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Making Perfection Even Better on the HP xw8600 Workstation

By David Cohn

We take another look at the HP xw8600 workstation, this time equipped with a pair of 3.4GHz Xeon quad-core CPUs and the new NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 graphics accelerator.

If the HP xw8600 workstation that arrived at our office recently looked familiar, that’s because we had indeed reviewed this system before (see DE June 2008) and because it also came wrapped in a colorful graphic skin similar to the HP xw4600 we also reviewed earlier this year (see DE March 2008). But while the system was virtually identical in appearance, that’s where the similarities ended, because inside this new iteration of HP’s top-of-the-line Intel-based workstation were a pair of 3.4GHz Intel Xeon X5492 processors and a new NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 graphics accelerator.

 The Xeon 5400-series, formerly code named “Harpertown,” consists of dual-die quad-core CPUs manufactured on a 45nm process. The X5492 is one of four halogen-free Intel Xeon processors recently introduced. Intel also announced that all previously launched versions of the Xeon 5200 and 5400 series will also now be halogen free. The CPUs use a Hafnium-based high-k metal gate formula and the X5492 is drop-in compatible with existing systems based on the Intel 5400 chipset, which explains how HP was able to quickly roll out the new CPU in its existing workstation platform. Equally appealing is the fact the X5492 uses just 150 watts, not bad considering its speed. But with the increased power requirements, HP included a 1050-watt 80 PLUS efficient power supply instead of the 800-watt unit in the previous system.

 Like the earlier xw8600 we reviewed, the system measures 8.3 in. x 20.7 in. x 17.9 in. (WxDxH) and weighs approximately 40 pounds. The front panel hosts a pair of USB 2.0 connectors, headphone and microphone jacks, and a FireWire connector. There are three external 5.25-in. drive bays, one of which again contained an HP 16X DVD+/-RW dual-layer optical drive with HP LightScribe technology and another housing a 3.5-in. floppy drive.

HP offers a wide range of hard drive options, including SATA drives up to 1000GB and SAS drives up to 300GB. With five internal 3.5-inch drive bays, the xw8600 can accommodate up to 5 terabytes. Our evaluation unit came with the same 250GB 7200rpm Seagate Barracuda drive as in our previous evaluation unit.

 The rear panel adds five more USB connectors, PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, a second FireWire connector, audio-in, audio-out, and microphone jacks, a 9-pin serial port, and two RJ45 LAN connectors for the integrated Broadcom 5755 NetXtreme Gigabit PCIe LAN. There’s an additional USB connector inside the case so you can hide a USB-based dongle where it can’t be tampered with.

 Inside the tool-less chassis were those two Xeon CPUs, each with a big cooling tower and 3-inch fan. Our evaluation unit came with 4GB of RAM installed as two 2GB DDR2 memory modules; 800MHz memory is required with the X5492 processor. The eight available memory slots can accommodate up to 64GB of memory using 8GB DIMMs, or up to 128GB using an optional memory riser.

 The motherboard has a total of seven slots, six of them full-length: two PCI-Express x16 graphics slots, three PCI-Express x8 slots (two x4 electrically and one switchable as x1 or x8), one PCI-X 133MHz slot, and one legacy PCI slot. One of the graphics slots was filled with a just-released NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 graphics accelerator with 1.5MB of GDDR3 memory.

 In addition to providing double the memory of its predecessor, the Quadro FX 4800 is based on a second-generation NVIDIA GPU unified-architecture with 192 processor cores (compared to 96 cores in the FX 4600). While this all leads to greater graphics performance, it also increases the board’s power requirements to 146 watts. Like other high-end boards, the FX 4800 requires an auxiliary connection to the computer system’s power supply and the board’s large cooling fan and plastic cowl block access to the adjacent motherboard expansion slot. We’ll provide a detailed look at the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 in a separate article.

 To say that the new xw8600 was fast would be an understatement. This system was incredibly fast, surpassing every other system we’ve ever tested by a considerable margin. On the SPECapc Viewperf graphics benchmark, the HP xw8600 equipped with the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 turned in the fastest results we’ve ever recorded on all eight datasets. Click here for the benchmarking results.

HP Workstation xw8600
>Price: $9,307 as tested ($1,361 base price)
>Size: 8.3”x20.7”x17.9” (WxDxH) tower
>Weight: 40 pounds
>CPU: two Intel Xeon X5492 3.4GHz quad-core w/ 12MB L2 cache and 1600MHz front-side bus
>Memory: 4GB (128GB max) DDR2 800MHz
>Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800
>Hard Disk: Seagate 250GB 7,200 rpm SATA
>Floppy: 3-1/2” floppy
>Optical: DVD+/-RW Dual-Layer Lightscribe
>Audio: integrated Realtek audio w/ microphone, line-in, headphone, line-out jacks and jack retasking
>Network: dual integrated Broadcom 5755 NetXtreme Gigabit LAN
Modem: none
>Other: seven external and one internal USB 2.0, PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse, two IEEE1394 FireWire, and one 9-pin serial
>Keyboard: 104-key HP keyboard
>Pointing device: two-button HP scroll mouse

Breaking Records Again
Since HP graciously provided a second identical Seagate hard drive with Windows Vista loaded, we were able to perform our benchmark tests under both Windows XP and Windows Vista. Amazingly, thanks in part to the latest video drivers from NVIDIA, the results under Vista actually surpassed those under Windows XP on several of the datasets; and our Vista results were obtained with the full Aero interface enabled. (For a detailed comparison of Vista and XP, see “Vista vs. XP: Windows On the Mat,” April 2009 DE. The FX 4800-equipped xw8600 was one of two systems referenced.)

 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 HP xw8600 reclaimed its spot as the fastest CAD workstation in spite of the overhead of managing two separate CPU sockets. We were also pleased to see that the I/O performance exactly matched that of the earlier xw8600 we reviewed. As we noted in our recent review of the HP EliteBook mobile workstation, we are no longer running our SolidWorks test under Vista. We will update this test for future reviews.

 The AutoCAD rendering results were even more impressive. Those eight CPU cores enabled the HP xw8600 to complete the test image in just over a minute. Only the Appro Xtreme WH 5548 equipped with a total of 16 processor cores has completed this test faster.

 As usual, HP rounds out the xw8600 with its excellent 104-key keyboard and a two-button optical mouse. Users have a choice of 32- or 64-bit versions of either Windows Vista Business or Windows XP Professional. HP backs the system with a limited 3-year warranty on parts and labor and offers more extensive coverage for an additional charge.

 Of course, all of this power is going to cost more. Although the starting price for an HP xw8600 has come down at bit (to $1,361), that’s for a system with a single 2.0GHz quad-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, and an entry-level graphics card. At the time of our review, we couldn’t price our configuration online, because HP was not yet offering the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 as an option. But based on a similarly configured system plus the new NVIDIA graphics accelerator, we estimated the price as tested at $9,307. While that’s a lot—and well beyond the needs of many midrange CAD users—it should be very attractive to those looking for the ultimate in performance.

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 Contributing Editor David Cohn is a computer consultant and technical writer based in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s the former editor-in-chief of Engineering Automation Report and CADCAMNet, and the author of more than a dozen books. Please send comments about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com. You can also contact David at david@dscohn.com.

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.