Over the years computing power has reached phenomenal milestones. I remember the day when the hottest topic was Intel’s 500MHz CPU, and how it was a ‘powerhouse’ for applications of the time. In today’s world, more and more people are putting their PCs through grueling tasks every day. Whether it’s a three hour gaming marathon with maxed out settings or trying to edit a 1048p home video, the demand for more computing power has risen greatly. At the same time, enterprise computing demands have also escalated. Companies now want faster machines for their employees, and want even faster servers to power their architecture. Engineers need to perform hundreds of calculations to render a single CAD diagram. Animators need to immediately see how a texture or light source affects their model. Producers need to scrub through hours of high-definition video without skipping a single second.
So where do they get all this computing power from? The answer lies in workstations – computers that harness server-level computer architecture in a form factor that won’t cave a hole in the floor. HP is one company who’ve got their own line of workstations dubbed as the ‘Z’ series. The Z series is a highly configurable range of workstations that can adapt to almost any scenario, be it for animation or complex financial calculations. I was lucky enough to tinker with the Z800 for a few weeks to see just how much of a punch this thing could pack. Needles to say, I was knocked out in round 1.
Build quality & design
The Z800 is the high-end model and the third of HP’s Z series lineup. The ‘entry-level’ Z400 is best suited for tasks such as simple animation and film editing, while the next model up Z600 can take on more processor-intensive tasks such as CAD. The Z800 can handle almost anything thrown at it, so if you’re in the market for a computing powerhouse, this is the model for you. It’s worth noting that all of the Z series have had a recent upgrade, so the Z420, Z620, and Z820 are the newer models available.
The first thing you notice about the Z800 is just how sleek and beautiful the design is – and that’s just from the outside. BMW Designworks helped design the new look of the Z series, and it’s a wonder to look at. Sleek grooves run across the front and top of the case, which help distribute heat and improve ventilation. There’s a sturdy handle integrated into the top of the case, which allows you to move the Z800 much quicker than trying to hoist it up and carry it at chest-level like a normal PC (this thing weighs approximately 22kgs, so the handle is a big plus).
At the front of the workstation is direct access to the optical drive, as well as a free bay slot for a second optical drive or additional hardware such as a sound kit. There’s a small power button and HDD activity light, as well as three USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, and a single Firewire port. The inclusion of a Firewire port on the front will make it easy for those working with video to just plug in their devices and download their video clips.
At the back of the workstation is a avalanche of ports, including six additional USB ports, another Firewire port, two Ethernet ports, COM port, audio in and out, and depending on your graphics card ports for DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort.
The spectacular design doesn’t just stop at the outside. One of the key features of HP’s workstations is the ability to open the case up and swap components around without needing a single screw. This tool-less entry is an absolute joy, and any components that you can remove on the inside are clearly tagged with a green marker, so you won’t go fiddling around unnecessarily. What’s even better is that the side panel has a full layout of the internals actually etched into it, so you can always use it as a handy reference point.
One of the standout features of the internals has to be the power supply. The 1,100W beast bears no resemblance to the PSU found in regular desktop machines, and instead opts for a slimmer, longer design that fits into the top of the case. The design allows cool air to be taken in from the front and pushed out the back, keeping everything at optimum temperatures.
Having the PSU away from the other components also means that HP were able to have enough room to improve circulation across other key components such as the CPU and memory modules. There are fans aplenty inside, providing cool air across the memory modules and the installed CPUS. It’s certainly a very unique design, and one that will pay off – HP stresses that they want to make their workstations as easy as possible for users to configure and upgrade themselves, and it shows through every inch of the Z800’s internals.
As the Z800 sits on the top-end of HP’s range, this machine can pack a punch if configured with the right internals. Here’s a quick look at what you can pop into this workstation:
Genuine Windows® 7 Enterprise 32/64
Genuine Windows® XP Professional 32/64
Genuine Windows® Vista Business 32/64
SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11
Solaris 10, 11
Ubuntu 10.04, 10.10, 11.04
|Up to Intel® Xeon® processor 3.20 GHz|
|Two (Quad or Six core)|
|3-channel 800/1066/1333 MHz DDR3 memory subsystem|
Up to 192GB memory capacity
|2 PCI Express Gen2 x16 slots (full-length, full-height)|
2 PCI Express Gen2 x8 slots - with x16 connectors (full-length, full-height)
1 PCI Express Gen2 x4 slot - with x8 connector (half-length, full-height)
1 PCI Express Gen1 x4 slot - with x8 connector (full-length, full-height)
1 PCI 32bit/33MHz slot, (full-length, full-height)
|4 internal 3.5" bays|
|3 external 5.25" bays|
|3 USB 2.0, 1 Headphone Out, 1 Microphone In, and 1 IEEE 1394a|
6 USB 2.0
PS/2 keyboard and mouse
2 RJ-45 to integrated Gigabit LAN
1 Audio Line In, 1 Audio Line Out, 1 Microphone In
|44.4 x 20.3 x 52.5 cm|
|850W / 1110W|
|6-channel SATA 3.0 Gb/s Interface|
8-channel SAS interface
1 Floppy interface (1 Floppy connector), IEEE 1394a, USB 2.0
|SATA and SAS controllers|
As you can see, the Z800 can pack some serious computing power if fully kitted out, so take your time in choosing your components. Our test unit came with a somewhat simpler setup, but was by no means sluggish. It packed 12.0 GB DDR3 666MHz SDRAM of RAM, 2 x Intel Xeon CPU X5650 @ 2.67GHz processors (12 cores in total), 500GB (7200) SATA HDD, and sported a nVidia Quadro 4000 graphics card.
Software & Benchmarks
While HP’s consumer-end laptops and PCs bundle with a suite of applications, the Z800 was packaged with just the bare essentials. There’s software for burning CDs and using the Light-scribe features of the optical drive, as well as HP ProtectTools software that allows you to troubleshoot various areas of your Z800 through some simple steps and diagnostics. There’s also a hardware monitor for more advanced users who want to keep an eye on system resources and temperatures.
Boot time from the Windows 7 logo to the desktop was about 42.3 seconds, which I can’t really complain about as for the most part once this system is turned on, I think that there’s a slim chance that it will be turned off again. The quiet operation and various power saving modes mean that you can just turn off your monitor at the end of the day and the machine will gradually enter into a power-saving mode as configured by your OS.
Benchmarking the Z800 was going to be a challenge. The usual software that we run would not really tax the Z800, so I had to come up with new benchmarks that would actually determine if the Z800 was really the powerhouse HP claimed it to be. My first test was a simple photo editing one in Paint Shop Pro XII. I chose this over Photoshop because traditionally Corel software is almost as resource-hungry (if not more) as Adobe, and plus it allowed me to run scripts on the Z800 that I usually use for photo editing on my regular machine. The test involved 20 images of a recent press event, taken at a resolution of 2048 x 1536 at 72dpi. The script would take each image and first change the resolution to 3456 x 2304 at 72dpi. It would then apply a -5% contrast value, and then apply an automatic color correction feature that would clean up any cloudy areas of the photo. The final image was then saved as a new JPEG file with 25% compression. This test will roughly benchmark how quickly the CPU can run through the script as well as how quickly the new image can be written to the hard drive. The test took approximately 8 minutes on my regular machine, while the Z800 was able to complete it in under 3 minutes
It was time to really see what this machine was capable of, so I downloaded and ran SPECviewperf 11, a software that runs a series of intense rendering sequences to test both CPU and GPU speeds. It renders scenes in both 3D Studio Max as well as Maya, two of the top animation suites being used today. After running the test thrice, the average end scores for each test were as follows (details of each test are here
I could have possibly have squeezed a bit more juice out the machine if there was a faster graphics card, but even with the supplied Quadro 4000 the end scores are nothing to scoff at. I also fired up Maya on its own and loaded a quick template that I had downloaded of a dragon. Without any texture details or complex light sources, I was able to render a high-resolution image of the model in under four seconds, which was really impressive. The model had 120,844 faces, and as you can see below was easy for the Z800 to render.
I next fired up Adobe Premier Pro for a quick video test. I took eight HD clips I had recorded on my Canon 55D, and just dropped them in one after another without any transitions or special effects. I then exported the movie as a Quicktime movie, with 32 bit audio at 48,000Hz and 720x480 resolution. The entire clip was encoded in about 3 hours on my regular machine, while the Z800 output the file in just under 41 minutes. It’s ridiculous that I have to often leave my projects for encoding overnight or while I’m out to lunch, while the Z800 can process and output everything in a fraction of the time.
My final test was with DAWBench, which was recommended to me by a friend who’s an audio engineer. The software helps stress test a system on how it handles multiple audio tracks and channels in real-time, which is useful for anyone who intends to use the Z800 for audio work and mixing soundtracks. Often when too many tracks are applied, playback begins to break up or pauses completely. I ran DAWBench with a sample project that has 196 different samples in it along with 2 vocal tracks. With Hyper Threading enabled, the system had zero problems running the track and letting me tweak various settings as it played back. With HT off, the playback started stuttering just a few seconds into the piece, and changing any setting resulted in the project pausing for at least three seconds before resuming playback. This test clearly showed the HT and multi-core capabilities of the Z800 are a must for anyone who’s serious about using this workstation as their main production unit. Just for routine sake I ran Cinebench 11.5 with multi-cores enabled, which came out with a score of 11.42 running at 55.74fps.
Heat and Noise levels
Since the Z800 has so many fans inside, the system stays relatively cool during use. When idle the system registered the cores running at 24C, but when I repeated some of the benchmarks several times, I was able to register a temperature of nearly 67C. Despite this, the fans never went into overdrive and the system remained fairly quiet. Often you will hear a gentle hum which is the hard drive spinning up during write-intensive sessions, but it doesn’t get on your nerves.
The Z800 is a workstation with a purpose. Anyone who demands computing power that’s reliable and can get through workflows in minutes instead of hours will appreciate the power that’s hiding in the Z800. At a recent HP press event I was lucky to meet the team from Bandito Brothers, a media company who recently put out a movie called ‘Act of Valor’, which was edited and wrapped up using a HP Z800. Large animation studios use the Z800 to render some of the recent blockbuster Hollywood films, and even as far as the stock exchange and surgery rooms can you find the Z800 quietly toiling away. Though the Z820 is the recent upgrade model, the Z800 is a phenomenal piece of hardware that can eat up anything you throw at it. If you’re in the market for a no-nonsense machine that can deliver some truly outstanding computing power, then I can proudly recommend you look at the Z800.