Network: integrated Intel 82573 Gigabit LAN
Modem: none
Other: one 9-pin serial, one 25-pin parallel, six USB 2.0, two IEEE1394 FireWire, PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse, coax out
Keyboard: 105-key Microsoft Digital Media keyboard
Pointing device: two-button Microsoft optical wheel mouse

About David Cohn

David Cohn has been using AutoCAD for more than 25 years and is the author of more than a dozen books on the subject. He’s the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies, a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering, and also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA. Watch for his latest CADLearning eBooks on AutoCAD 2015 on the Apple iBookstore, at Amazon, and on the CADLearning website. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.
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