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Xeon Takes Off

By David Cohn

HP is shipping its recently introduced xw8400 personal workstation equipped with Intel’s 5100-series or "Woodcrest" dual-core Xeon processor. Woodcrest is the successor to the 5000-series CPU, code named "Dempsey," and is available in six variants, ranging in clock speed from 1.6 to 3.0GHz. We recently received an evaluation unit equipped with a pair of the fastest of these new processors, the 3.0GHz 5160 CPU.

The HP xw8400 is housed in virtually the same rackable minitower case as the HP xw9300 we reviewed last year (DE June 2005). The front panel provides two USB 2.0 connectors, headphone and microphone jacks, and an IEEE 1394 FireWire connector. The rear panel adds five more USB connectors and a second FireWire connector as well as one 9-pin serial port, a 25-pin parallel port, PS/2 keyboard and mouse, an RJ-45 connector for the integrated Gigabit LAN, audio-in, audio-out, and microphone jacks. But once you open up the tool-less case, the differences between this system and all previous HP systems are immediately apparent.


HP Workstation xw8400

The new Intel CPUs are each hidden beneath their own large heatsinks with 3-in. cooling fans. Each CPU packages two CPU cores based on Intel’s new energy-efficient Core microarchitecture and manufactured using a 65-nanometer (nm) fabrication process. The cores share a common 4MB L2 cache that can be dynamically allocated, and the CPU connects to a 1333MHz front side bus. Intel claims that the 3.0GHz 5160 CPU delivers up to a 135% performance improvement over a 2.8GHz dual-core Xeon processor while at the same time reducing energy consumption up to 40%. Since these new Xeon CPUs do not support Hyper-Threading, two Woodcrest processors appear as four separate CPUs when viewed in Windows Task Manager.

The xw8400 also uses a new fully buffered memory technology, and there are total of eight memory slots provided on the motherboard. Memory must be installed in matched pairs. Our evaluation unit came with 2MB of memory, installed as four 512MB DIMMs. The system also supports 1GB, 2GB, and 4GB DIMMs and the xw8400 will accommodate up to 64MB of memory once the 8GB DIMMs are released—some time in 2007.

Because the new memory modules run hotter than previous DIMMs, the xw8400 provides a second cooling fan directly over the memory slots. This fan is hinged and pivots out of the way when you need to access the memory.

The motherboard also provides an integrated 6-channel SATA 3GB/second controller with RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 support as well as a 4-channel serial attached SCSI (SAS) controller with RAID 0 and 1 capability. Our evaluation unit came equipped with an 80GB 7200 rpm Western Digital SATA drive and a Seagate 73GB 15,000 rpm SAS drive. The additional SAS drive added $499 to the overall cost of the system, but gave us our first opportunity to evaluate this new drive standard.

The xw8400 has lots of room for expansion. The case provides a total of five 3.5-in. internal drive bays and three 5.25-in. bays with front-panel access. On our evaluation unit, two of the latter were filled with a 48X CD-RW/DVD combo drive and a 3.5-in. floppy drive. Additional drives can be accommodated outside the case by purchasing an optional kit that lets you route the SAS cables to the rear panel. There’s also a connector on the motherboard for a special internal USB cable so you can install a USB-based dongle inside the case where it can’t be tampered with.

There are also a total of seven expansion slots: one 32-bit PCI slot, a PCI Express x16 graphics slot, a PCI x8 slot that supports x4 bandwidth, a second PCI Express x16 slot that supports x4 bandwidth, a PCI-X 133 slot, and two PCI-X 100 slots. The x16 graphics slot in our evaluation unit was filled with an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500 graphics accelerator, one of the new high-end graphics accelerators we reviewed several months ago (DE July 2006). The FX 3500 comes with its own 512MB of onboard video memory and requires a supplementary power connector, easily provided by the 8400’s 800-watt power supply.

As we’ve noted in the past, benchmarking a system with dual CPUs poses a quandary, since standard benchmarks don’t reveal the benefits of multiple processors. To evaluate the xw8400, I installed my usual complement of CAD applications and benchmarks, including SPECviewperf and the SPECapc benchmark for SolidWorks.

Performance Markers

The results on all of our benchmark tests were impressive (click here to access the benchamark results), easily supporting Intel’s claimed speed improvements. On the viewperf tests, the xw8400 was nearly 80% faster than the HP xw9300, which was equipped with dual AMD Opteron processors. It was more than 92% faster than the HP xw4300 we previously reviewed, which came equipped with a dual-core 3.2GHz Pentium D CPU (DE November 2005). Even after factoring out the fact that the xw4300 and xw9300 used slightly older graphics accelerators, the xw8400 was still faster.

The results on the SolidWorks benchmark were equally impressive, with the xw8400’s raw CPU performance beating the xw9300 and xw4300 by 28% and 59%, respectively. And remember, none of these benchmark results reflect the real advantages of the dual-core CPUs nor the ability to run a 64-bit operating system. When we ran two simultaneous iterations of the benchmarks, the performance decreased, but using Windows Task Manager, we could observe as the CPU balanced the computing load. When running multi-threaded applications, the xw8400 will truly shine.

HP rounds out the system with either a USB or PS/2 keyboard and a choice of mice. Our evaluation unit came with a USB keyboard and a 2-button USB optical scroll mouse. Windows XP Professional, Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, or the 64-bit version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux can be preinstalled on the system and users can also choose the HP installer kit for either the 32-bit or 64-bit version of Linux. For Windows-based systems, the HP Performance Tuning Framework is also preinstalled as part of HP’s Cool Tools. The entire system is backed by a three-year warranty that includes parts, labor, and on-site service.

As impressive as this system is, there’s a price to pay for all that power. HP xw8400 systems start at $1,833 but that’s for a slower, single CPU. Our evaluation unit priced out at $6,363. Eliminating the SAS drive drops that cost to $5,864, an amount that still places this fast system beyond the range of the average CAD user. Like last year’s xw9300, the xw8400 will likely be more of a niche platform, but for those who require the absolute fastest workstation performance, the HP xw8400 is a winner.

David Cohn is a computer consultant and technical writer based in Bellingham, WA. He’s a Contributing Editor to Desktop Engineering, the Editor-in-Chief of Engineering Automation Report and CADCAMNet published by Cyon Research, and the author of more than a dozen books. You can contact David through his website or click here to send him an e-mail about this article.



HP xw8400 At a Glance

Hewlett Packard
Palo Alto, CA

> Price: $6,383 as tested ($1,833 base price)
> Size: 8.3 in. x 20.7 in.  x 17.9 in. (W3D3H) tower
> Weight: 42 pounds
> CPU: dual Intel Xeon 5160 3.0GHz
> Memory: 2GB (32GB max)
> Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500
> Hard Disk: Western Digital 80GB 7,200 rpm SATA and Seagate 73GB 15,000 rpm SAS
> Floppy: 3.5 inch floppy
> Optical: 48X CD-RW/DVD-ROM
> Audio: integrated high definition audio w/ microphone, line-in, headphone, line-out jacks
> Network: integrated Broadcom 5752 Gigabit LAN
> Modem: none
> Other: one 9-pin serial, one 25-pin parallel, seven USB 2.0, two IEEE1394 FireWire,
    PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse
> Keyboard: 104-key HP USB keyboard
> Pointing device: two-button HP optical 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.