October 24, 2005

Review: Sun's Ultra 3 Mobile Workstation

Author: Jem Matzan

Despite its recent announcement of servers based on AMD64 CPUs, Sun Microsystems is still gung-ho about its 64-bit UltraSPARC computers. The newest addition to Sun's workstation array is the portable Ultra 3 Mobile Workstation. At first glance you might think it's a fancy-looking notebook system, but on closer inspection you'll discover that it's got all the power of a Sun Blade workstation in a fraction of the size.

Meant for work in space-conscious field offices and labs, the Ultra 3 is basically a portable Sun Blade 150 or 1500, except considerably smaller. There are two distinct models, both of which have variable configurations. The first is roughly the size and shape of a normal laptop system. It has an UltraSPARC IIi processor running at either 550 or 650MHz or an UltraSPARC IIIi at 1.2GHz; a 15-inch TFT LCD screen; from 512MB to 2GB of DDR266 SDRAM; a 40, 60, or 80GB IDE hard drive; wireless 802.11b and wired 10/100 LAN; 2 or 3 USB 2.0 ports; a FireWire port; and either a CD-ROM or CD-RW/DVD-ROM. The price can vary between $3,400 and $6,500, depending on the configuration.

The high-end configuration has an UltraSPARC IIIi processor at 1.28GHz; a 17-inch TFT LCD screen; 2GB of RAM; a 60GB hard drive; wireless 802.11b and 10/100/1000 LAN; 2 USB 2.0 and 2 USB 1.1 ports; and a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive. List price is a little over $9,700. I tested this high-end configuration with 1GB of RAM.

Hardware design and configuration

The Ultra 3 is built like a tank, and feels like one too. While it is of solid physical design, it's also heavy -- the high-end model weighs in at about 10 pounds. The outer shell is hard, thick plastic with some small metal parts (the switch that opens the screen, for instance, is metal). The keyboard feels more like a desktop keyboard than a laptop one; the keys are a little larger and deeper than most notebook systems.

When powered on, the Ultra 3 generates a tremendous amount of heat -- so much that the glue attaching the rubber feet to the bottom of the computer loses its cohesiveness after a few hours' time. The Ultra 3 significantly raised the temperature of my office and noticeably heated a six-inch radius around it. Want to put this laptop on your lap? Plan on your thighs sweating through your pants in a matter of minutes. Don't even think of putting this computer on your lap after it's been simmering on a desk for a few hours; you could burn. The system fans spin up to noise levels commensurate with those of a standard desktop midtower computer.

The onboard graphics processor is the same one that's in Sun's XVR-100 PCI video card. It's strictly a 2D graphics chip, which means you can't do 3D hardware rendering on the Ultra 3. This is the one major limitation of the Ultra 3 when comparing it to its desktop cousin, the Sun Blade 1500.

One thing you won't find on the Ultra 3 is a PC Card slot. This is disappointing at first, but there are few PC Card peripherals that do not have USB equivalents, so it's not as much of a limitation as it may seem. The PC Card peripheral hardware support in Solaris 10 is poor anyway, so even if it had a slot, the operating system would not be able to support most peripherals.

The high-end Ultra 3 has buttons for adjusting the screen color and brightness settings (just like on a "real" external monitor), and speaker volume control. The front of the machine also has an array of buttons and indicator LEDs that let you use the Ultra 3 like a CD player when it is otherwise not operating.

Expect the battery on the low-end models to last between 2 and 3 hours (according to Sun), and only about one hour on the high-end model (according to my testing).

Tadpole: The other portable SPARC system

The Ultra 3 competes with another UltraSPARC-based notebook systems from Tadpole. A Sun Microsystems engineer who specializes in UltraSPARC workstations claims that the Ultra 3 has three key advantages over Tadpole portable systems. The first is a 17-inch LCD screen option; Tadpoles have a maximum screen of 15 inches. Second, the Ultra 3 comes with a smartcard reader for user authentication and directory access. Third, the Ultra 3 is the only UltraSPARC platform on the market that is fully binary compatible with all Solaris/SPARC program binaries; the engineer told me that Tadpole systems do not support all Solaris/SPARC binaries. In reading the Tadpole Web site, it looks as if the latest version of Solaris that is supported is version 8, and it requires special patches from Tadpole to work on its computers. Tadpole does, however, say on its site that all models are "100% Solaris binary compatible." Sun Microsystems and Tadpole appear to differ in their opinions on what is binary compatible and what is not. If you're going back and forth between the two vendors, it would be wise to ask what version of Solaris is supported and what binaries will work with it. The smart thing to do would be to ask to demo a machine to make sure it'll work with your software before you spend any money.

Included software

The standard operating system on the Ultra 3 is, of course, Solaris 10 for the SPARC architecture. Solaris is light on useful software; while you'll find the StarOffice 7 office suite and Novell Evolution for your email and personal information manager, you won't find an FTP client or a graphics editor, and if you want to add software, there is no compiler to build programs from source code.

Despite its shortcomings as a workstation OS, Solaris 10 is easy to use, due to its GNOME-based Java Desktop System interface, now in its third edition. If you prefer the old Unix-standard Common Desktop Environment (CDE), you can use it instead of JDS.

The big surprise in terms of software is the inclusion of high-end software development tools. Sun Studio 10, Java Studio Enterprise, and Java Studio Creator are all included with the Ultra 3. A Sun representative placed the value of this software at approximately $6,000, which is more than the cost of the Ultra 3 in its low-end configuration. These software packages are designed to quickly build graphical standalone and Web-based programs in Java, with some support for C, C++, and Fortran.

Although the Ultra 3 is equipped with an internal wireless networking chip, I was unable to get an IP address from any wireless access points during testing. As the hardware has a driver installed and shows up in the network interface list, I have to assume that the trouble was software-related. Solaris 10 doesn't include any graphical hardware configuration tools, so the network interface has to be configured by hand from the command line. Although I made some progress with it in an hour of tinkering, in the end I was still limited to the RJ45 connector for a LAN connection.

Solaris 10 as packaged for the Ultra 3 comes with programs to play music CDs and video DVDs. The DVD decryption codecs are not installed, so you won't be able to play mainstream video DVDs.


If you're already dependent on Sun Blade 150s or 1500s to keep your business running, the Ultra 3 is the perfect replacement or complement for either platform, assuming you don't have to do any 3D graphics work. Minus the video card options, the hardware configuration is similar or identical, the operating system is an upgraded but still binary-compatible version of the same Solaris, and it's superbly designed. Developers that work with the SPARC platform will be equally pleased with the Ultra 3, not just for its smaller, more portable form factor, but for the bonanza of included software development tools.

Although it's pricey, the Ultra 3 could be a substantially cheaper alternative to abandoning the Solaris/SPARC platform and porting your proprietary Solaris-based software to other kinds of mobile hardware. Many SPARC workstation owners would find good uses for an Ultra 3, especially if they have to travel to multiple sites, offices, or labs.

Device Portable workstation
Manufacturer Sun Microsystems
OS Support Solaris 10 for SPARC
Market Solaris/SPARC software developers and existing desktop SPARC workstation users who need greater portability or a smaller computer footprint
Price (retail) $3,400 to $9,700 or more, depending on support/warranty, and extra parts options
Product Web site Click here
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