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INTA Audio SOS Workstation

Music PC System
By Martin Walker

INTA Audio SOS WorkstationPhoto: Mike Cameron

INTA Audio's music workstation boasts some of the latest PC technology, including hyperthreading, dual-channel DDR400 memory and Serial ATA, making it one of the fastest systems around.

Although PCs bought from specialist music retailers tend to share common features, there's still a surprising diversity in the PC systems that get submitted to SOS for review, from budget entry-level designs through to those with specialised rackmount or miniature cases. The INTA PC under review here is once again unlike any I've encountered to date. Housed in a midi tower case, it features an Asus P4P800 motherboard with the new 865 Springdale chipset, a 3.0GHz Pentium 4 processor supporting hyperthreading and running with the latest 800MHz FSB (front side buss), capacious 80GB system and 120GB audio hard drives using the new Serial ATA interface, a Radeon 9200 dual-head graphics card, and a massive 2GB of dual-channel DDR400 SDRAM. By the way, the system's 'SOS' moniker isn't a tribute to this mag; it stands for 'Secret Of Success'.

Overview

The review system was housed in a specially created Chieftec DX01 midi tower case in charcoal black (grey to you and me) with silver side panels, and the INTA web site also shows this available in overall black, silver, blue, green and purple. The front panel has a hinged top half that hides the external drive bays and system switches, and this can also be locked if required, as can the side panel providing access to the interior. Only one of the four external 5.25-inch bays was occupied, by a Samsung CD-RW drive, plus the ubiquitous floppy drive in one of the two available 3.5-inch bays. INTA obviously like Chieftec products, as the cordless keyboard and mouse were from the same company. INTA also supplied a 17-inch black/silver AOC flat-screen monitor, which sports a tiny pair of integral 'multimedia' speakers, although I think it highly unlikely that any musician would choose to use these.

The review system had been paired with M‑Audio's budget version of the Delta 1010 — a good card, although of course you can specify whatever soundcard you choose when ordering an INTA system. For testing purposes the Cubase XTC package had been installed (Cubase SX plus TC Works' Native Bundle 3.0), along with Reason 2.5, but once again you can specify your own choice of software, or just buy the system with Windows XP installed.

Specifications Of Review PC

  • Case: Chieftec DX01 midi tower, with 360W quiet PSU.
  • Motherboard: Asus P4P800 socket 478, with Intel 865PE chipset running 800MHz system buss, and four DDR DIMM sockets supporting up to 4GB of PC3200/2700/2100 DDR SDRAM.
  • Processor: Intel Pentium 4 3.0GHz 512kb cache (Northwood), 4 times 200MHz front side buss.
  • CPU heatsink and fan: Zalman Super Flower Cooler CNPS7000-AlCu with Fan Mate controller.
  • System RAM: 2GB of PC3200 (DDR 400) CAS2.5 SDRAM.
  • System drive: Seagate Barracuda ST380013AS, 80Gb, 7200rpm, 8MB buffer, Serial ATA.
  • Audio drive: Seagate Barracuda ST3120026AS, 120GB, 7200rpm, 8MB buffer, Serial ATA.
  • Graphics card: ATI Radeon 9200 dual-head with 128MB RAM.
  • Floppy drive: 1.4MB 3.5-inch.
  • CD-RW drive: Samsung SW252B, EIDE interface, 8MB buffer, 52x read, 52x write, 24x rewrite speed, incorporates Smartburn technology.
  • Monitor: AOC LM721A LCD colour, with 17-inch diagonal and 15-pin VGA analogue connector.
  • Keyboard & mouse: Chieftec Michelangelo PT-2002-J wireless optical.
  • Installed operating system: Windows XP Home Edition plus Service Pack 1.
  • Installed soundcard: M‑Audio Delta 1010LT with version 5.10.00.0029 drivers.

Round The Inside

The internal wiring proved to be very tidy, with plenty of ties to hold everything in place neatly out of the way of the motherboard, giving the various heatsinks the best chance to dissipate their heat without hot spots. The Asus P4P800 motherboard is a good choice anyway (see Pentium 4C Processor And 865PE Chipset box), repeatedly beating the opposition in tests due to its excellent memory benchmarks, and it also scores in a music PC by being one of the few recent designs that uses a passive heatsink rather than fan-assisted cooling for its North Bridge controller.

The Asus P4P800 motherboard provides no fewer than eight USB 2.0 ports. Four appear on the main external port section, with the others available on optional backplates if necessary, as at the bottom of this shot.The Asus P4P800 motherboard provides no fewer than eight USB 2.0 ports. Four appear on the main external port section, with the others available on optional backplates if necessary, as at the bottom of this shot.Photo: Mike CameronThe 360 Watt PSU was a Chieftec model with a quiet fan, and the 3.0GHz Pentium processor had been fitted with the distinctive-looking copper and aluminium Zalman Super Flower Cooler with attached Fan Mate speed controller. This weights a hefty 445g, but offers a 5dB quieter Silent mode as well as its Normal Mode. INTA were managing to run the fan at the slowest Fan Mate setting with no overheating problems, and with totally inaudible noise over the hard drives and PSU fan, which are themselves relatively quiet.

This motherboard supports up to eight USB 2.0 ports: four are situated on the main external port section, while INTA had also installed one dummy backplate with a further two. This will be more than enough for most musicians, but it would probably only cost you about £10 to install a second backplate adaptor if you ever needed all eight ports. With 2GB of RAM installed, all four DDR DIMM sockets were populated.

The case has four 5.25-inch bays, and six 3.5-inch ones — two on the front panel, and four further internal ones. In the review PC, two of the latter housed the twin Seagate SATA drives, while the AGP motherboard slot was occupied by the Radeon 9200 graphics card, and PCI slot 2 by the Delta 1010LT soundcard. This leaves four PCI slots for other duties, plus a handy blanking plate without a slot for mounting those extra sockets that sometimes come with soundcards, or another pair of USB ports.

Acoustic Noise Levels

Acoustic noise levels were not quite as good as my own PC, but still good, and it should be borne in mind that the review system had a processor of three times the speed. Most of the noise there was came from the rear PSU fan, which would be further attenuated if the PC was placed under a desk, and frontal noise levels were helped slightly by the hinged door. However, in a machine of this calibre I would recommend that INTA install one of the panel damping kits they sell on their web site, since the case top and sides rang like a bell when tapped, and had a tendency to vibrate in sympathy with the hard drives and cooling fans — when I lightly placed my fingers on the panels noise levels dropped even further.

The twin Seagate hard drives also feature fluid bearings and idle acoustic levels of just 25dB, and later proved to perform considerably faster than older models, but when accessing or recording data I did find the head read/write accessing noise rather more obtrusive than with previous Seagate Barracuda drives, sounding like a cross between arcing and a tiny inkjet printer. If this noise got onto acoustic recordings you'd have a job to get rid of it, but lining the panels with acoustic silencing material would again attenuate this — INTA tell me they now offer this as an option.

Pentium 4C Processor And 865PE Chipset

Intel's Pentium 4 3.0C processor was launched in April of this year, and features an 800MHz system buss. Like all flagship models it was initially expensive, but Intel subsequently released more affordable 2.4C, 2.6C and 2.8C versions, as well as a faster 3.2C version, all supporting hyperthreading technology. This new 'C' series offers considerably greater memory bandwidth than the 533MHz buss used by the Northwood 'B' series. To partner the 800MHz 'C' series Intel also released the new 875P 'Canterwood' motherboard chipset, with a dual-channel DDR400 memory interface that provides up to 6.4GB/second of peak memory bandwidth. Part of this improvement is due to Intel's PAT (Performance Acceleration Technology), which enhances memory access performance.

However, motherboards featuring the 875P chipset were expensive, so Intel subsequently introduced the 865 'Springdale' chipset family, also with dual-channel memory support. The 865G has integrated graphics, and the 865P only supports 400MHz and 533MHz busses and memory up to DDR333, but the 865PE used in the review system is the most appropriate for musicians, since it supports both the 800MHz buss and the faster DDR400 memory. In fact it differs from the more expensive 875P only by not supporting Intel's PAT, which generally offers a 2 to 5 percent overall performance improvement.

What's particularly interesting about the Asus P4P800 motherboard is that it manages to provide 875P PAT performance at about two-thirds of the price, by enabling PAT technology on the 865PE chipset. At least this is what an official Asus press release stated, although this later mysteriously disappeared and was replaced with a short reference to Asus 'Hyperpath' technology. Whatever it's called, tests prove that the Asus P4P800 has almost identical performance to the more expensive Asus P4C800 motherboard featuring the 875 chipset; Asus were the first to offer this reverse-engineered feature, but Abit soon followed with their IS7-G, and others will no doubt do the same.

The 865PE also supports up to eight USB 2.0 ports, which will interest those musicians who already have USB keyboards, MIDI and audio interfaces, and dongles connected to their PCs, and also supports Serial ATA devices (and on-chip RAID 0 if required, when paired with the ICH5R Southbridge chip), allows booting from USB devices, and has plenty of overclocking potential.

BIOS And Windows Setup

Motherboards supporting the new Serial ATA hard drive interface still normally provide traditional parallel ATA controllers as well, so on this INTA system there was no Primary IDE Master or Slave connected, but the Samsung CD-RW drive was connected as Secondary Master, while the SATA system drive appeared as Third IDE Master, and the audio drive as Fourth IDE Master. While RAID is available as an option in the BIOS, INTA had wisely (in my opinion) left this disabled. The floppy and CD-RW drive had been disabled as boot devices to speed up booting.

The processor's hyperthreading technology was enabled, but Onboard AC97 Audio, the Game/MIDI port, and LAN had all been disabled, as had SMART monitoring of the hard drives, along with an intriguingly named Instant Music function, which can be used to play audio CDs without powering up the PC. USB 2.0 support was enabled, along with six of the eight available ports.

Once at the Windows desktop I had a good look round to see how it had been set up. I found it interesting that INTA had left Windows XP in its default ACPI mode as well as installing an M‑Audio Delta 1010LT soundcard, since although this mode is required for successful use with a hyperthreading processor, some specialist music retailers use Standard mode with M‑Audio soundcards, as these have been known to have problems running in ACPI mode. However, during the course of my review I didn't run into any of them with the Delta 1010LT card, so let's hope these problems have been resolved.

An advantage of using ACPI is that the APIC controller provides 24 or more IRQs instead of the 16 of a standard controller, and checking in Device Manager showed that there was only one instance of IRQ sharing, and this didn't involve the soundcard. However, since the Interrupt Request Table (see SOS May 2003) showed every PCI slot sharing with some other motherboard device or PCI slot, I installed another couple of soundcards I had available, and was pleased to see that they also got their own unique interrupts, courtesy of APIC. Only when I installed a fourth soundcard did IRQ sharing occur, but after a little shuffling I eventually managed to run all four soundcards in slots 2, 3,4 and 5 with no IRQ sharing, which is an excellent result. I think we can safely say that the Asus P4P800 is a good choice for a music PC system!

Meanwhile, all the other important tweaks had been done in Windows, including adjusting for best performance of Background services, and disabling such things as System Restore and Hibernation (not a sensible option with 2GB of RAM!), Task Manager, Windows sounds, screensavers and so on. Start Menu had been reset to Classic mode, and most of the other graphic frills had also been disabled, although for some reason the CPU-hogging menu fades had been left enabled, and 'Show windows contents while dragging' was disabled.

I was more surprised that a huge page file of 2048MB had been set up — allocating 2GB of hard drive space won't do any harm, but this 'overflow' capacity is needed very little in a system featuring 2GB of RAM, and is largely a waste of space in my opinion. Initial and Maximum sizes of 100MB and 800MB would have been more suitable.

Technical Support

All INTA PC systems carry a three-year return-to-base warranty, with the first year covering parts and labour and the second and third years covering labour only. The only exception is for laptops, which are covered by a one-year collect-and-return warranty. If your new system fails within the first 30 days INTA will also pay to collect it and return it to you repaired, but for the remainder of the first year it's your responsibility to get it to back to them, although return carriage is still free. As always, you should retain the original packaging to ensure safe transit.

Technical support is available by both email at techsupport@inta-audio.com and by telephone, and you are advised to call between 10am and 3.30pm, although they do warn that sometimes their phone lines can be extremely busy.

Performance

The monitor performed well, as did the Radeon 9200 graphics card, although I found it an odd choice to leave its 17-inch screen at a low resolution of 1024 by 768, rather than increase it to 1280 by 1024 pixels and get more tracks on screen when using Cubase. The Samsung CD-RW drive was also a good choice, and proved capable of extremely fast reads and writes, including quick audio extraction from audio CDs. Its DVA (Dynamic Vibration Absorber) technology also seemed to keep vibration levels down compared with some other high-speed drives I've tried. The wireless keyboard and optical scroll mouse worked well, and were reliable within a range of up to a few metres.

The supplied Samsung CD-RW drive provided excellent read and write performance.The supplied Samsung CD-RW drive provided excellent read and write performance.Photo: Mike CameronStrangely, the Memory Acceleration Mode had been left at its Auto state in the BIOS, removing the advantages of the much-praised Asus Hyperpath technology. In this state, Sisoft's Sandra Max3 Memory Bandwidth test still measured a very good 4360MB/second for Integer RAM bandwidth, and 4374MB/second for the Float value, but a quick trip to the BIOS to change this setting to 'Enabled' gave results of 4604 and 4646 — improvements of 5.6 and 6.2 percent respectively. I think INTA are being a little conservative in their setup choices here, although they are certainly generous with the amount of RAM.

Hard drive performance was the fastest I've ever measured with Dskbench, at nearly 56MB/second for both read and write speeds with both the 'C' system drive and 'D' audio drive, although the larger audio drive gave better performance with simultaneous audio track playback, measuring a massive 258 potential 16-bit/44.1kHz tracks with a 128k block size, and 137 with 64k, compared with 180 and 104 respectively. This beats the previous favourite Seagate Barracuda ATA V series (which measured about 40MB/second) by a considerable margin.

Trying my usual selection of Waves plug-ins, I measured a CPU load of 4.2 percent for Rverb and 3.3 percent for the C4 multi-band parametric processor. While the C4 figure equates almost directly with the 2.8GHz P4B processor of the Red Sub Minisub PC I reviewed recently, the Rverb result for the 3.0GHz P4C is slightly better than accounted for by the increase in clock speed — this may be due to the much greater memory bandwidth when dealing with long reverb tails.

The Fivetowers 2.0 performance test yielded a Cubase SX CPU value of 54 percent, compared with 63 percent for Millennium's recently reviewed laptop. Since this test primarily tests CPU performance, these two measurements also tie in quite well to their relative clock speeds. Interestingly, neither of these figures compare that well with user-published results on the Fivetowers web site, although I take many of these with a large pinch of salt.

The Fivetowers test results were exactly the same with and without hyperthreading enabled, which is hardly surprising as SX 1.0 and its bundled plug-ins have no support for this technology. SX 2.0 will be available by the time you read this, and should be able to take advantage of it, but some plug-ins (Waves have been mentioned) may still possibly give problems on a machine that appears to be running dual processors, so you may have to try disabling HT in the BIOS if you suffer from mysterious glitches.

Final Thoughts

Now that Intel have added hyperthreading and 800MHz buss capabilities to processors starting at an affordable 2.4GHz, there's perhaps little point buying a new Pentium 4 system based on the older 533MHz 'B' buss, especially since each range has almost identical clock-for-clock prices. INTA have therefore made a wise decision in adopting the Pentium 'C' series for this SOS workstation, since despite the teething troubles experienced by a few musicians with hyperthreading, many are starting to experience significant improvements in performance as software developers rejig their code to take advantage of the technology.

INTA have also chosen their components carefully, particularly in the case of the Asus P4P800 motherboard and Seagate SATA drives, creating a powerful system that still provides some potential for future upgrades should you ever need them. The colour co-ordinated Chieftec case, keyboard, and mouse create a good impression as well, although the case would benefit from having an acoustic silencing kit fitted as standard. If you want to run lots of audio tracks, as well as loads of plug-ins, soft synths, and soft samplers, the INTA SOS Workstation is a PC you should definitely place on your shortlist.

Pros

  • The 3GHz P4 processor and 800MHz system buss makes this the fastest system reviewed in SOS to date.
  • Extremely fast twin SATA hard drives.
  • Huge amount of RAM for sample storage.

Cons

  • Acoustic foam silencing kit would improve drive head noise.
  • Asus Hyperpath function not enabled in BIOS.
  • A few strange choices for OS tweaks.

Summary

This INTA PC system contains a wisely chosen set of components, is well put together, and turns in extremely fast performance. What more could you want?

information

System as reviewed, without music software £1799; system as reviewed without soundcard or music software, £1539. Prices include VAT and delivery within UK.

INTA Audio +44 (0)871 871 8700.

sales@inta-audio.com

www.inta-audio.com

Published November 2003