Are you thinking horn-rimmed glasses, tight pants, bottlecap-thick glasses and a high-pitched voice? Think again. ComputerNerd, at least for the purposes of this review, is a company based out of Plantation, Florida, and its POW!er 2Do Information Technology division brings us the Visionator. A multimedia workhorse, the Visionator presents a very different kind of computer than you might used to be seeing. No, not Apple different. ComputerNerds were always a different breed, though, and the Visionator is no exception.
A complete package
If you ask any hardcore computer user about buying a pre-built computer, you’ll likely get laughed at. Pre-builds have a bad reputation in generalno surprise considering the pretty horrible specs I’ve seen. Seeing P4 systems advertised with TNT2 M64 video cards is a crying shame, and it tends to taint one’s view of systems built by someone else. The big problem occurs when systems are built by, well, idiots who don’t know their stuffsystems that put things like clock speed over intelligent specs. Joe user might not know that the TNT2 M64 is anemic, to say the least. He sees the 1.4GHz processor and immediately assumes it’ll be the fastest thing on the block.
The big problem with most pre-builds isn’t really that someone else builds them; it’s who that other person is. Thankfully, the good people at ComputerNerd are just as hardcore as the rest of us. Having them build a system is like having the crazy overclocker down the block build something for you; you know they’re not going to skimp on the spec and blind you with a the highest numbers they can find.
So there’s no problem getting an inappropriate spec with a complete build from ComputerNerd, but what about the other reason we’d usually prefer to do things ourselves? We’re picky. Everyone likes to set up a computer a certain way. We like certain PCI cards in certain slots, we like to apply a certain amount of thermal compound to a processor, have our internal wiring done a certain way, use certain OS and BIOS tweaks, and install the latest drivers. As far as the Visionator goes, these things are either non-issues or already taken care of.
For starters, since the Visionator comes in its own micro case, there really isn’t much choice when it comes to internal cable routing and hardware placement. If you were doing things yourself, it’s not like you’d have a plethora of options, and the way ComputerNerd has zip-tied all the internal wires and arranged things is pretty optimal for the small internal volume of the case. As far as thermal paste goes, the heatsink comes separate from the unit for shipping concerns, so you get to put it on yourself with the supplied thermal compound.
As for as the OS, BIOS, software, and drivers, things are looking pretty good. The OSes had a few nonstandard tweaks, and the BIOS has been fiddled with not only to overclock the processor, but also to coax the best performance out of the memory. The system came pre-installed with the latest NVIDIA beta video drivers. I was expecting the latest official drivers, but was surprised to find the faster leaked drivers pre-installednice touch. All the software that came with the various hardware components was also pre-installed, and since the unit didn’t ship with a monitor, the resolution was preset to 640×480. They thought of everything.
This brings me to the best thing about a pre-built system: when you take it out of the box, it just works. I powered the machine on, and I was good to go. A far cry from the time you need to spend building up a system when you buy just the parts. Even if I were to try to build up a system like the Visionator myself, I doubt I’d be able to do a better job than ComputerNerd has done. Packing that much content into such a small case and still having things accessible is impressive. The fact that it’s got adequate cooling for its overclocked processor is even better.
The final benefit to a pre-built system is its cost. Sure, you might be able to find prices for individual components cheaper on something like Price Watch, but I doubt you’re going to find them all at the same vendor. So now you’ve got to order parts from a bunch of different vendors, then pay shipping and handling for each one. Of course, you’re not buying in volume. ComputerNerd can give you a better price because of their ability to purchase in volume (they’re not just building one Visionator), and you only have to deal with them.
Before checking out the Visionator, I had a pretty dim view of pre-built systems. Now I’ve changed my tune. While I still enjoy building up systems and setting things up my way, I doubt I could have done a better job than the Nerd has done with the Visionator. Before I forget, the Visionator also comes with a year’s worth of phone tech support if you mess things upnot that you will, but it’s nice to know there will be someone there to help should disaster strike.
When building a system, one should carefully consider all of the components, how they will work together, and how they ultimately contribute to the functionality of the machine. This is especially important for the Visionator, because in its micro-ATX form factor, there’s not a lot of room for error.
The core components
- Processor: Intel PIII 650 at 866MHz
Memory: 256MB Corsair CAS 2 PC133 SDRAM
Motherboard: Asus CUSL2-M
ComputerNerd has chosen to go with an Intel platform for the Visionator. No doubt this decision was influenced by the fact Intel-based systems are, in my experience at least, easier to support. There are few quirks with Intel, at least when compared to AMD/Via combinations. For a system with this many different hardware components, avoiding potential conflicts with an Intel chip/chipset pair was a smart move.
Performance-wise, the 815 chipset, coupled with some very nice CAS 2 Corsair PC133 SDRAM, should yield some great memory scores, especially against Via-based setups known for their mediocre memory performance. With processor speeds available up to 1GHz on a 133MHz front side bus, the Visionator also milks everything it can from Intel’s Old Faithful. The front-side bus overclocking that ComputerNerd employs is made possible by the Asus CUSL2-M, which ties everything together.
One of the nicer things about this motherboard is the availability of on-board Ethernet, sound, and video. With only 3 PCI slots to spare in the micro-ATX form factor, on-board solutions can save space. While no serious performance user would be happy with the on-board audio or video, especially for a rig geared towards multimedia use, the integrated 10/100 Ethernet lets us save a PCI slot for use elsewhere.
Overall, the Visionator’s core is a modest one. It’s sensible, reliable, and stable, with no frills or unnecessary chances taken. Getting more reputable manufacturers than Intel, Corsair, and Asus for core components wouldn’t be an easy task.
Drives and storage
- CDROM/DVD/CD-RW drive: Toshiba SD-R1002 CD-R/RW/DVD drive
Hard drive: IBM Deskstar 75GXP 45GB 7,200 rpm ATA-100 hard drive
The Visionator comes in a micro ATX case, so there’s not a lot of room. In fact, there’s only one 5.25″ drive bay. Five years ago you could get away with only one 5 1/4 bay, but now we have things like DVD and CD-R/RW drives taking up real estate. ComputerNerd’s solution to this dilemma is as simple as it is elegant: they pack DVD, CD-ROM, and CD-RW drives all into a single bay by using Toshiba’s combo drive, the SD-R1002. Granted. the SD-R1002 isn’t the fastest DVD, CD-ROM, or CD-RW drove out there, but at 4x/24x/4x for DVD/CD-ROM/CD-RW, it’s fast enough considering the tradeoffs that have to be made to fit it in a micro-ATX case.
In all my years, I’ve yet to have an IBM hard drive fail on me. They’re as speedy as IDE gets, not too loud, and very reliable. IBM drives are also available in huge sizes. While I’ve scoffed at 40+ GB drives thinking no one really needs all that space, for a multimedia workhorse like the Visionator, a huge hard drive makes a lot of sense. Audio and video files aren’t exactly small, so a nice, big drive is a necessity.
The Visionator manages to cram a whole lot of space and functionality into a tiny casepretty impressive.
- Video: eVGA GeForce2 MX TwinView Pro 4X AGP video card
TV: ATI TV Wonder PCI card
Firewire: ADS 3-port IEEE 1394 PCI card
Audio: Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live! MP3+ 5.1 PCI card
The Visionator only has three PCI slots and one AGP slot available, but it makes the most of them with an impressive spec. With an eVGA GeForce2 MX card, built to NVIDIA’s reference design like so many others, the Visionator has enough 3D horsepower for reasonable gaming performance. The eVGA card also supports TwinView, which allows your desktop and applications to stretch across two monitors without having to add a second video card and take up a valuable PCI slot.
Lately we’ve seen other value cards like the Kyro II best the GeForce2 MX in benchmarks, but it lacks the TwinView functionality that is so important for a rig like the Visionator. The ability to have to different things going on, on two different monitors, is a huge bonus. Not only can you use two conventional monitors, you can also hook up a flat panel display or TV to the card’s DVI and S-Video outs.
ATI’s TV wonder brings TV capabilities to the Visionator. Beyond simply tuning broadcast video like a VCR or TV so that you can watch it on your monitor, the TV Wonder has a robust set of features that make a TiVo look like a toy. The card also captures in AVI and MPEG1 formats in real time, making video manipulation a snap.
The TV Wonder takes care of a number of video formats, but it doesn’t go quite far enough. Enter FireWire. Also known as IEEE 1394, FireWire is a blazingly fast standard you’d expect to see on a Mac. We have a reputation for being somewhat less than friendly to the Mac community here, but FireWire is still a very cool technology, and a very appropriate one to include in the Visionator. As a multimedia workstation, the Visionator needs to be able to pull data in from digital video cameras, many of which use FireWire because of its speed.
How fast is FireWire? Try 400Mbps. That’s a lot faster than the 100Mbps Ethernet you’re probably running, and appropriately enough, FireWire does networking, too. Dubbed FireNet, it’s possible to link up PCs using FireWire ports and emulate an Ethernet environment. Transfer speeds for Ethernet emulation don’t reach 400Mbps, but have been demonstrated to pass 200Mbps in situations where 100Mbps Ethernet runs just under 100Mbps. Another bonus of FireNet is that devices like digital video cameras can be shared across the network.
Rounding out the PCI slots is the optional Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! MP3+ 5.1 card. Support for a 5.1 speaker configuration makes a lot of sense for the Visionator, given its multimedia focus. Hooking the Live! up to a 5.1 stereo system will give you some great quality sound. The Live! also offers some niceties like a 320Kbps encoder that musical types should enjoy, and a fairly unnecessary MP3 acceleration capability, considering the Visionator’s horsepower.
If the core of the Visionator is its processor, motherboard, and memory, then the expansion cards are the soul of this machine. Each compliments and augments the others, and each is perfectly suited to multimedia applications. The spec couldn’t be more intelligent or robust given the limited space available.
ComputerNerd gives you a choice of operating systems. You can go with Win98 SE, or choose a dual-boot install of Win98 SE and Win2K Pro. The Visionator I tested came with a dual boot setupnot a trivial feat to accomplish, especially with all the drivers and software needed for the system’s myriad of components. Personally, I’d suggest the dual boot option, and I almost wish there was a Win2K-only option, so the Visionator could be forever rid of Win9x. However, the driver sitation for Visionator’s expansion cards necessitates having Win98 SE around. While most standard drivers have made their way to Win2K, some of the Visionator’s less-than-common devices have arcane Win2K setup requirements.
The nice thing is that if you do choose the dual boot, ComputerNerd will go through the Win2K setup hassles for you. You get the finished product, it works, and you didn’t have to lift a finger.
The Visionator’s micro-ATX case is tiny. Micro-ATX is small as it is, but the Visionator’s case takes things a step beyond what I’ve seen from the form factor. Measuring a scant 5 1/3″ wide, 13″ tall, and 13 2/3″ deep, the Visionator is dwarfed by even tiny 15″ cases. Its depth and width are the most impressive of its measurements.
Size makes several things possible with the Visionator that are more of a hassle with traditional cases. For starters, the Visionator is trivial to move around. You can easily fit it into a suitcase, a large bag, or even carry it comfortably in your hands. Furthermore, the case takes up virtually no real estate wherever you decide to put it, and it’s strong enough to support a large monitor should you want to lay it on its side on your desk with the monitor on top. For those with limited space, the Visionator’s small footprint is a welcome change from the norm in PC cases.
One thought immediately comes to our minds when we have a computer sitting in front of us: How do I overclock it to make it faster? Well, ComputerNerd loves to overclock just as much as the rest of us, so the clocking had already been taken care of. They cranked the PIII 650 up to a 133 front-side bus to yield 866MHznot bad at all. Having a company overclock a computer for you, under warranty, shows confidence in the job they’ve done, and also in the components they’ve selected.
As we all know, the biggest obstacle to overclocking is heat. Anytime you clock up that processor, you have to find a way to dissipate the extra heat. Looking at the Visionator and its tiny case, I was intensely curious to see just how ComputerNerd managed to keep the processor cool enough to overclock it. Granted, Intel chips aren’t space heaters, but they don’t run cold, and the Visionator’s internals are an air flow nightmare, albeit an unavoidable one given the case’s size.
In addition to the small fan on the 150W micro power supply (which is, surprisingly, enough to power the Visionator with all its devices), there’s an auxiliary fan at the rear of the case. Cooling the processor is a GlobalWin FOP32 heat sink with a ComputerNerd special clip and cooling fan. The clip is intelligently designed, and makes heatsink installation and removal easy, even given the cramped conditions inside the case. The fan is ball bearing based, and hums at barely a whisper, making the Visionator incredibly quiet. Round that out with a tube of thermal compound, and the overclocking job that’s been done is just about what I would have done myself.
I don’t have a TV in the same room as my PCs. Despite how little TV I actually watch, having to leave my PC to watch television bothers me. Watching the Knicks game on NBA.com’s java scoreboard just isn’t the same as hearing Marv Albert shout out, “He’s on fire!” or seeing Camby come flying through the lane to pick up an offensive rebound. Often, I’m left with a choice: I can do work at the computer, or I can watch TV, but not both. The Visionator changed all that.
The Visionator’s multimedia capabilities are impressive, to say the least, but some of them are a lot more useful than I thought. For starters, the Visionator is like having your own TiVo. You can record programs for later viewing. You can even start recording a program, come back to it before the program has finished, and start watching what has already been recorded. Thus, it’s possible to watch programs commercial-free (via fast forwarding) even before the programs have finished recording. The TV Wonder can record and play back video simultaneously, so you’ll never have to see another mundane ad, nor will you have to wait for programs to be recorded in their entirety before you start watching.
The Visionator’s ATI software is capable of much more than playback and recording. Closed captioning is fully supported, and you can set keywords and phrases for the software to monitor. Recording can be tied into keyword recognition, so the software can be set to record a program only if/after certain phrases turn up in the closed captioning. You can also create “magazines,” which amount to a transcript of the closed captioning complete with intermittent still screen captures from the video stream. There are also zooming capabilities, so that you can take a closer look to see if there was really a foul committed on the last play, and vindicate or bash the ref accordingly.
There’s also DVD and VCD playback, which is smooth as silk (well, at least as good as the quality of the video you’re starting with in the first place). Also, you can turn the desktop background into a video streamnot bad for watching the news, the game, or whatever and periodically using your instant messenger, email, or surfing the web, if you’re not concerned about having part of the screen obscured by whatever it is you’re doing.
The Visionator’s much more than a TiVo, or a set top box, or a computer. It’s like rolling all those things into one and then adding a few other perks. Perhaps the only danger with this thing is that you’ll need a more comfortable chair, as you might never leave your computer desk.
Move over Aronofsky
The Visionator isn’t just for watching TV or video; it’s also for creating it. With its ability to pull in video streams from both analog and digital video cameras, the Visionator gives you the ability to turn your home movies into Spielberg-esque productions. The Visionator might not have the horsepower to add Jar Jar to the latest birthday footage, but there’s plenty you can do once you have the video streams on the hard drive.
The Visionator comes with some video editing/splicing software from Ulead already installed. It works, but if you really want to do some serious editing, you’ll want something like Adobe’s Premiere or Macromedia’s Director software. The Visionator’s hardware provides an excellent platform for video editing. First, the ability to pull in streams from DVD, analog, and digital video cameras means that whatever the format your home movies occupy, you’ll be able to put them onto the hard drive. The MX’s TwinView capabilities give you a larger workspace for editing and playing back video that you’re working on. Finally, the massive hard drive and CD burner give you plenty of storage capacity for your various drafts and final cuts.
You can turn your home movies into highlight reels full of music, commentary, and special effects. Should the need arise you, can also edit out the less-than-flattering footage of yourself.
Work and play
The Visionator is small, but it’s not laptop small, and it also lacks a screen for the size it is. However, for those of us who frequently do presentations using projectors, the Visionator has a lot of potential. If you’re lugging a projector around with you, the extra poundage of the Visionator won’t bother you, nor will the need to pack a keyboard and mouse. Sure, it takes up more space and more room than a laptop, but the possibilities it creates are amazing.
Imagine being able to give presentations with fast and smooth video playback, then integrating 3D at levels that most laptops can’t compete with. Imagine having full 5.1 surround sound for your presentations. Imagine being able to really push PowerPoint and not have to worry about your laptop’s anemic hardware spec slowing you down. The Visionator is most certainly not a laptop, and it’s not trying to be one, but its incredible portability has significant potential.
Of course, it’s not all work for the Visionator’s presentation skills. Going to a party? Dump your CD collection onto the massive hard drive, throw on a couple of outrageous Winamp plugins, and hook it all up to the TV/stereo at the party.
You’ll have girls fawning all over you.
Well, not exactly, but there’s certainly potential there, and you can throw in a DVD or pack a few movies with you if the party turns out to be a dud. Top it all off with the Visionator taking up less room than the case of beerroot beer, of coursethat you’re bringing, and the Visionator has some serious play potential.
Speaking of play, though the Visionator isn’t ComputerNerd’s flagship gaming rig, it performs admirably enough in games to make it a great LAN party box. It’s small, light, and can play DVDs when you get bored of Counter-Strike. You can even throw the action up on a big screen TV if you want.
Despite its overclocking, the Visionator is as stable as they get. It crunched Prime95 and a crazy Quake III bot match for a day straight without so much as blinkingnot bad for a midget. Stability is important in a multimedia workstation. You don’t want it crashing on you in the middle of compiling video effects, or throwning up a blue screen in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter in a tied basketball game you’re watching while working.
Honest, it’s just background while I, um, work… yeah.
SiSoft Sandra 2000
The strengths of the Visionator are its features and functionality rather than its raw performance. Not that performance is sluggish, but the unique nature of the Visionator’s capabilities makes benchmarking less of a necessity. However, since we all love to see a few graphs and numbers, I threw a few standard test programs at the Visionator to see how it handled things.
Sandra might be synthetic, but she has a knack for spotting problems with system configurations or components that don’t stack up to the competition. She’s a discerning benchmark, comparing you to everyone else in the roomand they say men are pigs for ranking women.
Falling in right where it should be among the others, the overclocked CPU does exactly what we’d expect it to do. If 866MHz isn’t enough for you, the Nerd has options going up to 1GHz to satisfy your clock speed fetish.
Integer and floating point performance are both where they should be, given the processor’s speed. While AMD chips fare better, their options for the micro form factor are more limited.
The 815 is no slouch when it comes to memory performance, and neither is the Corsair PC133 running at CAS 2. Quick, everyone point at Rambus and laugh. PC133 on the 815 owns PC800 on an 820 chipset. Credit should be given to ComputerNerd for not only including some great memory, but tweaking it, as well.
Remember back when I said I loved IBM drives? This is one of the reasons why. ATA-100 ripping along at full bore, that’s going to make handling large multimedia files a snap.
What better way to test the “work” capabilities of the Visionator than with some of ZDNet’s scripted Winstone tests? I went with the most recent 2001 Winstones for the Visionator. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out all that well. The Content Creation Winstone ran perfectly, but I couldn’t for the life of me get the Business tests to complete. Even with the latest patch, which ZDNet said would solve my problem, the Business tests refused to complete.
In light of how the test failed, the Visionator isn’t to blame for this problem. ZDNet’s Business Winstone seemed to think its components weren’t installed properly. The installation files worked on other machines, just not on the Visionator. My guess is that this has to do with some specific incompatibilities with the benchmark, and ComputerNerd shouldn’t take the heat for this one.
Though the Business Winstones are unavailable, we can take a look at the Visionator’s Content Creation scores. Content creation makes more sense to look at anyway, since it includes applications like PhotoShop, Premiere, and Sound Forgeall applications that would typically be used by the kind of multimedia fan who might buy a Visionator.
Good thing the Visionator’s available in a dual boot configuration! At 20% faster than Win98 SE, Windows 2000 proves to be the Visionator’s most productive work environment.
Although 3DMark2001 is out, there’s not much point in subjecting the Geforce 2 MX to its wrath. 3DMark 2000 will do just find in stressing the Visionator’s Direct3D performance.
Win2K is best for work, Win98 SE for gaming, it would appear, at least for DirectX. However, with NVIDIA’s drivers narrowing the performance gap even further with newer releases (the fastest of which will of course be specced on the Visionator), Win2K puts on a good show. While the scores aren’t earth shattering, they’re not bad for an 866MHz PIII with a Geforce2 MX. The box is certainly capable of gaming in all but the highest of resolutions.
Team Arena stresses the Quake III engine a lot more than Quake III Arena ever did. And it should provide a good indication of how suitable the Visionator is for gaming, since many future games should have similar requirements. As an added bonus, ComputerNerd has its own Team Arena server you can play on. Should the Visionator ever crash on you, you can hop on and take out your aggression on the actual people who built the system for you.
The Visionator’s Win2K boot option wins this one, and turns in some decent scores for what has to be one of the most demanding games out there today. The Visionator wasn’t designed to be a gaming rig, but it can still run with the pack.
Trying to decide where the Visionator fits is tough, not because it has few uses, but because it has so many. Because of its versatile nature, the Visionator is good for just about anything, which means that just about anyone can take advantage of at least some, if not all, of its robust functionality. The added bonus is that even if you just want to play around with things, the Visionator still has the horsepower and equipment to run some serious, high-end applications, should inspiration strike.
Maybe the Visionator is overkill. In some respects, it was for me, because I don’t have the experience, software, or equipment necessary to really push things like video editing and FireWire. It’s nice to know that the infrastructure is there should you ever need it, but one has to wonder just how much you can get out of some of the features if you’re just a casual user. You can get some of the Visionator’s more mainstream functionality by adding a PCI card or two to an existing system, so the full package won’t be for everyone. However, if you have need for some of the features and want the ability to do a little more than just fooling around with things like video editing, the Visionator fits the bill nicely.
The complete system, as tested (sans monitor), will set you back $1825. Not bad for a system with two OSes installed, software set up, a plethora of PCI devices, and a DVD/CD-ROM-CD-RW drive all in a pint-sized form factor. Ordering parts, going through arcane installation procedures, paying shipping for multiple vendors, finding a case this smallit’s just not worth doing it all myself, at least not for me. After all, I have better things to do, and the setup job on the Visionator was nothing short of excellent.
You might be wondering, “Where’s the famous 11 point scale, and how does the Visionator score?” Let me explain. The Visionator is a pre-built system, a collection of parts brought together to facilitate its functionality. I could go about rating each part, comparing it to the competition, but that was already done when the hardware spec for this machine was chosen. ComputerNerd didn’t put anything subpar into this box. I can’t really compare the Visionator to its competition, because there is none. No one is putting together systems of this size with this kind of feature set. As far as execution goes, ComputerNerd and POW!er 2Do Information Technology deserve at least a 10. However, with little more than subjective experience to serve as the basis for any kind of overall score, I’m going to leave the scale out for this one.
A tear comes to my eye as I remember that I have to send the Visionator back. This is a really cool rig, and I’ve only had a chance to scratch the surface of its true multimedia capabilities. The Visionator is small where it matters, and big where it counts. It’s different from the rest of the pack, and in a world dominated by clones, that’s a refreshing change.