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Review: The Low-Cost Lenovo ThinkStation E20

By David Cohn

Review: The Low-Cost Lenovo ThinkStation E20
The Lenovo ThinkStation E20 is an extremely affordable workstation equipped with a single Intel dual-core i5 CPU and aimed directly at entry-level CAD users. Photo courtesy of Lenovo.

Lenovo has joined other workstation manufacturers with the introduction of a low-cost workstation aimed at entry-level CAD users. With prices starting at $450, however, the new ThinkStation E20 is the most affordable system yet from a major vendor.

The Lenovo ThinkStation E20 comes housed in a black case that bears a clear resemblance to other systems in the ThinkStation lineup, although its implementation is more utilitarian than its more powerful (and more expensive) siblings. Like the ThinkStation D20 we reviewed last spring (see DE May 2010), the E20 has a removable handle that adds 2 in. to the 14.81 in. height of the case, which measures 6.88×16.98 in. (WxD).

The top portion of the front panel provides two 5.25-in. drive bays, one of which contained a 16X DVD+/-RW dual-layer optical drive. A Blu-ray drive is optional. Below these is a smaller 3.5-in. bay that housed an optional 25-in-1 medial card reader. Below this is a sloping panel that contained two USB ports along with headphone and microphone jacks. Icons above these ports light up, making them easier to find in low-light conditions. To the right of these ports is the power button along with lighted indicators for power and hard drive activity.

The rear panel provides six more USB ports, a 9-pin serial port, RJ45 LAN port, and microphone, audio line-in, and audio line-out connectors. Our evaluation unit also came with a VGA monitor connector and Display Port connector. These were hidden beneath removable rubber covers and may not be usable on some E20 models. There’s also provision for PS/2-style keyboard and mouse connectors, but those weren’t present on our unit.

Modest Expansion Options
To access the interior of the case, we had to remove two non-captive thumbscrews on the rear of the case and then press a button to remove the side panel. Inside, we found a Lenovo-designed motherboard with a single CPU socket housing an Intel Core i5-650 processor. This 3.2GHz dual-core CPU has 4MB of smart cache and is rated at 73 watts of thermal design power (TDP). CPUs ranging from the 2.8GHz Pentium G6950 up to the dual-core 3.46GHz Core i5-670 processor or the quad-core 2.93GHz XeonX3470 are available. The motherboard provides four DIMM sockets. Our evaluation unit came with 4GB installed as two 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz memory modules. It can accommodate up to 16GB using 4GB DIMMs.

The motherboard provides just four expansion slots: one PCIe x16 graphics card slot, two PCI card slots, and a PCIe x1 card slot. The graphics card slot in our system was filled with an NVIDIA Quadro FX 580 graphics accelerator equipped with 512GB of memory. Lenovo also offers other graphics options, including the less-expensive Quadro FX 380 and the more powerful NVIDIA Quadro FX 1800. At a premium of just $360, we’d probably opt for the FX 1800.

The Lenovo ThinkStation E20 has two internal drive bays with quick release acoustic dampening rails, one mounted just below the front panel in its own removable cage, and a second attached to the bottom of the case. For our review, the E20 was equipped with a 500GB Seagate Barracuda 7,200 rpm SATA drive. Lenovo offers other 7,200 rpm SATA drives ranging from 250GB up to 1TB as well as a 300GB 10,000 rpm drive. Systems with two drives can be factory configured in RAID arrays.

Lenovo ThinkStation E20 Specs
• Price: $1,224 as tested ($449 base)
• Size: 6.88×16.98×16.74 in. (WxDxH, w/handle) tower
• Weight: 24 pounds
• CPU: one Intel Core i5-650 (dual-core) 3.2GHz
• Memory: 4GB DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz
• Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 580
• Hard Disk: one Seagate Barracuda 500GB SATA 7,200 rpm drive
• Floppy: none
• Optical: 16X DVD+/-RW Dual-Layer
• Audio: onboard integrated high-definition audio (microphone, headphone, line-in, line-out, and  internal speaker)
• Network: integrated 10/100/1000 LAN
• Modem: none
• Other: One 9-pin serial, six USB 2.0, 25-in-1 media card reader
• Keyboard: 104-key Lenovo Preferred USB Fingerprint keyboard
• Pointing device: USB optical roller wheel mouse

A 280-watt power supply provides enough power to handle the modest expansion options. As we’ve come to expect, the system was virtually silent during normal operation, although the optical drive was extremely noisy when installing new software.

Performance Choices
Lenovo pre-installed the 64-bit version of Windows 7 and also sent us a second hard drive that we could swap out so that we could repeat all of our benchmark tests using 32-bit Windows XP. The system was also configured with hyper-threading enabled when we first received it. While that enables the dual-core CPU to appear to the operating system as four separate processors — and is useful when running multi-threaded applications — it can slow other processes. For example, our SolidWorks test results improved significantly when we disabled hyper-threading. But our AutoCAD rendering took a minute longer with hyper-threading turned off. Since this can only be toggled within the BIOS during the initial system boot, you’ll have to determine what works best for you.

We were surprised at how well the E20 performed compared to other, more expensive systems. The review unit, equipped with the NVIDIA Quadro FX 580 turned in some of the fastest scores on the SPEC viewperf benchmark, while on others, its results were the slowest among recently tested systems.

When we turned our attention to the SPECapc SolidWorks benchmark, which is more a real-world test, the E20 lagged behind the other systems we’ve tested, due to its slower CPU and entry-level graphics. Similarly, on the AutoCAD rendering test, the ThinkStation E20 took more than three minutes to complete the rendering with hyper-threading enabled, and more than four minutes with it disabled, the worst performance by a rather large margin among workstations we’ve recently reviewed.

Lenovo rounded out our evaluation unit with its Preferred Pro USB Fingerprint keyboard, a full-size 104-key keyboard with an integrated fingerprint sensor and accompanying software so you can swipe a finger across the sensor rather than typing passwords. A Lenovo-branded optical wheel mouse was also included.

In addition to the 64-bit versions of Windows 7 that we received, Lenovo offers Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Red Hat Linux, or you can also order a system with no operating system installed. Lenovo backs the system with a three-year limited onsite warranty with other warranty upgrade options available.

Although base systems start at $449, that’s for an extremely basic system with no operating system. As configured, our evaluation unit priced out online at $1,224. Even if you were to upgrade to a faster CPU and more powerful midrange graphics card, you could still pay less than $1,500. Once again, Lenovo has delivered a very impressive system, at an incredibly affordable price.

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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 at DSCohn.com.

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.
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