By Mike McCarthy
Last week I got the opportunity to attend HP’s big workstation launch event in Fort Collins, Colorado. HP is releasing new versions of its ZBook mobile workstations and desktop Z workstation towers. I also got to tour their labs and see behind the curtain at the development and testing process.
New “G2” versions of last year’s HP ZBook 15 and ZBook 17 will be available later this month. Both models sport the newest “Haswell” architecture-based Intel CPUs, new AMD and Nvidia GPU cards and M.2 storage options. HP has branded their PCIe-based flash storage solution as the “Z-Turbo Drive,” and it is available in their new ZBooks and workstations. Removing the SATA interface bottleneck greatly improves maximum read and write speeds on the new flash memory option. Both models are fairly similar, with the 17-inch model offering more powerful GPUs and an extra 2.5-inch drive bay.
The 15-inch model also replaces the DreamColor LCD option with a QHD+ 3200×1800 pixel screen. Media managers and anyone editing on the road will appreciate the ZBook’s Thunderbolt port and internal RAID storage options.
Product manager Josh Peterson didn’t hesitate to “stand on” his claims about the ZBook’s ruggedness, literally. He spent half of his presentation standing on his 1.2 inch thick “stage” to demonstrate the strength of the notebook’s mil-spec frame. It makes a pretty compelling point, compared to the flimsy options out on the market now days. Both models still support a maximum of 32GB of DDR3 memory, with Quad-core Intel CPUs.
On the workstation tower front, HP had three new offerings that will begin shipping in early October. All three models have various updates to their mechanical design to allow them to run quieter and cooler, and to make it easier to service them without tools. They all now have a rear power button for easier troubleshooting in a rack environment where the front may not be as easily accessible. All of the new models have nine integrated USB3 ports, one of which is high-power charging power on the front. All six of the integrated SATA ports are now 6Gb capable, but none of them support 12Gb SAS drives.
Similar to the previous generation, M.2-based Z-Turbo drives can be installed as add-ins on PCIe cards, and Thunderbolt ports can be added on a PCIe x4 expansion card. 10Gb Ethernet is also still only available by adding a PCIe card. FireWire 400 has also been removed, but is still available through an optional expansion card. The third external 5.25-inch drive bay has been replaced be a 9.5mm optical drive on all models. They all support Nvidia’s recently announced next generation of Quadro GPUs.
Those doing editorial work with HD files will probably be best served by the new Z440, a single-socket workstation supporting up to eight-core Intel CPUs. It uses DDR4-2133 memory, up to 128GB in eight slots. It has five card slots, two 3.5-inch drive bays and fits into 4RU of rack space. Far cheaper than the dual-socket options, it still provides customers with the level of engineering and reliability that HP develops for all of their workstations.
VFX artists will get the most rendering bang for their buck with the new Z640, which can be expanded from one CPU socket to dual CPUs through a riser card. With each processor containing up to 18 cores, that is a maximum of 36 cores and 72 threads available. It supports up to 256GB of DDR4 memory in eight slots. It includes two internal drive bays, and up to seven PCI slots, if both CPUs are installed.
The Z840 remains at the top of the performance pyramid, for the largest projects at the highest resolutions. It supports up to 2TB of DDR4 RAM in 16 slots, feeding dual 160W CPUs with 36 cores. Windows users should be warned that Win7 is limited to 192GB, and Win8 to 512GB, in case you find yourself in that position.
The usual SATA backplane for four 3.5-inch drives can now be replaced with one that supports eight 2.5-inch drives. This is especially useful as SATA SSDs become more popular, but PCIe and M.2 will probably be the favored method of adding flash storage in the near future. There are still eight LSI SAS ports at 6Gb/s, but RAID-5 still requires an add-on controller card. (In case that is how you were planning to connect your new eight-bay backplane.) The large case has 12 fans to cool three independent cooling zones, as quietly as possible.
The acoustics are quite impressive on HP’s flagship systems, and I got to a see a bit deeper into how that happens. They have extensive facilities for testing acoustic, electromagnetic and chemical properties of the systems they are developing. This results in systems that run cooler and quieter, even under full load. These features have made the Z-Series workstations very popular in the media and entertainment industry. More and more, I see facilities deploying towers directly into creative spaces, instead of remote server rooms, saving money on desktop extension hardware, and simplifying operation and troubleshooting.
The most significant improvements over the last generation of towers are higher core count, more RAM capacity and more storage options. More cores should improve performance in applications that are well threaded, extra RAM will help memory intensive applications (Adobe CC), and newer solid-state storage options should make it easier to get realtime playback of larger frame sizes.
They also had technology demos of some really cool display developments. Curved screens are getting a lot of press recently, and they had one to show, but I think the curvature is only significant at larger sizes. They also had a very impressive interactive 3D display, which tracks eye and pen movement to give a very holographic viewing experience. And then they took it a step beyond that, by rendering an augmented reality perspective of what the user was viewing, for the rest of the room to see. The educational applications are easy to envision, and I look forward to seeing that type of technology brought to market.
Mike McCarthy is a technology consultant focusing on Windows based post solutions. He has worked at Bandito Brothers for many years, through the DSLR filmmaking revolution and the production of Act of Valor. Further details of his work and new emerging technologies can be found at www.HD4PC.com.