More Processing Power, Plus Plenty of Extra Ports

Your high-end workstation felt so fast a year ago. It was the best of the bunch, the fastest in the world- but maybe now you’re itching for even more speed. How much difference would a new workstation make, running the fastest, shiniest, brand-newest processors? Is it worth it to upgrade, even if you had last year’s finest? To answer those questions, we decided to compare the previous-generation HP xw8400 dual quad-core 2.66 GHz workstation we reviewed a few months ago ( with HP’s newest eight-core xw8600 workstation running a pair Intel’s fastest 3.16 GHz quad-core “Harpertown” 45nm Penryn processors. What a difference a year makes!
This HP workstation’s case layout is similar to its xw8400 brother, and we like its quiet fans and tool-less chassis. With its easy expandability, we’re not surprised that it’s a favorite of content creators. Now, HP has added more ports to plug-in hard drives inside this behemoth, with eight slots for serial attached SCSI (SAS) drives (up from four in the xw8400), and six SATA connections. This is a boon for video jockeys, because you can stuff the machine with five hard disks inside, and then port, say, eight SAS drives outside. For that config, you can extract performance that’s mind-boggling: How do read and write speeds of 2 GB per second sound to you? Hey, that might come in handy for some real-time HD editing.
Chips Ahoy!
The stars of this show, though, are the processors and their attendant chipset. The Penryn processor’s components are squeezed together aboard that little silicon wafer more tightly, at a mere 45nm apart, much closer quarters than their 60nm predecessors. With this finer geometry, the processors also have 50 percent more cache, resulting in 6 MB of shared cache between each dual-core, totaling 12 MB for each quad-core processor. The faster 3.16 GHz clock rate is also possible because of Penryn’s finer geometry, as well as the 1333 Mhz front-side bus that’s 30 percent faster than before.
There’s also a new chipset onboard, the Intel 5400 series, which lets graphics mavens and animators install two high-end workstation-class PCI Express x16 graphics cards. Although our test machine had a single 768 MB NVIDIA Quadro FX 4600 graphics card on board, the HP motherboard’s chipset (with a little help from the optional 1050W power supply) lets you install another one just like it in the slot right next to it. That’s getting into scary-fast graphics territory. Yet even one of these superb Quadro FX 4600 graphics card is significantly faster than the Quadro FX 3500 we tested in this machine’s older bro.
How much faster is this xw8600 than last year’s xw8400 champ? Let’s have a race. We pitted the two eight-core machines against each other, both running the same extensive suite of real-world Adobe After Effects benchmarks. Next, we rendered MPEG files on Adobe Premiere Pro CS2, and then blasted through suites of 3DMark and CineBench benchmarks. Get ready to dive into some head-to-head numbers, because we’re going to have a rumble (results in the chart on the facing page).
Check out the speed gains in this year’s machine. We were surprised to see such leaps in overall processing power, especially since clock speed alone can only account for an 18.8 percent increase (2.66 GHz to 3.16 GHz = an 18.8 percent increase). Aside from the numbers, this latest technology felt tremendously responsive, with hardly any noticeable latency. Sure, you’ll pay a lot to upgrade to this latest tech, but the extra speed is always there, and astonishing in some areas. If you find yourself enduring long rendering sessions, the difference could be well worth the extra investment.
Vista, AE CS3 and Beyond
If you’re wondering if Windows Vista runs content creation apps faster than Windows XP, well, the results are mixed. On our After Effects benchmarks, Vista had the edge, beating out XP by 10 percent on a vector graphics-heavy comp, and also scoring a 10403 on the PC Mark test, compared to XP’s 9024. However, the biggest difference we saw between the two operating systems was in disk access speed, with XP’s 129MB/s write speed doubling Vista’s 61MB/s write speed. Inside sources tell us Microsoft is working on that disk writing slowness with the upcoming Vista service pack 1 (SP1), which may be available as you read this.
Better yet, now After Effects CS3 has an ability to render multiple frames simultaneously, further speeding up your work by blasting out frames using all eight of the cores within this beast.
HP xw8600 workstation, Dual Quad Core 3.16GHz (“Harpertown”) HP xw8400 workstation, Dual Quad Core 2.66GHz (“Clovertown”) Speedup %
Total Benchmark Comp 1 (Adobe After Effects) 25 Seconds 40 Seconds 45.65%
Total Benchmark Comp 2 336 Seconds 443 Seconds 24.15%
Night Flight Vector Graphics 12:37 14:23 12.28%
Data Comp 0:24 0:34 29.41%
“Gambler” Illustrator graphics collage 0:09 0:20 55%
“Source Shapes” Vector graphics 0:46 0:57 19.30%
Virtual Set 0:41 0:52 21.50%
Premiere MPEG Compression 1:10 1:26 18.60%
Maxon CineBench Rendering R10 18712, multiprocessor speedup, 5.7X 9865, multiprocessor speedup, 4.05x 89.68%
3D Mark05 (higher is better) SM: 4089; HDR: 3925; CPU: 6871 SM: 1670; HDR: 1658; CPU: 5571 N/A

Charlie White is a television producer/director with 33 years experience. He also writes for NBC technology and consumer electronics site, as well as for Wired, Popular Science and Maxium PC.