We first encountered Digital Storm back in 2011 when we reviewed its PROTUS workstation (DE, February 2011). Founded in 2002, this Fremont, CA-based company originally focused on producing fast gaming computers and delivering “bleeding edge technology and performance along with rock solid stability and support.”Recently, however, it has also been selling custom-built workstations aimed at engineering professionals.
The Slade PRO is Digital Storm’s latest entry-level workstation. Our evaluation unit arrived in a large box, but instead of traditional foam packing material, the computer was suspended between film membranes, providing a lightweight means of protecting the system from shocks during shipping.
As was true for the previous Digital Storm system we reviewed, before we could use the computer we had to remove foam packing material placed inside the case to help prevent components from dislodging during transit. In spite of these precautions, however, our system arrived with one hard drive completely dislodged from its cage and its power connector damaged. Digital Storm quickly sent a replacement system, which arrived in perfect condition. Normally, I would not mention this, since it was the result of careless handling by the shipping company. But after my experience, I read a report of a similar problem.
Digital Storm is not really a manufacturer; it’s a system integrator, assembling computers from an assortment of components produced by others and readily available from various sources. For example, the Slade PRO comes housed in a large, black aluminum and steel ATX mid-tower case measuring 8.7×20.9×19.5 in. (WxDxH). However, that case is actually an Obsidian Series 550D manufactured by Corsair, available online for $130. What Digital Storm adds is skilled assembly, extensive testing, and a single point for support and service should it be needed.
The case lived up to its claim of providing excellent noise reduction and sound isolation. Our Slade PRO evaluation unit was nearly silent, thanks in part to front and side panels lined with sound-damping material and front air intakes angled away from the front of the case.
But the case itself proved a bit quirky. Although the entire system weighed just 34.5 lbs., moving it was hampered by a lack of any type of handle or other grip point.
The unit has two front-mounted intake fans and one rear exhaust fan. There are also press-to-release removable plastic panels on the top and left sides that can accommodate two additional fans each. While our system ran quite cool without these fans, we suspect opening these panels and adding fans would substantially increase the sound level.
Easily removable magnetic dust filters protect the front, top and side air intakes. We found it a bit too easy to dislodge these panels, however, and an additional slot-mounted filter on the bottom of the case kept sliding out whenever we moved the system.
Lots of Familiar Components
The front of the case presents a monolithic appearance. All that is visible is a brushed aluminum panel housing headphone and microphone jacks, a small reset button, a large round power button and a pair of USB 3.0 ports. This panel is actually a cutout in a large door. An unusual hinge allows the door to swing open from either side (or it can be completely removed). This door conceals four 5.25-in. drive bays. The topmost bay contained an ASUS Blu-ray Disc player/DVD writer combo drive. The bottom bay housed a media card reader with five slots and a USB 2.0 port.
|Workstation Comparison||Digital Storm Slade PRO (one 3.4GHz Intel Xeon E3-2687W v2 eight-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K4000, 32GB RAM)||HP Z1 G2 (one 3.6GHz Intel Xeon E3-1280 v3 quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K4100M,16GB RAM)||HP Z230 (one 3.4GHz Intel Xeon E3-1245 v3 quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K2000, 8GB RAM)||Lenovo E32 SFF (one 3.4GHz Intel Xeon E3-1240 v3 quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K600, 8GB RAM)||BOXX 3DBOXX W4150 XTREME (one 3.5GHz Intel Core i7-4770K quad-core CPU over-clocked to 4.3GHz, NVIDIA Quadro K4000, 16GB RAM)||Ciara Kronos 800S(one 3.5GHz Intel Core i7-2700K quad-core CPU over-clocked to 5.0GHz, NVIDIA Quadro K5000, 16GB RAM)|
|Price as tested||$5,804||$5,918||$2,706||$1,479||$4,273||$5,714|
|Operating System||Windows 7||Windows 8.1||Windows 7||Windows 7||Windows 7||Windows 7|
|SPECapc SolidWorks 2013||Higher|
|Shaded Mode Composite||5.30||5.55||4.75||3.25||5.12||3.79|
|Shaded With Edges Mode Composite||5.45||5.79||4.04||3.02||5.38||3.98|
|RealView Disabled Composite||3.70||4.08||3.35||3.31||4.74||3.15|
|Autodesk Render Test||Lower|
Numbers in blue indicate best recorded results. Numbers in red indicate worst recorded results.
Removing the left side panel revealed an incredibly spacious, well organized interior. In addition to the front panel drive bays, the Corsair case provides six internal tool-free drive bays that can accommodate either 3.5- or 2.5-in. drives. Our Slade PRO came with a 256GB Samsung 840 Pro Series solid-state drive (SSD) and a 4TB Western Digital Black Edition 7,200 rpm data drive. Both drives come standard in the Slade PRO version we received.
As we soon discovered, the Slade PRO is actually available in one of four different configurations, which can then be customized by choosing from a dizzying array of options. For example, Digital Storm offers systems with a four-core CPU, 16GB of memory, an NVIDIA Quadro K600 GPU, the same SSD in our unit, and a 1TB hard drive starting at $1,910. Or you can buy a system based on a six-core CPU, 32GB of RAM, a K2000 graphics board, and those same hard drives starting at $3,122.
The base level of the eight-core system we received starts at $4,453, which includes 32GB of RAM, a K2000 GPU, and the 256GB SSD and 4TB HDD we received. You can even buy a system with a 12-core CPU, 64GB of memory, an NVIDIA Quadro K5000, a 512GB SSD, and 4TB HDD for $8,859. You can also choose different cases and spend hundreds of dollars for exotic paint jobs.
Nestled inside our Slade PRO was an ASUS Sabertooth X79 motherboard based on the Intel X79 chipset (although Digital Storm offers two other motherboard options). This system board provides eight memory sockets, supporting up to 64GB of memory. Our unit came with 32GB of DDR3 1,866MHz RAM installed using four 8GB Corsair Vengeance Pro high-performance dual in-line memory modules (DIMMs). There are also two PCIe 3.0/2.0 x16 slots, a third PCIe 3.0/2.0 x16 slot that operates in x8 mode, two PCIe 2.0 x1 slots, and a single PCI slot. Our system came with an NVIDIA Quadro K4000 graphics board instead of the K2000, adding $430 to the base price. The K4000 comes with 3GB of GDDR5 memory and 768 compute unified device architecture (CUDA) cores, and provides one DVI and two DisplayPort connections.
While the Slade PRO’s base eight-core CPU is a 2.26GHz processor, Digital Storm sent us a system equipped with an Intel Xeon E5-2687W v2, a processor with a 3.4GHz clock speed, 4GHz maximum turbo speed, and 25MB cache, which added $1,090 to the system cost.
Cooling is provided by a Digital Storm Vortex liquid cooling system (actually a branded version of the Corsair H80), but again Digital Storm offers a myriad of other options. Users can also have their systems configured with internal lighting, additional airflow controls, and other modifications. The system comes with a 750watt Corsair CX power supply, but again, there are no fewer than 11 other options.
The rear panel offers four USB 3.0 ports, six USB 2.0 ports, a PS/2 mouse/keyboard connection, RJ-45 network jack, an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port, two eSATA connection (one powered), one optical S/PDIF output port, six audio jacks (separate microphone and line-in jacks as well as front, side, rear and base output speaker channels), and a USB BIOS flashback button, all supported by the ASUS motherboard.
With its fast eight-core CPU and top-of-the-line components, we were quite anxious to see how well the Slade PRO would perform. On the SPECviewperf version 11 benchmark, the system held its own, but certainly didn’t set any records. We also ran SPECviewperf version 12. Because the Slade PRO marks only the third system on which we’ve run this newer benchmark, we still cannot really make meaningful comparisons. That said, this Digital Storm workstation lagged behind the similarly priced HP Z1 G2 we reviewed in the July issue.
The results on the SPECapc SolidWorks 2013 test were excellent, with the Slade Pro equaling or outperforming many of the other single-CPU workstations we’ve tested to date. And on the AutoCAD rendering test, a multi-threaded test on which faster systems with more CPU cores have a distinct advantage, the Digital Storm Slade PRO set a new all-time record for a system equipped with a single CPU, completing the rendering in just 38.25 seconds.
We also ran the new SPECwpc workstation performance benchmark. Again, the Slade PRO is only the third system on which we have run this test. Three tests is not enough yet to make any meaningful comparisons, but in general, this unit lagged behind the HP Z1 G2.
Digital Storm pre-loaded Windows 7 Professional 64-bit, but other flavors of Windows are also available. Because configuring a Digital Storm system is truly an à la carte process (and we did not request any additional options other than those already mentioned), our system came without a keyboard or mouse. Assuming that most users would likely opt to purchase these, we added a Logitech Media Combo MK200 keyboard and mouse when we priced the system using the company’s online configuration website.
Digital Storm backs its computers with lifetime customer care. A three-year limited warranty covers labor costs for three years and defective part replacement for one year — something that we found a bit curious since many of the components included in the system have longer warranties. Warranties of up to six years, including four-year part replacement, are also available.
When we configured our system, it priced out at $5,979, but discounts reduced that price to $5,804 and added an additional year to the labor and parts warranty. Digital Storm originally quoted us a price of $5,888 (without the keyboard and mouse). The company no longer offers free UPS ground shipping.
The Digital Storm Slade PRO performed flawlessly throughout our review process, and its benchmark results were certainly within the expected range. You could purchase all of the same components in our evaluation unit online for around $4,650 and build it yourself. Its lack of independent software vendor (ISV) certification makes us wonder whether it is appropriate for mission-critical engineering applications. That said, the Digital Storm Slade PRO is well built, uses excellent components, and offers a lot of bang for the buck.
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. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at DSCohn.com.
Digital Storm Slade PRO
- Price: $5,804 ($1,910 base price)
- Size: 8.7×20.9×19.5-in. (WxDxH) tower
- Weight: 34.5 lbs.
- CPU: one Intel Xeon E5-2687W v2 (eight-core) 3.4GHz
- Memory: 32GB DDR3 SDRAM at 1,866MHz (up to 64GB supported)
- Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro K4000
- Storage: 256GB Samsung SSD 840 Pro Series, 4TB Western Digital Black Edition 7,200 rpm
- Optical: ASUS Blu-ray Disc player/DVD writer
- Audio: onboard integrated high-definition audio (microphone, line-in, front, side, rear and bass plus headphone and microphone)
- Network: integrated 10/100/1000 LAN
- Other: seven USB 2.0, six USB 3.0, one 1394 (FireWire), optical S/PDIF, PS/2 mouse/keyboard, two eSATA
- Keyboard/Mouse: Logitech Media Combo MK200 keyboard and mouse (included for pricing purposes)