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HP’s xw8400 Workstation Review: Productivity Through the Roof

Marisa Materna chats with director Richard Linklater on the production of A Scanner Darkly, which utilizes interpolated rotoscoping to bring live-action footage into an animated dream world.

The Task Manager showing 4 CPUs! All images courtesy of Bryan Hoff.

If you crave productivity and reject futility, it may be time to look at a brand new HP graphics workstation. The system I received for review was an xw8400 and included two dual core Intel Xeon 5160 processors running at 3.0GHz, 4GB RAM, an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500 video card with 256MB RAM and a 73GB Serial Attached SCSI hard drive running at 15,000 RPM. This is the story of how my productivity went through the roof.

The proverb a watched pot never boils translates rather well to the 3D graphics world, as a watched bucket never renders. Theres nothing more painful than watching and waiting as each small square render bucket fills in to complete your test image. When youre experimenting with lighting or textures its even harder to bear. Imagine my joy as I watched four buckets rendering at once, rapidly popping up in a new location as each region was completed. HPs new xw8400 workstation puts that reworked axiom to bed while allowing you to get down to work.

Pricing and Configuration

The new HP workstations are provided in four tiers: entry, mid, high Intel and high AMD. As I mentioned, the particular unit I reviewed was a $6,432 Intel-based system with two dual core Xeon processors and 4GB RAM, but you can have your system equipped with up to four dual core processors and 64GB RAM. What I neglected to mention is that the system will happily accommodate two video cards in SLI mode with its 2x16 PCI-E slots. Are you getting excited yet?

The HP xw8400 computer.

Putting the HP Through Its Paces

First I wanted to see how well the xw8400 handled view port rendering, so I loaded some of the scenes included on the 3ds Max 8 DVD. First I opened ButcherBoy_Rigged_JolyonWebb.max and then Viewport-Dragon.max, both with view ports set to Maximized, Smooth + Highlights. The scenes played back perfectly in realtime.

Next, I decided to create some complex objects of my own. 3ds Max choked when I created a cube and then repeatedly tessellated its faces or applied a MeshSmooth modifier and cranked up the iterations. The magic number for both systems (the HP and my Athlon 1200) seemed to be nine iterations of MeshSmooth. Switching it to 10 caused Max to run out of memory and close. Of course, any system dealing with an inordinate number of faces in a given scene is going to come to a crawl sooner or later, and nine iterations of MeshSmooth results in a cube with 1,572,864 faces. While both systems ran out of memory, the HP system was never unresponsive for more than a few seconds, whereas my Athlon system became catatonic for five minutes at a time.

Finally, I opened a scene from an old project I worked on: a model of Alcatraz depicting an entire prison wing, and containing 8,140,776 faces. Not surprisingly, the HP couldnt render a preview of this scene in realtime, but it did open the file quite quickly: about 24 seconds as opposed to 1:06 minutes on my Athlon system. Rendering the scene took a mere 2:05, compared to 15:38 on the Athlon. Even launching Max was painless, at 6 seconds on the xw8400 vs. 35 seconds on my own system.

Alcatraz model (left) and Alcatraz render. 

Displacement & Depth of Field render.

Reality Check

Just to keep one foot planted firmly in reality, I ran a few more tests on my current system and had a friend do a couple of test renders on one of his available systems. I asked Mark Rasmussen, president of Enigma Studios Inc., to run a few mental ray rendering tests under 3ds Max for me. He used one of his older systems since it was available: a dual Xeon (single core) 2.8GHz with 2GB RAM and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 1100 video card. My own aging system is a Dual Athlon 1200 with a mere 1GB RAM and a Quadro FX 1100, but dont worry, Im replacing it with a shiny new HP system soon. I tested Displacement & DOF.max and MR_LightGallery_Max6.max on both systems, and had Mark do the same on his system. The results are as follows:

Displacement & DOF.maxDual Athlon 1200 - 1:03:58Dual Xeon 2.8GHz - 32:50HP xw8400 - 8:53

Light Gallery Dual Athlon 1200 - 14:35Dual Xeon 2.8GHz - 8:29HP xw8400 - 1:53

Final Gather alone took 5:04 on my Athlon system, which is more than two-and-a-half times longer than it took the HP to render in total. Over my current system, the HP was up to 7 times faster on each respective scene, and 3.5 to 7 times faster than the dual Xeon 2.8GHz system.

Light Gallery render.

Some SpecViewPerf 9 Test Results

I also ran the SpecViewPerf 9 benchmarking test on the xw8400. Then, just to torture myself, I ran them on my current system. Here are the results:

HP xw8400

SUM_RESULTSDSMAXSUMMARY.TXT 3dsmax-04 Weighted Geometric Mean = 29.98

SUM_RESULTSCATIASUMMARY.TXT catia-02 Weighted Geometric Mean = 36.45

SUM_RESULTSENSIGHTSUMMARY.TXT ensight-03 Weighted Geometric Mean = 21.83

SUM_RESULTSLIGHTSUMMARY.TXT light-08 Weighted Geometric Mean = 34.42

SUM_RESULTSMAYASUMMARY.TXT maya-02 Weighted Geometric Mean = 24.22

SUM_RESULTSPROESUMMARY.TXT proe-04 Weighted Geometric Mean = 28.59

SUM_RESULTSSWSUMMARY.TXT sw-01 Weighted Geometric Mean = 36.90

SUM_RESULTSUGNXSUMMARY.TXT ugnx-01 Weighted Geometric Mean = 10.86

SUM_RESULTSTCVISSUMMARY.TXT tcvis-01 Weighted Geometric Mean = 6.357

Dual Athlon 1200

SUM_RESULTS3DSMAXSUMMARY.TXT 3dsmax-04 Weighted Geometric Mean = 5.343

SUM_RESULTSCATIASUMMARY.TXT catia-02 Weighted Geometric Mean = 7.648

SUM_RESULTSENSIGHTSUMMARY.TXT ensight-03 Weighted Geometric Mean = 2.978

SUM_RESULTSLIGHTSUMMARY.TXT light-08 Weighted Geometric Mean = 7.470

SUM_RESULTSMAYASUMMARY.TXT maya-02 Weighted Geometric Mean = 7.739

SUM_RESULTSPROESUMMARY.TXT proe-04 Weighted Geometric Mean = 5.180

SUM_RESULTSSWSUMMARY.TXT sw-01 Weighted Geometric Mean = 8.768

SUM_RESULTSUGNXSUMMARY.TXT ugnx-01 Weighted Geometric Mean = 2.132

SUM_RESULTSTCVISSUMMARY.TXT tcvis-01 Weighted Geometric Mean = 1.969

To see a comparison of systems running SpecViewPerf, visit the website. The only system that came close to meeting or beating this system in any of the categories was another HP system, the xw9300, which included dual NVidia Quadro FX 4500 video cards. These results are unsurprising, considering the fact that SpecViewPerf is OpenGL-intensive. The odds are very good that if the xw8400 included dual Quadro FX 4500 cards, it would have beaten the xw9300 in every category.

What Do You Mean I Cant Keep It?

Systems like this one dont grow on trees, and theyre not for sale in your local big box retailer, either. Youll need to order one of these systems through HP or your reseller.

My only real complaint aside from the fact that I have to box this system up and return it to HP is the fact that it got a little loud when the fans kicked in. But thats to be expected with a high performance machine such as this. Windows XP x64 also misbehaved at times, but thats no fault of HP. It just meant that no matter what I tried, and what Softimage support tried, I couldnt get the dongle licensed and Softimage running. It would have been nice to see how it performed. My guess is it would have been stellar, much like 3ds Max and Maya.

The system looks slick, with its black and silver finish, and the tool-less design of the interior makes adding and removing cards and drives a snap literally. The xw8400 includes Intels groundbreaking new Xeon processors and is tailored to todays demanding high-end video broadcast and 3D applications. While no match for the super computers looming on the distant horizon, the xw8400 is a great way to hedge your bets and boost your productivity until computers begin to anticipate your intentions before you even make them known. Hey it could happen.

Bryan Hoff is a multifaceted artist and writer. A web designer, digital artist and animator, his credits include movie and television effects, online games, 3D corporate animation, Flash and traditional web site design. His writing credits include articles for LinuxWorld, Element K Journals and InformIT, covering such topics as Photoshop effects, Linux 3D graphics applications, web and HTML design, RSS feeds and painting with a graphics tablet. Hoff has written ebooks on blogging and web site creation for beginners and co-authored the book, Moving from Windows to Linux.

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