Naturetech Worldwide Technology Corporation – Meso 999 UltraSPARC Portable Workstation Review

by Bill Bradford

The folks at Naturetech were kind enough to recently send me a Meso 999 UltraSPARC notebook for review.

System Pictures

Review unit specifications:
Single UltraSPARC-IIIi processor @ 1.28Ghz with 1M L2 cache
17-inch widescreen WXGA LCD (1440×900 resolution, 24-bit)
2G RAM (max capacity 4G)
XVR-100 (Radeon 7000) graphics (and external HD15 VGA port)
Onboard audio & Java card reader
2.5-inch 40G IDE hard drive
DVD-ROM optical drive
10/100/1000 (copper gigabit) Ethernet, auto-sensing
2 USB 1.1/2.0 ports
Keyboard with 3-button touchpad/trackpad
7500 mAH battery
Size: 15.5″ wide x 11″ deep x 1.5″ tall (closed)

The system arrived with Solaris 9 and StarOffice installed, which I reinstalled with Solaris 10 as part of the review.
Operating system media for installation/reinstallation was not provided.

Contents of the shipping package:
One Naturetech Meso999 Notebook
Nylon carrying case
AC adapter and power cord
Battery (not installed when shipped)
Quick-Start Guide
CD-ROM containing video driver (.tar.gz file) and user manual (PDF)

First Thoughts
My first thoughts as I was unpacking the Meso999 were “Wow, this is heavier than I expected” and then “No wonder it’s heavy, it’s SOLID”. The outer casing of the Meso appears to be aluminum, with plastic used for parts like the keyboard wrist rest, DVD-ROM bezel, etc. Opening the top, there was not a single “flex” or twist from the hinges; the phrase “precision crafted machine” came to mind. Primarily black with silver highlights around the keyboard, the Meso might well be the “Stealth Bomber” of SPARC laptops, although one that weighs 9.2 pounds.

Usage Experiences
On initial powerup (with pretty blue LEDs), the system displays a normal SPARC OpenBoot banner and proceeds to boot Solaris 9. Pressing STOP-A and dropping into OBP to reset environment variables and other settings (or boot off a CD-ROM drive) worked identically to every other SPARC system I’ve ever seen in the past.

The onboard framebuffer is a Radeon 7000, which Sun markets as the XVR-100. The screen is VERY bright with good contrast and legibility, and can further be adjusted via control buttons above the right-hand side of the keyboard. Screen adjustment is courtesy of an on-screen display menu similar to those found in standalone 17″ LCD flat panels.

This brings me to the first thing I noticed about this system. Unlike previous SPARC-based laptops I’ve used and reviewed before, this notebook requires no special drivers to be installed and useful from a standard Solaris CD/DVD installation set (the user guide says to use normal Solaris media, Sol9 04/04. The only additional driver is a package (included on a CD, or downloadable from Naturetech’s web site) that enables 1440×900 @ 60Hz (widescreen) operation of the flat panel display. Without this driver, the LCD operates at a horizontally-stretched resolution of 1152×900. All other features (ge0 gigabit Ethernet, etc) are supported “out of the box”. Power management is supported via native Solaris controls (dtpower / Power Manager). Solaris 8 2/04 / Solaris 9 4/04 (or higher) is required for proper operation.

To test compatibility, I downloaded Solaris Express, Community Release CD images from Sun and made a set of four installation CDs. They installed without a problem, complete with GUI installer. To continue the compatibility test, I installed the Sun Studio 10 Compilers and OpenSolaris source code in order to do a complete OpenSolaris build.

Performing a complete OpenSolaris build (with UFS logging turned on) took two hours and forty-five minutes. This compares with four hours and ten minutes on my OpenSolaris benchmark system, a dual-450Mhz US-II Ultra 60 with 2G of RAM and dual 36G SCSI HDs. I suspect performance would have been higher if the Naturetech portable had a SCSI disk versus IDE (which is an available option). After the build completed, I installed it via BFU and rebooted. The system came back up running Solaris Nevada Build 17 with no problems at all, lacking no functionality from the prior Solaris install. “uname -a” identifies the system as a Sun Blade 2500 platform.

Multimedia Features
I’m not a huge fan of multimedia on computing workstations (I have my Mac systems and Windows boxes for that), but the Meso is equipped well enough to be an “only computer”. The system sports five built-in speakers, and has three headphone jacks to support 6-channel CD-quality surround sound. In addition, the DVD player/CD-ROM has “Audio DJ” buttons to enable use of the system as a CD player when it is otherwise powered off. Once I managed to get the VideoLan Client installed, DVD video discs played without a problem, looking good on the 17″ screen.

This test was limited to wired networking, as my review model did not come with the optional mini-pci 802.11g wireless adapter. The ge0 gigabit Ethernet interface had no problems with auto-negotiation while plugged into a Linksys WRT54G four-port wireless router; manually setting link speed and duplex was not necessary as is with some hme and eri-based network interfaces.

After a bit of fiddling around, I was able to mount up my digital camera over a USB connection and copy pictures off of its compact flash card. I did not have an extra disk to test external USB hard disk storage or other peripherals (other than a Sun USB keyboard and USB mouse connected to the USB 1.1 ports). When an external keyboard and mouse are used, the on-board devices are disabled.

I can honestly say this is the fastest portable SPARC workstation (or SPARC workstation, period) that I’ve ever used. Video and GUI operations were snappy, web pages (under Mozilla Firefox) came up near instantly, and I never once felt what I would call “system lag” in a few days of heavy system use. Overall system throughput could conceivably be increased by replacing the 5400rpm IDE disk with a 7200rpm verison, or by getting the optional SCSI internal disk instead of IDE.

There’s not much I dislike about the machine, other than three factors:

1. The ESC key, at the top left corner of the keyboard, is tiny. Instead of being a full-sized key, it’s a “half size” key similar to a function key. For vi/vim users, that key will get a lot of use and it would be nice to see a UNIX portable vendor realize this.
2. The CTRL key is neither in the “UNIX-standard” location to the left of the A key, nor in the “PC standard” location at the bottom left of the keyboard – it’s second-from-right on the bottom of the keyboard. Users attempting to touch-type without first familiarizing themselves with the keyboard will end up hitting the FN (function) key a lot when they mean to hit CTRL.
3. Noise. The UltraSPARC-IIIi was probably not designed to be a portable processor chip, and requires a lot of cooling. This results in a loud fan noise that precludes any use of the built-in microphone, and possibly could keep the machine from being usable in a quiet office environment. No amount of tweaking power-saving configurations would get the fan to slow down/spin down, so I assume they run at a fixed speed all the time.

Final thoughts
The Naturetech Meso 999 is a very nice, well-built portable workstation, and in recognition of that fact, Sun Microsystems is now offering the unit as one of the systems branded the “Ultra 3 Mobile Workstation”. I like the system, and wouldn’t mind having one on my desk as my only computer. It’s also sturdy enough to resist being hauled around (in the nice nylon carrying case provided) to remote locations, but is probably a little too big to actually use as a “laptop”.

At press time, Sun is selling the “Extra Large” configuration of this system (as the Ultra 3) for $9,705 (with 1G RAM, but a bigger hard drive and wireless) at the Sun Store. A lesser-equipped model is available for $3,400.

Thanks to Steven Chiang, Roma Hsaio, and everyone else at Naturetech for giving me the opportunity for this review.