2014-11-05

Hardware Review: Lenovo ThinkStation P300

This product review originally appeared on CADdigest: http://www.caddigest.com/exclusive/cad_hardware/110314_lenovo_thinkstation_p300_review_perry.htm

While I have used Lenovo workstations a few times in the past, unfortunately the only thing our campus' IT department ever granted me was the power to specify a graphics card. (At that, it took years of convincing to gain that concession for the Engineering department’s equipment.) While the computers we were provided with always performed reliably, I was pretty excited at the opportunity to review a proper workstation, and not just a stock office machine with a better graphics card.

In my case, the workstation was the ThinkStation P300 tower workstation from Lenovo (see figure 1). The company changed its naming scheme this year; no more C and S and D models: just P for performance. The number, such as 300, indicates the performance level, kind of like BMW's model numbering does. And so the P300 is their lower-end workstation. Just by being a workstation, however, it already is more powerful than most regular desktops.


Figure 1: The P300 tower workstation from Lenovo 

I have to compliment Lenovo on its packaging. The machine was easy to unbox, and it was simple to conserve the foam inserts and other materials for reuse when I send it back following my review, or if I had to have it transported across the campus to a user. (Some packing materials from other companies open up okay, but then trying to fit them back in as they came? Not quite so simple.) Everything arrived in good condition and functioned immediately upon startup. I have had workstations in the past that sounded like jet engines revving for takeoff, so it was a relief when firing up this powerful machine that it hummed along quietly.

The tower measures just under 7"x17"x17". In the box came the power cable, USB mouse, USB keyboard, setup guide (which includes safety and warranty information), and Windows Recovery Media discs. It is rare today to have recovery disks included; usually, we need to make our own after starting up the computer for the first time.

Specifications

The ThinkStation P300 sent to me for testing was set up as follows:
CPU: 3.60GHz 4-core 8-thread Intel Xeon E3-1276v3
RAM: 8GB (Samsung 1600Mhz)
Graphics Card: NVIDIA Quadro K4000 (PCIe and SSE2)
Drives: 1TB hard drive
Power Supply: 450W
In addition to the specs you see listed here, there are multiple options available from Lenovo for individual configurations, from operating system to processors, and the tower has space to insert additional storage devices inside. Of the customization options, the most popular ones are likely to be monitors (choice of 22", 24" or 30" LED), hard drives (500GB, 1TB, or 2TB SATA HDD), and sets of memory (2GB, 4GB, or 8GB). The motherboard has four slots available for memory.

Regarding the power supply, if a significant hardware component upgrade will be in your future, you might find 450 watts to be lacking. Higher capacity power supplies are required to run newer, more energy hungry elements, such as very high end graphics boards. Granted, this is otherwise a good system, and for most users 450W will not be a limitation at all.

The P300 arrived with Windows 7 installed and with Windows 8 provided on a disc. While I really would have liked to have tried a touchscreen monitor with Windows 8, I ultimately decided to use the out-of-the-box setup, because I wanted the Lenovo configuration to match as closely as possible the machine to which I am comparing it.

For those who are looking for Autodesk approved workstations or graphics cards, be sure to check www.autodesk.com/graphics-hardware, which is the only justification my IT department would accept for springing for "nonstandard" (to them, anyhow) components. Autodesk has not yet completed evaluations for its 2015 line of software, and so the computer I am reviewing shows up as approved hardware for vanilla AutoCAD 2015, but not yet for the Design Suite. (The older ThinkStation E32 is supported for both.) The graphics card in the P300 is certified for AutoCAD, so no worries there.

The Workstation

My first, and only, disappointment came when I instinctively attempted to hook the tower up to my high-def television, using an HDMI cable which I keep handy for this purpose. Perhaps I have been a laptop worker at home for too long, because the lack of an HDMI port on the Lenovo box startled me. Instead, it has VGA and two DisplayPort ports. (There are two more DisplayPorts ports on the motherboard, as well as a punch out for an HDMI port, if you order it.)

To solve this, I had to go out and overpay for a DVI cable from a big box store, no matter how that made me shudder. The cable allowed me to attach the computer to a monitor I borrowed. Once I did get everything hooked up, I had no complaints at all about the picture; DisplayPort does a better job than HDMI, because it handles higher resolutions as well as more monitors than HDMI.

I considered critiquing the fact that one quarter of the USB ports are located at the rear of the machine. This is an issue, because most cube farms on my campus store the towers under the desk in order to maximize the work surface. But then I realized that most users who are aware only of the front-facing ports, would not be the type of user provided with a workstation like this, anyway.

At any rate, there are two USB 3.0 ports on the front, four USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports on the rear (see figure 2). Audio inputs and outputs are available both front and back.

Figure 2: The back panel of the Lenovo tower

To get inside the case is very simple. There are two screws at the back of the left panel, large enough for most people to turn by hand. Once loosened and removed, the side of the panel slides opens at the push of the release button, to allow us easy access. It was obvious that the components are placed to allow maximum airflow (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Inside the Lenovo P300

Software OOTB


The preloaded software installed along with Windows 7 operating system consists of Adobe Acrobat Reader, CyberLink Power DVD, Cyberlink Create, Microsoft Office 2013 (trial only), Norton Internet Security 2014 (trial only), Skype, ThinkVantage System Update, Rescue and Recovery (ready to install), Lenovo Reach (only for those machines purchased in the US or Canada), Lenovo Solution Center, and PC Device Experience.

As I said, everything appeared to fire up just fine. Though, just to be on the safe side, I did start out by running the Lenovo Solution Center, because this software scans the hardware for problems. It took five minutes to complete this scan and all of the components checked out just fine.

In order to best emulate my experience, I installed the Autodesk Design Suite Premium 2014, with all software packages selected (including the programming tutorials, but, only the Imperial template files for each). It took me five minutes to walk through the installation configuration, and then another 44 minutes to install the 61 components.

I couldn't resist checking the boot time with all this Autodesk software in place. The computer's startup time increased from 24 seconds to 68 seconds.

The Numbers

I decided to compare this new workstation with my daily-use desktop computer, a Dell OptiPlex 790 that also run 64-bit Windows 7, but with 4GB RAM instead of the 8GB the Lenovo possesses. Both have AutoCAD 2014 installed with the same options. It is not an apples to apples comparison, but I wanted a starting point from which to provide some perspective.

The fastest way to compare systems is through the Windows Experience Index. When looking at WEI, it is important to keep in mind that the given number reflects the lowest scoring category, so be sure to click for more details. The scale runs from 1.0 to 7.9.

Workstation WEI
Dell 5.4 (see table 1)
Lenovo 5.9 (see table 2)

Table 1: Windows Experience Index for Dell Optiplex 790

Component  
Details  
Subscore
Processor  
Calculations Per Second  
7.4
Memory (RAM)  
Memory Operations Per Second  
7.2
Graphics
Desktop Performance for Windows Aero  
5.4
Gaming graphics  
3D Business and Gaming Graphics Performance  
6.7
Primary hard disk  
Disk Data Transfer Rate  
5.9

Table 2: Windows Experience Index for Lenovo P300
Component Details Subscore
Processor   Calculations Per Second 7.8
Memory (RAM) Memory Operations Per Second 7.8
Graphics Desktop Performance for Windows Aero 7.6
Gaming graphics   3D Business and Gaming Graphics Performance 7.6
Primary hard disk   Disk Data Transfer Rate 5.9

The Lenovo clearly performs better, scoring near top marks every category, save for the disk data transfer rate. That is the same for both computers. In workstations these days, I do prefer to see solid state drives, even in mid to high range laptops. (If not a full SSD, then at least a hybrid drive, where a small-capacity SSD speeds up the operating system to improve startup performance, and then a standard "spinning" hard drive for the remainder of my storage needs.) Unfortunately, cost is usually a consideration, and some options translate into much higher price tags, so you'll have to balance your priorities against your budget.

As far as I know, Revit does not have any internal testing capabilities, so I was unable to test it. If you want to try a Revit benchmark yourself, there is one available for download on RevitForum.

AutoCAD, however, does have some internal testing capability.There is an undocumented application which accompanies the AutoCAD family of products, called GsTest.arx. Use the AppLoad command to load it, and then type GsTestBenchmark. It only takes a moment to run, then displays the results in the Command Line interface.

When compared to my desktop, the numbers speak for themselves. Lower milliseconds and higher frames-per-second indicate better results. The Lenovo won every benchmark, running about 7x faster than my machine.

Benchmark  Dell Optiplex 790 Lenovo P300
 3D Wireframe 919 milliseconds   125 ms
198 frames per second  
1,460 fps
Hidden Line Removal
934 ms  
126 ms
195 fps  
1,447 fps
Flat Shading
818 ms  
125 ms
223 fps  
1,462 fps
Gouraud Shading
859 ms  
116 ms
212 fps  
1,575 fps

For those folks in the audience who perform renderings and want some more assurance on the Lenovo's performance I also ran Maxon's Cinebench Version 15.0 benchmark.

Workstation CPU Score OpenGL (FPS)
Dell Optiplex 790 439   28.77
Lenovo P300 769   119.24

Again, the Lenovo clearly outperforms my daily machine.

Summary

While the lack of an HDMI port made me sad initially, and I would have preferred to see 16GB RAM and an SSD as the baseline for a workstation out of the gate, the solid configuration and ease of use make this sturdy machine quite suitable for the kinds of daily engineering tasks I would undertake with AutoCAD MEP and Revit MEP.

I like a tower that is easy to work with, is quiet, expandable and has accessible ports. The improvements I experienced and benchmarked over my existing workstation earn the ThinkStation P300 an endorsement from me.

Additional Information

http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/workstations/thinkstation/p-series/


About the Author



Melanie Perry is a freelance Technical Editor and an Archibus System Administrator for the Facilities group of a financial services firm. She also blogs about AutoCAD with Facility Management and conducts the Annual Salary Survey for AUGIWorld Magazine. She can be contacted via mistressofthedorkness@gmail.com or found on Twitter as @MistresDorkness
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