Cube247 Hercules ST2 review

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At first glance, it’s easy to be sceptical about the Hercules ST2. Who on earth could need three full monitors’ worth of Desktop? But, as anyone who’s used dual-monitor setups will understand, they soon become indispensable. Visits to the taskbar and Alt-tabbing between windows became a thing of the past as we merrily opened multiple instances of Word, Excel and Internet Explorer, dragging the new windows to one of the three 1,280 x 1,024 TFTs to keep them all in view.

Cube247 Hercules ST2 review

The raw power of the dual-cored 2.2GHz Athlon 64 X2 system lends itself perfectly to multiple displays too. In combination with 2GB of PC3200 RAM, you’ll need to push this system very hard before it starts struggling. This was borne out in our application benchmark tests with an overall score of 2.33 – and that’s mainly using just one of the processor’s cores. This means it will fly through everyday tasks, even if you’re doing them three at a time. The benchmark score was helped by the two 300GB Seagate hard disks, which on our system were configured for maximum storage, but can also be configured into RAID to maximise speed or data integrity.

The multiple-monitor magic is handled by ATi’s Hydravision system. The passively cooled X300 card (with one DVI and one D-SUB VGA) is paired with the onboard X300 chipset (two on the front and ten on the rear), which has an extra D-SUB connector to provide independent signals for the three monitors. From there, they’re configured through Windows’ standard extended Desktop system. The only downside is that 3D performance isn’t cutting edge, but even most modern games will still run at basic settings and lower resolutions.

The three 19in GNR monitors can be tilted, swivelled and pivoted to portrait orientation (ATi’s driver allows you to adjust the video image to fit), and there’s even height adjustment. Slightly restricted vertical viewing angles mean that portrait orientation isn’t the optimum use for the panels, but horizontal viewing angles are reasonable, so long as the outermost panels are slightly tilted inwards.

Image quality is bright and clear – fine for most applications – but poor colour range and accuracy don’t make them suited to professional image or video use. Two of the three monitors use VGA outputs, while one uses DVI. In normal use, it wasn’t obvious which was which, but our pixel-tracking tests revealed significant pixel jitter over the analog connections, even when the panels were showing a consistent shade of grey.

But the practical uses of the three 1,280 x 1,024 monitors are manifold: the dual-core processor allows you to start one intensive task (say, audio encoding) on one monitor while checking email on another, without needing to minimise the task requiring your attention to keep tabs on the encoding process. Alternatively, your favourite web development, animation, music production or CAD application can be spread across all three monitors, leaving you with all your tools at hand.

Elsewhere, disc-to-disc copying is possible, thanks to the DVD-ROM drive that accompanies NEC’s DVD writer. We were slightly frustrated by the lack of a memory card reader, but you can specify one for £19 when you order. The decent wireless keyboard and mouse come courtesy of Microsoft and the inclusion of Creative’s 5800 5.1 speakers rounds off a good serving of peripherals.

The internals of the ST2 are tidy, leaving all of the core components easily accessible. The 2GB of RAM is installed on a pair of 1GB sticks, leaving two DIMM sockets free for upgrading. Four PCI slots are free, but the single PCI Express 1x slot is obstructed by the heatsink on the graphics card. The PCI slots are tool-less, although the plastic holder is actually more fiddly to remove than a screw. The 12 USB 2 ports and two FireWire ports provide huge expansion possibilities, while two free 5.25in drive bays and two free 3.5in internal bays mean you can add drives as necessary. There are two free SATA ports on the motherboard, and the two optical drives share an IDE channel.

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