In the Studio: HP z800 Workstation
Posted Oct 1, 2009

One thing I started noticing at NAB in recent years was that most of the Windows-based NLE vendors were showing their wares on HP workstations. Given that software NLEs need powerful systems to run their best and that the whole point of an NAB demo is to show a product performing seamlessly, I took the preponderance of HP workstations on the show floor as a sign that HP was serving the NLE market well. In 2006, knowing that I would need more horsepower as I was migrating to HD, I purchased an HP xw8200 Xeon workstation to replace the Compaq Evo w4000 that was petering out on longer projects. Since then, I've added a second CPU to the xw8200, which proved adequate for small HDV projects. But for longer projects, I found I needed more power.

At that point, I added an HP xw8400 with two dual-core 3.0GHz Xeon CPUs, with a Matrox RT.X2 for effects acceleration and real-time performance on demanding projects. Recently, I moved the RT.X2 into a dual quad-core 3.0GHz Xeon xw8600; I found that having "only" four cores caused excruciatingly long encoding times when going from HDV to SD DVD on a long-form project.

Enter the z800
Doubling the cores solved the speed problem. But when I tried to author the DVD in Adobe Encore CS4, the xw8600 had issues with lip sync. I re-rendered it and had similar problems. On a lark, I moved the DVD assets over to HP's newest model, the z800, and everything was magically in sync. From there, I finished the DVDs on HP's new z800.

So why can the z800 accomplish feats beyond the ken of the most powerful systems previously available? And what's so drastically different about it that, after 8 years, HP had to come up with a whole new numbering series to signal a break from the past? The z800 is part of the new "z" workstation line, which is the first workstation line on the market powered by Intel's long-anticipated Xeon Nehalem processor.

In brief, it starts out with the single CPU z400 with a more familiar "xw" series case, but it sports a single, more powerful quad-core Xeon CPU instead of the lower Core series CPU. The next in the series is the z600, which sports a new BMW Designworks designed case and chassis, up to two quad-core Xeon CPUs, and up to 16GB of RAM. The z800 also sports up to two quad-core Xeon CPUs, a larger case to accommodate more internal drives and cards, up to 192GB of RAM, eight SAS ports, eight SATA ports, and on-board 1394a.

The z800 that I received for testing was equipped with two quad-core Hyper-threaded 5500 series Xeon (Nehalem) CPUs running at 3.2GHz, 12GB RAM, a 146GB 15,000 RPM system drive, and a 2TB Video RAID striped in RAID 0. The graphics card is an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 with 1.5GB RAM, an HP dual-layer Blu-ray burner, a 1394b (FireWire 800) card, and Windows Vista Business 64-bit as the OS.

Case in Point
Let's start out by looking at the radically new designed case. The best way to describe it on paper is this: If an xw8600 workstation and a Mac Pro got together for a night of forbidden passion and produced an offspring, it would probably look something like the z800. Wanting to make the case physically more functional and distinctive, BMW Designworks in Newbury Park, Calif., designed new cases from the ground up.
HP's new cases have integrated handles for easier carrying and skids on the bottom for easy sliding on carpet. The z800 test system sits on my carpeted dining room floor, under the table. Pulling it out to carry the 60 lb. machine to the truck was much easier with these case enhancements. On the Mac Pro test system I had recently, the carry handles are made of aluminum and are sharp. If I carry the Mac Pro for more than a couple of minutes, it cuts into my palms, causing them to bleed. The z800's handles are rounded plastic and easier to grip and carry painlessly. The skids on the z800 help it glide on carpet; the rubber feet on the xw series grip the carpet. This can be an important issue if your work causes you to take a desktop system on-site for same-day edits and the like.

The front and top of the z800 are also different from previous HD models and the Mac Pro. There is a false grill from the rear top to the front handle, where it becomes a true grill for air flow. Depending on your taste, you can purchase the model with the grill that continues down the entire front with a slot-loading DVD or Blu-ray burner. Mine came with the more traditional, drawer-loading Blu-ray burner. I actually prefer the drawer-loading to the slot-loading burner because there is less of a chance  of scratching the discs. Also, the top of the z800 is flat. I prefer flat to the rounded xw tops because a flat top is easier to balance external drives on.

The Inside Story
Crack open the case (as we techies are wont to do), and you'll find a toolless and wireless chassis. Opening the case is the same as with the xw series models; it opens like a car door. Lift up on the handle and remove the door. The first thing you'll notice is that everything is covered by a contoured plastic cover with some strategically placed holes in it. This is not for show; it's included as part of the cooling system to better direct airflow to cool the twin quad-core 5500 series Xeon CPUs, RAM, and other components. It allows the use of smaller fans turning at a lower RPM, making it a quieter machine.

A look inside the z800 revealing its toolless and wireless chassis

Taking the plastic cover off, you'll see the CPUs with their heat sinks and fans, the graphics card, and other open slots as well as the RAM. If you aren't sure what's what, there is a map laser-etched into the inside of the door. The hard drives are in the front of the machine. Noticeably gone are the hard drive wires and power cables. In previous models, you had to put the drive in a supplied caddy, slide the drive into the bay, and attach the power and data cables. In the z series, HP has added a new caddy, and the power and data connectors face into the bay, where they connect to a backplane without cables.

The only thing I don't like about the new system, in terms of its physical construction, is the new caddy. I found it to be on the flimsy side; for one thing, the handles popped off easily. If you put it back in wrong, it won't seat properly, and the computer won't boot.

HDV Performance and Render Testing

Now, let's take a look at performance. The main difference between the new Nehalem Xeons and the previous generation is the hyper-threading. This feature allows a single processor to work on two jobs at once. In the performance manager, it makes the eight cores look like 16. Another performance enhancement is an architecture that has the CPU and the RAM feed data to each other without the bottleneck of a memory controller. This leads to a major increase in speed.

Over the past year, I found that even though I'm still delivering standard-def DVDs, I'm shooting and editing 95% of my jobs in 1080i HDV shot with the Sony s270 camcorder. Early on, I noticed that HDV takes a lot of extra horsepower for all but the simplest edits. If you want to use complex filters that make regular video look like cartoons, such as NewBlue FX Cartoonr or the Art FX filter, or many of the Boris BCC6 effects with your HDV footage, you'll need every bit of power you can muster. Let's face it: The more power we have, the more we will push the creative envelope. The intro I did for my EventDV-TV series, Almost Live From NAB 2009 (http://tinyurl.com/eventdv-tv-almostlive), was done in Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 using the aforementioned filters, fast motion, and a BorisFX glow on another layer.

For a render test, I compared the z800 to HP's previous top-of-the-line machine, the xw8600. I tested using Event DV-TV's "Almost Live From NAB: Day Two" video to give the machines a real-world comparison. See Table 1 (below) for results.

TestDescription of Testz800 (hr:min:sec)xw8600 (hr:min:sec)
1EventDV-TV intro: Preview HDV 1080i00:05:0500:06:08
2EventDV-TV intro: Render to FLV 1080i00:08:5200:15:22
3EventDV-TV intro: Render opening to DVD MPEG-2
00:04:4000:27:02
4NAB Day 2: Render to DVD/MPEG-2 (two-pass)00:33:4401:30:33
5NAB Day 2: Render to Blu-ray MPEG-2 (two-pass)00:53:4501:51:42


In the first test of the five I did-the preview rendering-there was a small increase in speed. But looking at the encoding test times, you can see that the z800 just blew the xw8600 away. Renders I would do overnight turned into renders I could do during lunch using the z800. Other renders I would have done while I was at lunch are so much faster; I don't even have an excuse to leave my desk.

The Z Factor
In conclusion, if your clientele has you working in HD, the z800 will have you outputting projects a lot faster than with any Windows system you've used before. If you recently purchased a machine similar to the xw8600 (or any pre-Nehalem system, for that matter), the z800 is still worth a look. If your machine sports only four cores and you're editing HD/HDV, you probably render out only a couple jobs a week. The z800's new Xeon CPUs coupled with its NVIDIA graphics cards will increase the speed of all of your most common types of renders, making it a very worthwhile investment. You'll also have plenty of room for expansion.
If that isn't enough to convince you, the z800 also comes with a 3-year on-site warranty. In most cases, they'll have a technician at your place within 24 hours, but you may never need it. I've had only one serious issue with any of my HP workstations due to a faulty power supply, and that was taken care of under the warranty. Even my antiquated xw4100 is still going strong.

Based on my previous HP experiences coupled with the performance of the z800, I highly recommend it. You'll get years of use out of this machine, and you'll relish its power and speed as your projects' HD postproduction demands continue to escalate.

Sidebar: HP LP-3065 30" Monitor
HP sent the LP3065 30" monitor along with the test system. Most of my workstations had two 19" monitors. While I didn’t mind the Premiere Pro sequences being spread across the two monitors, I can say that once you have a single 30" monitor, you won’t want to go back. Your workspace is uninterrupted and huge!

Aside from the large workspace, the LP3065 has DVI-D connectors to switch between other computers you may want to hook up and a USB 2.0 hub. It would be nice to have the analog component, YC, composite, and HDMI inputs that HP’s 2475w has, but I don’t use those too much these days.

The picture is stunning. The maximum resolution is 2560x1600. A radiologist friend of mine who looks at hi-def monitors all day was very impressed with the quality. The street price of the LP3065 is about $1,100. This is a great monitor if you need a large screen space and a small footprint.

Marc Franklin (marcfvp at yahoo.com) has been shooting video since 1982 and has run Franklin Video Productions since 1992. He has been featured in the Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, and TV Technology, and he has written for Studio Monthly, Student Filmmakers, and WEVA.