The Moving Picture: Meet the New Beast
Posted Jan 1, 1753

In case you're not aware, Intel recently launched a new processor line, code-named Nehalem. I had a chance to play with one of the first workstations available with the new processor, a 3.2gHz dual-processor, quad-core Z800 workstation that absolutely knocked the socks off the fastest computer that I have ever tested. If you recently bought a non-Nehalem-based computer, you're going to absolutely rue the decision.

As much as I'm a technology enthusiast, I'm also a skeptic when it comes to new products. I'll listen to the pitch, ooh and aah in appreciation of the brilliance of the new innovations, and then wipe the slate clean and test the product. The proof is in the pudding, and if the dog won't hunt when the rubber meets the road, a negative review ensues. OK, I just had a metaphor and simile lesson with my daughter who's in fifth grade, but we didn't get to mixed metaphors, so I'll stop now.

I knew this was a big release because HP and Intel threw an introduction bash in Hollywood, with all-expenses-paid rooms at the Beverly Wilshire and a movie premiere at Dreamworks Studios. I received the Z800 2 weeks before the trip, and I foolishly offered to release my findings to analysts who were invited to the show. This was pretty scary because in the past, I've been disappointed by multiple-core performance with the Adobe suite. For example, the first time I tested an 8-core HP workstation with Adobe Production Premium CS3, it was only 3% faster than a similar speed 4-core system-not the kind of thing you get invited to Hollywood to share.

The Z800 represents a complete overhaul of the HP workstation box design. I reviewed this in detail elsewhere, and a quick surf over the HP site will reveal a picture worth a thousand words. Even my normally taciturn younger daughter gave it a "thumbs up awesome."

But you don't buy a workstation because it has a pretty case, even if it does have toolless access to all relevant components and is quiet enough to run in a submerged submarine running war simulations. It's the performance that counts, and here's where the new Nehalem technology comes in.

Nehalem is the first major processor redesign since Intel launched the "Core" line of processors that started with the fabulous Core2Duo processor. The processors inherit the Xeon name, but they have new numbers; the 3.2gHz chips in the Z800 workstation were labeled 5580.

Nehalem delivers several new innovations to the Intel processor line, most notably an Integrated Memory Controller (IMC) and Quick Path Interconnect (QPI). To be fair, AMD (Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.) debuted an IMC several processor generations ago, but it lost its performance lead when Intel delivered the Core processor technology. Intel also did AMD one better with Nehalem, launching with a triple-channel memory controller that should deliver significantly higher bandwidth to and from the CPU than the two-channel AMD design.

Because the chip has three memory controllers, you load memory in banks of three. My test system had 18GB of RAM, three banks of 6GB each. Intel's architecture also debuts a new DDR3 memory module design, which means that your investment in DDR2 RAM won't carry over.

The other major innovation, QPI, replaces the front-side bus that transmits data directly from CPU to CPU and from CPU to the chipset that integrates the CPU with other system components. The new transfer stats are staggering: Each link runs at 6.4 GT/s (Giga Transfers) but is two bits wide, so it can transfer 12.8GB/sec. The link is bidirectional, so the total bandwidth is 25.6GB/sec.
Intel also added one familiar technology back to Nehalem: hyperthreading, which adds components of a second processor core to each Nehalem core. When you run Windows Task Manager with a dual-processor, quad-core PC, you see 16 active cores, which is quite a sight.

I didn't have a lot of time with the Z800 before this article was due, and I wanted to eschew short benchmarks in favor of a long-form, real-world project. Fortunately, I had a copy of December 2008's Nutcracker project on a system. This was a two-camera HDV shoot, mixed using Premiere Pro CS4's multicam feature. It was light on effects, but it needed plenty of color and brightness adjustments to compensate for the perennially low light that plagues these productions. I copied the source files over to the Z800 and my former speed champ, the 3.33gHz, dual-processor, quad-core HP xw8600 running 64-bit Windows with 16GB of RAM.

The result? The xw8600, which had previously destroyed every other computer in my office in CS4-related tests, rendered an MPEG-2-compatible DVD file in 2:02:06 (hr:min:sec). The Z800, with hyperthreading disabled, produced the same file in 1:11:00, a reduction of 42.6%. Hyperthreading dropped rendering time down to 59:21, a decrease in rendering time of more than 50%.

Initial pricing for the Nehalem-based Z800 is $1,999, roughly the same price or just a small premium over similarly configured systems equipped with previous-generation Xeon technology. From my limited tests, the new systems will likely be more than worth it.

Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com), a contributing editor to EventDV and Streaming Media, runs the Streaming Learning Center.