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Review: The HP Z820 Workstation

Bryan Hoff once again puts a new HP workstation to the test for AWN.

The HP Z820 workstation.

With the release of their newly numbered Z820 workstation, HP is once again pushing the performance envelope. Processor speeds are starting to level off so multiple cores have become the new performance benchmark. The Z820 I tested had cores in abundance – 16 to be exact – along with PCI-Express 3.0 and USB 3. With hyper-threading that’s a total of 32 virtual cores! So although the processors in the Z820 are clocked at 3.1 GHz compared to 3.33 GHz for the Z800, the Z820 outperformed the Z800 in every test I threw at it. It also included 16 GB RAM, a BluRay writer, Windows 7 64-bit, 2 hard drives (including a 15000 RPM SAS boot drive) and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 5000 graphics card.

Papa’s got a brand new bag of specs

In the new Z820, the PCI-E 3.0 controllers are integrated into the CPU, providing increased I/O bandwidth and latency. PCI-E 3.0 allows the use of up to 3 video cards running in x16 slots. Memory and storage have also been improved, with 16 memory slots and the ability to address up to 512 GB of DDR3 1600MHz RAM and access to an abundance of internal and external storage. It also offers a total of 4 USB 3 ports. The chassis has been reworked to provide better acoustics levels and better accessibility inside. Of course it’s still tool-less and cable-free. Finally, all HP workstations now include RGS (remote graphics software) that allows remote access to workstations across a network. The result is a faster, more efficient workflow for you and your company.

But enough about all the new features; let’s get the testing underway.

SpecViewPerf scores

First up, I ran SpecViewPerf to test video performance. The Quadro FX 5000 card in the test system consistently outpaced the Quadro FX 5800 card in the last system I tested, at times doubling and in the case of the tcvis test almost tripling its results. Don’t let the numbering fool you; the Quadro 5000 card is faster and much more affordable than the 5800 card in the Z800.

This is the first time I can remember seeing the teapot topped juggling mannequins moving with such vigor. Instead of seemingly pacing themselves for a marathon, they were apparently competing in a 100-yard dash. The Quadro FX 5000 is a real winner.

HP Z800 (SpecViewPerf 10)

3dsmax-04 = 57.91

catia-02 = 69.86

ensight-03 = 53.59

maya-02 = 212.61

proe-04 = 63.40

sw-01 = 141.06

tcvis-01 = 37.56

ugnx-01 = 32.74

HP Z820 (SpecViewPerf 10)

3dsmax-04 = 81.44

catia-02 = 107.28

ensight-03 = 121.37

maya-02 = 464.38

proe-04 = 115.88

sw-01 = 247.65

tcvis-01 = 94.62

ugnx-01 = 86.50

3ds Max benchmarks

For the sake of consistency, I’m once again using the 3ds Max 8 files Displacement & DOF and Light Gallery to test rendering speeds between systems. I’m including the last three system configurations I’ve reviewed for the sake of comparison. As you can see, the Z820 beats the original 2009 Z800 by a wide margin. It also beats the 2010 system, although the numbers are closer when comparing Light Gallery results. But 5 seconds per frame still adds up when rendering an animation sequence. And it came within three seconds of breaking the two minute mark during the Displacement & DOF test.

Displacement & DOF.max

HP Z800 (2009)                                  4:30

HP Z800 (2010)                                  3:28

HP Z820 (2012)                                  2:02

Light Gallery

HP Z800 (2009)                                  0:50

HP Z800 (2010)                                  0:34

HP Z800 (2012)                                  0:29

Windows Task Manager, with 32 threads running.

Windows Task Manager, with 32 threads running.

Overall, the Z820 felt very responsive and snappy while working with 3ds Max 2013.

Final thoughts and buying advice

A base model Z820 retails for $2299 while the system I tested weighs in at $9760. If you want to max the system out with 512 GB of RAM that will set you back an additional $15000 or so.

I only had a couple of issues with the system. Even though HP has improved the case’s acoustics, I still found it to be a little noisy at times, and downright loud when crunching numbers during the Displacement & DOF test. It also takes a long time to boot into Windows and to open some apps like 3ds Max. The speed issues could likely be addressed by ordering a system with a solid state boot drive. And noise won’t be much of an issue unless you’re a small shop working from the quiet of your home office.

Issues aside, the new HP Z820 is the most powerful system I’ve ever tested and I highly recommend it, budget permitting. Obviously a new workstation is no small consideration when budgeting for new purchases. If you’ve got a 2010 Z800 you can probably hold off until next year. However, if you’ve got the 2009 model it may be time to seriously consider an upgrade.

-- Editor's Note

After conferring with HP once the review was published, they solved the mystery of the noisy Z820. Once the HP team got the test unit back, they found that the noise was due to a bent retention tab on the bottom bracket of the liquid cooling assemblies. They were able to eliminate the noise by bending the tabs into their proper positions and reinstalling the liquid cooling assemblies. The model sent to Bryan was a pre-production unit since we wanted to get a Z820 in his hands as fast as possible - close to a final production model but not 100%.  It's probably safe to assume that final production models work without such noise issues.


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 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 co-authored the book, “Moving from Windows to Linux”.