HP's Z400 Workstation Runs The Tom's Hardware Gauntlet

Introduction: Evaluating Workstations

The top rung of desktop PCs includes workstation-class systems. These systems are built around Intel Xeon or AMD Opteron processors, using either high-end consumer chipsets or server/workstation-specific core logic. The graphics cards used are also professionally-oriented. Even though they are variants of and related to consumer graphics cards, they are not the same feature- or performance-wise (even though these differences may be primarily implemented in the drivers, and BIOS-based alterations prevent workstation drivers from working on consumer cards). For most workstation applications, onboard audio is sufficient. But for digital audio workstations, better audio subsystems that what you'd find on a consumer card is recommended. Professional audio cards usually have more inputs (as well as outputs), DSP-assisted mixing and effects, and they tend to have lower latencies than consumer cards, due in part to their native ASIO drivers.

Back before workstation hardware was heavily commoditized by companies like Intel, AMD, and Nvidia, the workstation market was dominated by Unix-derived systems built by Silicon Graphics, Sun, and Hewlett-Packard. Silicon Graphics' popularity in the workstation market began to decline in the late ‘90s in favor of Windows NT-based systems. This decline was accelerated by the rise of Linux-based machines in the segment, and SGI declared final bankruptcy on April 1, 2009. Sun suffered a similar fate and was acquired by Oracle on January 27, 2010. At the end of their lifetimes, both companies had largely moved away from the workstation segment and were focused on servers and high performance computing. Unix workstation vendors designing their own graphics systems were hard pressed to keep up with vendors like Nvidia and ATI, whose professional products had their development piggybacked onto the design and sales of millions of consumer-level graphics cards. Even manufacturers of dedicated workstation graphics cards like 3Dlabs and Accelgraphics had trouble competing.

Hewlett-Packard entered the workstation market in 1982 with the HP 9000 Series 200 and Series 500. The Series 200 included various Motorola 68000-based processors, and the Series 500 featured HP's FOCUS microprocessor architecture. These products, billed as "technical computers," ran the HP-developed UNIX operating system named HP-UX. From the mid-1980s onward, HP began the switch to using its own microprocessors based on its proprietary PA-RISC processor architecture. HP also partnered with Intel in developing the IA-64 architecture used in the Itanium processors. HP led the way into the Windows-based workstation market with the introduction of the HP Kayak workstations in 1996. Ever since, the company has been a leader in the workstation market segment.

Workstations were originally intended for engineering, CAD, and scientific visualization. But with the growth of digital content creation on the desktop, they've moved into that sector as well. The system requirements for a good 3D animation workstation are remarkably similar to a good engineering or CAD machine, while the specifications for other tasks like photo and video editing or digital audio work are somewhat different. 3D animation requires a fast processor, lots of memory, a strong GPU, and a significant amount of storage--but that disk space doesn’t necessarily have to be fast. Photo editing requires processor speed, RAM, and reasonably speedy storage. Video editing requires a speedy CPU, a moderate amount of RAM, and a lot of very fast storage.

Up until recently, the graphics card in a system largely dedicated to photo editing or video editing only needed to be powerful enough to drive the monitors, and 3D support was secondary to good quality 2D support. With the evolution of Nvidia's CUDA ecosystem, as well as Adobe’s CS5 suite and OpenCL, we are seeing a shift toward GPU-based processing, though. Tasks that formerly required little in the way of GPU horsepower will greatly benefit from a more powerful card moving forward.

  • bitter
    So JF was right to say that HT should be disabled in some scenarios
  • haplo602
    hmm ... I wonder if you could make a D3D/OGL comparison test in some 3D modeling software ? I don't actualy know if any of them supports both APIs.

    BTW you dual PCIex16 comment is wrong. There were dual PCIex16 slots in HP workstations since xwX400 models (6400,8400,9400).
  • Draven35
    Some of the other models have dual x16 slots... but they are rare in baseline models. At some point we'll look at how well an SLI config works in workstation OpenGL tests.

    3dsMax uses Direct3D (and OpenGL), but prefers Direct3D (it is 'recommended' by Autodesk on my GTX 460-equipped primary machine...), but Maya does not, it requires OpenGL.

    As for whether HT should be disabled? Still questionable. If you're doing animation, and have HT off, you'll gain some interactivity when working, but as soon as you need a test render you'll be losing time. If your 3D application does multithreaded interactiivty tasks, then you're better off with HT on- for instance, the VPR interactive shading mode in Lightwave 10. Its largely dependent on how your software responds to what, and hopefully we'll have more answers on that with the next workstation we look at.
  • ares1214
    Nice cable managment...
  • Draven35
    It came that way! The other models in the z-series have better cable management even, specially with the shrouds.
  • HibyPrime
    Lets see.

    2GB Ram - Not even close to be considered a usable workstation. - Nevermind, I messed up. I didn't see the (x3)

    250GB main/2TB raid 0 - raid 0 setups in workstations are used for scratch disks, and thats it - storage is too risky. 2x 250GB in raid 0 makes much more sense cost wise as you'll never use more than 500GB on a scratch disk, with a 1TB for temporary storage. I say temporary because a workstation is just that, once the work is done (and during) it's backed up and rarely used again.

    Creative Labs X-Fi Titanium PCIe - Any Audio professional needing sound quality is going to be using almost exclusively external hardware. The analog outputs all anyone else is going to need.

    Who ever chose the specs for this machine needs to be shot.
  • MU_Engineer
    This was an interesting review, but the real machine to test would have been the dual-processor Z800. The big advantages of a workstation are better reliability and stability than a standard desktop and the ability to use multiple processors and more RAM than a typical desktop. Perhaps a Z400 vs. Z800 test would have been interesting as there were a mix of poorly-threaded and well-threaded applications in the test.
  • warezme
    This machine is pathetic. Any decently configured OC'ed quadcore i7 will run circles around this thing, ugh.
  • Draven35
    It was agreed to start with a z400... the workstation tests were actually developed on this machine, hence why it has a Gen 1 board. Mayhap we'll look at a z800 later.

    Most video editors use a RAID array for their video files unless they are just editing DV. HD footage shot on a decent quality camera would quickly overwhelm your proposed 500GB array- the raw P2 footage alone for my film project was 350 GB, and that's before the scratch files generated for color correction and transition renders- and the P2 footage is pretty strongly compressed for semi-pro camera footage. (40 Mb/s) If you're editing uncompressed 1080 HD, you're dealing with 124 MB per second of video. With a larger array, a system like this could be set up for editing uncompressed HD with the simple addition of a BlackMagic Decklink in one of its HD flavors, or the HD version of the Avid Mojo if you prefer to work in something like Media Composer. With the transition of TV to HD, more and more projects are being finished for HD in an attempt to future-proof them- which has actually been going on for about five years before the transition. If you want to see something truly horrible, look at the data rates required for 2k or 4k playback...

    HP doesn't sell their machine configured with any kind of professional audio interfaces. They submit their machines for certification by Avid, and the 'full' Pro Tools (Pro Tools HD) comes from Avid on a z800.The audio interface choice for the system was either the Creative card, or the onboard RealTek codec, because that's what HP had and could configure a system with.

    You'll find a surprising number (like, most) audio guys including musicians these days working with a mix of software and hardware, and the mixing is done on a computer, not on external hardware. There are audio interfaces with two, four, six, eight and more inputs... my personal music workstation has eight analog inputs, plus ADAT and S/PDIF in. (Note, I need more like twice that in inputs.) You need all these input to capture multiple instruments on completely independent tracks simultaneously , so that they can be given separate effects and the mix can be adjusted on each track. (That's right, you can capture all those tracks at the same time.) Some of these audio interfaces are an internal card , some are an internal card plus an external breakout box (M-Audio Delta series, MOTU 2408, etc), and most are USB or firewire external (Presonus, TASCAM, Echo, Digidesign, Focusrite, et al) boxes with all the hardware located within it. In addition, many have PCI or PCIe DSP accelerator cards from UAD or TC electronic for effects processing and synthesis.
  • cadder
    The big advantages of a workstation are better reliability and stability than a standard desktop

    I'm not sure I understand this. A machine built with the best enthusiast-class hardware should be basically 100% reliable. The most unreliable part is the hard drive. This machine uses Seagate hard drives, probably the most unreliable brand of drives. This machine also uses an HP motherboard, and HP is below average in reliability in their retail products. Should we expect the workstation components to be better? As for stability, it's using the same OS that everybody else has access to.

    All of our CAD machines here use i5/750 CPU's, aftermarket coolers, 8GB, Gigabyte motherboards, a Velociraptor or SSD for the boot drive, a WD Black for the storage drive, ATI FireGL video cards, Win7 Pro 64bit. The machines run at 3.5GHz 24/7 with no problems. I add 2 cooling fans to each case and that in conjunction with the aftermarket cooler keeps things running real cool.