Two workstations enable BIM for the masses

Looking to upgrade your hardware to run BIM but worried about price? Our expert test drives two new pieces of iron that won’t bust your IT budget. 

July 06, 2011 |

Two recently released workstations from Hewlett-Packard and Dell have brought the graphics and processor power necessary to run 3D parametric BIM modeling programs down to an entry-level price. Even the mid-grade desktops from these two manufacturers can fully model in 3D. Take a ride with me on the HP Z210 and the Dell Precision T1600.

Back in October, I reviewed HP’s Z200 workstation PC (, a new value-class workstation PC that significantly brought down the cost of entry-level CAD. I found it to be excellent for running AutoCAD, but not the best for running Revit, Microstation, or other 3D parametric BIM programs. With the release of the HP Z210, that barrier has been lifted.

The Z210 provides a number of upgrades over the Z200: a larger 400W power supply, a standard 90%-efficient power supply, up to 95W Intel Xeon processor options, Intel vPro technology, and next-generation Intel processors, including the Sandy Bridge architecture-based Xeon E3 1200 family.

Add to that list the choice of second-generation Intel cores (i3, i5, and i7), more than 20% improved quad-core performance, more fully integrated graphics, new graphics card options (including mid-level NVIDIA Quadro and ATI options), and two integrated six Gbps SATA interfaces.

I’ve been testing the HP Z210 CMT (“convertible mini tower”) but most hardware configurations are also available in the workstation’s SFF (“small form factor”) size. Both can be configured with the Intel Xeon processor E3 family with up to 16GB of ECC RAM and second-generation (i3, i5, and i7) processors. The SFF starts at $569; a low-cost configuration of the CMT can be had for $659.

For AEC professionals, the biggest difference between these two models comes in the graphics options available to each of them.

The Z210 CMT can accommodate mid-range and even high-end 3D graphics, up to the NVIDIA Quadro 4000; they essentially enable 3D BIM for the price of an entry-level CAD machine. Due to their large size, however, these cards are not available in the non-tower SFF. My CMT had the Quadro 2000, graphics card I reviewed back in January. The graphics card’s scalable geometry engine can deliver 1.3 billion triangles per second, a significant graphics leap in production over previous 3D graphics limitations, which makes it a great card for, say, trying out all those 3D iterations of your latest project.

To push my HP Z210, I installed Autodesk’s premium version of the Building Design Suite, which includes the entire Revit 2012 family (Architecture, MEP, and Structure), the entire AutoCAD 2012 family (AutoCAD, AutoCAD Architecture, and AutoCAD Structural Detailing), Inventor Fusion 2012, 3ds Max Design 2012, and Autodesk Showcase 2012. All ran smoothly and quickly with no wait time for line drawing, thanks to my test unit’s Xeon E3 1280, 3.5-GHz CPU.

To test the processor, I ran all these design programs simultaneously with other programs that need a lot of memory, such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator: the Z210 never really slowed down much. The NVIDIA Quadro 2000 helped a lot with out-of-the-box graphics configurations that took advantage of Autodesk’s software code, which is written for GPU acceleration. The Sandy Bridge CPU didn’t have to do as much work because NVIDIA’s graphics card and Autodesk’s software were carrying much of the computing burden. When it did have to do all the calculating on its own, it was up to the task.

Desktop hardware has advanced to the point where it’s virtually impossible to crash systems such as the Z210, but beyond that the slowdown period for parametric 3D modeling programs such as Revit Architecture is greatly reduced, with powerful Xeon processors working hand-in-hand with graphics. By putting such power into the chassis of an entry-level workstation, small and mid-sized firms now have a more reasonable opportunity to invest in BIM. These are still mid-range graphics options, so you might not be able to generate thousands of down-to-every-bolt iterations without some slowdown (and lots of hard drive space), but the system is certainly up to handling most BIM projects that small or mid-sized firms might tackle.

On the hardware side, the Z210 has four front-facing USB 2.0 ports, including an optional IEEE-1394 port (three without the optional port) for attaching cameras and smart phones; it also has a USB 3.0 port on the back in a PCI slot. I experienced no errors using the USB 3.0 port. The data transfer on the new standard is superfast and well worth the investment for any firm that uses a lot of USB drives for stored data. It also runs extremely quietly: the only time I could really hear it running was when I put a CD or DVD into the media drive.

The case is still easily accessible from a latch for toolless entry; however, many of the simple design cues that made the BMW Designworks-created chassis so user friendly have been lost in this generation. The case-integrated handle on the top is gone, just as it was on the Z200. The Z600 and Z800 towers both still have the handles. If HP is going to produce an SFF version of the Z210, why not put the handle back on the tower version? While the securing points on the inside of the machine are still marked with green tabs, they’re not as easy to get out. I cut myself taking out the graphics card. Still, these are minor gripes on a solid system that offers so much at such reasonable cost.

The new Dell Precision T1600 is the second entry-level workstation from Dell that was Independent Software Vendor certified for AutoCAD. (Dell’s T1500 earned ISV certification last year.) ISV certification means that a certified system has been tested to ensure it can run the software. The system must be stable and fast enough to perform all of the tasks required by the application and must have all the software components, such as 3D OpenGL accelerated drivers, and be free of compatibility-based errors and bugs. ISV is one of the major qualifications that can separate a workstation from a high-end desktop PC.

The T1600 is ISV-certified for 12 applications, including Autodesk 3Ds Max, Bentley Microstation, SolidWorks, SolidEdge, and Autodesk Maya.
With these new certifications, plus workstation-class processors, a wider range of professional graphics options, and more memory and storage, the T1600 is a big step up from the T1500.

The T1600’s compact tower has a simple latch opening—all component removal points are marked in blue. My test unit came with an Intel Xeon E3 1270 processor at 3.4 GHz, one of the faster Sandy Bridge-based chips available. It also has 4GB of ECC RAM and the Quadro 2000, the highest-level NVIDIA Quadro graphics card offered for the T1600. It has 10 USB 2.0 ports—four in front, six in back.

I also tested this unit with other nonqualified programs, such as Revit 2012 and other large applications from the Autodesk Building Design Suite Premium 2012, running in the background. The T1600 passed with flying colors, delivering fast rendering speeds and crisp lines with AutoCAD and 3Ds Max running in the foreground and Revit running tasks in the background. I also watched HD video with Windows Media Player while performing design tasks with both AutoCAD and Revit.

The Quadro 2000 card was optimized out-of-the-box for all of the Autodesk applications; a check of the performance tuner confirmed that shading and other operations were being performed with my Quadro 2000, freeing up CPU power to run other programs.

The T1500 did not come with ECC memory (ECC stands for “error-correcting code”). Dell wisely has included ECC (as well as the Quadro 2000) in the T1600, making it capable of performing as a true 3D BIM workstation. Its memory capacity has also been bumped up with four slots supporting up to 16GB ECC or 8GB non-ECC DDR3 dual in-line memory modules, or DIMMs.

The T1600 is also more energy efficient than its predecessor, meeting such environmental standards as Energy Star 5.0, EPEAT Gold, and CEC in China. My unit came with the optional 85% efficient 320-watt power supply, the T1600’s most efficient power supply; a 65% supply is also available.

Dell has blazed a nice trail into the entry-level BIM market with this affordable workstation ($629 base price). It will be interesting to see how they go after BIM power users when the rest of the 2012 Precision workstation line is announced later this year.

Follow Jeff “BIMBoy” Yoders as he blogs on BIM and IT solutions at

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