White Hardware

You get your choice of performance and price with white hardware. Underneath, it's all NeXTSTEP

by Dan Lavin

Henry Ford said of the Model T that you could buy it in any color as long as it was black. Until now, Steve Jobs has been saying the same thing to NeXT customers.

Now NeXT's Model T, the black-magnesium, Motorola-based line of NeXTcubes and NeXTstations, is set to spawn a variety of new models differing in performance, features, and price. In fact, just about everything in the new world of NeXTSTEP hardware is variable except the color. No matter what finish is on the box, "Intel inside" computers are, by definition, white.

As this article went to press, NeXT was still uncertain about its future plans for black systems. What was certain based on our tests of a midrange '486 system from Epson was that NeXT users can count on a consistent experience as they switch from black to white hardware.

To find out what to expect in the brave new world of NeXTSTEP on Intel, NeXTWORLD tried out several Intel-based systems and installed one for a test drive in our offices. We found that the alpha NeXTSTEP software for Intel was stable and that it behaved almost identically to native NeXTSTEP. Our box was $2000 cheaper than an equivalent NeXT system, and it performed at least as well.

Playing catch up
With the original NeXT machine, Steve Jobs and his cofounders had a vision of a computer that would go as far beyond the Macintosh as the Mac had gone beyond the Apple II. To provide the qualities called for by NeXT's operating-system software, NeXT required hardware well beyond the standards of desktop technology a workstation-class machine with MegaPixel Display, scads of memory and storage, a custom "mainframe on a chip," and other hardware innovations.

That was in 1988. As the years passed, hardware technology in the Intel PC world caught up to NeXT's. Computers based on Intel's 80486 processor are grabbing market share from lower-powered Intel chips, while the sales volume has driven their price into the bargain basement. Seeing this trend, NeXT decided last year to make its software available to the millions of '486-machine users.

NeXT hoped to ship NeXTSTEP for Intel processors in 1992. Now it looks like a good bet for summer 1993. The holdup wasn't porting the code to the new processor; that was easy. What NeXT didn't count on was the array of different hardware products add-on cards, video standards, bus architectures it would have to support.

For a standard platform, Intel-based PCs are not very standard. It's really an open system, meaning that any manufacturer can make any product for it but writing drivers for all those different configurations and add-on products can be a time-consuming chore.

The result is that, on first shipment, NeXT will support only certain PC designs and add-on cards. While NeXT has not yet announced which PC models and configurations it will support, several manufacturers have shown preliminary versions of NeXTSTEP running on its machines in public forums. These include Epson, NEC, Intel, Goldstar, Dell, and Compaq.

For this article, we used an Epson Progression DX 33MHz with a Wingine graphics subsystem. We loaded it with 36MB of memory, a 1.44MB floppy, and a 400MB hard disk. It had 1MB of VRAM and an Epson 17-inch analog color monitor, yielding 800-by-600 resolution. It also had add-on cards for SCSI and Ether-net support.

This is a fairly hot machine, but certainly not the fastest NeXTSTEP box that will be available. As configured, we estimate its retail price at $5600. An equivalent NeXTstation Color lists for $7995.

Prices will vary considerably by system. We estimate that entry-level grayscale machines will cost $1500 $2000. A fully loaded, color 1024-by-768 screamer running at 66MHz could cost $7000. That's the nice thing about white hardware: The choice is yours.

NeXTWORLD will publish detailed information about supported PCs and add-on products once it becomes available. In the meantime, do not go out and buy a system based on this preliminary report.

Mirror images
NeXTSTEP for Intel is functionally identical to native NeXTSTEP 3.1. Only two important features are missing: There is no DSP (digital signal processor) chip on most PCs, and, for now, NeXT will not support DSP add-on cards. The first release will also not support on-screen video or any of the functions of the NeXTdimension video board.

Besides these differences, NeXTSTEP for Intel works just like the '040 version. All bundled applications and full Mach UNIX work right out of the box. All the system-administration tools work just as you would expect. AppleShare and Novell NetWare client support will be available. Libraries of items like fonts and sounds can be shared freely across a network of mixed black and white hardware.

You will need a '486 version of your third-party software. In most cases, developers will release "multi-architecture binaries," also known as "fat binaries." These are apps that include both black and white versions of the software. When you double-click the app, it launches the correct version. Developers need to port their software to make this work, but initial experience shows this to be no problem (see the sidebar, "Porting NeXTSTEP Programs").

The biggest difference users will discover is the wealth of configuration choices. In general, for any given category of add-ons or subsystems, NeXT says it will try to support both the market-leading and most technically advanced products.

The user's first choice will be the processor. NeXTSTEP has certified only the Intel '486 chip; it appears that clones by companies like Cyrix, or any '386 chips, will not work. Any true Intel '486 will work, including the SX, DX, DX/2, and SL variants. With SX chips, in which the floating-point function is disabled, NeXT recommends adding a coprocessor. The SL is the low-power version of the '486 used in portables (see the sidebar, "'486 Portables Will Take NeXTSTEP on the Road"). So unless you are installing NeXTSTEP on an existing machine, it is best to buy DX- or DX/2-equipped machines.

The '486 processors come in a range of clock speeds. In general, faster is better, although the cost is high for systems faster than 33MHz. The fastest pure DX machines run at 50MHz, but Intel has produced versions that work at one speed internally while sending data to the rest of the system at half that speed. The 66MHz DX/2, for example, runs at 66MHz internally and 33MHz externally. It is much less expensive than a DX 50 and faster for many tasks.

Since the NeXTSTEP user interface places a big demand on a system, NeXT recommends at least a 20MHz SX machine with a coprocessor to run gray-scale and at least a DX 33 to run color. Our experience showed that a 33MHz color machine ran at about the speed of a 25MHz color Slab. We recommend at least a 50MHz DX/2 chip to take you into the future.

The choices for graphics are a bit more complicated. Since NeXT uses 16-bit color while most PCs use 8-bit, standard PC graphics cards will produce only grayscale output. You can run NeXTSTEP in grayscale with VGA graphics, though SuperVGA will provide higher resolution.

To run NeXTSTEP in color, the system needs special graphics hardware. The technical requirements call for a linear frame buffer and a high-speed path to the video memory. These requirements may be met on the motherboard for an ISA (industry-standard architecture) machine or through an add-on graphics card in EISA (extended industry-standard architecture) machines.

High-performance video subsystems are built into many of the newer high-end machines that are optimized to run Windows and OS/2. Unfortunately, a true standard has yet to emerge. NeXTSTEP will be optimized to work with specific standards such as PCI, LocalBus, and VL-BUS, as well as specialized subsystems from certain manufacturers, such as the Dell/Intel JAWS or Chips and Technologies Wingine. NeXTSTEP will also support additional EISA cards such as Compaq QVision and the ATI Graphics Ultra Pro.

The amount of VRAM that ships with the machine will determine how many pixels appear on the screen. For display, you will need to choose a monitor that can handle the number of pixels you have select-ed. NeXT will support only noninterlaced monitors for a given resolution. In a future issue, NeXTWORLD will evaluate resolutions for various PC models.

NeXT's native black hardware runs at 1120 by 832 pixels. Though NeXTSTEP will run all the way down to 640 by 480 for notebooks, anything less than 800 by 600 pixels for a desktop machine greatly diminishes the size of the workspace. We recommend spending your money here for more pixels and a high-quality monitor, much like first buying good speakers for your stereo system.

Beyond graphics, configuration is fairly simple. You'll need at least 8MB of memory for grayscale and 16MB for color, though more is better. You'll need a 120MB hard disk for the user system and 330MB for the developer system, though 200MB and 400MB, respectively, will be more comfortable. IDE-standard disks will work, but a SCSI disk is faster. This requires a SCSI card, and NeXT will support the market leaders such as Adaptec, as well as high-end suppliers such as DPT.

For connection to the network, you'll need a network card. SMC, Intel, and 3Com cards are just a few Ethernet products to be supported. Token-ring networking will also be available. Depending on the sound capabilities built into your system, a sound card and a microphone are a must for Lip Service users.

In the PC world, you will have a vast choice of keyboards. NeXT-STEP can use the standard PC layout, or you can remap the keyboard to the way the NeXT keyboard is laid out. Special functions of the NeXT keyboard, such as the Power key and sound volume, are handled in the NeXTSTEP for Intel software.

The software story
Depending on how you acquire your system, you will either have NeXT-STEP for Intel preloaded on your hard disk or buy it separately. Just how this will work is not yet known. The announced price is $995 for the user version and $2495 for the full developer release.

If you install it yourself, you will get a starter floppy to boot the machine, while the rest of the operating system loads from CD-ROM. (This means you will need a CD-ROM drive for this one-time operation). NeXTSTEP for Intel supports multiple disk partitions, so you can load DOS or Windows in a separate partition.

Now you have system software loaded. What about applications and data? The first piece of good news is that only executable programs need to be ported; data and text files work on both processors with ease. All data files can be shared across the network between black and white hardware, including all of your libraries and fonts, image files, and documents. As a user, you have no "porting" to do. One really nice feature is that your DOS partition is automatically mounted onto the NeXT file system, making transfer of files on a multiuse machine very easy.

More good news: NeXT's full suite of bundled applications has been ported to '486. This includes programs like Terminal, Mail, Edit, and Preferences on the user side, and InterfaceBuilder and ProjectBuilder for developers. The contents of the various libraries need no translation. Terminal scripts run without modification.

Data in a given application format can only be opened by that application if it is running on the '486. As I write this, WriteNow has not yet been ported, so to move my file, I have to save it in RTF format and then open it in Edit on the '486.

Installing and using our Epson was as easy as could be. I unpacked the machine, plugged it in to our network, and was up and running. I was given an option to boot into DOS. I declined, and by default went direct-ly into NeXTSTEP. Then it was just like adding a new machine to our network. I gave it a machine name, ran the standard NeXTWORLD configuration script, and logged on with my username. Elapsed time from closed box to desktop: 10 minutes.

At 800 by 600, the screen is crisp and the 16-bit color rich, but you can't help noticing the larger menus and icons. These screen elements are a fixed pixel size. If the screen has 800 pixels across rather than 1120, icons are proportionately larger. Standard window elements, like sliders, are larger as well. To gain back some space, you can change the font on the menus and drag the Dock off the bottom of the screen. You can also pop for a higher-resolution video subsystem and monitor.

The keyboard remapping was a little disconcerting. NeXT users will have to adjust to either a new layout or mislabeled keys.

Third-party apps ran perfectly. We tried Concurrence and Mesa, among others, and found no appreciable difference from their native versions.

While we did not conduct formal performance tests, the speed of our DX 33 seemed comparable to a 25MHz NeXTstation; for some tasks it was faster yet. Network and printing performance were the same as for any machine on our network. The DX 50 should be substantially faster than a Turbo and a 66MHz should really scream.

The bottom line is that NeXTSTEP for Intel, even in prerelease, was rock solid when running on a machine faster and cheaper than NeXT's black hardware. The one significant drawback we found was the de-creased screen real estate, but we are willing to trade that off for the access to the vast world of white hardware.

For the first time, we now have a real choice of systems across a spectrum of price, features, and performance. Henry Ford's palette of colors eventually gave way to the whims of the market. Now Steve Jobs's has too. Who knows? Some vendor may even offer NeXTSTEP running on an Intel box with a black-magnesium finish.

Dan Lavin is a NeXTWORLD senior editor. Thanks to NeXT's Bob Lawton for his help on this article.