Tower of Power: HP Z840 Workstation

HP Z840 with lockable side panel removed - note tool-less layout inside

Russ Fairley

Choosing a workstation for professional video production is an exciting prospect, particularly considering the options available these days. Massive high-speed storage solutions, swaths of fast memory, multiple GPUs, and new interfaces opening doors to more powerful peripheral devices are just the beginning of the story.

After looking at monster machines from a handful of the major players it was time to settle on the workstation that defined sheer capability in production and post-production workflows. The machine we came up with was the HP Z840 Workstation.

So, why’d we choose this workstation? To start, we have to forget anything we know about modern workstations and take a tour of what’s on the market now.

A walk through Best Buy gives us a rough idea of what most modern consumer machines look like. For the most part, we found memory in the 8-12GB range, large optical hard drives, and a bevy of ports. All of this for around a grand, give or take.

What can pros get for their money?

Hitting up an Apple Store gets us closer to editing bliss. For right around ten grand we can max out the latest Mac Pro. Clocking in with 12 processing cores, 64GB of RAM, twin 6GB GPUs and 1TB of high-speed PCIe-based flash storage, the newest Mac Pro is a pretty serious machine - and a popular choice with creative pros.

But what if we want to do more? With 4K and higher video workflows quickly becoming the industry standard, professionals from colorists to editors and motion graphic designers are demanding workstations that will keep up with the ever-growing footage. Unfortunately, many fans of the practical and extensible tower format were left wondering where to go when Apple decided to take the Mac Pro on a design departure, relying on external peripherals as a strategy versus the tried and true multi-bay and slot tower systems. The new machines looked nice and could be spec'd out relatively well, but changing a GPU or upgrading a part seemed difficult and expensive.

They also didn't update the system to keep up with the industries they were supposed to support. Cameras shot larger, denser footage. 3D applications leaned more heavily on CPU and GPU power to create ever-improving compositions, color grading applications grew and evolved.

In much the same way Final Cut Pro X left many pros wondering where their features went, so too went the hardware upgrade channel.

In many ways, the new high-end Z Workstations from HP start where the top end Mac Pros - and other top-level PC workstations - end, but they can be built out to be substantially more powerful and scalable.

To give an idea of just how crazy an HP Z840 can become, let's consider that the standard for pro workstations is a 12-core processor, with 64GB of memory, and little in the way of expansion options. A Z840, on the other hand, can have up to 44 cores, 2TB of memory and up to 10 internal drive bays. Toss in a NVIDIA Quadro M5000 GPU with 8GB of video memory for good measure.

The tower is a thing of beauty as well. Look beyond the attractive industrial black design, sturdy carrying handles and opens the lockable side panel to reveal a glimpse into the thought that went into the construction of this amazing machine. Inside the Z840 is a truly beautiful tool-less chassis, designed to allow for quick and easy upgrades. Look a little bit closer and the attention to detail becomes apparent - beyond the high-end components each Z Workstation can be kitted with, the interior boasts a design with low acoustics in mind, keeping the studio distraction free.

Of course, the performance of the Z840 is largely dictated by how it is spec'd out. We know that it's possible to add two next-gen Xeon processors for up to 44 cores, but the machine has some pretty incredible options on top of its processor choices. The Z840 has (count them) seven PCIe slots, up to ten internal drive bays, and 16 memory slots for up to 2TB of memory. For external ports, the Z has built-in USB, SATA and SAS ports, and can be connected to Thunderbolt 2 devices and displays.

But all of this isn't the absolute latest news. The Z840 has actually been available on the market for some time. Components and features haven't changed drastically over the last few months, so what makes this machine such a standout for production and post operations?

Say hello to the HP Z Turbo Drive Quad Pro. What, say you, is this Z Turbo Drive Quad Pro of which I speak?

Well, the HP Z Turbo Drive Quad Pro is up to two terabytes of screaming, judgment-impairing, render-bending performance, wrapped up in one innocuous little package.

Just how screaming are we talking about? How do 9GB/s sequential read speeds work for you? 5.8GB/s sequential write speeds aren't bad either. Particularly considering a sexy SATA SSD tops out in the 550MB/s read and 500MB/s write range.

This performance bump is incredibly significant, as it finally releases creative pros from the shackles of storage choking when using massive files. Modern 4K and better workflows mean pros are pushing and pulling massive files constantly, and HP knew that storage hardware had to keep up with advances seen with other hardware such as CPUs and GPUs.

So how does it work?

The performance of the HP Z Turbo Drive Quad Pro is made possible by a unique innovation. By using a PCIe connection, HP has removed the performance bottleneck created by SATA. Their elegant Quad Pro houses up to four NVMe SSD modules in a single PCIe card, with modules sizes up to 512GB per, creating a performance solution that every other fast workstation on the planet only aspires to. Check out HP's white paper on the drive to get a complete picture of this game-changing device.

Support for this incredible storage solution isn't only supported on the HP Z840. It's smaller siblings, the Z440 and Z640 also support HP Z Turbo Drive Quad Pro.

It's probably a good time to make an important model distinction as well. Don't let the model numbers persuade or dissuade you from a particular Z Workstation. The Z440 and Z640 can be kitted out to a level that will bring you nothing but blistering results, just as the Z840 can be dressed down to the point of only slightly destroying other workstations. This is the beauty of all of the Z Workstations: they really are some of the most infinitely customizable machines on the market today.

It helps, too, that they're not going to bankrupt your studio either. These Z Workstations are actually priced really well for their capabilities.

Getting started with a Z840 doesn't need to cost $20,000. While it has the flexibility to be built to space station-like specs, it starts out at a very reasonable $2,399. For that price you'll take home a very capable 6-core machine, still capable of terrifying most of your production friends' machines.

From there you can build over time, or custom order the machine of your dreams right out of the gates. Depending on your own workflow requirements, you'll be able to spec a Z840 to precisely meet and exceed your needs, and the innovation found in the Z Turbo Drive Quad Pro, as well as the incredible ability to fill more slots and bays than you can shake a stick at, will future proof your investment for years to come.

If you're worried about this screaming tower of pixel domination getting hot and humming away on your custom order Herman Miller desk, consider another HP innovation: the Z Cooler. The Z Cooler is a bolt-on cooling solution for Z Workstation environments, reducing noise by up to 40%, but without all of the messy plumbing of a liquid cooled system. Instead, the Z Cooler uses HP's own hex-fin design with a 3D vapor chamber to get the job done.

Also worth watching out for on the horizon is our review of the HP Z27x display, which this article is currently being written on. After a lengthy discussion with the world's top motion graphic designers, this writer has plunked one of these beasts down on the studio desk in place of a trusty Apple Cinema Display. This display will change the way many people shop for a monitor, as the idea of simply buying "the best X Company has to offer" isn't good enough for pro work. Offering compliance with the most used color gamuts, and enabling extensive color calibration sets professional grade displays apart from off-the-shelf consumer displays. All will let you watch the new Star Wars movie dazzlingly, but to deliver proper content, you need a proper display.

Besides, what fun is it having the world's best workstation if you're going to plug it into an old CRT television, anyway?