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Review: HP x4000 Dual 1.7GHz Workstation

Here's the PC Equivalent of Those Rocket Prototypes of the 50s By Paulo de Andrade

It's not every day that one gets a chance to try out a prototype. This can be a very exciting experience, specially when the prototype is one of the fastest machines available. While this is not a secret super-fast sports car, it is definitely the computer user's equivalent.

The x4000 workstation has several fans to keep it cool, yet it is quiet enough to be kept on the desktop.  

It all started at NAB, when the folks at HP were kind enough to give Digital Media Net the exclusive opportunity to test drive their ultimate machine -- the x4000 workstation. And if the x4000 name evokes thoughts of those rocket prototypes of the 50s, the whole idea is not that far-fetched. HP's new professional workstation is truly their silicon equivalent . There's not a lot out there that comes close to this machine's performance.

When I received the x4000, Intel hadn't even officially announced the ultra-fast Dual 1.7GHz Xeon processors it houses (although the Xeon chips are built on P4 architecture, Intel has dropped the Pentium nomenclature from the Xeon line). So, just as car manufacturers keep their prototypes under disguise, I had to keep quiet about this amazing computer. I can now sympathize with all those test drivers who can't tell anyone about the hot cars that have just pumped their adrenaline to a whole new level. While there is certainly nothing special about the exterior looks of this workstation, once you fire it up and run an application, it is clear that you are dealing with extreme horsepower.

What better application to test a fast computer than a high-end 3D program? Such software always pushes computers to the limit. For this reason we chose Softimage XSI 1.51 to be the official processor-wrestler on this review. And we couldn't have picked anything better. A couple of Softimage XSI power users who have tried this machine were truly amazed. According to one of them, in terms of render speed, only a refrigerator-sized computer packed with enough processors to cause a dent in the California power grid can match its performance. And this user knows, as he has tried almost every single piece of silicon on the planet.

Softimage XSI's sophisticated Final Gathering gives you truly photorealistic results. While the program lets you interactively tweak your settings while you see the results on screen, a scene such as this at 1280 x 1024 resolution can lead to some considerable delays. The x4000 surprised everyone by taking only 24 seconds to finish the complete render.

Like a very fast sports car, the x4000 causes its power users to display very silly grins on their faces. That's only natural, because when you are used to waiting for a long time for complex renders and all of a sudden these renders are completed before you can grab a cup of coffee, you feel like the machine can finally keep up with your creative energy. As an artist, you certainly know how frustrating it can be to be forced to put your brain in Pause mode while you wait for a processor to calculate the results of your latest tweaks. But when you work with a machine as fast as this, you get into a much more satisfying work mode as you can let your creative juices flow freely.

Give me a break! How can we justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a high-end compositing system when After Effects 5 on the x4000 lets us tweak images in real time? Moving the slider options in the Optics Compensation filter with the highest quality settings is no big deal for the HP powerhouse. It insists on instantly updating the D1 resolution image.

If this machine can be so fast running one of the most demanding 3D applications, imagine how easily it can handle 2D tasks. Photoshop, for instance, is virtually turned into a real-time application. Gaussian Blurs take place instantly and the screen updates as soon as you move the control sliders. Other complex operations take single-digit seconds to complete even at high resolutions.

After Effects 5 loves the x4000, too. This workstation is so fast that it turns AE into an amazingly fast compositing system, completing most tasks instantly. Even Particle Playground, which can be very slow on some machines, renders at 9 frames per second on the HP. Simpler operation such as color correction and most of the other filters are updated instantly, making the HP a dream machine when clients are sitting by your side during comp sessions.

I must also mention the high quality of the 18" LCD monitor that HP sent with this review unit. It was extremely sharp and bright and it was much more pleasant to work with than any 21" CRT monitor that I have ever tried. The quality was so good, in fact, that we shot many tutorials and demos for DMNTV ( directly off this screen instead of using our studio camera's clear scan feature or our scan converter. Using it with an application that demands a lot of attention to detail and precision, such as Softimage XSI, was a lot easier on the eyes. I recommend that you consider one of these monitors if you purchase an HP workstation.

A D1 resolution render of the test scene using Final Gathering and good antialiasing settings completely blew me away. This 720 x 486 image took less than 41 seconds to process, with the rendering part taking place in less than 20 seconds. How fast can you spell raytracing?…

Is there anything I don't like about this workstation? Yes. While it's blazingly fast when it's running, it is the slowest booting machine I have ever used. I can take a motorcycle ride around the block a couple of times and still wait a little bit for it to finish its excruciatingly slow startup routine. Why so slow when the machine is so fast? Well, being a true workstation it completely self-diagnoses before you can start working. This prevents you from getting in trouble in the middle of a project if there's something wrong with the unit. That's good. On the other hand, whenever your machine crashes (and this can be caused by a number of factors, as any user of the many flavors of Windows knows) you waste a lot of time getting back to work. I wish HP could optimize this boot-up process because the wait can be painful, especially when the computer is so fast, overall.

The starting list price of the x4000 workstation is $3,876 (w/o monitor). That includes one 1.5GHz Xeon processor, 256MB PC800 RDRAM, 18GB Ultra 160 SCSI disk, CD-ROM, Matrox G450 graphics and Windows 2000 Professional.

The unit as tested lists for $6,976 (w/o monitor). It includes two 1.7GHz Xeon processors, 1GB PC800 RDRAM, 18GB Ultra 160 SCSI disk, CD-ROM, ATI FireGL2 graphics and Windows 2000 Professional.

HP monitors start at $625.

HP's x4000 workstations are shipping now. For more information, visit their web site at:


  • 1 or 2 Intel Xeon 1.5 or 1.7GHz processors
  • Intel 860 chipset with 400MHz system bus: provides 3X bandwidth of previous HP Pentium III-based dual processor workstation for higher-speed data transfer.
  • build-to-order: tailors the varying needs of HP workstation customers to the product.
  • mass storage expandability: up to 144GB internal disk
  • up to 4GB capacity RDRAM
  • diag LEDs/e-diag tools
  • choice of the following graphics systems:
    ATI Fire GL 4
    ATI Fire GL 2
    NVIDIA Quadro2 Pro
    NVIDIA Quadro2 MXR
    Matrox Millennium G450 dual display
  • Support for Microsoft Windows2000 Professional, Windows NT Workstations, and HP-integrated Red Hat Linux.

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Related Keywords:Digital Video Editing, Digital Media Net, ultimate machine, x4000 dual processor, Xeon 1.7 MHz, workstation, review

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