NYCPPNews recently headed out to Las Vegas to take in the introduction of a new workstation product from HP. We were told it would be a breakthrough product, and since HP’s workstation division invited us out, we were intrigued by the thought.
Early on Tuesday morning in Las Vegas’s sprawling Aria hotel we found out. While a full band rocked the auditorium, several gigantic video screens dramatically bookended the center platform where HP executives stood. They included Todd Bradley, Executive Vice President, HP Personal Systems Group; Jeff Wood, Vice President, Worldwide Marketing, Commercial Solutions Business Unit; and Jim Zafarana, Vice President and General Manager Commercial Solutions Business Unit.
After a bit of stage business showing how HP reinvented the workstation over the past years, the group unveiled the big secret: the Z1, an all-in-one workstation that at first glance bore the sleek looks of…an iMac.
But, in fact, HP has gone considerably further than Apple’s offerings and has delivered an innovative all-in-one workstation-class machine with some real sizzle. Touted as “power without the tower”, the HP Z1 is a remarkable piece of engineering. It has a sleek and sexy profile only recently seen in HP’s consumer division, and it bonds those good looks with an impressive feature set.
Z equals power
Resemblances to that other manufacturer’s desktop workstation soon wore off as we realized that HP was a company that doesn’t do its products by half measures. Indeed the Z in the Z1 meant that it belongs to HP’s line of machines designed for those seeking top power and performance specs under demanding environments. Z workstations are used by media, design, animation and entertainment studios — but also by heavy-duty scientific and engineering types for scientific visualization, automotive design, architecture and oil and gas exploration.
To get an idea of the very top of the Z line, you can check out my take on HP’s Z800 here.
However, as a “rackable minitower”, the Z800 is not only brawny, but it is pretty big as well. For some, this isn’t a problem and, in fact, they may desire all the benefits that a large tower offers. Things like multiple GPUs, extra RAM, PCI slots, hard drive arrays and the like are easily configured in an oversized chassis like the Z800.
However, not everyone has the room or desire to plop a Z800 tower on their desk. To address these needs, HP engineers set out to create an all-in-one design that would have all the power of a workstation yet would occupy more or less the same footprint as a monitor.
We learned that it took over two years of research, development and design to come up with the Z1. It looks like the result is worth the effort, from what we’ve seen as well as the first responses we’ve read on the net.
Below you’ll find my thoughts about the new machine, but first, here is an interview with Mike Diehl, Product Manager, HP’s Personal Workstations that we shot during the launch event.
First, the screen
The first thing you’d be likely to notice is the Z1’s stunning 27-inch 30 bit per pixel backlit display. That means it’s capable of showing over one billion unique colors. Current 8-bit displays are limited to 16.7 million colors, and while this might seem like a lot, in areas with subtle color gradations, noticeable banding would often be visible. The Z1 screen’s 30 bit color does away with that.
The 2560 X 1440 display utilizes IPS technology, a much better choice than the more common, and cheaper to make, TFT-style found on lower-end displays. IPS (in-plane switching) allows for viewing at more extreme angles while remaining bright and crisp. There is a display port on the Z1 for the connection of another external display such as an HP DreamColor display, an affordable color calibrated monitor that can be effectively used for color grading, matte painting and other color sensitive work. (The Z1’s display is essentially a DreamColor without the added calibration electronics crucial for the most accurate setup.)
Pop open the hood
While the display is impressive enough, if you’re any sort of gearhead you’ll go for not only how the HP Z1 looks on the outside but how it opens up to reveal its slick interior. By lowering the monitor and tilting it all the way back to a horizontal position, you simply pop it open to gain access to the critical components of the machine such as the memory, GPU, hard drives, power supply and so on.
Open the sleek and sexy Z1 and you might be popping the hood of a hot sports car. Closing up might do that one better, as a hydraulic arm slowly lowers the lid. That feeling of high-end fit and finish is a crucial part of HP’s recent industrial design directive. With machines like the Z1 and the Spectre notebook, which won a best in show award at CES, HP is emerging as one to watch for the industry’s most accomplished industial design.
No tools? No problem.
HP’s design principle of tool-less serviceability also holds here. With each new generation of workstations over the past few years, HP has very consciously eliminated much of the hassle and bother of upgrading or replacing the key components. Hard drives can be popped out with ease, while memory and the GPU card can be inserted or replaced without the need of a screwdriver. Those industries which employ workstations often need to reconfigure their machines, so a tool-less chassis makes it quick and easy for even a regular user to swap out parts.
HP teamed up with NVIDIA to design the graphics processing muscle for the Z1. This collaboration has resulted in a set of new discrete GPUs with up to 2GB of fast GDDR5 memory that provide top performance and visual quality, certainly the best to be had in an all-in-one . At this point the cards are only available from HP. They’re built around mobile versions of NVIDIA GPUs, so they inherently don’t require typical workstation card cooling. That means you’ll get whisper quiet operation.
CUDA enabled Quadro GPUs accelerate popular editing programs such as Avid’s Media Composer and Premiere Pro whose Mercury Playback Engine uses it to seriously increase performance during complicated HD video editing projects. Apple’s iMac series is still ATI GPU-based only.
Of course NVIDIA Quadro GPUs push the acceleration of real time 3D graphics rendering. During the presentation of the Z1, Jeff Brown from NVIDIA showed us a very impressive demo of flying through an endless city. Containing billions of tessellated polygons, atmospheric lights, smoke, and other effects, the Z1 (with a Quadro 4000m installed) appeared to take it all in stride as we navigated our way through the landscape with nary a dropped frame.
After that, we were shown a demo of navigating around a high poly model of an automobile in Autodesk Showcase complete with lights, shadows and real time reflections. The rendering quality was impressive and will help artists get a sense of how a model looks under different lighting conditions without waiting for a finished render.
Traditionally, ray tracing has been handled by the CPU, not the GPU. Recently, however, NVIDIA has developed a ray tracing engine that developers can access using the CUDA code that allows raytracing not in minutes but in milleseconds. This came to life in another demo where we saw the Quadro equipped HP Z1 perform near real-time ray tracing in Katana, the new look development tool by UK-based The Foundry, which has licensed the basic code from Sony Imageworks.
On the storage side
For storage, you’ve either got the choice of putting in a 3.5-inch 7200 or 10,000 RPM SATA drive, or a two 2.5-inch SSD drives in a RAID configuration. There are two USB 3.0 ports on the side which you can also use for speedy reads and writes to external drives. As it’s some ten times faster than USB 2.0, recently I’ve been enjoying USB 3.0 for HD editing from an external drive and it does a great job keeping up with my edits. You’ll also find a Firewire (IEEE 1394a) port, a 6-in-1 media card reader and an abundance of USB 2.0 ports.
The Z1 also comes with the option of a slot loading DVD writer or a Blu-ray writer. For editors and animators who generate loads of HD footage, having a Blu-ray writer is a great boon since it gives you a more effective back up solution than standard DVDs. Unfortunately for iMacs users, Blu-ray is still not an option.
For the CPU, you can start with an Intel Core i3 on the low-end. But if you are buying a workstation, you’d probably be more interested in a workstation class processor, so consider either Intel’s Xeon E3-1245 which has 4 cores, 8MB of cache and runs at 3.3 GHz or the Intel Xeon E3-1280 (same specs but runs a bit faster at 3.5 GHz).
There are four memory slots in which you can pack up to a respectable 32 GB of DDR3 RAM. Less than the giddy amount that the Z800 allows (that’s 192GB), but certainly ample enough for most users.
There are 4 PCIe slots. A full size PCIe x16 and 3 miniPCIe. Other features include an HD 1080p 2.0 megapixel webcam, SRS premium sound with dual-cone front facing stereo speakers, SRS premium sound, wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse.
The HP Z1 will get a lot of comparisons with the iMac, so we decided to do a little comparing of our own. Here is what we found out.
As before, we’ll start with the screen. Although the iMac is available with a 27-inch 2560 X 1440 screen screen like the Z1, it is only capable of displaying 24-bits per pixel (16.7 million colors). Again, the display on the HP Z1 is capable of 30-bits per pixel (1.07 billion colors).
As mentioned before, NVIDIA’s Quadro GPUs (popular choices in our line of work) are not available on the iMac. This is a problem since applications like Adobe Premiere Pro rely on them to accelerate playback. Also, as pointed out above, it is not possible to get an iMac with a Blu-ray writer in it. Not only will this limit the amount of data you can back up on a single disc, but if you are a filmmaker who wants to create a high definition screener of your film for public viewing on a Blu-ray player, you can’t (unless you get an external Blu-ray writer which means more clutter on your desk).
The top processor on an iMac is an Intel i7 (quad core). There are no options to get the quad core Xeon, a higher rated, workstation class processor.
As far as memory is concerned, the maximum memory you can install on an iMac is 16GB. The HP Z1 allows you to put in twice as much (32GB).
There is no USB 3.0 available on the iMac, however there is Thunderbolt which the HP Z1 does not have (in fact, nobody but Apple has that right now). Thunderbolt does have the edge speedwise as it does slightly outperform USB 3.0. In any case, as mentioned, USB 3.0 is speedy enough for most things and it should be considered that it is easier and less expensive to pick up commonly available USB 3.0 drives from local electronics stores than Thunderbolt drives.
The base price of a 27-inch Apple iMac starts at $1999, while the HP Z1 starts at $1899. I expect that a fully tricked out iMac will end up being more expensive than a loaded Z1, even though it is more limited in areas such as the memory, processor and GPU. My own experience has taught me that Apple hardware costs more than HP’s offerings, even though it is often less powerful. Of course, we’ll need to verify this prediction in April when the Z1 becomes available.
Let’s also not overlook the fact that many workstation users working in high-end 3D animation and compositing are PC-based. Now they’ve got an all-in-one just for them.
It’s hard not to like the Z1. It delivers workstation power in an all-in-one design and does it without compromise. It also is stylish. The way I look at it, the Z800 is like a Rolls Royce Phantom — big, powerful and built like a tank. The Z1, on the other hand is more akin to a Lambhorgini — sleek, sexy and very fast. While these comparisons to luxury cars may be appropriate in some ways, keep in mind that HP’s prices aren’t exorbitant. In fact, I’ve found the price/performance ratio to be quite good in comparison to other manufacturers.
The performance of the Z1 is along the lines of a Z210. Motion picture editors, color correctors, or other power users who are looking for the utmost in performance, or who need lots of expansion cards or require large RAIDs for video editing, may very well prefer a Z800 for the top level of performance and expandability. However, the Z1 will be a great fit for 3D animators, videographers, digital artists and compositors whose needs are slightly more modest and who do not want to sacrifice space in a small office or home office.
We plan to give you more details about the HP Z1 in a full on review, so stay tuned for that. Until then, check out this website for more information.
Follow Joe Herman on Twitter: @joehermantweets.
You may also send him an email at joe[at]legendmultimedia[point]com.