Gaming on a Cheap Xeon: The HP Z400 Workstation

Recently I was in the business of replacing one of my machines at home (all running Linux by the way), and while I had initially considered simply replacing parts at first, I became aware through various channels of the availability of good and cheap HP workstations on the market these days. The HP Z400 line, used mainly by some corporations for various purposes (design, video edition, rendering, etc…) is progressively being replaced by newer models and there’s now a bunch of them available for very, very reasonable prices in about every major location. No surprise since HP is one of the worldwide PC leading manufacturers, pushing high volumes in many markets.

So, what do you get with a HP Z400 that’s worth considering? Well, there are a bunch of different configurations out there for sale, but what’s basically not changing is the following:

  • a heavy (it won’t move!), very sturdy tower, well designed.
  • a motherboard with many, many ports (both at the back and front)
  • 2 bays for hard drives, and 3 bays for other peripherals (5.25 inches).
  • 6 slots for RAM
  • a Xeon processor with integrated cooling

The Xeon part was the most attractive piece of hardware when I started looking at HP Z400. Xeons are not consumer grade chips, they are their corporate equivalents. They come with at least 4 cores and have a lot more cache than their i- little brothers. And more importantly, they are also capable of hyper-threading. All in all, for an i7 of the same generation as a Xeon, you’ll be faster in single core operations and significantly faster in parallel ones.

You can compare for example the Xeon w3690 (2011) with the i7 6700k (2015), and you will find that:

  • you get 2 more cores with the Xeon
  • you have 12 threads on the Xeon vs 8 only for the i7
  • L2 cache is 2MB on the Xeon vs 1MB only on the i7
  • 12 MB L3 cache for the Xeon vs only 8MB for the i7

Of course, there are still some advantages to the i7:

  • much smaller manufacturing process, 14nm vs 32nm for the Xeon, leading to a much
  • lower power consumption for any recent i7.
  • higher clock frequency for the i7 (4Ghz vs 3.46 Ghz)
  • DDR3 1600 is supported on the i7, but not on the Xeon (DDR3 1333 max).
  • It comes with integrated graphics while the Xeon has none.

Overall the more recent i7 is faster in single core performance, but we are talking about something like 20~30% difference. In multicore benchmarks they are not that far from each other all things considered.

But the most important thing is the cost. Such an i7 costs more than 300 dollars for the processor alone, while you can get for this kind of price the whole HP Z400 workstation with tons of RAM. Mine came with 24 GB equipped and that alone made it almost “free” to purchase considering the cost of RAM these days. It’s not the latest generation of RAM (HP Z400 only supports DDR3-1333), but it will do the job nicely anyway.

My HP Z400 workstation came with liquid CPU cooling – making for a very silent workstation even under 100% CPU load. Much better than the default Intel fan I had up until now in my previous desktop.

So let’s say you can get the whole HP Z400 workstation with a W3690 Xeon at around 300 USD or less. You can add to it a cheap graphics card, such as the GTX1050Ti for 150 dollars (new), while I opted for a GTX1060 3GB, that you can get for 199 dollars new – the difference of 50 dollars is totally worth it in this particular case. The PSU of the HP Z400 (rated 485W) only comes with a 6pin connector to supply power to the GPU, so it’s highly recommended you go for the Pascal generation of cards which have low consumption. For storage, you can throw in a 50$ 7200 rpm 1TB hard drive for good measure.

So you end up with a configuration that costs only about 550 dollars (or less) and that’s a really powerful gaming machine. On Linux, with that configuration, I can get F1 2017 run at high settings in 1080p at constant 60 fps, and even more demanding games like Tomb Raider 2013 get about 72 fps on average in high settings in the benchmarking mode. The benchmark of Metro Last Light Redux shows this configuration will run at more than 70 fps on average as well (very high settings, 1080p, SSA Off).

It’s very likely you’ll be able to fun any modern game at 60 fps in medium/high settings, if not better (based on the performance of each game in the first place).

All in all, a very good option for gamers thinking about renewing their gaming configuration without spending too much. It’s definitely cheaper than buying a new motherboard, a new CPU, change your RAM type in the process… and it makes for a great desktop experience as well, with the Xeon really making a huge difference in any parallel work, such as compression/encoding tasks. HP’s tower is very well designed as well, no screws are needed to insert or remove parts (latches replace them) and since it’s a custom tower it’s slightly narrower than a typical ATX one.

Expect to get more benchmarks on this Xeon/GTX1060 combination from now on.


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Ekianjo

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Sanne

I have a z400 with a w3550 and a gtx 1060 6gb.

I really wonder how much faster I.e. more fps I could get when upgrading to a w3690.

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Josh

I just came across 2 of these for free today. I may have to consider using one of them…

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Alexei Jolkin

I came across one Z400-W3680/12GB RAM/256GB SSD. Although here in Europe these surplus WS’s are not as cheap as in the US (and definitely NOT for free, unfortunately!) the price is still very competitive compared to a new home-brew of equal performance. And you’ve just confirmed that Z400 will make a good upgradable base for a gaming PC.
Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

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Guest

Look for W3680 or W3690 hexacore Xeons as these have unlocked multipliers and can be easily overclocked with Intel XTU, Throttlestop, etc. These come with AIO coolers & won’t need aftermarket coolers for 4GHz OC.

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Guest

Tาปis is a powerhouse! CPUs? We are right here to aid!

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Josh

Do you have CPUs for sale?

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Alexei Jolkin

ยฃ250 for the X5690 is WAY too expensive! For these money you can buy the whole workstation, with RAM, HDD/SSD and WITH THIS very processor.

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Phillip

You can get the much newer HP z420 with a six core Ivy Bridge E3-1650 v2 for around $350 on eBay. I bought one and I can attest to it being a beast.

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Dominik

I also use a Z400 for gaming. W3550 CPU and a GTX1080 GPU.
Was using an HP XW9400 workstation before this one and was also having good results.

I’ve yet to find a game where my hardware is the bottleneck. Sure, the CPU is holding some games, like the Witcher 3, back a little.
But as long as I can turn every setting up to Ultra and enjoy more than 30fps I’m content.

Plowing through Doom 2016 at the moment and having a blast.

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kalemera Ronald

hEY BOSS HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO GET THE 1080 TO WORK AM SETTING UP MINE WITH A 11GB 1080 TI. AM GONNA HAVE TO PURCHASE A NEW PSU AND A GAMING CASING

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Ben

Hey I have a similar setup and had to order a specific HP upgrade for the PSU (600w) from ali-express to get it to work with my 1080. It works great now, even 4k gaming, but a message on boot up mentiones it needs a front-fan upgrade … which you need to press f1 to bypass it. After some searching it looks like you can get it on amazon, but by the time it gets down to me in New Zealand the cost is approaching $100. So I was wondering did you come across this problem? Is the a round-… Read more »

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Sanne

I got myself a really big (I think 120mm) fan and used tie wraps and some isolation foam to attach it to the bottom of the hard drive bay, so now it blows gently towards my gpu while sucking in fresh air..
Work great for me.
Whatever you decide, make sure you have a 4 pin fan…

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Dominik

Hey Ben,
I ended up also having to spring for the bigger PSU.
The machine ended up crashing in Nier Automata and Dragon Quest 11, turned our the original 485W PSU just wasn’t up to the task.

I upgraded to the 600W version and indeed, I’m getting the same prompt concerning the front-fan not working.

Hitting F1 isn’t a big issue for me, but I wonder about the long-term consequences..maybe I’ll have to get the front-fan assembly you’ve linked to on Amazon.

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Marko

You don’t need to get the expensive front fan assembly, which is not available anyway! Just buy the original 92mm HP fan from ebay for 6 dollars and secure it with zip ties to the front intake. You also need to buy a rubber mount for the fan ‘cos I noticed after attaching it that it doesn’t run as it gets stuck on a piece of iron on the case…