Reviewing the HP Z2 Mini CAD Workstation: Looks Like Darth Vader and Is Flexible Like a Ninja
Andrew Wheeler posted on March 14, 2017 | 4892 views

I was lucky enough to visit HP’s research and development laboratory in Fort Collins, Colo., this past fall, and it was a great learning experience. With all of the amazing equipment in the lab (electron microscopes, electron spectroscopy machines, etc.), one of the most amazing things I saw when I was there was a sharply presented sneak peek at the new HP Z2 Mini Workstation.

Leading with an aesthetic design that is astutely targeted at serving millennial CAD users—the impact of the workstation’s aesthetic, actually. Again, the presentation was finely tuned to produce such a reaction. I had a chance to gain an in-depth understanding of what design choices were made to produce the workstation’s unique look, making this an ultraflexible CAD workstation that is so unbelievable. That, and the fact that it is relatively inexpensive compared to other similar machines.

HP sent over a packed version of the Z2 Mini for me to review. For starters, it has 32 GB of RAM and an Intel Corei7-6700 Processor overclocked to 4.0 GHz, has unique and flexible mounting possibilities, and is priced at $1,698. (Image courtesy of HP.)
HP sent over a packed version of the Z2 Mini for me to review. For starters, it has 32 GB of RAM and an Intel Corei7-6700 Processor overclocked to 4.0 GHz, has unique and flexible mounting possibilities, and is priced at $1,698. (Image courtesy of HP.)

Take a look at the full specs here.

HP Z2 Mini with a Quadro M620 GPU

The Z2 Mini review unit I received had an NVIDIA Quadro M620 GPU, so I went ahead and ran the FurMark GPU software and scored this:

FurMark is an OpenGL benchmark that uses what are called fur rendering algorithms to measure how well the installed graphics card performs under an array of tests. One of the software tools performs such a test and it's called a GPU burner. It allows you to overheat the GPU and stress it out to see how it will perform when it is fully maximized. Users can then post the results to the FurMark Online Database to compare them with others and gather data to compare the same workstation with a slightly less expensive GPU or CPU.

Implied in the aesthetic design of the Z2 Mini is a very small footprint. And what does a small footprint signify? Mobility. The Z2 Mini is a response to people asking for a powerful workstation that they can move around with relative ease compared to larger and inflexible workstations.  You can clip the Z2 Mini to the back of your chair, or anywhere that's convenient, to free up desk space by using just the display screen accompanied by only a wireless keyboard and mouse. That's the idea, anyway.

Designed as a response to a collective need to free up more visual real estate, the Z2 Mini offers you the freedom to move the computer pretty much anywhere. This means that the precious little space you have on your desk can be maximized. The Z26 Mini can accommodate up to six display screens. Users can monitor six streams of visual data to help inform the daily decisions required by their jobs—and do so with as little hassle as is probably possible.

If you are a CAD designer or otherwise heavy user of engineering and design software, then you’ll really want to know if the GPU can handle as much as larger desktop workstations that are equipped with better GPUs than the Quadro M620 that came with this Z2 Mini. Although the answer to that query is no, it doesn't mean that the Z2 Mini can't handle a tough CAD workload.

As far as performance, the Z2 Mini has a PCIe SSD and the option to add another 1 TB to the internal hard drive by way of an SSD or a HDD. For RAM, the most you can pack in is 32 GB, but most CAD workflows can be done with much less.

My Z2 Mini has 32 GB of RAM, a Quadro M620 GPU, and an Intel i7 CPU that maxes out at 3.4 GHz. To test out performance, I used SPECviewperf, a graphics measurement software that simulates industrial and professional CAD workloads. The software runs these workloads, which are called viewsets. Each viewset contains graphics content from applications that require strong graphics processing.

Every workstation tested using SPECviewperf has scores of other workstations with more expensive GPUs that leave the Z2 Mini in the dust, but it isn't really about comparing this device to towering desktop workstations that perform well but take up a ton of space.

The HP Z2 Mini is an example of targeting very specific problems and creating solutions by designing a flexible CAD workstation with a small footprint that leaves you with more available space. Aesthetically, it's certainly targeted at gamers and millennials who want something that can ninja around their work environments, isn't going to cost too much out of pocket, and satisfies their CAD workloads.

I can certainly appreciate the form factor and reliability of the CAD graphics processing in this machine. I personally like the way it looks, and it scored well on both the FurMark and SPECviewperftests. I don't have a particular need for six expansion slots, but it was interesting to think about what I might use six screens for.

Since CAD software for engineering is heading to the cloud more and more, I decided to download Fusion 360 and see how it responded to a design job.

I tested Fusion 360 out for a while with a few different STEP files on the HP Z2 Mini. Its analogous hardware was very easy to take to as far as adapting to a new computer, but don't try to hook up your Oculus Rift or HTC Vive to it. It is not designed with virtual reality in mind, which is why the team at HP chose the NVIDIA QuadroM620 for the GPU. This machine is designed mainly for CAD use, with other possible applications in the financial sector and a few other areas.

You can tell there were some tough decisions that had to be made in terms of designing a great computer in the given form factor. For example, the entry-level model includes an Ethernet port and two USB 3.0 ports, but it doesn't have an HDMI port to attach displays. The Z2 Mini has three DisplayPort ports, but it doesn't have a Thunderbolt 3 slot for connecting to high-speed storage and backup.

HP is targeting CAD users who need a good workstation at home or in the office, aren't heavy Thunderbolt users, and need all of the space they can create. The HP Z2 Mini is remarkable in that it provides a workstation dedicated to CAD users and people who need to watch multiple live streams of data on 1–6 monitors. The HP Z2 Mini scored well in its class on the SPECviewperf and FurMark graphics tests, and it performed very well with a few different engineering software that I tried across the board, including SOLIDWORKS, AutoCAD and Fusion 360.

Designing at HP is taken extremely seriously, and the direction the company is moving in with the HP Z2 Mini is aimed squarely at millennials in AEC, education or finance who want to buy a reliable CAD workstation that frees up some space on their desks or in their homes.

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