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Pricey, But Big and Powerful-Dell Precision 690

By David Cohn

While I’ve reviewed numerous Dell laptops, it’s been quite some time since I last looked at a big Dell workstation. So it was pretty exciting the day the new Dell Precision 690 arrived. The Precision 690 practically begs to be compared to the HP xw8400 we reviewed in September 2006. Like that system, the Dell Precision 690 uses the new Intel 5100-series “Woodcrest” dual-core Xeon processor. And like the HP system we looked at, the Dell Precision 690 we received was equipped with two Core-Duo Intel Xeon 5160 3.0GHz CPUs with 1333MHz front-side bus and 4MB of shared L2 cache.

Did I mention that this Dell computer was big? The Precision 690 may be the largest computer we’ve ever tested. The beautiful gray and black tower case measures 8.5 x 21.3 x 22.26 inches (WxDxH), literally dwarfing the HP workstations we recently reviewed. It’s also heavy, tipping the scales at a whopping 61 pounds. The manual even warns that it may take two people to move, and also cautions that the separate metal stand—which increases the overall width to 12.8 inches—should be attached before setting the computer upright; failure to do so “could cause the computer to tip over, potentially resulting in bodily injury or damage to the computer.” Needless to say, I heeded the warning.


Dell Precision 690.

One advantage of its size is the number of drive bays. There are four 5.25-inch drive bays with front-panel access. On our evaluation unit, three were filled with a 48X CD-ROM drive, a 16X DVD+/-RW drive, and a 3.5-inch floppy. Below the drive bays is a sloping panel that contains microphone and headphone jacks on the left and two USB ports and an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port on the right. In the middle are hard-drive activity and network link lights and four numbered LEDs whose patterns help diagnose problems during startup (by referring to several pages of documentation).

The rear panel provides two serial ports, a parallel port, five more USB 2.0 ports, a second 1394 port, an RJ-45 connector for the integrated Gigabit LAN, PS/2 mouse and keyboard connectors, audio-in, and audio-out.

A Look Inside

The case opens on the right by sliding a plastic handle toward the rear and then pivoting and removing the side panel. Once open, however, there is far less space inside than the case’s size suggests. A big metal stiffener separates the top third from the bottom two-thirds of the case. Above the stiffener are the drive bays and power supply. In addition to the front-panel bays, there are also four internal 3.5-inch hard-drive bays with quick-release mounts. Our evaluation unit contained a pair of Maxtor 73GB 15,000 rpm SAS (serial attached SCSI) drives configured in a RAID 0 array, so the two drives appeared as a single 135GB hard drive. RAID 0 provides the best overall performance, but significantly reduces fault tolerance because if one drive fails all data is lost. Unless your data is backed up regularly, RAID 0 is not recommended.

The Dell-designed motherboard takes up the space below the metal bracket. Based on the new Intel 5000X chipset, the motherboard provides integrated hard drive, I/O, network, and audio support, as well as a Dell FlexBay (USB) connector so you can install a USB-based device inside the case. But the motherboard was practically hidden beneath everything else.

There are a total of seven expansion slots on the motherboard: three PCI Express x8 slots (wired as x4), a PCI Express x16 graphics slot, a PCI slot, and two PCI-X slots. But Dell takes a very interesting approach to graphics. While most Intel-based systems can only support a single PCI-e graphics slot, the Precision 690 can accommodate two—thanks to a special riser card. Our evaluation unit came equipped with a pair of NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 ultra high-end graphics accelerators linked together using NVIDIA’s Scalable Link Interface (SLI). Unfortunately, when the riser card is installed, only the two PCI-X slots and a single PCI-e x8 slot remain available. And in our evaluation unit, the PCI-e slot contained Dell’s optional PERC 5/I RAID hard drive controller.

The CPUs and memory take up the remainder of the space at the bottom of the case, concealed beneath a plastic shroud that helps direct airflow over these crucial components. Removing the cover reveals the two CPUs with their massive heat sinks and a rather unique memory configuration. Although the fully buffered DDR2 memory modules in the Dell Precision 690 are fairly standard, their mounting is not. The motherboard has a total of eight memory sockets, but these are hidden beneath a pair of memory module risers. Each riser has eight sockets for a total of 16. Rather than wait for 8GB DIMMs, users can max out the Precision 690’s memory to 64GB today using 4GB DIMMs. Our evaluation unit came with a more sedate 4GB, installed using four 1GB 667MHz ECC DIMMs.

The system runs amazingly quiet, particularly considering everything that’s whirling inside. There’s a 5-inch fan in the front cooling the CPUs and memory and a second 4.5-inch fan just above this blowing air past the two graphics cards, which in turn have their own integral 3-inch fans. There’s yet another 4-inch fan on the rear panel exhausting air after it flows over the memory modules and of course there’s a fan in the 1000-watt power supply.

Benchmark Results

But does it run fast? In a word, yes. The Dell Precision 690 blazed through every test we threw at it, turning in the fastest benchmark results we’ve ever recorded on almost every test. While the Precision 690 now stands as the undisputed speed king, benchmarks alone can’t reveal the benefits of multiple processors and SLI graphics. In addition, while the Dell Precision 690 beat the HP xw8400, remember that the Dell system was equipped with twice as much memory, a pair of faster graphics cards, and the RAID 0 array. On the SPEC SolidWorks benchmark, the HP system beat the Dell on all but the I/O portion of that test, where the Dell’s faster hard-drive configuration provided an edge.

Dell backs the Precision 690 with a three-year warranty including onsite parts replacement and service. Windows XP Professional comes preloaded. To round out the system, Dell included a two-button optical scroll mouse and what it refers to as its “entry level” keyboard. This 104-key USB keyboard is a rather minimalist thing, with no extra plastic around its periphery. The keyboard has a decent feel, but the abrupt edge is quite uncomfortable and begs for some sort of palm rest. Considering what the system costs, you’d expect something better. And cost is definitely a consideration. While prices start at $1,579, that’s for a system with a single CPU, a 2D graphics board, less memory, and a single 80GB SATA hard drive. Our evaluation unit priced out at $8,063 as tested, making our Dell Precision 690 not only the biggest system we’ve ever reviewed, but also one of the most expensive.

Who needs all that power? Like the other high-end dual CPU systems we’ve looked at recently, Dell targets the Precision 690 at high-end CAD, digital content creation, oil and gas exploration, and medical imaging. It’s certainly not for the average CAD user, but if you require the absolute fastest performance currently available, the Dell Precision 690 fits the bill.

David Cohn is a computer consultant and technical writer based in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering, an applications engineer with The PPI Group, the former editor-in-chief of Engineering Automation Report and CADCAMNet published by Cyon Research Corp., and the author of more than a dozen books. You can contact him via e-mail at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com. Or send your comments about this article through e-mail by clicking here. Please reference "Dell Precision 690 Review, December 2006" in your message.

Dell Precision 690 At A Glance

Round Rock, TX

>Price: $8,063 as tested ($1,579 base price)
>Size: 8.5 x 22.3 x 22.26 inches (WxDxH) tower
>Weight: 61 pounds
>CPU: Dual Core-Duo Intel Xeon 5160 3.0GHz
>Memory: 4GB (64GB max)
>Graphics: Dual NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500
>Hard Disk: Dual [manufacturer] 73GB 15,000 rpm SAS in RAID 0 array
>Floppy: 3.5-inch floppy
>Optical: 48X CD ROM; 16X DVD+/-RW
>Audio: Integrated high definition audio w/ microphone and headphone 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, two 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.