HP’s Z2 and Intel’s 11th Generation Core: Surveying Today’s Quintessential CAD Workstation Hardware

18 Nov, 2021 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: An opportunity to check out the state of the art in mainstream fixed workstations, as well as assess the CAD performance of Intel’s Rocket Lake CPU.

With over three decades of evolution behind it, today’s workstation market is more diverse than ever. While the emergence of the mobile workstation back in the early 00’s has had the most notable growth force on the market — now contributing roughly half the market’s unit volume — the more traditional fixed side (a.k.a. deskside or desktop) has done more than its share of progression as well, growing into product portfolios far broader than the workstation’s early days. Technology drivers Dell, HP, and Lenovo now offer six or more models at a time, differentiated by virtually every metric possible: form factor, capacity, performance, and, of course, price. Each model is carefully crafted to appeal to the specific needs and wants of a user base dominated by CAD applications. Check out this multi-part series for an in-depth look at today’s breadth of workstation market segmentation.

But while the number of model classes has grown over time, sales distribution among those classes has proven anything but uniform. Hitting the sweet spot of price and performance, the class I define as Entry 1S (single socket) dominates sales, commanding over half of all deskside workstations sold today. Within that segment are the two highest volume models, Dell’s Precision 3000 series and HP’s Z2 (and Lenovo not far behind with its ThinkStation P300 series).  If you want a sense of what the core of today’s market is all about, you can’t do better than look at the HP Z2 — which is exactly what we’ll do with this month’s column.


The Z2: HP’s Offering In the Highest Volume Entry-Class Fixed Workstation Market

Packaged in a svelte chassis measuring 14” x 7” x 15” (hxwxd), the HP Z2’s form factor is best described as a mini-tower, a package that cuts down dramatically on the volume requirements of a traditional full-sized tower. If that’s too big for your space, the HP Z2 also comes available in an SFF (small form factor) chassis (13” x 4” x 12”) and even a Mini — small enough (8.5” x 2.3” x 8.5”) to be mounted and hidden behind a display. (Though bear in mind both smaller chassis choices come with compromises on power and capacity, especially so for the Mini, which preclude some configuration options in GPUs, memory, and storage).


HP Z2 G8

HP’s Z2 G8.


HP’s Entry class Z2 G8 workstation: general capabilities and our review configuration.


What Makes the Z2 a Workstation?

This review of the Z2 presents an ideal opportunity to broach the common question of what makes a machine a workstation not a PC. A moot discussion twenty five or so years ago, when the differences were obvious, it’s anything but pointless today, with the two platforms sharing much of the same silicon DNA, particularly at the low end of the workstation segments.

Back in the 80s, and for most of the 90s as well, defining the term workstation was uncontroversial. From many perspectives and measures, most people familiar with the marketplace could point to a laundry list of generally accepted characteristics that separated workstations from the mass-market PCs below, such as: RISC CPUs rather than (at the time) underpowered x86 CPUs from Intel and others, Unix-derived OS versus flaky DOS-based Windows, 3D graphics hardware versus VGA or simple 2D GUI-accelerators.

Back then, not only didn’t anyone balk at the brand of a “workstation,” it was ludicrous to think that something branded a PC was a reasonable platform for handling professional applications. Sure, buyers have always looked at alternatives in search for a cost or price/performance advantage, but there were simply too many showstoppers, features and capabilities lacking that simply made the job far too slow, unreliable or simply impossible.

Today at the high end, that clear recognizable workstation difference remains, for the most part. Machines with dual CPU sockets, high-end chipsets supporting above-and-beyond I/O, high-performance, high-capacity or highly reliable storage subsystems, and highly scalable form factors. But, at the high-volume, low end of the workstation market, the difference is anything but clear-cut. Workstations today at component level share much of the same technology and chips that drive the general PC marketplace. That fuzzy line between a low-end workstation and a high-end PC has blurred even further as of late. Vendors such as HP, most notably, are products like the HP Z2’s little brother, the Z1. (Read more about this machine in my previous column, “The ‘Creator PC’ for CAD: Is There Really a Need?”).

The  Z2 represents a step up from the Z1 but still might have you wondering whether its workstation branding is justified or not. The fact that you can configure an HP Z2 with the same Core brand CPU, Windows 10 Home OS, non-ECC memory, and storage that can be had in a commercial or consumer PC might have you ready to relegate the Z2 as a workstation wannabe. But, with the market’s ever-grayer gray area, judgment requires a more discriminating eye. While a buyer can configure a Z2 with essentially the same specs as a PC, the platform allows for much more. The motherboard’s W480 chipset supports Xeon CPUs and ECC memory, options a PC can’t match, and GPU options include NVIDIA’s professionally tuned and support for Xeon W. Access to Xeon, ECC memory, professional-caliber GPUs, and ISV certification give the Z2 its workstation bona fides.


The Z2’s G8 Revision Adopts Intel’s Rocket Lake S Refresh

Call it a workstation or not — and again, I believe its capabilities do clear the minimum threshold — the Z2’s latest Rocket Lake S generation 11th Gen Core CPU presents another valuable opportunity: to see how Intel’s top of the line, performance-oriented client CPUs compare with AMD’s rival Ryzen CPUs. We did test the Ryzen 5000 CPUs, comparing against AMD’s previous generation. And we looked qualitatively at Rocket Lake S here, but not with the chance to run the same workloads run on the Ryzen. This month, with a Rocket Lake S powered HP Z2 in hand, we can.


Rocket Lake S Performance Analysis

I ran the 8C Rocket Lake S equipped Z2 across the same set of both single-thread (1T) and multi-thread (MT) CAD-oriented workloads I performed on an 8C Ryzen 5000 class CPU several months back. While Ryzen 5000 represents Intel’s primary competition in the high-end desktop PC space currently, its threat is less an issue in entry workstations, at least for now, only because the big three OEMs — Dell, HP, and Lenovo — have been slow to pick up Ryzen 5000 for branded workstations. Lenovo was the first — and as of this writing, the only — of the three to tap an AMD CPU for a branded workstation with its Threadripper Pro-based ThinkStation P620. None currently market a Ryzen 5000-based branded workstation (though several smaller suppliers do, including Puget Systems, BOXX Technologies, and Velocity Microsystems). Regardless though in the context of high-performance x86 client CPUs, Ryzen 5000 is the obvious comparison for 11th Generation Core based on Rocket Lake S.

To get a sense of how both CPUs can handle CAD-relevant multi-threaded (MT) workloads, benchmarking focused on SPECworkstation 3’s Product Development test suite. And to sample 1T capabilities, I ran a combination of a subset of PassMark’s CPU tests and Cinebench R20, all constrained to a single thread running on a single CPU core. Results proved mixed, with the 8C Ryzen 7 5800X looking better on MT, while the 8C Core i9-11900K performed a bit better on 1T. The most important take-away, though, is the edges in all cases were very modest, for example, with Rocket Lake S nudging out the Ryzen 7 by only 1% in 1T Cinebench R20 and PassMark’s overall CPU score.


Results of SPECworkstation 3’s Multi-threaded Product Development Oriented workloads, normalized to AMD’s 8C Ryzen 7 5800X.


Results of SPECworkstation’s Multi-threaded Product Development Oriented workloads, normalized to AMD’s 8C Ryzen 7 5800X.


It's worth noting that while Intel markets a unified 11th Generation Core brand for CPU SKUs targeted for both mobiles and desktops, at the silicon level the two sets are derived from different architectures and (for now) silicon processes. Intel’s high-performance, desktop-oriented 11th Generation Core is based on Rocket Lake S, while mobile versions are based on a different microarchitecture, Tiger Lake. That bifurcation of the line is sensible, given the different priorities: high-performance desktops care about performance first, while mobiles have to prioritize performance per watt. Ultimately, extrapolating results from this Rocket Lake S evaluation to 11th Generation Core for mobile workstations isn’t possible.


Good, if Not Stellar Performance, So Who Needs the Denser Process?

Beyond the differences in microarchitecture, the 11th generation is split on silicon process as well, with Tiger Lake having moved to Intel’s 10 nm process while Rocket Lake S remains on 14 nm (the last generation planned to do so). All else equal, the more advanced process should deliver better energy efficiency than its predecessor. And while power consumption is of course a top priority in mobile applications, it’s important as well in wired desktop systems, though not as much from the standpoint of electricity consumption (though we’re all trying to limit that everywhere as well). Rather, higher power consumption invariably leads to higher thermal output, all things equal. Even if your power supply can handle the extra watts, the system’s performance will ultimately be throttled by heat produced, a limit that appears illustrated quite clearly in the above tests.

Single-threaded execution is rarely limited by thermals, because only a small portion of a multi-core chip is cranking out the heat, and that heat can be dissipated across the whole chip and then off the package. Multi-thread execution, on the other hand, keeps the whole chip busy and therefore producing more heat. Ultimately, the 1T workload can often be run at higher (e.g. Turbo Boost) clock rates while the MT workload will often need to have clocks dialed back to nominal (i.e. base) rates. Given that reality, it makes sense why our 8C Rocket Lake S could edge out our AMD’s 8C Ryzen 5000 on 1T testing, while at the same time falling modestly short (-8%) on CAD-oriented MT testing.


A Short Life for Rocket Lake S with Alder Lake in the Offing?

Add all that up, and it would appear 11th Generation Core and Ryzen 5000 are quite comparable as CAD processing CPUs. That testing-supported conclusion tracks this column’s previous qualitative assessment: that big picture, the two vendors are on generally equal footing when it comes to high-end desktops, be they PCs or mainstream workstations. (An exception to the statement might be at the very highest core counts, for example in servers and high-end workstations, where AMD continues to hold a material edge.)

Of course, with neither vendor on the same product cycles, natural leapfrogging will happen. But worth noting in the case of Rocket Lake S, rather than AMD alone doing the leaping (with its expected Ryzen 5000 successor in the offing), Intel will hop past Rocket Lake S in fairly short order. Rocket Lake S looks to have an inordinately short life, as Intel has already taken the veils off its next high-performance generation in Alder Lake, which will serve as the basis for 12th Generation Core for desktops. Disclosures so far reveal that Alder Lake will represent a major step forward in multi-core microarchitecture than Rocket Lake, and will get the boost of a 10 nm process advancement as well. Alder Lake deserves some coverage in the context of CAD computing, so look for that topic in an upcoming column.


HP’s Z2: The Quintessential Mainstream Fixed Workstation

Like most professionals, most any CAD user would prefer the most capabilities and performance possible they can get out of their hardware, all else equal. But all else of course is not equal, as higher performance and capabilities typically mean more power consumption, bigger physical footprints, and — far and away most relevant to the majority of buyers — heftier price tags. Accordingly, like virtually every marketplace, the deskside workstation market has its sweet spot of price-performance, a point that naturally appeals to the majority of the consumer base. HP’s Z2 sits smack dab in that sweet spot, which delivers the most bang for the buck available. Sure, you can crank up performance and capabilities further, but returns will diminish the further up the tiers you go. In that context then, it’s not surprising the bulk of CAD system buyers will start — and most often end — their search at the Entry-class level, with a new HP Z2, Dell Precision 3000, or Lenovo ThinkStation P300 class machine on their desks.


For more on CAD workstations and other related hardware, go to Cadalyst's CAD Workstation Resource Center.

About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera