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By Ray Howard, January 2, 2013
I enjoy digging into new software technology and, to my delight, on occasion I get the opportunity to review hardware as well. I've had my fair share over the years of exposure to workstations, PCs, clones, servers, laptops, and tablets. It's been an interesting race to watch, between hardware and software, with each one leveraging the technology of the other as far as it can be leveraged. Who can push the limit, and for how long will the limit hold us back? Which part of the system must be upgraded first -- hardware or the software?
Inevitably, the answer does not matter, because both have a shelf life, and so both must be upgraded eventually or replaced entirely. It's a matter of timing.
In this review, I will be evaluating and reporting on Lenovo's new ThinkStation C30, a desktop workstation. (See figure 1.) This type of computer and configuration defines the words "workstation" and "powerhouse." Real workstations are configured with an end level of performance in mind first, and then are backwards engineered to achieve the goal.
Figure 1: C30 desktop workstation from Lenovo
The case of the C30 is very well made, and it feels solid from the moment I picked it up in my hands. To the great case, Lenovo added a solid 64-bit Windows OS, SCSI (small computer system interface) hard drive controllers and SATA (serial advanced technology attachment) hard drive, a dual-display hi-def video card (worth $800 on its own), and dual Xeon processors. Let's take a look at each of these elements.
At least that what I've heard. From personal experience, I know that performing surgery on a workstation without adequate space inside or without sufficient access for maintenance and repairs can be very frustrating to work with. When IT professionals try with both hands to fight “space” issues (or lack there of) inside the box, it seems they probably has bigger issues than you at that given moment. Lack of space wouldn't be your number one issue, if you had the opportunity to pick an adequate case up front.
Even as motherboards, processors, and RAM are components considered important to computer systems, the chassis is often overlooked as a component that should be given more credit when selecting a system. With the thought that this new box may eventually last you some two to four years of upgrades, you want to make sure the inside and outside of the box works for you.
Figure 2: The recessed handle facilitates carrying the case
Is it too big for the desk or too small inside -- or just right? After all, all chassis are created equal, right? Definitely wrong. Every cut your hand on a cheap case with unfinished or rough edges reminds you that metal can be razor sharp with a cheaper chassis system. In contrast, I really enjoyed the ease of use and access to the internal workings of the C30 ThinkStation. The side access panel comes equipped with a levered handle system and has built in locks to make sure only authorized personnel can breach the shell. There is also a great recessed handle built in to the top of the case that greatly assists with moving and positioning the unit. (See figure 2.)
Another component overlooked is the power supply system. A workstation should have adequate power to run all the necessary components, plus have the natural ability to help keep itself cool by keeping passage ways clear of clutter and cabling. The system I tested has a beefy 800-watt system, more than enough to power some additional hard drive storage or a second graphics board. See figures 3 and 4.
Figure 3: The inside of the C30 workstation, as seen from the left and the right
Cooling fans for the case, processors, power supply all run in a super quiet mode on this ThinkStation. I found that the system runs almost totally quietly, which is great considering there are fans in three to four different locations scattered throughout the case. It's rated as a top-performing GreenGuard-certified system.
The system has a sound board included on the motherboard that I found adequate enough to give me the ability to play videos with sound, hear Webinars and seminars, attend on-line training classes, and do things as simple as play my music files while I'm working away on a tight deadline.
Figure 4: The rear of the C30, with its many ports
The hard drive performance is remarkable with this system. It utilizes a SCSI RAID (redundant array of independent disks) controller to increase data width and transfer speed. It has a fast response time in both reading and writing.
The only issue I had with hard drive was its storage capacity. The 500GB felt tight in today's market, where consumer-grade computers now routinely pack 1TB drives. This issue could be resolved with a larger primary HD or by adding a second hard drive. Perhaps Lenovo was saving money in the configuration in the box they sent me, by omitting a second drive. I know there are options to upgrade for the right price.
Just as I would expect for a system of this magnitude, it is super fast when opening my favorite CAD program the first time each day, and it opens large files in a snap. With this being a dual-Xeon processor system, there are no shortcoming to raw processor power.
The motherboard as many open slots to stuff with RAM, and so I'd never run out of options when doing RAM upgrades. Putting it all together, the motherboard with the superfast bus speed, dual processor-capable, eight available RAM slots, blazing fast SATA array hard drive, and this is shaping up to be a solid CAD workstation.
NVIDIA makes great video cards and I've installed my share of them in custom-made gaming boxes. I overclock the 3D chips, and then hand-made the cooling fans to keep them from overheating. I've always had great solid results from NVIDIA in both gaming and CAD applications.
NVIDIA and AMD are the only two options I encountered during my installation process. On the NVIDIA side it looks as though the Quadro and Quadro FX lines are mostly covered and certified; the card in my computer happened to be a Quadro 4000, and yes it was on the list of certified boards. I verified this by checking the Website of a main software manufacturer, which keeps a good historical and updated listing of certified graphics cards and drivers. This particular manufacturer claims certification for this graphics card for its flagship products.
I checked around on-line and an NVIDIA Quadro 4000 is currently selling for $700 - $800, and is recognized as a dual-DisplayPort video card. This would allow me to attach two HDMI displays. Among the current norm of high-definition televisions in the home, we are also in the middle of a full hi-def onslaught with computer displays, as well.
So to this ThinkStation I connected an HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) cable to take the full advantage for the hi-def display and the capabilities of the graphics card. The display looks great at 1920x1080 resolution, and so you could imagine that I'm pretty happy with the scenario and the capabilities of the graphics driver.
I'm always a man that can appreciate lighting-fast Gigabit connectivity and speeds, but I do have to admit that it feels a little funny connecting this box up to my home network.
Since CAD workstations don't necessarily need wireless connectivity (and as standard practice I don't recommend it to reduce data corruption issues), Ethernet does mean I have to physically stop and find a manual plug and hardwire it into the network. I've become accustomed to the effortless wireless connectivity of laptops and tablets that I've become a little too spoiled to the finer luxury of built-in wireless.
With two USB (universal serial bus) plugs and a headphone jack accessible from the front faceplate of the case, I have power connectors for my iPhone and external hard drive at the same time -- while still listening to my favorite MP3s through my earphones.
Instead of using the standard wired mouse and keyboard included with the C30, I used my own wireless keyboard and mouse. I needed some relief all the clutter from wires. The ones supplied were adequate, but I suspect most users will want more if they are heavy production workers.
Base price is $1,169. The price of the reviewed workstation is $3,843.95.
The next time I'm in need of a new CAD or BIM workstation, then the Lenovo C30 ThinkStation would make my shortlist of about three or four that I would review for serious consideration. I can think of only a few minor items that I would like to see changed or enhanced, such as the capacity of the hard drive. It has almost everything a CAD or BIM professional would want.
The fact is this workstation is a beast and would be hard pressed not to be included in frequent short list. This is a great workstation that is built to perform and sustain for a long product lifecycle. With most all the features needed as a workhorse, it's ready to be put into production with a small amount of work and investment.
This solid CAD workstation feels as good as server-quality design and construction.
Lenovo ThinkStation C30 - corporate product page
|Ray Howard is a civil engineer, with 18 years of hands-on technical industry experience working in civil engineering and surveying. More...|