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SPARCstation Portable? The Powerlite

For people on the go, portable computing has become an essential part of the working environment. Many of us face the need for computing power at off-site locations. For most, a conventional Intel-based laptop computer fills the bill. For some UNIX users, however, such systems are at best a compromise, even when augmented by ports of familiar UNIX utilities. For some people, a non-UNIX, Intel-based solution is no solution at all. These users may need a Solaris-running, SPARC-based workstation they can carry with them for development, system administration, or product demonstrations. This is the audience for whom RDI Computer Corp.’s PowerLite portable workstation was developed. RDI positions the system as the performance equivalent of a SPARCstation 5. How close does this 110MHz, seven-pound system come to a real workstation, and is it worth the weight?


As with any portable computer, the PowerLite is essentially self contained. The screen, keyboard, and trackball are all part of the system unit, and the Solaris operating system is pre-installed at the RDI factory. Thus, basic installation is reduced to an inventory of parts, plugging in the power adapter, and powering up the system. Depending on the options that have been ordered, installation can be somewhat more complex, but not by much. For example, external monitors are supported, as are external keyboards and mice. The connectors for such peripherals are labeled clearly on the rear connector panel of the PowerLite and are expLANed well in the accompanying documentation.

Detailed configuration of the system requires some planning. If the PowerLite will always operate in standalone mode, only user IDs and other rudimentary UNIX setups are required. If, however, the system will be part of a network or of different networks at different locations, more thought is required. In addition to the Solaris operating system, the PowerLite’s software includes RDI’s Virtual Workgroup Architecture (VWA). VWA is a set of software tools that allows the system to be moved easily between different environments.

Among the key components of VWA are AutoNET and Join. AutoNET detects what network the PowerLite is attached to and selects an appropriate configuration automatically, thus avoiding a possible system hang. Join, licensed from Competitive Automation (Menlo Park, CA), works with AutoNET, providing Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) services. Depending on the environments the system moves between, installing Join may not be required. For example, in our test environment, the network structure is replicated between our main lab and off-site labs, allowing us to move systems configured with static IP addresses between locations easily without a need for DHCP. For most nonstatic environments, however, RDI includes both DHCP client and server software as part of VWA.


Documentation includes two manuals: a user’s guide and a system reference set; plus the manuals and release notes that come with Solaris. The PowerLite user’s guide provides basic-installation and system-operation information, along with a command reference for the built-in fax/data modem, information on the power-manager software, and boot PROM settings. The information in this booklet is concise, well-written, and easy to understand. It is written for a reasonably knowledgeable end user, not necessarily a system administrator. The system reference set includes more detailed hardware information, a software user’s guide, instructions for Solaris installation, and reference material on the various components of VWA. The three-ring-bound reference set also is well-written and easy to understand and includes adequate illustrations to augment the text. The indexes for both manuals, however, could use additional attention.


Although the concept of expandability may seem incongruous when associated with a laptopsized portable, the PowerLite provides a surprising array of options. Base memory for the system is 32MB but can be expanded to 64MB, 96MB, or 128MB. The unit will accommodate two 2 1/2-inch Fast SCSI-2 hard disks (810MB or 1.2GB), plus a third if the low-profile 3 1/2-inch diskette drive is sacrificed. The diskette drive also may be replaced with one or two Type I or Type II PCMCIA slots or a single Type III adapter.

For users requiring further disk expansion or SBus slots, a Peripheral Expansion Unit (PXU) is available. The PXU provides space for two additional 31/2-inch SCSI hard disks and two standard single-slot SBus cards (or one two-slot card). The PXU is slightly thinner than the main unit but occupies the same footprint and attaches to the bottom of the main unit. Once in position, the PXU and the main unit lock together with latches in the PXU. Signal connections are provided by a 120-pin interface connector that protrudes through a sliding panel on the base of the main unit. A separate AC adapter is provided for the PXU.

A beauty!

We were impressed by the range of connectivity options provided by the PowerLite’s rear panel. These connections include an 8-pin miniDIN connector for an external mouse or keyboard, a standard Centronics-compatible parallel port, an R J-11 phone jack for the built-in fax/data modem, a 36-pin dual serial/AUI connector, a 50-pin Fast SCSI-2 connector, a 10Base-T Ethernet port (R J-45), a 13W3 external video connector, and 8-bit audio-in and audio-out jacks. Unlike many manufacturers, RDI includes both the pigtail adapter cable that splits out the two serial ports and the AUI Ethernet adapter from the combined connector on the back of the system. RDI also includes an adapter plug that converts the 13W3 video connector to a standard 15-pin VGA connector, so a non-Sun external monitor can be used. A VWA control panel, accessed via a pop-up menu under OpenWindows, provides user control for which monitor is active (built-in screen, external monitor, or both). Resolutions of 640×480 and 1,024×768 are supported on both the built-in LCD screen and an external monitor. Using only the external monitor allows a resolution of 1,280xl,024 to be selected.

Operation And Ease Of Use

In operation, the PowerLite functions essentially like any SPARCstation. Although rearranged to fit within the available real estate, the keyboard of the system provides the same 104-key functionality as a Sun-5 keyboard. The spacing of the primary keys is the same as a conventional AT-style keyboard, so only minor adjustments are required of the user when typing. We found the wide wrist-support area in front of the keys to be comfortable, but the small built-in three-button trackball was difficult to adjust to. We suspect that many PowerLite users also will prefer using an external mouse attached to the mouse/keyboard port provided on the back panel.

Although Solaris 2.5 is now the baseload for PowerLites, Solaris 2.4 was current at the time our test system was shipped. Solaris 1.x also is available for users who have not yet made the switch to the SVR4-based version. Until testing of VWA is completed, however, Solaris 2.4 provides a solid operating system for the PowerLite.

According to RDI documentation, the PowerLite is 100% compatible with standard SPARC systems. Thus, RDI indicates that any Solaris software will run on the system. We loaded several Solaris-based applications and found no incompatibilities during our testing. The software bundled with the system also includes Sun’s Wabi 2.0, allowing MS Windows applications to be loaded and run on the machine.

Our test system was loaded with 64MB RAM and two 8l0MB hard disks. Weighing more than seven pounds, this configuration is substantially heavier than most current conventional Intel-based laptop computers. Few such MS Windows systems, however, provide either the disk or the RAM capacity of the PowerLite. None provides SPARC compatibility, and none that we have seen includes a bulk-in Ethernet port. Battery life for the PowerLite is a meager one hour. Considering the power requirements of the contents of the system, however, an hour of battery operation is not unreasonable. Additionally, the PowerLite is designed not as a battery-operated system but rather as a portable system to be powered via its AC adapter. Thus, it may be more appropriate to think of the battery as a one-hour UPS.


Our performance tests of the PowerLite included the SPEC92 benchmarks, SPECint92 and SPECfp92, which test integer and floating-point performance, respectively. As is our custom, we ran these benchmarks from within OpenWindows with all the normal init level 3 system daemons running. Our result for the SPECint92 suite was 73.67, and our SPECfp92 result was 64.18. RDI’s published results for this 110MHz model of the PowerLite are 77.00 for SPECint92 and 65.30 for SPECfp92, presumably run at singleuser mode with no graphical interface overhead, as is the custom of many benchmarking engineers. Although we prefer the more realistic approach of our multiuser, GUI-based runs, our results are well within the tolerances we have seen with other systems and are thus supportive of RDI’s claims.

Considering our GUI-based benchmarking preference, these results are on a par with Sun’s published numbers for their desktop SPARCstation 5 systems, 78.60 for SPECint92 and 65.30 for SPECfp92. The PowerLite’s performance is significantly better than our lab results with the 100MHz R4600PC model of SGI’s Indy that came in at 55.32 for SPECint92 and 43.73 for SPECfp92. For an Intel Pentium comparison, consider our review of the AST Premmia GX P/133. That system, running Solaris 2.5 for Intel, scored 85.45 for SPECint92–about 12% higher than the PowerLite. The 133MHz Pentium system scored a mere 38.87 on SPECfp92, however, far lower than the PowerLite. In this respect, it also is important to note that we were running Solaris 2.5 on the Premmia, which accounts for some of the performance difference. (Operating-system-level functions under Solaris 2.5 are generally faster than the same functions under Solaris 2.4.)

Although we did not run server-oriented benchmarks such as bigdisk (the disk I/O benchmark we often use) we tested the system in various environments that a mobile user might encounter. In doing so, we found the overall system performance of the PowerLite good. FTP transfers from a PC client through the PowerLite to an attached disk subsystem, for example, were as fast as we have seen with other workstations across a 10Base-T network. This would indicate that both the PowerLite’s disk I/O system and its networking circuitry function at expected SPARCstation 5 levels.

How It Rates

Installation of the PowerLite 110 is minimal because of the self-contained nature of the system and because the operating system is factory installed. Further configuration of the system follows standard SPARCstation procedures. DHCP software is included as part of the VWA tools, allowing the PowerLite to be configured for dynamic IP address assignment or with a static IP address. We rate the system as excellent in the installation category.

Documentation for the PowerLite includes both the standard Solaris documentation that accompanies the operating-system package and supplemental documentation specific to the PowerLite. The two PowerLite-specific manuals are well-written and easy to understand. Coverage includes hardware and VWA components and is sufficient for both end users and system administrators. The marginal indexing of the manuals, however, detracts from an otherwise excellent manual set, resulting in a rating of good for documentation.

Expandability of the PowerLite is accomplished with either external peripherals or RDI’s PXU, which attaches to the bottom of the unit. Although the system unit will accommodate two 2 1/2-inch hard disks, the PXU provides both disk expansion and SBus-card-expansion slots. Additionally, the rear connector panel of the system unit supplies all the ports provided on a full-size SPARCstation, plus a connector for an external mouse or keyboard/mouse combination. The external-monitor port is a Sun-standard 13W3 connector, and an adapter is included for use with a conventional VGA monitor. The PowerLite also can be configured with up to 128MB RAM, far exceeding the capacity of most laptops. We rate the PowerLite’s expandability as excellent.

Operation and ease of use both rate excellent for a system of this design. The PowerLite 110 performed flawlessly during our testing and displayed no compatibility problems with third-party software. Although the overall keyboard arrangement has been compressed to fit within the available space, the size and spacing of the home keys is the same as a conventional AT-style keyboard, making normal typing easy. The supplemental keys of a standard Sun-5 keyboard are all included in a logical arrangement. Although the three-button trackball and the LCD screen of the PowerLite are smaller than those of conventional workstations, both represent a good compromise between size and convenience. The inclusion of Wabi 2.0 is an added benefit and is likely to be useful to mobile users, too. Ease of use is further enhanced by VWA components, including Join and AutoNet, which provide DHCP services and automatic network configuration at boot time.

Our performance tests show a SPECint92 score of 73.67 and a SPECfp92 score of 64.18 for the PowerLite 110. Considering differences in test environments, these scores put the PowerLite on a par with Sun’s SPARCstation 5 and substantially higher than our lab results for SGI’s Indy. Although our recent test of the 133MHz Pentium-based AST Premmia GX P/133 gave an edge to the AST on integer performance, the PowerLite was much higher on floating-point operations, as would be expected. Based solely on the comparison to its SPARCstation 5 cousin, however, the PowerLite’s performance is average.

Overall, we found the PowerLite 110 convenient and a pleasure to use. Although it is heavier than many Intel-based laptops, the PowerLite’s full SPARCstation functionality is more than worth the extra weight. That self-contained functionality is further augmented by the ability to plug in external conveniences such as a monitor, a mouse, or a keyboard/mouse combination, providing the user with the best of both stationary and portable worlds. Based on these convenience and performance factors, the PowerLite does, indeed, have uses beyond that of remote software demonstrations. In fact, it may be an ideal platform for multisite system administrators and on-the-road developers of Solaris-based software. Thus, we give the PowerLite 110 an overall rating of excellent for a system of this design.

Categorised as: Unix

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