Hop in, as we road test HP's 3D desktop solutions

August 11, 2010

Challenging economic conditions don’t necessarily mean curtailed IT spending and less investment in software and hardware for mid-to-large-sized AEC firms.

Total IT spending per employee among architecture, engineering, planning, and environmental consulting firms reached an all-time high in 2008, according to ZweigWhite’s Information Technology Survey. The survey, released last spring, showed firms spent a median of $4,383 per employee on information technology, almost a thousand dollars more than firms were spending on IT just two years ago. Those numbers are sure to go down this year with the difficult business environment facing many AEC firms, but the investment in new hardware and software to help firms switch from 2D to 3D workflows is seen as a long-term cost savings by CAD and BIM managers and probably won’t fall as much as human IT spending, the single largest IT cost center (31%), according to management consulting firm ZweigWhite.

The majority of firms (60%) said they expect to increase their IT spending by a median of 10%. About half of firms (48%) plan to spend more on new software and software upgrades, and 46% expect to increase spending on PCs, laptops, and servers.

To meet this demand, hardware and software manufacturers are teaming up to offer affordable product combinations to give firms productivity advantages. Last year, hardware manufacturers HP and NVIDIA teamed up with software vendor Autodesk to offer the HP xw4600 Workstation, AutoCAD 2009, and a choice of NVIDIA Quadro FX 370, Quadro FX 570, or Quadro FX 1700 graphics cards for $3,995, about the cost of a single AutoCAD license. That deal expired at the beginning of 2009, but is indicative of the new types of software and hardware bundles being offered to the design and construction professions.

HP's xw4600 comes with a recyclable aluminum casing and two front-mounted USB ports.

BD+C tested HP xw4600 with an NVIDIA Quadro FX1700 card and AutoCAD. Here are the specs of our test machine:

Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 2.5 GHz processor Intel X38 chipset 
4 GB (4x1) DDR2-800 ECC RAM 
250 GB SATA hard drive 
16x DVD+/-RW Supermulti SATA 
Microsoft Windows XP downgrade 32-bit AutoCAD 2009

Multi-application graphics performance: The xw4600 and its FX 1700 graphics card passed our test. Running Adobe Photoshop CS4 and AutoCAD 2009 simultaneously, BD+C experienced no slowdowns in performance, no extended load times, and no data crashes. The workstation also ran extremely quietly, with no loading noises or other noticeable computing static (more on its power configuration later). 

 Having used the latest version of Photoshop on another machine, I was familiar with how to set up the application’s Open GL/GPU acceleration (GPU acceleration lets a computer’s graphics card do more of the data compositing work traditionally done by software). To my surprise, next to no setup was required with the HP/NVIDIA system, and my graphics card was ready to process accelerated 3D interaction out of the box.

 Photoshop and the Autodesk programs I tested all performed well thanks to GPU acceleration. I tried hard to crash it, too, running Autodesk 3ds Max 2009 simultaneously with both Photoshop CS4 and AutoCAD 2009. The system did not even run slower with all three apps (Photoshop, AutoCAD, and 3ds Max) running together with several open web browsers in the background. All three applications ran with no slowdown with Microsoft Office applications running simultaneously in the background.

The HP xw4600 also has dual PCIe X16 Gen2 graphics interfaces. These allow the user to power multiple displays without compromise and get twice the performance of previous interfaces.

Energy savings: HP installs an 80% efficient power supply standard in all of its workstations. This and other design elements enable xw4600 configurations to qualify for ENERGY STAR® and register as EPEAT™ (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) Gold. EPEAT Gold registration means that the xw4600 was manufactured in an environmentally friendly manner and will perform in that way throughout its life cycle. BD+C's test unit performed well within its power constraints and didn't cause a noticeable increase in my home energy bill over a month-long test.

Expandability:  Inside, there are 3 PCI slots, a PCIe x1, a PCIe x8, and two PCIe x16 slots. For hard drives, there are two internal 3.5-in slots, but it is possible to have up to four hard drives in the system, giving you up to 4TB of storage. The motherboard has 4 slots for memory, which means you can have a maximum of 8GB of RAM, all powered by the 80% efficient power supply. The toolless case, which opens easily with a side-mounted hood clasp, was organized with all cables clearly marked. I found, however, that it’s easier to work on the tower on its side rather than upright.

Inside, the  xw4600 includes three PCI slots.

The unit provided two front-mounted USB (2.0) ports and headphone and microphone ports for easy access (no reaching around to the back to attach your headphones). The back of the machine contained an impressive seven USB ports and all the necessary monitor and graphics card inputs. Curiously, HP provided my unit with a keyboard equipped with a PS/2 plug. The mouse did have a USB connector, but you’d think that USB would be standard on keyboards these days, especially since BD+C’s unit came with an astounding nine USB ports. This was literally the first PS/2 connector I had seen in more than two years.

Overall, the HP xw4600 performed admirably and was indeed optimized for graphics and other data-intensive professional applications, such as architectural and mechanical design, digital content creation, and building information modeling. With its wealth of ports and drive bays, you’ll easily be able to add memory, peripherals, and storage as your future requirements change.




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