HP xw9400 review

Price when reviewed

Launched to much fanfare among HP’s reinvigorated PC marketing drive, the xw9400 is the direct successor to the xw9300, which garnered a PC Pro Recommended award last year.

HP xw9400 review

The machine is solidly engineered, weighing in at around 20kg, and well put together inside too. Pull off the hefty side panel and it’s clear the chassis has had quite a bit of internal redesign since the xw9300, which tended to suffer from fan noise when it was working hard. Logical progression of airflow has been better engineered into the system: the rear 120mm chassis fan feeds air straight into the intake of the first of two large heatsinks, servicing a pair of dual-core 2.4GHz Opteron processors.

The airflow is directed through a deliberately large VRM (voltage regulator module) heatsink; the second CPU’s fan also cools its own VRM. Lastly, there’s a new shrouded fan assembly covering the RAM modules, which is an unusual addition given the RAM is standard-fare 667MHz ECC. That said, the efficient use of air and the fan-control system leads to a machine that’s quiet and doesn’t suffer from its predecessor’s coarse fan-speed adjustments when it’s being pushed.

Other custom-design touches include three tool-free (but not hot-swap) hard disk caddies that slide out, accept the drive without screws and slide back into the cage again, and a tool-free system for installing optical drives. In testing, it took us less than three minutes to remove the fascia, secure a new optical drive and put everything back together again. PCI expansion cards are held in place from the top by an extra swing-arm-style securing bracket as well, which should all but eliminate machines from being dead on arrival due to courier mishandling.

The sight of two CPU heatsinks in a machine complete with a custom-designed chassis is always impressive, but our review xw9400 system was less well endowed in other ways. In particular, the hard disk of the review model is a Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 SATA drive. Capable enough, but not up to the Maxtor Atlas 15K drive we saw in the xw9300. Similarly, while the graphics card is a workstation-class part in the form of an Nvidia Quadro FX1500, it’s at the bottom end of the Quadro range and has raw processing power far below that of Nvidia’s newest consumer-level parts. What it does have, which standard GeForce cards don’t, is ISV certification for every major graphics design package from 3ds Max to Catia, plus those few vestigial advantages of the Quadro range, such as the ability to run accelerated 3D in more than one window simultaneously.

Expansion options are good, with those three spare hard disk caddies, plus two 64-bit conventional PCI slots, two PCI-E 8x and a second PCI-E 16x slot free for SLI graphics. There’s also a single conventional 32-bit PCI slot, but that’s rendered inoperable in the standard configuration by the proximity of the Quadro card.

While the healthy complement of 2GB ECC RAM is encouraging, it’s supplied in the form of four 512MB sticks rather than two 1GB modules, leaving just four slots free. In a system that can cope with 64GB in total, thanks to the Nvidia Nforce Professional 6300 chipset, that’s limiting your later options somewhat.

The low-end nature of the hard disk and the graphics has a beneficial effect on price; despite the two dual-core CPUs, this configuration weighs in at over £1,000 less than the xw9300.

We were blown away by the performance of the xw9300, which sported dual single-core Opterons. With this new setup making for a quad-core system, the xw9400 is commensurately faster – its overall benchmark score of 1.48 is 15% up on its predecessor. But technology has moved on since the xw9300 and the upshot is that, while the 9400 is fast in terms of raw power, it fails to match up to the best that Intel now has to offer. Our 3ds Max render test, for example, completed with an average frame-render time of around 45 seconds. Compare that with our test rig based on the consumer-level Core 2 Quad QX6700: the quad-core Intel part achieves around 34 seconds, so more than 30% faster than the Opteron-based machine.

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