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Balancing Price and Performance

By David Cohn

Lenovo recently sent us its ThinkStation S30, the latest iteration of its single-socket workstation family aimed squarely at the midrange CAD market. While we recently reviewed the company’s newest entry-level E30 system (see DE July 2012), it’s been nearly three years since we looked at the S30’s predecessor, the ThinkStation S20 (see DE November 2009).

The new Lenovo ThinkStation S30 combines the latest Intel Xeon processors and NVIDIA graphics to create another excellent midrange CAD workstation.

There have been lots of changes during those three years "even though outwardly, the ThinkStation S30 looks nearly identical to the system it replaces. Like other ThinkStation workstations, the S30 comes housed in an attractive black case, which measures 6.9×18.1×16.8 in. (WxDxH). A removable front handle adds 2 in. to the height of the case. There’s also a metal lip on the rear of the case as a second lift point. Our evaluation unit weighed 29.5 lbs.

The S30’s front panel also appears virtually unchanged from its predecessor. The top portion provides two 5.25-in. drive bays, one of which contained a 16X DVD+/-RW dual-layer optical drive. Below these is a 3.5-in. bay containing a 25-in-1 media card reader, as well as a panel containing the power button, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, and headphone and microphone jacks. Icons above these ports light up, making them easier to find in low-light conditions. There’s a spot for a FireWire (1394) port, but this $29 option was not included in our system.

The rear panel was also largely unchanged from the earlier system, except for the inclusion of two USB 3.0 ports in addition to eight more USB 2.0 ports. There is also a 9-pin serial port, one RJ45 jack for the integrated Intel 82579 Gigabit Ethernet, and thee audio jacks (line-in, line-out and microphone) for the integrated Realtec HD audio. Lenovo also offers an optional Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi sound card.

Lifting a small lever and removing the left panel of the tool-less chassis exposes a well-organized interior, and it is here that three years of progress becomes evident. At the heart of the new Lenovo ThinkStation S30 is a single CPU socket that can accommodate any of Intel’s “Sandy Bridge” processors. Our evaluation unit came equipped with a 3.6GHz Intel E5-1620 CPU, the fastest available quad-core processor, but Lenovo offers other Intel CPUs ranging from a 2.8GHz quad-core E5-1603 up to the eight-core 2.90GHz E5-2690. The Intel Xeon E5-1620 has a 10MB cache and a maximum turbo speed of 3.8GHz, with four memory channels, support for PCIe 3.0, and a thermal design power (TDP) rating of 130 watts.

The CPU is virtually hidden beneath a large heat sink and dedicated cooling fan. It is flanked to either side by banks of four dual in-line memory module (DIMM) sockets, for a maximum memory capacity of 128GB (using registered RAM modules or 64GB using unfiltered RAM). Two of the eight memory sockets in our evaluation unit were filled with 4GB 1,333MHz uDIMM modules for a total of 8GB of RAM. The S30 supports memory speeds up to 1,600MHz.

The motherboard also provides a total of five expansion slots: three full-length PCIe 3.0×16 slots (one of which is only x4 electrically), a full-length 32-bit PCI 2.3 slot, and a half-length PCIe 2.0 x4 slot. One of the x16 slots in our evaluation unit was filled with an NVIDIA Quadro 4000 graphics accelerator with 2GB of discrete GDDR5 memory and 256 compute unified device architecture (CUDA) cores.

This high-end GPU provides a single dual link DVI-I connector and two DisplayPorts. Although its 142-watt power consumption requires an auxiliary power connection, it occupies just a single slot, so the other four expansion slots in the Lenovo S30 remain available for future expansion. Lenovo also offers other NVIDIA graphics boards, ranging from the entry-level NVS 310 to the ultra-high-end NVIDIA Quadro 5000.

Like its predecessor, the drive cage in the ThinkStation S30 provides three 3.5-in. internal drive bays with quick-release acoustic dampening rails. Our evaluation unit came equipped with a pair of 500GB Western Digital Caviar 7,200rpm drives configured in a redundant array of independent disks (RAID) 0; they appeared as a single 1TB drive. While that arrangement can boost performance, it’s not the safest configuration because all data would be lost if either drive failed.

The system BIOS also supports RAID 1 and RAID 5, and the motherboard includes three SATA/SAS connectors for hard drives and four additional SATA connectors for optical drives and additional hard drives. There’s also an eSATA connector and an internal USB port. In addition to the drives in our evaluation unit, Lenovo offers other SATA hard drives up to 2TB in capacity, a 128GB solid state drive, and 15,000rpm SAS drives of up to 300GB (with the inclusion of an optional SAS enablement module).

The 610-watt power supply remains relatively unchanged from the previous model, but should deliver ample energy to meet any of the system’s expansion needs. In spite of fans on the CPU, rear panel, power supply and graphics card, the S30 is virtually silent after its initial startup.

Click here to download the benchmark comparison.

Excellent Performance

Once again, Lenovo proves that its engineers know how to combine and configure quality components for optimum performance. The ThinkStation S30 equipped with the NVIDIA Quadro 4000 graphics board turned in some of the best SPECviewperf scores we’ve recorded to date on a single-socket workstation without the added boost of an over-clocked CPU.

When we turned our attention to the SPECapc SolidWorks benchmark, which is more of a real-world test (and breaks out graphics, CPU and I/O performance separately from the overall score), the S30 also did quite well. Because we previously tested systems using an older version of this benchmark under Windows XP and have since moved to a new release of the test under Windows 7, the ratio results are not directly comparable. Looking at the times, however, the S30 did extremely well "even outperforming some other systems equipped with over-clocked CPUs.

On the AutoCAD rendering test, which is multi-threaded and therefore clearly shows the benefits of multiple CPU cores, the Lenovo ThinkStation S30 turned in the best results of any single-socket quad-core-based system we’ve ever tested, taking just over one minute to complete the rendered image.

Lenovo rounded out our evaluation unit with a full-size 104-key USB keyboard and USB optical roller wheel mouse. Lenovo pre-installed 64-bit Windows 7, and customers can pay an additional $15 to receive Windows 8 when it is released. Microsoft Office, as well as other application software, is also available at the time of purchase. Lenovo backs the system with a three-year limited warranty on parts and labor, and offers onsite service and priority tech support. It also offers four- and five-year warranties for an additional cost.

A base S30 system starts at $899, but that price is based on a lesser CPU and just 2GB of memory. Yet even as equipped, our evaluation unit priced out at just $2,614, making the Lenovo ThinkStation S30 affordable.

Like its predecessor, the ThinkStation S30 is a great midrange CAD workstation, offering excellent performance at a very reasonable price.

David Cohn is the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies. He also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering and the author of more than a dozen books. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at DSCohn.com.



Lenovo ThinkStation S30

Price: $2,594 as tested ($899 base price)

Size: 6.9×18.1×18.8-in. (WxDxH) tower

Weight: 29.5 lbs.

CPU: Intel Xeon (Quad Core) E5-1620 3.6GHz

Memory: 8GB DDR3 ECC at 1,333MHz

Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro 4000

Hard Disk: two Western Digital Caviar 500GB SATA 7,200rpm

drives in a RAID 0 array

Optical: 16X DVD+/-RW Dual-Layer

Audio: onboard HD Realtek ALC662 codec (front panel: microphone, headphone; rear panel: line-in, line-out, microphone)

Network: integrated Gigabit Ethernet (Intel 82579), one

RJ45 port

Other: One 9-pin serial, 10 USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, 20-in-1

media card reader

Keyboard: 104-key Lenovo Preferred USB keyboard

Pointing device: Lenovo USB optical wheel mouse

Power supply: 610 watts

Warranty: 3 years parts and labor

About David Cohn

David Cohn has been using AutoCAD for more than 25 years and is the author of more than a dozen books on the subject. He’s the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies, a contributing editor to Digital Engineering, and also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA. Watch for his latest CADLearning eBooks on AutoCAD 2015 on the Apple iBookstore, at Amazon, and on the CADLearning website. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.