Home / Engineering Computing / Performance in a Petite Package

Performance in a Petite Package

By David Cohn

Small form factor (SFF) workstations — entry-level systems aimed squarely at entry-level CAD users — remain popular, so much so that both Lenovo and HP have begun shipping new versions of their entry-level SFF systems. We recently received the Lenovo ThinkStation E32 SFF, the refresh of the E31 SFF we reviewed last year (DE, April 2013). The company has not managed to make this successor any smaller. In fact, at 13.3×4.0x14.8 in., the E32 SFF is slightly larger than its predecessor. But at 15 lbs., the E32 SFF is 1.5 lbs. lighter than last year’s model.

Lenovo
The E32 SFF case packs its components neatly into its small interior. Images courtesy of David Cohn.

With a starting price of just $749 for a system equipped with a dual-core 3.4GHz Intel Core i3-4130 CPU, Windows 8 Pro, integrated Intel HD graphics, 4GB of memory, a 500GB, 7,200 rpm SATA hard drive, and a DVD +/-RW optical drive, you can understand exactly why these reduced-form-factor systems have become so popular. We are still not big fans of the integrated graphics when it comes to running mainstream CAD applications, however, so we were pleased that the system Lenovo included a discrete graphics board among its several upgrades.

Like its predecessor, the Lenovo ThinkStation E32 SFF comes housed in a matte black case with small rubber feet that support the case in a horizontal position. There are also small rubber feet on the end, so that users can orient the system like a miniature tower. Although the system is quite stable when standing on end, setting it up this way positions the tray-loading optical drive in an awkward vertical orientation.

In addition to the DVD drive, the front panel provides two USB 3.0 ports, a 29-in-1 media card reader, headphone and microphone jacks, and a round power button. A sculpted air intake with the ThinkStation logo fills the remainder of the front grill.

The rear panel provides four additional USB 3.0 ports, as well as a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a 9-pin serial port, a 15-pin VGA port, a pair of DisplayPorts, and an RJ-45 LAN port for the integrated gigabit Ethernet as well as microphone, audio line-in, and audio line-out jacks. There are also four expansion slots. Note that the VGA and DisplayPorts on the rear panel are non-functional when the system is equipped with a CPU that lacks integrated graphics.

Updated Interior

Access to the interior is achieved by removing two non-captive thumbscrews from the rear of the case, then pressing a button on the top of the case to slide off the cover. The Lenovo motherboard takes up about two-thirds of the interior and is partially hidden below the hard drive and optical bays. Pressing a touch-point releases the drive cage, which rotates 90 ° along the front of the case to provide access to the four memory sockets.

The system supports up to four double data rate 3 dual inline memory modules (DDR3 DIMMs), for a total of 32GB. Our evaluation unit came with 8GB of memory, installed as a single 8GB 1600MHz ECC DIMM.

The CPU is concealed beneath a heat sink and 3-in. cooling fan with a plastic cowl, designed to direct air over the CPU. To the right of the CPU is a small 240-watt/85% efficient power supply. To its left are four expansion slots. Lenovo offers a choice of 11 different Haswell processors.

In addition to the Core i3 processor included in the base configuration, there are Core i5 and i7 CPUS and Xeon processors ranging from the 3.1GHz E3-1220V3 to the 3.6GHz E3-1280V3, an option that would add $1,230 to the base price. Our evaluation unit came with a slightly more modest 3.4GHz Intel Xeon E3-1240V3, a CPU with four processor cores but no integrated Intel HD graphics. With a maximum turbo speed of 3.8GHz, 8MB of cache and a maximum thermal design power rating of 80 watts, that CPU adds $210 cost of the E32 SFF.

While the ThinkStation E32 SFF does provide four expansion slots — a PCIe x16 graphics card slot, a PCIe x1 slot, a PCI card slot, and an additional PCIe x16 card slot (supporting either x4 or x1 cards) — the small profile case limits the height of the cards the system can accommodate. In addition to the integrated Intel graphics available with some of the CPU choices, Lenovo also offers NVIDIA NVS or Quadro discrete graphics cards.

Our system came equipped with an NVIDIA Quadro K600, a GPU featuring 1GB of DDR3 memory, 192 compute unified device architecture (CUDA) cores, and both a DVI-I and a full-size DisplayPort, which added $165 to the base price. Lenovo also offers the NVIDIA NVS 510 — a board with 192 CUDA cores, but twice the memory and four mini DisplayPorts. That option adds $399 to the base configuration.

The drive cage can house a single 3.5-in. drive or a pair of 2.5-in. drives, as well as an optional 128GB mSATA micro hard drive. A third drive can even be hosted in lieu of the optical drive. Our evaluation unit came with a 1TB Seagate Barracuda 3.5-in., 7,200 rpm drive. Other options include standard drives of up to 3TB, as well as solid-state drives (SSDs) ranging from 128 to 256GB.

Performance Improvements

Because the E32 SFF, like its predecessor, is equipped with rather modest components and meant to be an entry-level system, we did not expect this ThinkStation to set any records. And similar to the E31 SFF we tested last year, this new small form factor workstation lived up to those expectations. While it did outperform last year’s model, the E32 SFF was significantly slower than other systems we have reviewed recently. Still, its numbers were definitely not disappointing, considering its cost.

On the SPECviewperf benchmark, the NVIDIA Quadro K600 just could not match the graphic performance of other systems we have reviewed recently, many of which came with much more powerful graphics cards costing several times as much. In fact, the only system the E32 SFF outperformed was last year’s E31. The E32 even lagged behind the latest mobile workstations.

On the new SPECapc SolidWorks 2013 benchmark, however, which is more of a real-world test, the E32 SFF did a bit better. While it still scored lower than other single-socket workstations we’ve tested using this new benchmark, it did outperform many of the mobile workstations we’ve recently reviewed.

On the AutoCAD rendering test, which is multi-threaded and therefore shows the benefits of multiple CPU cores, the Lenovo ThinkStation E32 SFF took just 48.66 seconds to complete the rendering. That’s the best result we have recorded to-date for a single-socket system with a standard (not over-clocked) CPU.

Lenovo offers a choice of six different keyboards and either an optical or laser mouse. Our system came with a standard 104-key USB keyboard and three-button optical mouse. The E32 comes standard with Windows 8 Pro 64, but you can opt for Windows 7 Professional pre-installed as a downgrade, which was how our system was configured. Lenovo backs the system with a three-year warranty with on-site service, and says that the E32 has a 15-month lifecycle with no planned hardware changes that affect the preloaded software image. The system comes with independent software vendor (ISV) certifications from Adobe, Avid, Dassault Systemes, PTC, Siemens and SolidWorks, and ships with a preloaded, 60-day trial version of Autodesk AutoCAD LT.

The base E32 SFF configuration starts at $749 for a very well-appointed system. But we think most CAD users will be better served by adding the NVIDIA Quadro K600 discrete graphics card and more memory. Yet even as equipped, our evaluation unit priced out at just $1,479 — making the Lenovo ThinkStation E32 SFF an affordable, modestly powerful system in a very compact package.

David Cohn is the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies. He also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering and the author of more than a dozen books. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.

Single Socket Workstations Compared

Lenovo E32 SSF workstation
(one 3.4GHz Intel Xeon E3-1240 v3 quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K600, 8GB RAM)

BOXX 3DBOXX W4150 XTREME
workstation
(one 3.5GHz Intel Core i7-4770K quad-core CPU over-clocked to 4.3GHz, NVIDIA Quadro K4000, 16GB RAM)

Ciara Kronos 800S
workstation
(one 3.5GHz Intel Core i7-2700K quad-core CPU over-clocked to 5.0GHz, NVIDIA Quadro K5000, 16GB RAM)

Lenovo E31 SFF
workstation

(one 3.3GHz Intel E3-1230 quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro 400, 8GB RAM)

Lenovo S30
workstation

(one 3.6GHz Intel Xeon E5-1620 quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro 4000,
8GB RAM)

HP Z1
workstation

(one 3.5GHz Intel Xeon E3-1280 quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro 4000M,
16GB RAM)

Price as tested

$1,479

$4,273

$5,714

$1,093

$2,614

$5,625

Date tested

11/10/13

7/31/13

5/31/13

12/29/12

8/18/12

6/29/12

Operating System

Windows 7

Windows 7

Windows 7

Windows 7

Windows 7

Windows 7

SPECview 11

higher

catia-03

25.14

72.37

96.39

18.15

48.21

39.46

ensight-04

15.47

49.20

83.26

11.08

32.18

26.19

lightwave-01

75.52

100.78

103.15

46.79

64.47

60.76

maya-03

51.32

131.31

153.01

40.36

84.50

78.65

proe-5

15.61

24.74

22.87

10.29

11.93

12.69

sw-02

41.99

78.27

84.51

31.54

53.53

47.24

tcvis-02

23.74

55.73

77.82

16.53

37.66

30.79

snx-01

19.56

53.95

83.21

13.45

33.87

27.70

SPECapc SolidWorks 2013

Higher

Graphics Composite

3.14

5.25

3.89

n/a

n/a

n/a

RealView Graphics Composite

3.09

5.38

4.1

n/a

n/a

n/a

Shadows Composite

2.96

5.36

4.1

n/a

n/a

n/a

Ambient Occlusion Composite

2.9

5.63

8.37

n/a

n/a

n/a

Shaded Mode Composite

3.25

5.12

3.79

n/a

n/a

n/a

Shaded With Edges Mode Composite

3.02

5.38

3.98

n/a

n/a

n/a

RealView Disabled Composite

3.31

4.74

3.15

n/a

n/a

n/a

CPU Composite

4.27

4.07

4.92

n/a

n/a

n/a

Autodesk Render Test

Lower

Time

Seconds

48.66

42.00

58.33

64.00

63.80

87.92

Battery Test

Higher

Time

Hours:min

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

Numbers in blue indicate best recorded results. Numbers in red indicate worst recorded results.

More Info:
Lenovo

Lenovo ThinkStation E32 SFF

  • Price: $1,479 as tested ($749 base price)
  • Size: 13.3×4.0x14.8 in. (WxHxD) small form factor desktop/mini-tower
  • Weight: 15 lbs.
  • CPU: 3.4GHz Intel Xeon quad-core E3-1240V3
  • Memory: 8GB DDR3 ECC at 1600MHz
  • Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro K600
  • Hard Disk: 1TB Seagate Barracuda 3.5-in., 7,200 rpm
  • Optical: 16X DVD+/-RW
  • Audio: integrated HD audio (front panel: microphone, headphone; rear-panel: line-in, line-out, microphone)
  • Network: integrated Gigabit Ethernet, one RJ45 port
  • Other: Six USB 3.0 (two front/four rear), three USB 2.0 ports (two rear/one internal), one 9-pin serial, one 15-pin VGA and two DisplayPorts (for integrated Intel HD graphics), 29-in-1 media card reader
  • Keyboard: 104-key Lenovo USB keyboard
  • Pointing device: Lenovo USB optical wheel mouse Power supply: 240 watts, 85%
  • Warranty: 3 years parts and labor

About David Cohn

David Cohn has been using AutoCAD for more than 25 years and is the author of more than a dozen books on the subject. He’s the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies, a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering, and also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA. Watch for his latest CADLearning eBooks on AutoCAD 2015 on the Apple iBookstore, at Amazon, and on the CADLearning website. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.
Scroll To Top