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HP’s Flagship Engineering Workstation Raises the Bar

By David Cohn

It’s been more than two years since HP first showed off its Z800, the flagship of its redesigned Z-series workstations (see DE, January 2010). This month, we get a chance to review the Z820, the successor to the Z800.

From the outside, the Z820 looks nearly identical to its predecessor. The only visual difference we could readily see was the inclusion of a conventional 16X SuperMulti DVD+/-RW tray-loading optical drive rather than the slot-loading drive in our original Z800, as well as flat covers over the other two empty 5.25-in. front panel drive bays. A slot-loading DVD drive is available as an option, or you could opt for a tray-loading Blu-ray Disc writer.

The new HP Z820 workstation looks nearly identical to the original Z800, with brushed aluminum side panels and integrated handles. Although shown here with a single slot-loading DVD drive, our evaluation came with a more conventional tray-loading drive.

Other than that, a narrow vertical panel along the right front of the case still provides a power button, three USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, and an IEEE 1394a FireWire connector, but now, two of those USB sockets are blue USB 3.0 ports. An optional front panel-mounted 22-in-1 media card reader is also available.

The rear panel adds two more USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, and a second FireWire connector "as well as one 9-pin serial port, separate PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors, a pair of RJ-45 jacks for the integrated Gigabit LAN (including one that is active management technology, or AMT-enabled), and audio-in, audio-out and microphone jacks.

When we removed the large aluminum side panel, we were greeted by a modular interior, with plastic airflow guides covering all of the components so that that each receives a constant supply of air. Green touch-points indicated how to remove each component.

Four 3.5-in. drive bays located in front of the expansion card area feature special drive carriers with spring-loaded, acoustically isolated clips that hold each drive in place, while at the same time ensuring that vibrations from spinning drives are not transmitted to the case. Once mounted in the carrier, each drive simply slides into the cage and connects using blind mate connectors, eliminating the need to connect cables. In our evaluation unit, one of these drive bays was filled with a 300GB 15,000-rpm SAS hard drive. HP offers drives ranging from 7,200 rpm SATA drives of up to 3TB, 10,000- and 15,000-rpm SASA drives of up to 600GB, and solid-state drives of up to 300GB. The Z820 also supports many redundant array of independent disks (RAID) configurations.

Inside, all components are concealed beneath airflow guides. Yet each component "including the power supply "can be easily removed by pulling on green “touch-points.”

With the I/O cover removed, we were able to grasp two more green touch-points to remove the cowl concealing the CPUs and memory sockets. In a change from the Z800, this component in the Z820 now incorporates six additional fans dedicated to cooling the processor and memory, with power to these fans supplied by another blind mate connector. A bank of four single in-line memory module (SIMM) sockets sits to either side of the CPU, for a total of 16 memory slots. Each CPU was concealed beneath its own dedicated liquid cooling module with its own radiator and fan, while two more exhaust fans push hot air out through the rear panel.

At the top, the power supply spans the full depth of the case. And as was true in the Z800, it too is easily removable by simply pulling on an integrated handle. But this time around, in addition to an 850-watt, 88% efficient power supply, users can opt for a larger 1,125-watt, 90% efficient model, required on systems equipped with dual CPUs.

Second-generation CPU

Our evaluation unit came equipped with two new 3.1GHz Intel Xeon E5-2687W CPUs, based on Intel’s latest iteration of its “Sandy Bridge” architecture. This second-generation CPU features eight CPU cores, a 20MB cache, 40 lanes of third-generation PCIe, and a quad-channel memory controller capable of supporting DDR3-1600 memory. The processor provides a maximum turbo boost frequency of 3.8GHz while maintaining a maximum thermal design power (TDP) of 150 watts. The CPUs are backed by an Intel C602 chipset. HP offers a choice of 14 different Intel Xeon processors, including quad-core, six-core and other eight-core CPUs.

Half of the 16 dual in-line memory module (DIMM) slots in our unit were filled with 4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3 memory modules, for a total of 32GB of RAM. The Z820 can support up to 512GB of memory. The motherboard also provides expansion options, with three PCIe Generation 3 x16 slots, one PCIe Gen3 x16 slot (x8 electrically), one PCIe Gen3 x8 slot (x4 electrically), one PCIe Gen2 x8 slot (x4 electrically), and a single legacy PCI slot. There are also six USB 2.0 ports on the motherboard.

One PCIe x16 slot in our evaluation unit was filled with an NVIDIA Quadro 5000 graphics board with 352 compute unified device architecture (CUDA) cores and its own 2.5GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory. Because of the width of this board, it blocked access to one of the other PCIe x16 slots. Other boards from both AMD and NVIDIA are also available.

Excellent Performance

Because the Z820 marked the first system we’ve tested based on the new eight-core Intel Xeon processors, our expectations were quite high "and we were not disappointed. On the SPECopc Viewperf graphics benchmark, the Z820 equipped with the high-end NVIDIA Quadro 5000 outperformed all systems we’ve tested to date, except those running over-clocked CPUs. It even managed to surpass over-clocked systems on several viewsets.

HP Workstation Z820

Download the benchmark results.

On the SPECapc SolidWorks test, which is more of a real-world test (and breaks out graphics, CPU and I/O performance separately from the overall score), the Z820 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 Z820 did quite well.

And on the AutoCAD rendering test, the Z820 clearly benefited from all of those cores in the new Intel Xeon processor. Because AutoCAD’s rendering engine is multi-threaded, with Hyper-Threading enabled, the pair of eight-core CPUs delivered the equivalent of 32 cores "enabling the Z820 to complete the rendering test in an average of just 41 seconds.

Our test system came with Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. Windows 7 32-bit and Windows 7 64 Ultimate, as well as several versions of Linux, are also available. Our system also came with a standard USB mouse and 104-key USB keyboard. Other keyboards and input devices are also available.

HP backs the Z820 with a standard 3-year warranty that covers parts, labor and support. Four- and five-year warranties are also available. Like other HP workstations, the Z820 is fully independent software vendor (ISV)-certified for most CAD/CAM/CAE software.

Prices for the new HP Z820s start at $2,299, but that buys you a single six-core CPU, 4GB of memory, a modest hard drive, and a midrange graphics board. As configured, our evaluation unit priced out at $12,481 "but at checkout, our cost was reduced to $9,984 thanks to an automatic 20% HP online discount. While still a lofty amount, it’s less than several other systems we’ve tested recently, and less than what we would have paid for a Z800 just two years ago.

If you need a high-end workstation that delivers excellent performance, the HP Z820 sets the new standards.

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.

More Info


HP Workstation Z820

  • Price: $9,984 as tested ($2,165 base price)
  •  Size: 8.0×20.7×17.5 in. (WxDxH) tower
  • Weight: 58.6 lbs.
  • CPU: two Intel Xeon E5-2687W 3.1GHz eight-core with 20MB cache
  • Memory: 32GB (512GB max) DDR3 1,600MHz (16 DIMM slots)
  • Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro 5000
  • Hard Disk: Seagate 300GB 15,000-rpm SAS
  • Optical: 16X SuperMulti DVD+/-RW  
  • Audio: High-definition integrated Intel/Realtek HD ALC262 audio
  • Network: dual integrated Intel 82579LM PCIe Gigabit LAN
  • Slots: Three PCIe Gen3 x16, one PCIe Gen3 x16 mechanical/x8 electrical, one PCIe Gen3 x8 mechanical/x4 electrical, one PCIe Gen 2 x8 mechanical/x4 electrical, one PCI
  • Drive Bays: three external 5.25-in. bays; four internal 3.5-in. bays
  • Ports (Front): one USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, one IEEE 1394a (FireWire), one microphone in, one headphone out
  • Ports (rear): four USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, one IEEE 1394a (FireWire), one audio in, one audio out, one microphone in, PS/2 mouse, PS/2 keyboard, two RJ-45 to integrated Gb LAN, one 9-pin serial
  • Ports (internal): six USB 2.0
  • Keyboard: 104-key HP keyboard
  • Pointing device: two-button optical HP scroll mouse

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.