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Lenovo ThinkStation E31 SFF Review

By Emmanuel A. Garcia, November 16, 2012

In my experience, an 18-month upgrade cycle at around $1,500 is an ideal scenario for renewing computers. Shorter cycles risk wasting time and the aggravation and stress of change; waiting more than two or three years means we’re not taking advantage of technology improvements -- which may already be being taken advantage of by our competitors.

Because CAD is the hands-down computer power glutton, it’s unreasonable to place the computer purchasing budget in a range on par with general computing expenditures, such as for word processing, or accounting -- even for entry-level CAD workstations. Expect to invest between $1,500 and $2,500 or more for a good CAD workstation, or else risk competing while handicapped. Skimp as a last resort, and ideally only if you’re able to make up for the deficiency with other talents, such as experience and other strategic advantages.

Figure 27: The radial menu in Solid Edge

Figure 1: The E31 desktop workstation from Lenovo (The monitor was not included in configuration I received for this review).

In this light, I had the opportunity to review one of the newest CAD workstations from Lenovo. When it comes to computers, appearances can be deceiving. The saying “great things come in small packages” couldn’t be truer here. Lenovo’s ThinkStation E31 has a petite physique, but underneath the small outer trappings hides a beautiful speedy mind housed in an efficient hard-working body. (See figure 1.) All this in a package that starts at $549 (excluding monitor).

This computer’s CPU (central processing unit) is a speedy 3.3GHz Xeon E3-1230V2. My unit shipped to me with 4GB of PC3-12800 DDR3 1.6GHz memory, along with a 1TB SATA 3.5” 7200rpm hard disk, NVIDIA Quadro 600 video card, Gigabit Ethernet, a DVD multiburner, four USB 2.0 plus four USB 3.0 ports, and 29-in-1 media card reader. (To learn more about the specifics of the CPU, check out the details from Intel).

Figure 2: Ports on the back of the ThinkStation E31 workstation.



Figure 2: Ports on the back of the ThinkStation E31 workstation.

See figure 2 for a look at the ports on the back.

The bad news is there isn’t a lot of room inside the small case for adding a full size video card or more storage. The good news is there’s plenty of room for cooling air to circulate. Chances are that there really is nothing else you need to add, except perhaps for a speedy SSD (solid state disk) drive, for which there is plenty of room right under the primary hard disk drive. See figure 3.

Figure 3: This computer achieves a great balance between saving desktop space while allowing enough room for adequate cooling ventilation.

Figure 3: This computer achieves a great balance between saving desktop space while allowing enough room for adequate cooling ventilation..

Should you do this SSD upgrade, be aware you will need a Y-adapter for routing power to the drive, as I found there are no spare connector. It would be ideal if you also get a SATA data cable that is just four to eight inches long, making it as short as practical to avoid blocking the air flow.

One feature I particularly liked is how the computer case can be laid on its side on the desktop, and not only in an upright tower configuration. At just under 4” tall, it makes a nice stand for my monitor, achieving an ergonomic level line of sight. As well, I found that sideways made it easier to use the DVD drive than when it stood vertically. (Just make sure you don’t use it as a cup holder.)

Windows 7 Professional is the default operating system, but you can special-order other versions and a variety of Linux versions. All are 64-bit.

Memory and Storage Options

My guess is that to keep the base price low, Lenovo equipped this unit with only 4GB RAM, along with a traditional disk-based hard disk drive (albeit 1TB in size). While most CAD vendors place minimum RAM requirements in the 1GB to 3GB range, please keep in mind that is only an assurance that the program will run. In real life, we most likely use a Web browser, word processor, spreadsheet, and a few other programs simultaneously. In short, upgrade to at least 8GB – with RAM prices at an all time low, put in as much as you can afford, to the limit of the computer. This is, simply, the best second move you can make to optimize your CAD computer.

When it came to determining the size of hard drive, there was an old rule of thumb: “Figure out how much you need, and then double it.” Here, it pays to separate long-term storage needs from immediate wishes, such as current projects, software installation, and operating system footprints. The 1TB drive in this workstation is great for long-term storage of project data, but its old disk-based technology puts on the brakes the computer’s speed.

If you aren’t using SSD drives yet, make this a priority! It will be the single most noticeable change you can implement to make your CAD experience a speedier joy. The technology employs no moving parts, but accesses data directly without needing to wait for read-write heads to move about, searching for information on the rotating magnetic platters -- as found in traditional hard disk drives. Think about the number of times you re-boot your computer and launch programs. If you do this a lot, then SSD technology helps you out. Let’s take, for example, this computer: it booted on average in 60 seconds using its hard disk drive. After I added the SSD drive provided by Lenovo, most reboots took under 20 seconds. The time difference is reflective of what you could experience when launching programs. The speed gives you the freedom to reboot, or open and close files and program whenever you want, knowing the time spent waiting is minimal.

After I increased the system RAM to 16GB and installed the SSD Drive, this computer’s Windows Experience Index jumped from an average score of 5.9 to a much better 6.6. (The original weak link was the HDD.) See figure 4.

Figure 13: The Live Rules control toolbar

Figure 4: After upgrading the RAM to 16GB and installing a relatively small 90GB SSD drive, the only relative weak link that remained was the video card. To be fair, this computer actually deserves a score closer to 7.5, because for most CAD work the Graphics performance will be optimal.

Video Card and Monitor

After the SSD upgrade, the Windows Experience Index indicated a new weak link: the NVIDIA Quadro 600 video card, which came with just 1GB of 128-bit GDDR3 memory. This model is already over two years old, and is based on the GeForce 400-series Fermi Architecture that launched even earlier.

Should this card be not fast enough for you, then you’re either playing video games (something this computer isn’t intended for), or you’re dealing with design projects so large and complex that you should really be considering different technology – perhaps a computer that handles more than 32GB RAM and many more processing cores.

Multi-core processing is an area where CAD software engineering seems to lag behind, either with the CPU or the GPU for logical and number-crunching operations. To take advantage of parallel processing or using multiple computer brains simultaneously, programs must be multi-threaded so different tasks that can occur at the same time. Unfortunately, it has been tough for CAD programmers to untangle the code much beyond loading files, regenerating drawings, and generating renderings.

I’m not a big fan of spending money where it doesn’t pay off. So, before you buy a high-end video card with many CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture, a parallel computing architecture developed by NVIDIA) cores, make sure your software can takes advantage of it – most cannot. If not, stick with good old reliable technology such as the Quadro 600. Selecting an optimal video card for your needs is not an easy matter; fortunately, this model sets an ideal minimum performance threshold.

To connect to monitors, it has DisplayPort and VGA ports.

Software Testing

Software is the area in which I had the most fun testing this computer. I’m happy to report it passed my tests with flying colors. It did not crash or hiccup once in over eight weeks of almost continuous full-time use. Its performance was flawless.

I attribute this to the main stream choice of an Intel CPU and an NVIDIA video card. In fact, this model was so stable across a wide choice of mainstream CAD programs that I consider it an ideal platform on which to perform software tests, especially beta testing.

Software I tested included the following packages: Graphisoft ArchiCAD 16, Autodesk Building Design Suite Ultimate 2013, Bentley MicroStation V8i, SolidWorks 2012, IMSI/Design TurboCAD Pro 19, and Nemetschek Vectorworks 2013. I was particular impressed by how smoothly I could navigate around large and complex 3D models using Navisworks Manage 2013. To see videos of these programs in action, please visit my website at http://caddguru.com.

In addition to running a cross section of the most popular CAD programs available, I also installed and ran Microsoft Office Suite, an open source office suite, Corel PaintShop Pro X4, several other utilities, and Web browsers. Every program I’ve tested on this computer performed flawlessly.

Conclusion

For most CAD users, I suggest buying a computer from a reputable source like Lenovo. After putting the ThinkStation E31 SFF workstation through an unusually long and varied set of tests, I feel comfortable wholeheartedly endorsing it. It is a model I would consider buying; overall, I find the Windows Experience Index (as lived from the trenches) to be a 7.7 and an almost perfect score for an entry-level machine. It makes me wonder why I’d want to spend any more on a CAD computer. Its 3-year warranty, which is much better than the standard one-year offering from most vendors, means peace-of-mind for a long time.

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Additional Information

Lenovo ThinkStation E31 SFF workstation - Lenovo corporate product page.

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About the Author

Emmanuel A. Garcia is an Adjunct Professor & Computer-Aided Design Consultant. You can reach him at his website CADDguru.com and follow him on Twitter. He studied Electrical Engineering at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angles and specializes in 3D CAD for Building Information Modeling & Facility Management applications.

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