Lenovo ThinkStation C20: A compact, powerful and pricey business PC

Lenovo's new workstation is also useful as a sophisticated graphic artist's tool.

Lenovo originally designed its compact ThinkStation C20 workstation for financial markets, where both the number-crunching power of the system and the amount of space it saves are important. However, the ThinkStation C20, released in June, can also be viewed as a graphic artist's tool for running sophisticated software that manipulates 3D graphics and renders video, or as a software development platform.

ThinkStation C20
Lenovo ThinkStation C20

The ThinkStation C20 was designed to have a small footprint without sacrificing performance. Its ability to attach up to eight monitors also makes it ideal for tracking several trading boards at the same time -- and makes its transition into a 3D graphics computer a natural.

Lenovo claims that the ThinkStation C20 is the smallest dual-processor workstation currently available. Given its dimensions of 16.8 x 5.1 x 17.5 in., I'm inclined to believe it.

The system is available with a variety of memory, graphics, and hard and optical drive options. The $1,439 base unit comes with a single 2-GHz Xeon E5503 processor, 1GB of RAM, an Nvidia Quadro NVS 290 (with 256MB of RAM) and a 250GB hard drive, usable as a low-end workstation.

The review unit ($6,674) is powered by dual Intel Xeon 5640 processors. Each CPU has four cores delivering eight virtual threads; it operates at 2.66-GHz with a maximum turbo frequency of 3.06 GHz. (Intel's TurboBoost technology allows the processor to scale between base and maximum clock speeds, depending on how many cores are in use and how heavy the workload is on each core.)

The Lenovo motherboard uses an Intel 5520 chip set. The system also includes 8GB DDR3 RAM, a 500GB hard drive and a DVD +/- RW optical drive.

What turns the ThinkStation C20 from a simply powerful system to a graphics workstation is the high-end Nvidia Quadro FX 4800 graphics card, which contains 192 CUDA parallel processing cores and 1.5GB of memory. It's not part of Nvidia's latest lineup of professional graphics cards but is just one generation behind.

Out of curiosity, I went looking for the prices on a pair of Xeon 5640 processors and a Quadro FX 4800 graphics card -- the core components that give this workstation its kick -- to see if something like this could be built cheaper. I found that those components alone added up to about $3,000 -- making the final cost of the system understandable.

Even though the ThinkStation C20 is compact, it does offer some expansion possibilities. There are two PCI slots and two available 3.5-in. bays for additional internal hard drives. However, because the second processor is tucked in under the DVD +/- RW drive there are no additional externally accessible 5.25-in. options.

The front of the case offers two USB 2.0 ports, plus microphone and headphone jacks. Around back, you'll find eight more USB 2.0 ports, two S/PDIF digital audio ports and the usual six analog audio outputs.

Testing the C20

To test the ThinkStation C20's 3D graphics-rendering talent, I used a benchmark called SPECviewperf 11, which measures the 3D rendering performance of systems running under OpenGL. The test is developed and distributed by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corp. (SPEC). I used a resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels.

The benchmark's test files, called viewsets, are developed by tracing graphics content from actual applications. Current viewsets represent graphics functionality in Autodesk Maya 2009, CATIA V5 and V6, EnSight 8.2, LightWave 3D 9.6, Pro/Engineer Wildfire 5.0, Siemens NX 7, SolidWorks 2009 and Siemens Teamcenter Visualization Mockup.

In order to provide a comparison, I also ran that benchmark on a high-end gaming PC from Digital Storm called Black OPS Assassin. The Assassin is equipped with an Intel Core i7 930 2.8 GHz (3.2/3.9-GHz overclock) and 6GB of DDR3 RAM, and it carries a pair of Nvidia GTX 480 graphics cards in SLI configuration. At the time I tested it, the Assassin carried a price tag of $3,391, about half the cost of the C20.

SPECviewperf 11 test results

ThinkStation C20 Black OPS Assassin
CATIA 23.41 6.23
EnSight 15.11 16.91
LightWave 47.18 9.97
Maya 30.73 6.53
Pro/Engineer 7.88 1.49
SolidWorks 37.25 7.88

Siemens Teamcenter

Visualization Mockup
17.55 0.90
Siemens NX 17.62 1.64
Higher numbers are better.

I wanted to know whether a less-expensive gaming platform that had been optimized for graphics could be an alternative for a powerful but very pricey business graphics system such as the ThinkStation C20. However, the Assassin beat the ThinkStation C20 only when using the EnSight 8.2 viewset -- which deals primarily with wireframes, 2D polygons and textures. Otherwise, the ThinkStation C20 trounced the Assassin across the board.

Conclusion

At $6,674, the ThinkStation C20 obviously comes at a premium price -- but, as its performance numbers prove, it's a premium computer. For graphics professionals, the Lenovo ThinkStation C20 could represent a real increase in productivity. You just can't get that kind of outrageous performance level on the cheap.

Bill O'Brien has written a half-dozen books on computers and technology. He has also written articles on a range of topics, including Apple computers, PCs, Linux and commentary on IT hardware decisions.

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