Introducing the HP Z420 Workstation

Recently we had a chance to review Dell's Precision T3600, and we found it impressive. A company that seemed content to be an also-ran in the enterprise desktop space reinvigorated itself with smart new chassis designs to go along with the refreshed hardware from Intel and NVIDIA, and the resulting system proved as easy to service as it was powerful. Dell and HP can both talk up how fast their computers are, but fundamentally they're still working from the same building blocks that Intel, NVIDIA, and AMD provide them.

HP, as the incumbent enterprise vendor, sent us their Z420. From the chassis design perspective it's certainly nowhere near as radical a departure as Dell's revised Precision lineup is, but now we get a chance to set these standards against each other. On top of that, we also get our first look at Intel's octal-core Xeon processors in a desktop workstation environment.

When last we checked in with HP's workstation line, it was with their small form factor Z210, a respectable amount of power crammed into a remarkably tiny chassis. Despite being an SFF system, the Z210 sported NVIDIA Quadro graphics, a strong Xeon processor, and all of HP's software trimmings. Those same trimmings emerge again here, but this time HP benefits from a full ATX enclosure and the relaxed thermal constraints therein. Here's what we received for review:

HP Z420 Specifications
Chassis HP Custom
Processor Intel Xeon E5-2687W
(8x3.1GHz + HTT, Turbo to 3.8GHz, 32nm, 20MB L3, 150W)
Motherboard HP Custom with C600 Chipset
Memory 8x2GB Hynix ECC DDR3-1600 (max 8x8GB)
Graphics NVIDIA Quadro 4000
(256 CUDA cores, 475MHz/950MHz/2.8GHz core/shaders/memory, 256-bit memory bus)
Hard Drive(s) Micron RealSSD C400 256GB SSD
Optical Drive(s) HP DVD-RAM GH80N
Power Supply HP Custom 80 Plus Gold
Networking Intel 82579LM Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC262
Speaker and mic/line-in jacks
Front Side Optical drive
1x USB 2.0
2x USB 3.0
1x 6-pin FireWire
Headphone and mic jacks
Card reader
Top -
Back Side Power button
2x PS/2
1x 6-pin FireWire
4x USB 2.0
2x USB 3.0
Ethernet jack
Speaker, mic, and line-in jacks
DVI-D (Quadro)
2x DisplayPort (Quadro)
Operating System Windows 7 Professional 64-bit SP1
Extras USB 3.0
HP Performance Advisor software
600W 80 Plus Gold PSU
Intel vPro
Warranty 3-year parts and 3-year on-site service
Pricing Starting at: $1,711
Price as configured: $6,757

Dell's competing revised Precision line is still nowhere to be found on their site, giving HP the advantage of time-to-market, but it may cost you. Even in a comparable configuration to Dell's Precision T3600, HP costs at least $200 more. And our review sample? It will set you back a whopping $6750, though that's pushing some of the highest performance configuration options.

The hardware itself is in many ways very similar to Dell's configuration, but HP was able to secure an Intel Xeon E5-2687W for us to test with. This CPU is nearly $2,000 on its own, but with the added cooling requirements the CPU upgrade tacks on over $3300 relative to the base model E5-1603. The E5-2687W is the fastest octal-core processor HP offers, sporting a nominal 3.1GHz clock on all eight cores with a hefty 150W TDP (what the "W" on the model number signifies), and it's capable of turbo-ing up to 3.4GHz on six-to-eight cores, 3.5GHz on four or five cores, 3.6GHz on two or three cores, and 3.8GHz on a single core. That's actually mostly competitive with desktop Sandy Bridge chips in terms of clock speed. Because the E5-2687W is a Sandy Bridge-EP part, it doesn't benefit from Ivy Bridge's architectural improvements or 22nm process technology; it's still built on 32nm.

This may actually be of interest to enthusiasts, though, since I think the clocks on Intel's octal-core Xeons are indicative of why we probably won't see a standard consumer version. Even with an additional 20W of thermal headroom, the E5-2687W still isn't able to run at the same nominal clocks as the i7-3960X. With diminishing returns for enthusiasts even at six cores, sacrificing a substantial amount of clock speed for eight cores to hit the 130W threshold probably just doesn't seem worth the investment to Intel. I'm not sure I blame them. Turbo makes up for a lot of the difference but not all of it.

The rest of the build is a touch more aggressive than the system Dell sent us. We get 16GB of ECC DDR3-1600 at 11-11-11-28 timings as opposed to 8GB of ECC DDR3-1333 along with a fast Micron RealSSD C400 SSD. HP was actually willing to walk us through a review configuration, which is how we arrived at a single 256GB SSD with no hard disk backup (and the octal-core Xeon).

Our Quadro 4000 remains identical to the Dell model, based on GF100/110 but heavily cut down to fit a thermal envelope. As I mentioned in the T3600 review, this is the kind of GPU configuration that only makes sense in a workstation where double-precision performance can be relevant. That's part of why Tesla cards on GK104 may not be as appealing to enterprise users, and why NVIDIA essentially bifurcated their enterprise lineup depending on usage scenario. GK104 beats the pants off of GF110 in gaming situations, but the instant double-precision math or ECC memory support are added to the mix, the GK104 gets taken off the table. HP does offer an even higher performing Quadro 5000 if you need even more GPU power.

All told, the Z420 we received should be one of the fastest workstations in our test suite. It's going to cost an awful lot, but for the intended market the cost of the hardware likely pales in comparison to the salary of the user and the software it will run. Let's get to the benchmarks and see how it stacks up to the competition.

Application and Futuremark Performance
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  • theSeb - Monday, May 21, 2012 - link


    "You're missing the whole point of a Xeon CPU and its uses."
  • mapesdhs - Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - link

    That's a very good point to highlight - some users need ECC RAM
    for their task, and of course pro systems tend to have much higher
    max RAM limits than consumer boards (useful for medical, GIS, etc.)
    My Dell T7500 just has 24GB atm, but it can take 144GB, though
    if maxed out the speed is not that great. Still, the capability is there.

    X79 solves the RAM problem to some extent on the desktop for solo
    professionals looking for value without blowing thousands on a pro
    system, but as you say it's a consideration each user must bare in

    I recently built a system for use with AE for a solo artist guy, a blend
    of consumer and professional hw, runs very nicely. i7 2600K @ 4.7,
    16GB DDR3/2133, 90GB SSD, LSI 3041E-R, 2x73GB 15K SAS,
    Quadro 600, ASUS Z68 board, Antec 300, Toughpower 750W PSU.
    I sourced used parts where sensible, total cost less than 900 UKP,
    saved him about 400 compared to buying all-new. Performance is
    very respectable; compare the following numbers to the data in this
    Z420 review (remember this is with a Quadro 600, so compare to
    the Quadro 600 numbers in the review):

    CATIA-03: 17.55
    ENSIGHT-04: 10.57
    LW-01: 44.40
    MAYA-03: 26.60
    PROE-05: 11.99
    SW-02: 30.97
    TCVIS-02: 16.10
    SNX-01: 13.12

    Interesting thing is though, for those who care about Viewperf 11,
    these numbers are only about 1 or 2% quicker than the same
    Quadro 600 running with a crazy cheap 4.7GHz i3 550 (ProE is
    the exception, it gains 10% moving to the 2600K, ie. result with
    the i3 550 is 10.84).

    Be careful of Viewperf - it's probably not respresentative of pro
    tasks which do impose a strain on the main CPU(s) aswell as a
    heavy 3D load.

  • colonelclaw - Monday, May 21, 2012 - link

    Hi guys, thanks for a great review as always. Any chance that in the future you include a VRay benchmark please? It's very popular, cross-platform, and supported by nearly all the top 3D packages.
  • majortom1981 - Monday, May 21, 2012 - link

    I am typing this on a z600. The z4xx series was originally the bottom of the barrel workstation.

    The z6xx is a much better built workstation. So do not judge the whole z series based on the z420.

    My z600 is all metal and is built like a tank and from pictures of the z620 it has not changed at all.

    Please review the 620 if you can its case design is different.
  • Ytterbium - Thursday, August 2, 2012 - link

    this comment is true, I think the Z620 would be a better competitor.

    The Z4xx to me is for someone who want's a entry level workstation

    I have a Z2xx and the chassis is the same as the 8200 elite, just the motherboard is upgraded to C200 so it can run ECC ram.
  • trivor - Monday, May 21, 2012 - link

    It sure seems to me like a high end gaming rig (from a name brand manufacturer if IT needs it) would certainly be able to give these workstations a run for the money for a lot less money - say a core i7 3960 (6 core @ 3.3 GHz, SLI GTX 570s, 120 GB-240GB SSD with a 2 TB data drive) for around $3500-4000. I think the need for true workstations (Like in the 90s with Sun or Silicon graphics) for most people doing CAD or something along those lines can certainly be more cost effective than these workstations - but I may be wrong.
  • mapesdhs - Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - link

    Gamer cards totally suck for most pro apps. The driver optimisations are very
    different, as are the feature sets. In certain cases a gamer card can run a pro
    app ok (Ensight is the ony example I know of), but pro apps usually run much
    better on a Quadro. Likewise, gaming performance on a Quadro is terrible.
    Games need features like 2-sided textures, pro apps need features like AA
    lines; this is why the drivers & optimisations are different.

    CPU-wise though, you're right, though an oc'd 3930K makes much more sense than
    the waste-of-money 3960X.

    However, as an earlier poster mentioned, remember the ECC RAM issue. If someone
    needs this, then a consumer build is not an option.

  • sicofante - Monday, May 21, 2012 - link

    I'd think HP has enough money to hire some designers, not just engineers.

    This thing is vulgar as hell. I understand those worried by looks are not majority among the buyers of a workstation, but certainly industrial designers and media content creators are a target for these machines and they value the looks.
  • Gc - Monday, May 21, 2012 - link

    "Z420: 323"
    "T3600: 262"

    (difference: 61)

    "under load the extra 20 watts off of the processor, the closed-loop liquid cooler, and the four extra DIMMs all seem to take their pound of flesh. I have a hard time believing that accounts for a full EIGHTY watts of power" [emphasis added]

    20 watts for the processor, ~10--15 for the water pump, ~8--10 for the 4 more ECC dimms, leaves about 16--23 watts unaccounted for.
  • Dustin Sklavos - Monday, May 21, 2012 - link

    Aw man, I suck at math.

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