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A Design Tour of the HP Z2 Mini, Part 1

20 Apr, 2017 By: Cadalyst Staff

The world’s smallest workstation weaves feats of engineering with industrial design panache, incorporating desktop and mobile computing elements without a single visual compromise.

Some five million users worldwide are running CAD on consumer-class PCs — computers not configured to support 2D and 3D design software and not engineered to be reliable under demanding use over time. With an eye to this untapped segment of the CAD user base, the HP Workstations group set out to develop a product to address CAD users' unique pain points. The result is unlike anything the market had seen before: the HP Z2 Mini, the world's first miniature workstation.

The HP Z2 Mini workstation.
The HP Z2 Mini workstation.

Measuring a mere 8.5" x 8.5" x 2.3", the HP Z2 Mini is ten times smaller than a traditional tower workstation. Yet the system is twice as powerful and 63% quieter than the similarly sized HP business-class mini PC — all in a uniquely attractive "space gray" housing accented with black chrome.

The Vision

HP customer research revealed that when it came to hardware, CAD professionals often lack performance, flexibility, and inspiration. Many users of AutoCAD, which requires high processor clock speed but not much else in terms of computing power, are poised to transition to 3D applications such as SOLIDWORKS or Autodesk Revit or Inventor, which are much more compute- and graphics-intensive. Office spaces are shrinking dramatically, but the amount of office clutter is not, making it increasingly challenging to accommodate full-size computers. And the very people who have a keen eye for design, who draw inspiration from the environment around them, are using computers that by and large are boxy and black.

Andrew Willard, HP Global Product Manager, said, "Those were the three main things that led us to say there is going to be a place for a new category of workstation. It has to be small but it can't compromise performance, and we're going to do it in a way that is beautiful without compromising function. That was our vision for this product category."

The Z2 Mini performs: Equipped with Intel™ Xeon® E3-1200v5 or Intel™ Core® i3/i5/i7 processors, up to 32 GB RAM and 1.5 TB storage, the HP Z Turbo Drive for large-file handling, and optional NVIDA® Quadro® M620 GPU, it hits the sweet spot for 2D and entry-level 3D CAD work. It is flexible: You can mount it behind a monitor, on a wall, or under a desk — or display it on even the smallest of work surfaces. And it is inspirational: On top of being an engineering triumph, the Z2 Mini is exceptional in its industrial design elements that convey performance, professionalism, and a premium look and feel.

This animation provides a 360-degree view of the HP Z2 Mini external design and internal engineering.  

The Process

From product definition to launch, Z2 Mini development spanned 20 months and involved nearly 30 people, including the core design team of Willard; a lead industrial designer; mechanical, electrical, and thermal architects; and several senior technologists.

The Z2 Mini was designed on top-of-the-line HP Z840 Workstations running PTC Creo Elements/Direct Modeling for CAD work and Luxion Keyshot for rendering.

The design incorporates all the obvious preconfigured components, including the processor, RAM, storage drives, and the mobile GPU, and adopted an existing power supply unit (external to conserve space and thermal effects). But everything else about the Z2 Mini was HP proprietary, Willard said. "There's a dramatically higher number of custom components and design elements in the Z2 Mini because it's a brand new category in the industry."

The Z2 Mini evolved to be a hybrid of desktop, server, and mobile workstation technologies. Size-wise, it might have made sense to adopt a mobile CPU but, Willard explained, its power lags behind that of the server-grade processors used in desktop HP workstations. So for the Z2 Mini team, the challenge essentially was to shrink a server-grade architecture into a product that has the footprint of (or in some cases is even smaller than) a mobile workstation.

The cooling system represents the hybrid approach to design. All those high-powered components in close proximity generate a lot of heat, demanding ultra-efficient cooling to maximize airflow without significantly adding to heat production.

The Z2 Mini fan, custom designed by the thermal architect, is closer to what you'd find in a traditional desktop product: Its relatively large blades circulate more air while spinning more slowly, therefore generating less heat itself. Cooling also relies on heat pipes throughout, traditionally a mobile cooling solution. The hybrid desktop–mobile approach keeps the compact system cool while operating at maximum performance.

Storage and RAM, the components upgraded most often by CAD users, are easy to access in the HP Z2 Mini: Simply slide a switch to remove the front panel. The drive bay sits up front in the top left corner; in the lower right corner, the hinged CPU fan flips up (shown on right) to expose two memory slots.

Industrious Industrial Design

Packing so much high performance into a small package, the Z2 Mini team could scarcely afford to include a design feature that didn't have a practical purpose. An innovative venting solution is one example of tightly entwined engineering and aesthetics.

Each corner of the HP Z2 Mini shows off a guarded, black chrome-emblazoned vent.
Each corner of the HP Z2 Mini shows off a guarded, black chrome–emblazoned vent.

The team could have opted for numerous small vents sprinkled over the chassis, but that would have detracted from the desired look and feel. "We didn’t want to design a solution that looked like a piece of Swiss cheese, full of holes," Willard recalled — and the team was adamant about not compromising aesthetics.

"There was a ton of give and take, as you can imagine, before we really got down to the right combination of function and beauty," Willard said. "We decided to very strategically locate the vents in the corners of the system, and we got really creative with how air is pushed through the chassis, how we're ducting it, the size of the vents, and so forth." Air enters through vents in the front, moves directly through the fans to the CPU and GPU, and exits through vents in the back.

The vents' inextricable design and functionality didn't stop there. The team realized that the innovative corner positioning could pose a risk if the small workstation were pushed into a corner or blocked by papers, possibly causing the unit to overheat. So the team added a uniquely designed band to the perimeter, Willard said. "The thought was, 'We're going to find a way to force an opening there so air can get in all the time.'" The practical solution developed from an industrial design perspective. "It highlights the vents rather than detracting from the design. It's really cool."

Looking Back

Willard believes greatest engineering achievement of the HP Z2 Mini is its performance-to-size ratio. "Looking across the industry," he said, "we saw vendors continually compromising on performance in order to achieve the smallest size possible. We didn't. Our vision as a team throughout development was to deliver the same level of performance that a customer would expect from a traditional desktop workstation, and do it in a solution that was smaller than anything that had come out before. ...

"The response to the Z2 Mini and the excitement in our industry has been overwhelmingly positive," Willard continued. "Our team has the attitude that that's not enough. We're actively looking at ways to enhance the use cases and experience for this product category, and we have all kinds of fun things that are on the list for the next generation. We're of the mindset that you never have a finished product."

You Might Also Like:

► 7 Reasons CAD Users Can't Ignore the HP Z2 Mini: Don’t let the small package fool you -- this miniature marvel packs in everything you need for 2D and entry-level 3D work.

► A Design Tour of the HP Z2 Mini, Part 2: The project’s lead mechanical engineer discusses the achievements — and the challenges — of designing the world's smallest workstation.

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