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 Xeon 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.

A cheap Xeon workstation: the HP Z400

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. Xeon’s are not consumer grade chips, they are their enterprise 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.