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August 14, 2012

HP Z820 Workstation: Rising To the Challenge


Today’s enterprise workstation PCs are being used for tasks that are more demanding than ever. Applications have scaled and become more capable, and the tasks they perform have become more intensive by orders of magnitude. Machine specs also continue to show increasing capabilities year over year to keep up, and the Z820 is a great example of this succession of capability.

If your business depends on this type of workstation-class hardware, chances are you share a set of common criteria that exemplify a great PC workstation:

  • Configuration options
  • High performance per dollar
  • Features and options
  • Stable high performance
  • Serviceability
  • Upgradeability

HP addressed these needs when they launched the Z-series workstation PCs in 2009. HP offers multiple versions of Z-series machines in two form-factors: desktop workstation (Z400-series, Z600-series, and Z800 series), and all-in-one (the Z1). The latest version of their desktop workstation is the Z820, and is targeted at media production, CAD/CAM, and other heavy-duty enterprise applications.


While there are many different configuration options, the Z820 series of PCs share some common traits, capabilities, and specs:

  • Tool-less design (access to internals, repairs, upgrades)
  • USB 3.0
  • Four 3.5” internal drive bays
  • Front and rear ports
  • Intel Xeon processors (single or dual)
  • Rugged case
  • Extensive 3-year warranty

One of the important options that you can configure on this PC is graphics. You can order the Z820 with AMD or NVIDIA graphics, or even order without a graphics card if you have an existing or special purpose card that you want to use. HP offers Z820 configurations and options that should match well with most enterprise workstation customers. To see the full list of options and configurations, see the HP Z820 product page at

I was fortunate to get my hands on a Z820 workstation to try out, and I spent more than a week using this machine day in and day out running Windows 7 and my everyday apps including Adobe CS6. The first thing I noticed about the Z820 is how heavy it is. Lifting it onto my bench told me a lot about how this PC is put together: it is heavy duty, and well built. No sharp edges, no flimsy parts, this machine is solid and has a quality feel.


The particular Z820 that I have been using features dual SSDs, NVIDIA Quadro 5000 graphics, and dual Intel Xeon 6-core processors. With SSD storage and well-designed fans, this machine runs quiet even given all the power and cooling under the covers. I connected two Samsung Series 9 27” LPS displays (running 2560×1440 resolution) and was amazed by how well images and video looked with 10-bit display port support on these displays. This is a phenomenal setup for editing photos and video, something that I spent quite a bit of time doing with the Z820 (including the images/video for this article).

One of the first things I did when I got this machine was to install Adobe CS6. Working with Adobe Photoshop CS6 and Mercury Graphics (accelerated graphics, new for Photoshop CS6) was awesome. I worked with 18MP images from my Canon 7D and 24MP images from my Canon 5D Mark III, and this setup resulted in extremely responsive performance, outstanding colors, deep blacks, and seamless gradients. I also ran Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 on the Z820 to perform common editing tasks like color correction, filters/effects, and multi-cam editing. With NVIDIA Quadro 5000 graphics and 12 hyperthreading-capable cores on the Zeon processors (for 24 thread capability), the 1080p footage I was working with edited very well. I was able to preview footage in the program monitor while performing multi-cam editing (a total of 4 previews running on multiple clips with effects/filters without slowdowns or choppiness. In fact, CPU utilization remained rather low while performing these tasks thanks in part to the Mercury Playback Engine (GPU acceleration for video editing) supported by Adobe Premiere Pro CS6.

Here’s a screenshot of Task Manager while the machine was idle:


I love seeing 24 logical processors in Task Manager! It makes me feel like I have power to spare. Note that the Z820 is also available with dual 8-core Intel Zeon processors, enabling 32 logical processors in Windows with hyperthreading, now that’s be extreme!

After researching Premiere Pro CS6 optimization I would plan to increase the RAM on this machine to about 2GB per logical core (24 logical cores x 2GB/core = 48GB) if I were going to make this a long-term workstation for use with Premiere Pro CS6. Note that if you’re extensively using After Effects CS6 for animations the sweet spot for RAM is more like 4GB per logical core. Regardless of the Xeon processors chosen there’s no problem accommodating these Adobe CS6 applications since the Z820 supports up to 512GB of RAM (That would rock!).

So you may be wondering what kinds of features and connectivity is available on the HP Z820. On the front of the machine you’ll find everything you need for a workstation: DVD/Blu-Ray drive bays, USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, and FireWire port.


One the back of the Z820, you’ll find a variety of connections including dual Ethernet jacks, 4 USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, FireWire, power input, and video connections. You can access the inside of the machine (if it’s not locked) by pulling on the handle on the left side cover and lifting it off. What you see when you open the PC is a very “neat and tidy” set of doors and panels/shrouds.


Yes, you can replace drives, expansion cards, the power supply, and more without tools! Everything inside is well organized, and well laid out. While there are many different graphics options for the Z820 the machine I used featured NVIDIA Quadro 5000 graphics (processing up to 900 million triangles per second!)


This graphics card is officially supported for Adobe CS6 applications like Adobe Photoshop CS6 and Adobe Premiere Pro CS6, and is also a great choice for 3D intensive applications like CAD/CAM.

It’s always good to use “the right tool for the job”, and for what I do this PC fits the bill. With the vast number of configurations and options available, this PC can be fine-tuned to your specific needs if you’re in the market for a powerhouse workstation.

Here’s a video showing the Z820 in action, and providing a tour of the outside and inside of the Z820:

You can follow me on twitter here: @GavinGear