Unrivaled Power: Review of the HP Z820 Workstation
The new HP Z820 workstation is uniquely qualified for the special demands of high-end production and post. Putting this powerful workstation to the test over the past couple of weeks has only confirmed this conclusion.
We’re giving the Z820 an NYCPPNews Editor’s Choice award. That’s a distinction we give to exceptional products that we feel will play a key role in the production and post industry.
Let’s show you why we think so.
To begin, here’s a video that summarizes the Z820’s advanced features:
If you’re curious about the Z820’s predecessor, read my review of the HP Z800 workstation, which previously topped HP’s Z-line of workstations.
The Z820 workstation, like its predecessor is an excellent choice for serious motion picture and video editing with programs such as Adobe’s Premiere Pro, (an application that continues to gain popularity in the pro-editing space) as well as Avid’s Media Composer (well entrenched among elite motion picture editors). The most significant improvements of the z820 include the latest Xeon E5 2600 processors, PCI Express 3.0 (integrated into the processor), USB 3.0, DDR-3 memory and capacity enhancements, I/O slot improvements, and overall better performance.
The release of the Z820 happens to coincide with Adobe’s new version of Premiere CS6, a part of the Creative Suite, which has garnered several important awards at NAB 2012. Avid’s venerable Media Composer version 6 was also released recently to critical acclaim.
Sporting the latest generation Intel processors and able to handle high performing graphics cards, the Z820 is also well suited for 3D animation, where image rendering can severely tax other, less endowed systems.
3D modeling and animation relies on the GPU for real time rendering and the GPU sitting in in my review Z820, the Nvidia Quadro 6000, was certainly up to the task. This is the current top of the line card (and priced accordingly at around $4K). The 6000 offers 6 GB of RAM, 448 CUDA cores and claims to deliver an astounding 1.3 billion triangles per second.
However, it is the CPU that renders the final frames. This involves some heavy computation, as it takes a chunk of time to calculate the final lighting effects, textures, depth of field, motion blur, particles and the multiple other subtleties that go into making outstanding 3D imagery for motion pictures.
When working at 2K or 4K resolution, It can easily take not only hours to render out a sequence, but days (depending on its length). In this regard, the dual 8 core Xeons (combined total of 16 cores) running at 3.1 GHz with 20 MB Level 3 cache can crunch through complex rendering jobs pretty quickly if you don’t have a render farm handy.
It’s during the video editing process, of course, that filmmakers finally get a sense of what their finished project will look like. Therefore it’s crucial that the editing workstation is powerful enough to play back a reasonable facsimile of the finished production from the NLE’s timeline.
Today’s workstations must therefore be capable of delivering multiple high-resolution video streams, music, sound effects and transitions while not dropping frames. Fitted with an SSD RAID, the Z820 doesn’t have a problem as it delivers up smooth high-resolution video. Since Adobe’s Mercury Playback engine (a capability built into many of the CS6 apps) is directly keyed to accelerate with the Quadro 6000, the final speed-up is even better.
A closer look
Whether it’s punishing 3D rendering, video editing, compositing, audio production, or color correction, the Z820 seems to breeze through it. Its handsome rugged brushed metal sides are both solid and aesthetically pleasing, but with a basic weight of 43lb., the machine isn’t laptop light. For anyone doing high-end post who requires the utmost in power, weight doesn’t usually matter however. HP builds in a set of sturdy handles at the top of the Z820, which make moving it around simple.
One of the nicest things about the Z820 is the ease of just flipping it open to expose the interior of the machine. Reflecting HP’s philosophy of tool-less maintenance, not only is it a cinch to open the machine, but it’s easy to service as well. With no tools needed, it’s a lot easier to replace components such as the power supply, for example, which pops out by simply pulling on a handle.
Once you’re inside you’ll be impressed with how neatly it’s laid out, with an intelligent and thoughtful layout that won’t have you skinning your knuckles as you might have years ago.
After removing a couple of airflow covers you’ll get to one of the key components of the Z820 — the CPUs. My review machine sported two of the latest eight-core E5-2600 Xeon processors from Intel running at 3.1 GHz. With 16 cores of processing power (32 virtual cores), there’s a potential that things can get hot. That’s why the addition of liquid cooling for the CPUs impressed me. This is something you used to only find in expensive custom systems or industrial-style servers.
The E5 family of Xeon processors includes many significant improvements over prior generations including Sandy Bridge architecture, an improved core architecture, higher clock speed, and doubling of peak floating point performance. The E5-2600 Xeon processors could offer a big performance boost with their 20MB of L3 cache.
Drive into the bay
The Z820’s seven hard drive bays, which partly resemble a tidy stack of drawers, need only a light tug to remove or insert. Of course, the drives can be configured to be a RAID5 setup, a common choice of many video editors.
While solid-state drives (SSDs) have been pricey, this is finally starting to change. The Z820 is the first workstation I have ever used that started out with all SSDs and the performance is magnificent. Be warned, once you get a taste of working this way, it’s hard to go back to spinning media.
My review Z820 included three 300GB Intel SSDs. One is used for the OS and applications, while the other two are in a 600GB RAID 0 configuration. Depending on how much source footage you have, you could easily fit several feature-length editing projects onto that. Granted, RAID 0 doesn’t offer any security, but the simplicity of SSD architecture has me convinced that for my own work, at least, I’ll take a chance that they won’t crash, plus I make sure that I have everything backed up in several places.
Working with the SSD RAID is a real pleasure. I am currently editing an hour long movie in Premiere Pro CS6; the timeline has over a thousand edit points in it along with multiple tracks of sound effects and music. As mentioned above, the NVIDIA Quadro 6000 video card greatly accelerates Premiere, since it incorporates Adobe’s Mercury playback engine. Combine that with the speedy SSD RAID and I found the result was virtually perfect real time playback from my timeline. For video editors working with a client, this level of interactivity is an important part of a successful editing suite experience.
With its SSDs and liquid-cooled CPUs, the HP Z820 is whisper quiet, an important design benefit for a high-end workstation. If you’re sitting in a small edit suite for hours, you and your clients will appreciate this, although you might forget the machine is running.
As an up-to-date workstation, the HP Z820 features built-in USB 3.0 ports on the front and back of the chassis. As the new standard is 10X the speed of USB 2.0, you just might be tempted to add on some external USB 3.0 storage.
A short history lesson and editorial
The Z820, which takes over from the Z800 as the top of HP’s workstation line, is a logical choice for high-end production and post facilities, editing suites and color correction houses. I don’t know of any other Windows workstations expect pricey custom configurations, that offer what it does out of the box. These thoughts have caused me to reflect on a few important changes in our industry as well as the historical currents that have brought them about.
Of course, many people already use Windows-based workstations for high-end production and post, whether they are 3D animators, compositors, designers, video editors, game creators or music producers. However, some readers might still consider video editing, graphic design, and audio production to be the domain of the Macintosh.
If you happen to be one of those people, the next few paragraphs are for you. Over the past few years there have been major shifts in the postproduction industry, with major players moving into and out of the field. I’m not the first who has wondered whether Apple has lost interest in the pro market.
I’ve recently read several articles written by former Mac users who have moved to HP workstations for their design and editing suites. This decision comes from many factors, but the one that’s attracted the most attention to date is the perception that Apple’s release of FCP X abandoned a whole ecosystem standardized around the prior version’s interface.
Other changes from the Mac’s once top position has been the continued professionalization of Premiere Pro; Adobe’s push to make the entire Creative Suite fully cross-platform; Avid’s release of the redesigned Media Composer 6 as well as Pro Tools 10; and access to ever more powerful 3D software on the PC. It doesn’t hurt that ever more powerful Windows-based workstations deliver more while coming in less than a tricked out Mac Pro tower.
Even so, some of you may still be unsure about the switch to the Z820’s Windows-based platform.
If you’re a longtime Mac user considering that switch, you might find this brief history lesson helpful. The notion of the Mac as a graphics and editing machine can initially be attributed to the influence of products from Adobe and Avid. In Adobe’s case, access to products such as After Effects, PostScript, Photoshop, and Illustrator (now you can add Premiere Pro to that list) were major reasons why people bought Macs in the first place.
Similarly, Avid Corporation’s Avid/1 (which started out as a Mac-only product) helped make the Mac the most popular editing platform. Avid’s Pro Tools also made the Mac popular among audio and recording professionals. To a large extent, Apple owed its success in the graphics and video arena in part to Adobe and Avid, as well as Data Translation’s Media 100 system.
Meanwhile, designers behind Adobe Premiere’s initial NLE left the company to create their own edit system to their liking. Steve Jobs eventually offered the team and its initial product a place in Cupertino so that he could have an NLE to compete with Premiere. Thus Final Cut was born. Over the years it’s ease of use, third party support, and Apple’s enthusiastic backing made it popular among editors.
(Avid Media Composer, playing to a much smaller market, was and continues to be the favorite of the great majority of Hollywood and top-end broadcast editors.)
Fast forward to today. The widespread impression is that Apple has become disinterested in the pro video market causing many to speculate whether the Mac Pro tower, a machine targeted squarely at pros, may be discontinued altogether. Once again, the Cupertino-based company didn’t have a booth at NAB this year. Why the loss of interest? It’s probably a safe bet to say that Apple, the highest valued company in the U.S., rakes in vastly more cash from the sale of smart phones, iPads, iPods, and the regular downloading of millions of songs from iTunes.
Final Cut Pro X works fine on a MacBook Pro or Air, and some even tout it for what they perceive as advanced features that move well beyond the now ubiquitous timeline interface. But while Apple might have developed an advanced editing product for individuals, it’s turned away from a standardized, widely supported interface that allows pros to collaborate.
In any case, for these reasons and others, many have come to see HPs Z Workstations as, not only the highest performing machines in their class, but the ideal professional production, post and video editing machine with the ability to run the pro apps that they need.
If you do a little comparing of the HP Z820 to other systems out there, including the Mac Pro, I think you’ll find out why.
I ran the Z820 through Cinebench, Maxon’s popular hardware 3D benchmarking application. It received an impressive score of 25.41 on the CPU test and 87.78 on the GPU test. Here is a chart that compares the Z820 with the Z800 and a Mac Pro.
To those seeking the utmost power and performance in a workstation, I don’t think you can do better than an HP Z820. Our decision to give it a NYCPP Editor’s choice award reflects that decision.
For more information and the latest pricing, check out HP’s website here.