By David Cohn
On June 30, Hewlett-Packard became one of the first companies to offer workstationsbased on two new hardware standards, both of which are destined to change theface of Intel-based computing: the new PCI Express bus and Intel’s new EM64T (extendedmemory technology). As part of that rollout, we received a pre-production versionof HP’s new xw4200, the successor to the xw4100 we reviewed in September of 2003.The new workstation is available with a single processor at speeds ranging from2.8GHz to 3.4GHz. Future releases will up the speed to 3.6GHz or more. For ourevaluation, the company sent us a system running at 3.4GHz with a new NVIDIA QuadroFX 1300 PCI Express graphics board.
A Roadster with Plenty of Options
The xw4200 is housed in HP’s familiar silver and gray convertible minitower case.The front panel provides access to three 5.25-in. drive bays and one 3.5-in. baywhile two more 3.5-in. bays are concealed inside. In our evaluation unit, theupper-most 5.25-in. bay contained an 8X DVD±RW drive while the external 3.5-in.bay held a 3.5-in. floppy drive. The two internal drives housed a pair of SeagateBarracuda 7200rpm 40GB serial ATA hard drives configured in a RAID 0 array.
Front panel controls are race-ready, consisting only of a power switch with LEDsto indicate power and hard drive activity. It also provides two USB 2.0 ports,audio jacks for headphone and microphone, and an IEEE 1394 FireWire socket, whichconnects to a PCI-based FireWire card that now comes standard. The rear panelhas PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, a 9-pin serial port and 25-pin parallel port,six additional USB 2.0 ports, an RJ-45 connector for an integrated Broadcom NetXtremegigabit network adapter, and audio jacks for microphone, line-in, and line-out.There are also two more FireWire connectors from the back of the FireWire cardand two DVI-I connectors and a VESA stereo sync jack on the NVIDIA graphics board.
Sleekness and Power Under the Hood
A single quick-release lever on the side of the case provides access to the interiorand HP’s wonderful tool-less chassis. No tools at all are required to installor remove drives or expansion cards. Equally impressive—the xw4200 is practicallysilent—the quietest computer we’ve ever reviewed.
The motherboard is one of the cleanest we’ve ever seen and provides built-insupport for virtually everything. The first thing we noticed was the cooling packagesurrounding the CPU. The new HP workstation xw4200 features Intel’s newest Pentium4 processor (code named “Prescott”), based on a new 90 nanometer core, which usesan 800MHz front-side bus and includes 1MB of L2 cache (up from 512K in the previousCPUs) and 16K of L1 cache (up from 8K). Prescott also includes Hyper Threadingtechnology, which lets the single CPU appear to the operating system as two virtualprocessors that can work on two sets of chores simultaneously when running applicationsthat incorporate multi-threaded code.
The first Prescott processors were introduced in the first quarter of 2004. Thexw4200 will also support a new version of Prescott that includes EM64T technology,scheduled to be released later this summer. (New Xeon processors, code named “Nocona,”which already implement EM64T, power other newly introduced HP workstations.)Intel also plans to introduce a new Pentium 4 CPU (code named “Tejas”) in thefirst half of 2005. That processor will support both 800MHz and 1067MHz front-sidebuses and will double the L2 cache to 2MB. The xw4200 will support the new Prescottand Tejas processors when they become available from Intel.
The new EM64T processors provide for 48 bits of virtual memory and 40 bits ofphysical memory. This breaks the current 4GB limit to support up to 256 terabytesof virtual memory and 1 terabyte of physical memory. Prescott, Nocona, and Tejasalso extend the x86 instruction set, enabling 64-bit computing while remainingcompatible with the installed base of 32-bit applications and operating systems.While applications needing access to memory beyond the current 4GB limit can immediatelybenefit, the real impact will come once independent software vendors recompiletheir applications to take advantage of the capabilities offered by the new CPUsand users run those applications on new 64-bit enabled operating systems. RedHat has already released a version of Linux with EM64T support. A 64-bit extendedversion of Windows XP is currently in beta and should be released by the end ofthe year.
The xw4200 also incorporates Intel’s new 925X Express chipset (code named “Alderwood”),which provides support for the new 64-bit extension technology as well as thePCI Express graphics interface and other PCI Express slots that will eventuallyreplace the legacy PCI slots.
PCI Express (formerly known as 3GIO) is a serial connection with individuallyclocked “lanes” that use two differential pairs to provide a point-to-point two-wayserial connection. Each lane can support up to 250MB/s of real data communicationin both directions simultaneously. The new PCI Express graphics slot, which replacesAGP-based graphics, actually provides 16 PCI Express lanes. Known as 16X PCI Express,this new graphics slot provides a data bandwidth of 4GB/s in both directions simultaneously,yielding a total bandwidth of 8GB/s, whereas AGP 8X maxes out at 2.1GB/s. Foradditional expansion, 1X, 4X, and 8X PCI Express connectors will be availablefor expansion devices that need one or more PCI Express lanes. The xw4200 providesone 16X PCI Express graphics slot, two PCI Express 1X slots, and four legacy PCIslots, one of which held the FireWire card.
Speed and Memory
The new chipset also marks a shift to Serial ATA hard drives. The 925X chipsetsupports up to four SATA devices, and only one parallel ATA channel for the removabledrives. It also provides built-in support for RAID (redundant arrays of inexpensivedisks) 0/1 (striped or mirrored) disk arrays. In the past, RAID was only readilyavailable when using more expensive SCSI drives.
In our evaluation unit, the RAID 0 array caused the two 40GB hard drives to appearas a single 80GB drive, with data split across the drives. While this providesthe fastest performance, the failure of any one drive would result in the completeloss of data. For the best data integrity, the drives could have been configuredas a RAID 1 array. In this case, the loss of any one drive would not result inany loss of data because all data on one drive is mirrored on the other. But hadour system been configured in this fashion, the two drives would have appearedas a single 40GB hard drive.
The 925X chipset also enables the system to support dual-channel DDR2-533MHzError Checking and Correcting (ECC) memory, which enables 8.5GB/second bandwidth,an increase of 34 percent over the previous 400MHz memory architecture, and meansan extra level of data protection and integrity. According to Intel, previousmemory ran into power dissipation and signal integrity problems. The new technologywill eventually support memory frequencies as high as 1GHz. And DDR2 enables higher-densityparts enabling higher-capacity DIMMs, and consumes much less power. Improvementover DDR1 ranges from 3 percent to 14 percent, about the same as one or two CPUspeed steps. Our evaluation unit came with 2GB of memory, installed as four 512MBDIMMs. The system can support up to 4GB of DDR2-533 ECC or DDR2-400 non-ECC memory.
On the Road
The new NVIDIA Quadro FX 1300 graphics accelerator in our evaluation unit isone of four new boards introduced on June 30. The FX 1300 is a mid-range boardwith 128MB of DDR memory and a memory bandwidth of 17.6GB/second. The board providesa maximum resolution of up to 2048 x 1536 with 16.7 million colors at a refreshrate of 60Hz, non-interlaced. HP also sent us its beautiful 2035 21-in. flat panelmonitor, with a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200. All of our benchmark testswere conducted at 1280 x 1024. After completing the tests, I connected a secondmonitor—a large CRT running at the NVIDIA board’s maximum resolution—and easilyspread my desktop across the two screens.
In addition to the usual compliment of CAD applications and benchmarks—includingSPECviewperf and SPECapc for SolidWorks—I also tested this system running Pro/Engineer2001 using the SPECapc benchmark. The test results were impressive. The xw4200and NVIDIA FX 1300 beat the older HP xw4100 across the board, although in somecases the new system showed only modest gains. We expect the newer CPUs and PCIExpress architecture to yield even more impressive results in future workstations.Complete test results, along with reference scores from previous systems, arelisted in the accompanying benchmark table.
HP rounds out the xw4200 with a two-button optical wheel mouse and a 104-keykeyboard. Both the mouse and keyboard match the silver and gray color scheme ofthe minitower case. Windows XP Professional came pre-installed. (HP also offersWindows 2000 and Red Hat Linux.) The entire system is backed by a three-year warrantyon parts, labor, and onsite service, and 24/7 telephone support; and the systemis ISV-certified for most CAD, digital video, and imaging applications.
The HP workstation xw4200 is an impressive evolutionary step. It’s even moreimpressive when you consider that prices start at just $849 (for a 2.8GHz systemwith 128MB of DDR2 memory, a single hard drive, and more modest graphics). Evenour loaded test system costs just $3,294, configured to satisfy the needs of justabout any MCAD user.
David Cohn, a computer consultant and technical writer based in Bellingham, WA, has beenbenchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s a contributing editor to DE and publisher of Engineering Automation Report. You can contact him via e-mail by clicking here.
HP Workstation xw4200
Price: $4,293 as tested ($3,294 w/o monitor)
Size: 6.7 in. x 17.7 in. x 18 in. (WxDxH) tower
Weight: 35 pounds
Monitor: HP L 2035 TFT 20-inch LCD digital/analog monitor
CPU: one Intel Pentium 4 processor 3.4GHz w/1 MB L2 cache
Motherboard: based on Intel 925X chipset
Memory: 2GB (4GB max)
Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 1300
Hard Disk: two 40GB SATA drives in RAID0 array
Floppy: 3-1/2 in. floppy
Optical: 8X DVD+R/+RW
Audio: integrated AC’97/16-bit stereo full-duplex w/ microphone, line-in, headphone/line-outjacks
Network: integrated Broadcom 10/100/1000 LAN with PCI Express interface
Other: One 9-pin serial, one 25-pin parallel, eight USB 2.0, PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse,three Firewire
Keyboard: 104-key HP PS/2-style keyboard
Pointing device: HP optical wheel mouse