HP xw9300 Workstation
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 3 (March 2005)

HP xw9300 Workstation

Hewlett-Packard has been in the workstation market for decades. Its merger with Compaq a few years ago left the company with two lines of professional workstations. Last year, HP combined the lines and introduced a series of graphics workstations that were redesigned from the ground up. The new machines’ speed, reliability, and quiet operation have made them popular in many studios and design facilities. HP adds to this line with the introduction of the xw9300, an Opteron-based system based on Nvidia’s nForce Professional chipset.
The high-end xw9300 takes advantage of the latest technologies from HP, AMD, and Nvidia.

The xw9300, HP’s top-end workstation, promises excellent graphics performance. Its support for two PCI Express slots enable users to double the graphics power with the addition of a second graphics card.

The xw9300’s enclosure is the same as that of the xw8200 workstation. A mid-tower design, the machine is fairly compact and, when tilted sideways, can fit into a standard 19-inch rack. The front panel is mostly black, with a large grille for airflow, three full-width slots for DVD drives, and FireWire, USB, and audio ports. The back of the system offers Sony PlayStation 2, keyboard, and mouse connectors, as well as four USB, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, audio, and a single serial port. Noticeably missing is a parallel port; with most printers using USB today, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Popping open a latch on the side reveals the workstation’s innards. The cables are nicely arranged, and there’s plenty of room for expansion. The internal drive rack offers room for three drives (in addition to those accessible from the front). The internal drives are angled so that it’s easy to add drives without having to move cables around. The motherboard holds two 2.4ghz Opteron 250 processors, along with eight memory slots, SATA-2, and a dual SCSI disk interface. The included drive is a 74gb 10,000rpm Western Digital Raptor, which should provide very fast response. The power supply has a capacity of 750 watts, more than most people will ever need.

The xw9300 is the first workstation I’ve seen with the Nvidia nForce chipset, a new chipset likely to be widely adopted by most system vendors and motherboard manufacturers that use AMD CPUs. The hottest feature of this chipset is support for two full PCI Express x16 slots. It means you can fill these slots with two high-end graphics cards to get a fairly large performance boost. Last year, Nvidia announced its SLI technology, which enables two graphics cards to communicate and share resources. SLI also gives people an upgrade path; a machine can be configured with a single card, and then expanded as additional power is needed. In addition to the PCI Ex-press x16 slots, the xw9300 has a standard PCI Express slot and three PCI-X 100 slots.

The device boots quickly and runs fairly quietly, but it’s not as silent as its dead-quiet sibling, the xw8200. The xw9300 does emit a noticeable hum, likely from the CPU fans, but the machine is certainly quieter than most. I found that tucking it under the desk made the hum barely noticeable.

I performed some basic benchmarks on the machine to test its performance. The CPU tests came in roughly as expected for a dual-Opteron 250, with an integer score of 22061mips and floating-point performance at 7507mflops. As is the case with most Opteron-based systems, the memory bandwidth was excellent at 4394Mb/sec. Disk speed was good; the fast drive achieved 54Mb/sec, which should handle most video tasks without breaking a sweat. For those who need additional disk performance, the system can be configured with a RAID.

Sadly, I didn’t have a chance to test Nvidia’s SLI technology, as the workstation shipped with only one graphics card, a Quadro FX 3400, Nvidia’s mid-range PCI Express graphics board. I did a Viewperf 8.01 test on a 1280x1024 monitor, which produced a 3ds max score of 29.70, a UGS-03 score of 26.93, and a Maya score of 48.34-all of which are excellent. Nvidia claims a performance boost of about 80 to 90 percent with the addition of a second card through SLI. If it’s true, this performance boost could easily vault a two-card SLI solution to the front of the pack in the OpenGL performance race. I’m hopeful this will be the case, as the two-card solution provides a great way to get additional power at a modest upgrade price.

I have liked HP’s latest workstations, and the xw9300 is no exception. It is solidly built and ergonomic. The combination of the 64-bit Opteron processors and dual PCI Express x16 slots will be popular in the high-end graphics community. HP should have a lot of success with the xw9300.

George Maestri is president of Rubberbug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio specializing in character animation.

Hewlett-Packard www.hp.com
Price: Starting at $1899, $4698 as configured
Minimum System Requirements: Not applicable.