The HP xw8400 Workstation Review: Welcome to Quad-Core

For this month, Chris Feldman reviews recent anime titles, Parasite Dolls, MegaMan NT Warrior: MegaMan vs. ElecMan and Ranma 1/2: Digital Dojo.

Is that eight processors I see in the Task Manager?! All images courtesy of Bryan Hoff.

In case you haven't heard, Intel has one-upped AMD once again: this time being first to market with a quad-core processor codenamed Clovertown. Built on a 65nm process, the new Xeon 5300 series processor is highly efficient, demands less power and runs cooler and at a lower clock speed. This translates to productivity boosts in the financial, oil and gas, CAE and DCC markets. And whether you're a one-man shop or part of a corporation, this means more productivity for you: from test renders and final frames to faster analyses and simulations.

I'm reviewing a quad-core HP xw8400 workstation and a 30" LCD monitor. It just may be the killer combination that you're looking for -- or as close as you're going to get -- at least for now.

Pricing and Configuration

The HP xw8400 we're looking at weighs in at $7,483 and includes two quad-core Xeon X535 processors clocked at 2.66 GHz, 4 GB RAM, an NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500 and a 15,000 rpm Serial Attach SCSI hard drive. You can really appreciate the extra speed of a 15,000 rpm hard drive when it comes to opening programs and reading and writing files. I also reviewed an accompanying HP display. The LP3065 monitor is 30" and retails for $1,699.

The Display

Not surprisingly, the first thing I noticed when I took the display out of its box, was its size. The LCD's display area is 30" with a native resolution of 2560x1600. That's larger than two 17" LCDs rotated 90 degrees and placed side-by-side! It even made my 24" Dell display seem somewhat inadequate. Unfortunately, the display had a red stuck pixel just left of dead center, which was distracting on dark backgrounds, but to be fair: it's the first time I've experienced any stuck or dead pixels with an HP display. The LP3065 has a black-to-black response time of 12 ms, which beats my Dell's 16 ms response time. A difference of 4 ms becomes quite noticeable when playing back fast full screen video. Other highlights include a 1,000:1 contrast ratio, three dual-link DVI-D inputs and a self-powered 4-port USB hub.

Labor Intensive DCC

I decided to see how well the quad xw8400 handled view port rendering, so I loaded one of the scenes included on the 3ds Max 9 DVD: Viewport-Dragon.max, with view ports set to Maximized, Smooth + Highlights. The scene played back perfectly and in realtime, although I did observe some tearing of the video frames. A 12 ms response time is close to adequate for fast video playback, but 8 ms would be even better.

A scene from Alcatraz.

But what about high polygon scenes? I opened my Alcatraz prison wing model, which contains 8,140,776 faces to find out. The scene opened in about 12 seconds -- twice as fast as the dual-core. To my surprise, the scene rendered in 2:07, approximately the same time it took on the dual-core system. I'll chalk that up to the way 3ds Max handles lighting preparation, since that's what took most of the time. I also rendered frame 300 of the Animating_Flowers.max scene from the Particle Flow demo folder to test particle effect handling. The scene rendered in 9:22 and wasn't much to look at, although it wasn't as painful as it would have been if I was rendering it on a lesser machine.

More Rendering

Unfortunately, I couldn't get my hands on Autodesk's Toxik to run my own tests, but I was fortunate to see it demo'd recently at QuadFest, HP and Intel's collaborative introduction of quad-core workstations. Three Autodesk employees had a sort of friendly competition, seeing who could finish each task first on a single dual-core, dual dual-core and dual quad-core system. Needless to say, the quad won every competition hands down, and was even able to do video color corrections in realtime and depth of field, blur and distortion effects in near realtime. Although I'm not a compositing artist, I walked away from the demo impressed.

Guess what? That's right -- it's time once again for the Displacement & DOF.max and Light Gallery test renders under 3ds Max 8. Not surprisingly, the quad-core based xw8400 handily beat out the competition. Here are the results:

Displacement & DOF.maxHP xw9400              11:27HP xw8400 (dual)   8:53HP xw8400 (quad)  6:01

Light GalleryHP xw9400              2:32HP xw8400 (dual)   1:53HP xw8400 (quad)  1:07

Displacement & Depth of Field render.

This time I decided to forgo the ViewSpecPerf tests, since they are mostly dependent on the installed video card, and this system contained the same video card as the dual-core xw8400. However, I did test Maya, including Pixar's RenderMan Artist Tools plug-in renderer and NVIDIA's Gelato renderer. Both renderers performed well and were very responsive. For more on Gelato, see my dual-core xw8400 article on VFXWorld.

Gaming

If you're anything like me, you do other things on your system besides work, including email, web surfing and gaming. Granted, a quad-core processor is wasted on most games, but if you've ever had a chance to run a first-person shooter or MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game) on a high-end 3D workstation, you know that it's enough to make even the most jaded gamer drool. I'm a little late to the game, but I recently started playing World of Warcraft (WoW). MMORPGs have come a long way since I first became immersed in the genre with Asheron's Call. I was amazed at the appearance and performance of WoW on this system. The graphics were simply breathtaking, and I was able to play at native resolution, with 4x sampling and almost every video setting turned to high. However, I found that I had less video tearing when I turned on Vertical Sync.

Light Gallery render.

I've got some comparison screen captures from the xw8400 and my Mac Pro with a GeForce 7300 GT. One thing I noticed on the xw8400 was the fact that my character wasn't wearing any pants! He just has a bearskin loincloth on, which looked like pants on the Mac, but, on the HP, I was a little embarrassed in hindsight. I also had to disable many of the special effects on the Mac, set my video resolution to 1344x840 and multisample to 1x. The differences are best described by the screen captures below:

The Best of Both Worlds, Eight Times Over

Ever wanted to have your cake and eat it too? A quad-core system might just make your wish come true. Whether you're rendering in the background, manipulating complex datasets or playing games and surfing the net, there's often power to spare. Or you can run processor intensive calculations and final gathers with mental ray, and max out all eight cores, as the first image depicts. The HP xw8400 quad-core is the fastest system I've ever worked with, and handled most of the work I threw at it with nary a stutter and processor cycles left over. The times it did stall would have locked up a lesser computer for much longer, if it could have recovered at all. The system's front side bus runs at 1333 MHz and it's SLI ready. The display is huge, bright and crisp, and can handle fast video quite well. The only thing that's missing from this equation is you.

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

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