HP xw4600 workstation review

Price when reviewed

On paper, HP’s latest entry-level workstation barely qualifies for the label ‘workstation’, at least as far as hardware is concerned. There’s no sign of a Xeon processor, and not even a high-end quad-core desktop chip.

Instead, the xw4600 is kitted out with one of Intel’s Core 2 Duo E6850 processors, with just two cores as you’d typically find in a typical low-end commodity PC.

The E6850 isn’t even a 45nm Penryn part – it’s a 65nm-generation Conroe with just 4MB of level 2 cache. The one saving grace is that it’s one of the higher-clocked Core 2 parts with each core running at 3GHz.

But despite its consumer-level basic specification, the insides of the xw4600 do look more impressive than your average home desktop. More impressive, that is, as long as you ignore the power-supply cables hanging lazily across the motherboard, restricting access to the two free DIMM slots.

That aside, what is more professional – and more in keeping with a machine required to be easily maintainable – are the custom-designed tool-free enhancements for accessing and removing key components.

It’s easy to add an extra hard disk: just push it into the cage above the single existing 500GB Seagate Barracuda and it simply snaps in (there’s only room for one more though).

The system of securing extra PCI cards is similarly tool-free, and the motherboard is mounted on a quick-release plate, although you’ll need tools to remove it completely.

There are even a couple of helpful little tabs to assist with removing the fascia, supplanting the more usual grip-at-the-bottom-and-pull-hard approach.

The motherboard inspires confidence too. While it’s endowed only with a standard consumer-level Intel X38 chipset, it’s a custom-designed HP board.

It won’t magically give you any more performance, but if it’s the reassurance of the HP brand name you’re after at least you know that the heart of the machine really is HP.

Continuing the professional feel is the processor heatsink, which is a solid-looking stacked-fin type design more typically found in servers. The X38 chipset won’t allow you to upgrade to really serious levels of memory though: the limit is 8GB, but ECC (error checking and correction) memory support gives a little more data security.

You get an eSATA port along with six USB ports on the motherboard’s backplane, but the gap left by a lack of FireWire has to be filled by a PCI card giving two ports. Unusual in this day and age is a small radio-style speaker built into the front of the chassis. It gives volume enough for standard operating-system beeps and warnings to be clearly heard.

When it comes to workstations the graphics card is key, and HP provides a range of options from the 2D-only Nvidia Quadro NVS 290 up to the Quadro FX 4600. Our machine came with a Quadro FX 3500 (an upper range card), giving enough 3D clout to comfortable manage responsive real-time shaded previews in the like of 3ds max.

ISV certification – for not only the graphics subsystem but the machine as a whole – covers all the expected bases including Maya, Catia, Solidworks, 3ds and AutoCAD.

Bear in mind that the choice of Quadro FX 3500 graphics accounts for the lion’s share of the system cost: the base system before graphics are added is just £615 exc VAT from Bechtle, although HP’s own SRP is a more business-like £1,035.

The bare hardware is supported with some impressive software. Hitting F11 before the OS boots takes you into the HP Recovery console, allowing you to back up your system as well as wiping it and completely restoring it to its factory default installation.

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