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Workstation Review: Lenovo ThinkStation E31 SFF

The Lenovo ThinkStation E31 SFF (small form factor) is aimed squarely at entry-level CAD users. Designed around the latest-generation Intel Xeon E3-1200 V2 series “Ivy Bridge” processors and equipped with error-correcting memory, the E31 SFF offers professional-level performance and reliability in a package that should fit just about anywhere.

E31 SFF
The compact E31 SFF case packs its components neatly into its small, but well organized interior.

The E31 SFF comes housed in a matte black case measuring just 13.12×3.75×15.0 in. (WHD), and weighing only 16.5 lbs. Rubber feet support the case in a horizontal position, while a small plastic stand enables the system to stand like a miniature tower–although in that position, the tray-loading optical drive ends up in a somewhat awkward vertical orientation.

In addition to the DVD drive, the front panel provides two USB 2.0 ports, a 29-in-1 media card reader, headphone and microphone jacks, and a power button.

The rear panel provides four UBS 3.0 ports, two additional USB 2.0 ports, a nine-pin serial port, a 15-pin VGA port, a DisplayPort connection, and an RJ-45 LAN port for the integrated Intel 82579 Gigabit Ethernet–as well as microphone, audio line-in and audio line-out jacks. There are also four expansion slots.

Organized Interior

Sliding a small plastic lever on the rear panel releases the top of the case, which hinges at the rear to reveal a compact interior. The Lenovo-designed motherboard takes up about two-thirds of the interior, and is partially hidden below the hard drive and optical bays. The hard drive mounts in a novel removable plastic housing. Once removed, the optical drive cage can be pivoted forward, providing full access to the four memory sockets. The ThinkStation E31 SFF can accommodate up to 32GB of RAM. Our evaluation unit came with 8GB of memory, installed as two 4GB 1600MHz ECC dual in-line memory modules (DIMMs).

The CPU is concealed beneath a heat sink and 3-in. cooling fan. To one side of this is a diminutive, 240-watt, 85% efficient power supply; to the other, the expansion slots and one more USB 2.0 port. Lenovo offers no fewer than 18 processors to choose from, including Intel Celeron, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, Pentium and Xeon, including the top-of-the line 3.6GHz quad-core E3-1280V2. Our evaluation unit came with a slightly more modest 3.3GHz Intel Xeon E3-1230V2. This 22nm CPU has a maximum turbo speed of 3.7GHz, 8MB of cache, and a maximum thermal design power rating of 69 watts.

While the E31 SFF provides four expansion slots–a PCIe x16 graphics card slot, a PCIe x1 slot, and two PCI slots–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 600. This board provides both a DisplayPort and dual-link DVI connection.

The hard drive cage can house a single 3.5-in. hard drive or a pair of 2.5-in. drives. Our evaluation unit came equipped with a 1TB SATA 3.5-in., 7,200rpm drive manufactured by Western Digital, and a 16X DVD+/-RW optical drive. Lenovo also offers a 2-terabyte, 7,200rpm 3.5-in. drive, as well as several 10,000rpm 2.5-in. drives and solid state drives (SSDs).

Modest Performance

Because the E31 SFF is meant to be an entry-level system, we did not expect this ThinkStation to set any records. And like the entry-level Lenovo ThinkStation E30 we reviewed last year (see DE, July 2012), the small form factor workstation lived up to those expectations. The ThinkStation E31 SFF’s results were measurably slower than those of other systems we’ve reviewed recently. But its numbers were definitely not disappointing, with benchmark results approximately twice as fast as those of workstations from just three years ago–and nearly equal to those of modern systems costing much more.

On the SPECviewperf benchmark, the NVIDIA Quadro 600 just couldn’t match the performance of other systems we’ve reviewed recently, which came equipped with much more powerful graphics cards costing several times as much.

On the SPECapc SolidWorks benchmark, which is more of a real-world test (and breaks out graphics, CPU and I/O performance separately), the E31 SFF did better, outperforming several workstations costing several times as much.

On the AutoCAD rendering test, which is multi-threaded and, therefore, clearly shows the benefits of multiple CPU cores, the Lenovo ThinkStation E31 SFF took 64 seconds to complete the rendering. These are among the best results we’ve recorded for a single-socket system with a standard (not over-clocked) CPU.

A base E31 SFF system starts at $549. As equipped, our evaluation unit priced out at $1,093, making the Lenovo ThinkStation E31 SFF an affordable system in a 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 DSCohn.com.

More Info

Lenovo

ThinkStation E31 SFF

Price: $1,093 as tested ($549 base price)
Size: 13.12×3.75×15.0-in. (WxHxD) tower
Weight: 16.5 lbs.
CPU: 3.3GHz Intel Xeon (Quad Core) E3-1230V2
Memory: 8GB DDR3 ECC at 1600MHz
Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro 400
Hard Disk: 1-terabyte Western Digital 7,200rpm
Optical: 16X DVD+/-RW
Network: integrated Gigabit Ethernet (Intel 82579), one RJ45 port
Other: One nine-pin serial, four USB 2.0, four USB 3.0, one internal USB 2.0, 29-in-1 media card reader, DisplayPort, VGA
Warranty: three years, parts and labor

Workstations Compared
Lenovo E31 SFF

workstation (one 3.3GHz Intel E3-1230 quad-core CPU ]3.7GHz turbo], NVIDIA Quadro 400, 8GB RAM)

Lenovo S30

workstation (one 3.6GHz Intel Xeon E5-1620 quad-core CPU ]3.8GHz turbo], NVIDIA Quadro 4000, 8GB RAM)

HP Z1

workstation (one 3.5GHz Intel Xeon E3-1280 quad-core CPU ]3.9GHz turbo], NVIDIA Quadro 4000M, 16GB RAM)

Price as tested $1,093 $2,614 $5,625
Date tested 12/29/12 8/18/12 6/29/12
Operating System Windows 7 Windows 7 Windows 7
SPECview 11 higher
catia-03 18.15 48.21 39.46
ensight-04 11.08 32.18 26.19
lightwave-01 46.79 64.47 60.76
maya-03 40.36 84.50 78.65
proe-5 10.29 11.93 12.69
sw-02 31.54 53.53 47.24
tcvis-02 16.53 37.66 30.79
snx-01 13.45 33.87 27.70
SPECapc SolidWorks lower
Score seconds 97.45 106.46 110.61
Graphics seconds 33.97 38.68 38.31
CPU seconds 26.22 26.88 30.52
I/O seconds 37.26 40.90 41.32
SPECapc SolidWorks 2007 higher
Score ratio 5.26 4.80 4.46
Graphics ratio 6.17 5.33 5.06
CPU ratio 4.67 4.56 4.01
I/O ratio 3.80 3.46 3.42
Autodesk Render Test lower
Time seconds 64 63.8 87.92

Numbers in blue indicate best recorded results. Numbers in red indicate worst recorded results. Results are shown separately for single- and dual-socket workstations.

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.