Packing the power of a portable film studio into a mid-sized PC case, HP's dual Xeon workstation is a powerful creative tool, if you can afford it
If you're unsure about the difference between a workstation and a desktop PC, well, you've probably taken one look at the price and stopped reading this review already.
We don't usually review workstations here at Stuff Towers: as the name implies they tend to be a little on the dull side, pragmatic and purposeful rather than stylish and with all-round appeal. They only appeal to professionals who already know pretty much what they want. So what makes HP's Z800 different?
For a start, it's not as expensive as it looks, relatively speaking – although you will have to factor in the cost of a professional graphics card on top of that price. We took a look at the highest end model, kitted out with two of latest Intel Xeon four core processors, each capable of processing eight tasks at once, and an enormous 24GB of DDR3 memory. The hard drives alone are faster than a Tiago Della Vega guitar solo.
That's a lot of very costly equipment to cram into one box, but the starting price for a low end Z800 is under £2,000, which if you're a HD video or 3D rendering specialist working from home isn't a bad investment for a machine that will save you days of work.
Secret is in the CPU
Some of the advantages of not trying to create the next Wall-E on a normal computer are that buying a workstation gives you access to the kinds of technical support and warranties that are usually reserved for blue chip firms.
It also, amusingly, buys you a downgrade from Vista to Windows XP. The best reason to consider the Z800, though, is those twin CPUs. Although the Xeons are almost identical to the current Core i7 desktop chips, they're designed to work seamlessly in tandem, with extraordinarily quick data transfer buses between the two.
You can build a very competent machine for professional use using cheaper desktop parts, but you can't build one that will take two physical processors: with the Z800 you can literally get twice as much done, if the app is coded right.
They also use little power for such high-powered CPUs, so the Z800 doesn't need excessive cooling. Even in the peak of summer it's quieter than most desktop PCs.
Despite boasting the PC equivalent of an F1 engine under the hood, the exterior design of the Z800 doesn't look like much. It's all aluminium industrial simplicity and plastic grooves. But pop the panels off and there's a carefully laid out interior that you can add or subtract hard drives or graphics cards to without so much as looking at a screwdriver.
The keyboard looks like it came from a £300 high street special, but then if you can afford this you can probably afford to add better peripherals too.
There is just one thing worth bearing in mind, and that's that developers will find it easier to use 3D graphics hardware for general number crunching after the launch of Windows 7. Already, Photoshop and Premiere can be accelerated in this way, and for a fraction of the cost of going for a full professional system like this.
The results aren't quite as effective – or even possible in some apps – but considering the cost saving, they're worthwhile. That's still something of an unknown quantity for the future though. Right now, if you need the kind of performance the Z800 offers, this is the best way to get it.
HP Z800 workstation review
An expensive machine to be sure, but perfect if you're thinking of starting the next Pixar from your garage