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Big Performance in a Smaller Footprint

The Dell Precision 490 Workstation delivers near top-of-the-line performance in a smaller package.

In the December 2006 issue DE looked at the Dell Precision 690, the company’s top-of-the-line workstation. While the 690 definitely set the standard in ultimate workstation performance, it’s a very big, very expensive system. Since the 690 is likely to be beyond both the needs and budget of the average MCAD user, we were quite pleased when Dell also sent us its slightly more modest Precision 490 workstation.

Like the 690, the Dell Precision 490 uses the Intel 5100-series “Woodcrest” dual-core Xeon processor, and like its larger sibling, our evaluation unit came equipped with two Core-Duo Intel Xeon 5160 3.0GHz CPUs with 1333MHz front-side bus and 4MB of shared L2 cache.

The Precision 490 looks like a scaled-down version of its larger sibling. Housed in a similar gray and black case, it measures a more modest 6.73-in. x 18.54-in. x 17.64-in. (WxDxH) and tips the scales at 43 pounds, nearly 20 pounds less than the 690. Unlike the 690, however, the Precision 490 can be converted to a desktop orientation by rotating its front-panel drive bays.

Back Up Your Data

In spite of its smaller size, the Precision 490 still provides two 3.5-in. hard-drive bays, two 5.25-in. drive bays with front-panel access, and an additional flex bay. On our evaluation unit, all of those bays were filled. The two 5.25-in. bays contained a DVD/CD+/-RW combo drive and a DVD+/-RW drive, the flex bay held a 3.5-in. floppy drive, and the two internal hard-drive bays contained a pair of SeagateBarracuda 80GB 7,200 rpm SATA drives in a RAID 0 array, so that the two drives appeared as a single 160GB hard drive. While RAID 0 provides the best overall performance, it significantly reduces fault tolerance because all data is lost if one drive fails. Unless your data is backed up regularly, RAID 0 is not recommended.

Below the front-panel drive bays is a sloping panel that contains microphone and headphone jacks, two USB ports, an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port, and hard-drive activity and network link lights. Like the 690, the Precision 490 also includes the same four numbered “diagnostic lights” that can help identify problems during startup by matching patterns to several pages of documentation.

The rear panel provides two 9-pin serial ports, a 25-pin parallel port, five more USB ports, an RJ45 connector for the integrated Broadcom 5752 Gigabit Ethernet LAN, PS/2 mouse and keyboard connectors, audio-in, and audio-out. Our evaluation unit also included two more 1394 ports on the optional add-in card.

A New Arrangement

Like the 690, the Precision 490’s case opens on the right side by sliding a plastic handle toward the rear and then pivoting and removing the side panel.

Dell precision 490.
Dell Precision 490.



< < A look inside of the Dell Precision 490 worktation. 

Inside the case, however, we found one of the strangest arrangements of components we’ve ever seen. The two hard drives mount in their own special rotatable cage that hinges at the bottom of the case and, when latched, covers the lower-half of the motherboard.

A 3-in. fan, attached at an angle to the underside of this cage, blows air on the system memory and we assume also pulls air over the two CPUs buried under their own massive heat sinks. There are also two more fans on the front panel.

Power & RAM

Power to the drive cages comes via cables running through a blue plastic bridge that must be disconnected in order to swing the drive cage down to access the CPUs and memory slots. This drive power bracket must also be disconnected in order to access the six full length slots: a PCI Express x16 graphics slot, two PCI Express x8 slots (wired as x4), two PCI X 64-bit/100MHz slots, and a single PCI 32-bit/33MHz slot.

Our evaluation unit came equipped with a NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 ultra high-end graphics accelerator with 512MB of video memory. The large fan on the graphics board blocked access to one of the PCI-e x8 slots.

The Dell motherboard is based on the Intel 5000X chipset and provides eight memory sockets. Our unit came with 2GB memory, installed using four 512MB quad-channel DDR2 full buffered DIMMs. Up to 32GB of RAM can be accommodated using 4GB DIMMs.

Benchmarks & Warranty

Since the only significant difference between the Dell Precision 490 and the Precision 690 was the amount of system memory (2GB in the 490 versus 4GB in the 690) and the use of a single NVIDIAQuadro FX 4500 graphics card (the Precision 690 came with two, connected using NVIDIA’s Scalable Link Interface), we expected our benchmark results to be quite similar. And in fact, our actual results showed the Dell Precision 490 to be just slightly slower than the 690 on all of the SPECopc viewperf tests (spec.org) of graphic performance (click here to download an XLS file of the benchmarks results). The Precision 490 lagged behind the 690 by an average of 18 percent.

Dell Precision 490.



> > The Dell Precision 490 workstation. 

On the SPECapc SolidWorks benchmark, which is more of a real-world test, the results were much closer. The 690 edged out the 490 by less than a second and actually appeared slightly faster on the I/O portion of the test. Of course, these are synthetic benchmarks and do not reflect the real advantages of dual-core or multiple CPUs.

Like the 690, Dell backs the Precision 490 with a three-year warranty including onsite parts replacement and service. Windows XP Professional comes preloaded. The system is also certified for most CAD and DCC applications. To round out the system, Dell included a two-button optical scroll mouse and the same 104-key “entry level” keyboard we received with the 690. Although the keyboard has a decent feel, there’s no extra plastic around its periphery, making it uncomfortable — for some typists — without the addition of a palm rest.

A Good Choice

The Dell Precision 490 has a starting price of $1,681, but our evaluation unit priced out at $5,833. Considering that the second graphics card, more expensive hard drives, and extra memory added $2,300 to the cost of the Dell Precision 690, the 490 is not that much less expensive while providing much less expandability.

We still question whether the average MCAD user needs all this power. The Dell Precision 490 is more of a high-end workstation than a midrange CAD system, and is more likely to appeal to those who also perform lots of FEA and CFD calculations or create 3D rendering. And if you’re dealing with very large datasets, you might be better served by the extra memory and expandability of the Precision 690. But if you’re looking for very fast performance, the Dell Precision 490 is a very good choice.

Dell Precision 490 At A Glance

Round Rock, TX

> Price: $5,833 as tested ($1,681 base price)
> Size: 6.73 in. x 18.54 in. x 17.64 in. (WxDxH) tower
> Weight: 43 pounds
> CPU: two Dual Core Intel Xeon 5160 3.0GHz
> Memory: 2GB (32GB max)
> Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500
> Hard Disk: dual Seagate Barracuda 80GB 7,200 rpm SATA in RAID 0 array
> Floppy: 3.5 in. floppy
> Optical: DVD/CD +/-RW combo; DVD+/-RW
> Audio: integrated high definition SigmaTel audio w/microphone, line-in, headphone, and line-out jacks
> Network: integrated Broadcom 5752 Gigabit Ethernet LAN
> Modem: none
> Other: two 9-pin serial, one 25-pin parallel, seven external and one internal USB 2.0, three IEEE1394 FireWire, PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse
> Keyboard: 104-key USB keyboard
> Pointing device: two-button optical scroll 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 Digital 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.