The Sun Blade 100 was introduced in 2001 as the replacement for Sun's very successful Ultra 5 workstation, timed to coincide with the release of Solaris 8. With an introductory price of only US$1000 in its most basic configuration, it was only marginally more expensive than x86 systems of its day.

Specifications

  • Production dates: 2001-2004. Officially replaced by the Sun Blade 150 in 2003.
  • Application architecture: sun4
  • System architecture: sun4u
  • Processor: UltraSPARC IIe at 500MHz standard. 550, 600, 650 and 700MHz versions are also available. The UltraSPARC IIe is similar to the US-II, but has less L2 cache. (512kB versus 2048-4096kB in the US-II)
  • RAM: Up to 4 1024MB PC100 ECC DIMMs, upgradable singly for a maximum of 4GB.
  • Graphics: Onboard PGX64 with 8MB of RAM, 1600x1200 in 24-bit color. Late-model motherboards sometimes have 16MB of VRAM instead. 3 PCI slots.
  • PCI graphics options: Sun PGX32, PGX64, XVR-100, Expert3D Lite, XVR-500, XVR-600. TechSource Raptor GFX various PCI cards. Some other PCI graphics cards may work under operating systems other than Solaris, but do not have boot support. The XVR-500 and XVR-600 only work correctly in the single 66MHz slot.
  • Floppy: Bay for standard Sun-type 1.44MB or 2.88MB floppy.
  • Hard Drives: Standard IDE, 1 bay normally available.
  • Audio capabilities: Integrated Crystal Semiconductor CS-4231 sound chip. 16-bit, 48000 kHz (CD quality) for both input and output. No MIDI synthesizer though it's possible to emulate one in software. (See TiMIDIty). This system has integrated phono style microphone, line in, line out, and headphone jacks.
  • Expansion:
    • 1 5 1/4" drive bay, usually occupied by a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. Most IDE CD-RW and DVD+-RW drives work. BluRay drives might work, but aren't officially supported.
    • 2 3 1/2" drive bays. These typically hold a floppy drive and a smart card reader.
    • 3 PCI expansion slots, 1 64 bit/66MHz, 1 64-bit/33MHz, 1 32-bit/33MHz.
  • External ports:
    • 4 USB 1.1 ports
    • 1 PC-style parallel port
    • 1 RS232 high-speed serial port, DB9 male (230kbps maximum)
    • 1 RJ45 Fast Ethernet port (Sun HME)
    • HD15 video
    • 2 IEEE1394 ports

What the Blade 100 did, and what it can do now

The Sun Blade 100 was designed to fill much the same niche as the earlier Ultra 5 and Ultra 10, as a low-cost, entry-level SPARC system. It has only a slightly faster CPU than its predecessors if you look at clock speed alone, though the UltraSPARC IIe isn't hobbled on floating-point operations like the IIi was. That said, the rest of the system has received a much-needed boost. The IDE subsystem, which is the source of much criticism for the earlier low-cost Ultras, is much improved. On the U5 and U10, it was capable of Ultra DMA in theory only, but on the Blade 100, ATA66 mode actually works. This makes it much closer to its SCSI-based kin in disk I/O performance. The old Sun keyboard connector is gone, replaced with USB, which allows one to use the new Sun Type 7 keyboard, or the slightly older Type 6 that shipped with it. It also features Firewire, though until the release of Solaris 10, this was nearly useless. The onboard graphics system is also a fair bit faster than that on the U5/U10, and isn't crying out for an upgrade quite as badly. It's still quite useful for most of the things it was originally sold for: software development, desktop publishing and graphics, entry-level 3D modeling and rendering, scientific computation and general desktop work.

So, what operating systems can it run?

Solaris is the native OS for the Blade 100, and it's still one of the better choices. Solaris 8 is the earliest version that officially supports this system, and due it its USB keyboard and mouse, earlier versions can't practically be used. The newest official release, Solaris 10, and Sun's distribution of OpenSolaris, called Solaris Express, are generally the strongest choices for desktop use. Though they're a bit more RAM-intensive than earlier releases, the added features, especially in X, are well worth it. Also, you'll need Solaris 10 if you want to make use of the Firewire ports.

What if you don't want to run Solaris, you say? Well, Linux is the next best choice. Linux supports the vast majority of the hardware with the exception of XVR-series graphics cards (though the XVR-100 mostly works, and the XVR-500 can be persuaded to work somewhat, with enough jiggery-pokery), and is often a little crisper in interactive performance than Solaris. Both support the same range of desktop environments, with the exception of CDE. Debian, Gentoo and Ubuntu are the distributions that, as of 2007, have the best SPARC support, but others work too. Beyond this, FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD also work. NetBSD has fairly limited support for graphics hardware, though.

Finding one, and how much you should expect to pay.

Prices on the Blade 100 have fallen drastically in the last year or two. It's now quite rare to see them on sale for over US$250, and even this is rather high. It's still pretty common to find them with the original 15GB disk installed, but most have received RAM upgrades. The only snag is availability - because they're still somewhat current, some companies are still hanging onto their Blade 100s.

These machines are a very good introductory system for those just wanting one or two Sun machines to tinker with. They're actually a bit better than the Ultra 5 and 10 in that role, albeit a little harder to get. Unlike the U10, they lack a UPA slot, so if you really need one of the UPA graphics cards, you might be better off with the Ultra 10. Otherwise, however, the presence of USB and Firewire, combined with an IDE bus that's actually fairly performant, makes them a far nicer desktop system. RAM is also considerably easier to get and generally less expensive, which means that maxing out the RAM is much more practical than it is on the U5/10. All the onboard bits should be fast enough for daily desktop work, too.

Caveats

The standard cautions about PC-formatted hard drives apply here, as do those about PC PCI cards. There is one bug peculiar to Firewire-equipped Suns, however. Under Solaris 8 or 9, hotplugging of those vanishingly few supported devices does not work. Plugging the device in with the system up simply fails, and unplugging the device, if it was detected at bootup, can cause a kernel panic. So don't do that. Use Solaris 10 or Linux if you need Firewire, their drivers are sane.

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