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Review: HP Z400

May 12, 2009 12:00 PM, By Jan Ozer

New entry-level Intel Nehalem system shines in real-world tests.

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The HP Z400 workstation belies its entry-level price with performance that meets or beats that of its four- and eight-core predecessors.

The HP Z400 workstation belies its entry-level price with performance that meets or beats that of its four- and eight-core predecessors.

The HP Z400 is the entry-level computer in HP's new Intel Nehalem-based line, with models starting as low as $969. That's compared to $1,679 for the midlevel Z600 and $1,929 for the high-end Z800. Unlike its higher-end siblings, the Z400 is only available with a single CPU, and it doesn't feature the snazzy new case. It does share the Nehalem-based performance, however, and on certain applications, the Z400 produced impressive results compared to both previous Xeon generations and the dual-processor Z800. (See my review of the HP Z800.)

Briefly, Nehalem is a new CPU technology from Intel that bolsters data throughput to and from system memory and improves core-processing performance. It achieves the latter primarily by adding back hyper-threaded technology (HTT), which appeared on many CPUs prior to the Core 2 Duo line. As you'll see below, the Nehalem line of CPUs includes both four-core and two-core processors, though the two-core processors don't have HTT.

The Z400 HP provided for my testing came configured with a 3.2GHz Intel Xeon W3570 processor, 6GB of memory, 64-bit Windows XP, and an Nvidia Quadro FX4800 with 1.5GB of memory. Price this out on the HP website, and you'll come close to $5,900. This is a bit deceptive, though, because the Quadro FX4800, which contributed nothing to Adobe Creative Suite 4 (CS4) rendering times, added about $1,600 to the base price.

Go with the stock 512MB card and omit the second system drive, which HP supplied so I could test with either 64-bit Vista or XP, and the price drops to a much more reasonable $4,207—about what I paid for my first Intel 80386-based computer back in the last century. The $4,207 price also includes $520 for a 1TB drive, which is both reasonable and necessary for serious production—though I truly hesitate to think about what 1TB of drive space would have cost in 1992.

Though the positioning of the three Nehalem-based systems seems pretty clear (good, better, best), choosing between the Z400 and Z600 is more complicated than you might expect. Bargain hunters might also think that the HP xw4600—based upon Intel's older four-core technology—is a good economic decision, though a relatively cursory examination reveals that this isn't the case. Finally, there are several critical technology details to consider when configuring your Z400, which I'll discuss along with the benchmarks.

Z400 vs. Z600

Let's start with an overview of HP's three Nehalem-based systems, as shown in Table 1. As you can see, the Z400 has only one CPU socket and uses Intel Xeon 3500 series CPUs, which currently peak at 3.2GHz. The Z600 has two sockets and uses the Intel Xeon 5500 series, which peaks at 3.2GHz. But because of power limitations, the Z600 can only accept CPUs up to 2.93GHz. All the way to the right, the Z800 uses the same CPUs as the Z600, but it can accept up to 3.2GHz.

For the comparison, this means that the fastest single-CPU Z600 will be about 10 percent slower than the fastest Z400 (2.93GHz vs. 3.2GHz) and will cost about $1,000 more ($5,176 to $4,207), even with the slower CPU. While the Z600 can accept more RAM than the Z400, the maximum of 16GB should be fine for most digital-content-creation (DCC) applications, though the extra 8GB the Z600 can handle could come in handy for data visualization and other large-data-set applications. For most DCC applications, if you're looking for the fastest single-CPU system and don't anticipate purchasing a second CPU, the Z400 is a better choice, especially with its greater internal expandability.

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