- Review Price: £1645.00
I can still remember when Matrox represented the pinnacle of PC graphics. There was a time when any PC without a Matrox Millennium graphics card was considered substandard, and pretty much every other graphics manufacturer struggled to keep up. But then 3D arrived, and things became more difficult for Matrox. Despite the evolution of the Millennium and the introduction of the Mystique, other companies started dropping huge amounts of cash into the 3D graphics market, as games became more and more demanding. Eventually Matrox pulled out of the mainstream 3D graphics market completely and went in search of a niche market.
Thankfully for Matrox it managed to successfully find that niche, and pretty much rules the multi-monitor market. Ok, so almost all graphics cards can drive two monitors these days, but Matrox has been producing four-head cards for years, which are ideal for financial institutions and medical facilities, where multiple displays are imperative but 3D graphics are unnecessary. Never a company to sit back on its laurels, Matrox has now evolved its multi monitor solution to a secure remote access system.
I spent many years working in the high performance computing arena, so I’m all too aware that in many cases data can be the most important commodity. Therefore keeping data safe is often the number one priority in the modern corporate world. Back in my day data was backed up every night and the tapes were stored in a fire-proof / bomb-proof safe – the idea being that even if the computer centre was razed to the ground, all the data would still be intact, bar a maximum of a day’s worth. But things have moved on since then and just keeping backups safe isn’t enough. Now companies want to keep the data and the systems that it’s stored on safe at all times.
This is where Matrox comes in with the Extio, which offers secure remote access, complete with multi-screen display options. The Extio itself is a small metal box that sits on your desk – it’s completely silent, with no fans or moving parts and even the amount of heat it generates is minimal. At it’s most basic level the Extio is an external version of one of Martox’s quad-head graphics cards, but there’s a little more too it than that – I did say that the Extio offered remote access after all.
What makes the Extio really interesting is that the box on your desk is connected to a workstation that can be up to 250m away from you, using fibre optic cabling. This means that a company can have a secure, disaster proof data room, where all the important hardware is kept safe, but the users can still access their machines seamlessly, as if the PC was sitting on their desk.
Inside the host PC is an x1 PCI Express card which sends all the graphical data down the fibre optic cable to the Extio box. As far as the PC is concerned, it’s communicating directly with the graphics card and isn’t even aware that the user is up to 250m away. The interface card can also be connected via an Express Card slot, or even a PCI slot, where a bridge chip is needed to transpose the PCI data to PCIe before it’s sent up the fibre cable.
Matrox has set the 250m limit because that’s the point at which the PC may recognise a delay between it sending the graphic data and the graphics chip acknowledging receipt. So this isn’t a replacement for IP based remote access, but then IP based remote access isn’t a completely seamless experience for the end user either.
The Extio box measures 300 x 145 x 25mm (WxDxH), which makes it far smaller than even the tiniest PC. At the rear is a connector for the external power supply, and four DVI ports for connecting up your four desktop monitors. Next to the DVI inputs you’ll find the port for the fibre optic cable that connects the Extio to its host PC. Finally at the rear are two USB ports for hooking up a keyboard and mouse, along with a line-out port for your speakers. On the front there’s the power switch, four more USB ports and an audio complement comprising headphone, microphone and line-in sockets.
With all of the graphic rendering being done by the Extio box, it really does feel as if your keyboard and mouse are connected directly to the PC – in fact if you didn’t tell an end user any different, that’s exactly what they’d think.
Even if you’re not obsessed with data security, the fact that the Extio is a completely silent solution will make it potentially attractive in environments where noise is an issue. Recording studios for example could use high powered PCs without having to put up with the constant drone of cooling fans – an Extio installation would give you all the power of a high-end workstation, while the noisy hardware whirs away in a soundproof room in another part of the building.
Another thing that the Extio has going for it is the fact that Matrox is good at multi-monitor configurations, very good in fact. You can configure the Extio to create four discrete desktops on your four displays, or you can stretch your desktop across them all. I hooked up four Eizo 1,600 x 1,200 displays, creating a total desktop area of 6,400 x 1,200, which is pretty impressive to say the least. But even with the desktop stretched across all the displays, you can apply some pretty neat options via the Matrox tools. For example, if you want to maximise a window, rather than it expanding to the whole, massive desktop area, it will expand to fill a single screen – it’s even smart enough to fill the screen that’s displaying the most pixels at the time.
The version of the Extio that I got my paws on could only drive four 1,600 x 1,200 monitors, but Matrox assured me that the production model that is going out to customers can drive four 1,920 x 1,200 monitors, which gives you a massive amount of desktop space.
Another advantage of having the PC remote from the end user, is that the end user never has direct access to the computer. Of course the plethora of USB ports mean that the end user can still copy data to and from the host PC easily, and you can’t simply disable the USB ports, since you need at least two of them active for the keyboard and mouse. A system administrator could however, limit the devices that can use the USB ports, or simply disable write access, so that no data can be removed from the host. If a company is really paranoid about its staff though (and if it is, you have to wonder why it hired them in the first place), you could simply put the Extio in a locking cage that prevents access to any of the ports. A bit excessive one might say, but if you’re data really is that sensitive, perhaps quite prudent.
Of course if you aren’t completely paranoid about your data, the USB ports on the Extio really add to the seamless experience – even though the PC could be hundreds of metres away, you can still plug in an external hard disk, a webcam or even synchronise your smartphone.
At £1,645 the Matrox Extio doesn’t come cheap, but then solutions like this rarely do – ultimately, if you need this type of solution, then cost is unlikely to be the defining factor. If ambient noise is a major enemy to your business, the Extio provides the solution. If you want all your PCs in a secure room instead of on your employees’ desks, the Extio provides the solution. If you have a floor full of users that need high-end PCs, but don’t have the space, the Extio provides the solution.
The Matrox Extio is a very targeted product that addresses very specific users. If however you or your company falls into that target area, you’ll probably see the Extio as a revelation – a solution to a problem that you thought was insurmountable. Yes it’s expensive, and yes it requires considerable infrastructure groundwork at rollout, but if your company is short on space, obsessive about ambient noise or just paranoid about data security, the effort of installing Extio systems could be well worth it.
Score in detail
Unlike other sites, we thoroughly test every product we review. We use industry standard tests in order to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever accept money to review a product. Tell us what you think - send your emails to the Editor.