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May 2013

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review Lenovo's E31 SFF workstation W By DARIUSH DERAKHSHANI VFX/CG Supervisor Adjunct Lecturer, USC Los Angeles A lot of power in a little box. 48 hat do you get when you cram a full workstation into a tiny space? The Lenovo E31 SFF (Small Form Factor) workstation is one serious answer to that question. "Oh look at that, Koosh," says Vicki, as she drops off a phone message for me. "Are you planning on taking over the reception desk with that little guy? Plan on learning Excel?" "No, I couldn't do your job. Seriously. Plus, that's not what this little guy's for," I say pointing to the newly unboxed E31 SFF on my table. "I'm running a job on it." "Well, it must be a small job then," she says, snorting a guffaw as she flits her way out of my office muttering, "Koosh has a tiny tower, ha!" "I'll show you! I'll show you all!" Can't be too mad at her. She still dots the "I" in Dariush with a heart. WHAT'S IT GOT As far as specs go, this little 16-pound, 13 ¼-inch-x-14½-inch-x-4-inch puppy has the heart of a wolf, so my expectations are high for the diminutive workstation. Having reviewed my fair share of workstation laptops, I have an appreciation for power in compact packages. But for a tiny tower, I figured there have to be some compromises? For example, laptop CPUs are underpowered compared to towers, and render times and processing capacity reflect this in general. But sporting a Xeon e3-1230v2 3.2GHz workstation class CPU and 8GB of DDR3 memory, the Lenovo rivals big tower performance. After an initial set up, I was eager to get it rendering on some work to burn it in for a solid week before hammering on it with benchmarks and more random punishment... turn it on and let it go on Post • May 2013 Post0513_048-ReviewLenovoRAV4FINALREAD.indd 48 VRay renders for days on end. I figured the heat build-up inside this small case packed with high-grade components would have the fans sounding like a windstorm inside a telephone booth, at least after a while, but that never happened. I was very excited about the E31 SFF being as quiet as it was; librarians would approve. Now the small case and 240W power supply does limit you away from the higherend video cards, but I don't think that's where the charm of this box comes from. Its render times (which peg the CPU and memory system) handily beat out my last-generation Sandy Bridge i7-based home-built rig. The Lenovo was turning in VRay frames about 35 percent faster, which made me quite happy. This fact, in addition to it's small size and quiet nature, made the E31 SFF my favorite deskside attendant. As a secondary system, this thing absolutely rocks. Taking on render duties alongside my big rig was a tremendous help in my workflow, and it stayed completely out of the way. No more banging my knee on a second tower jammed under my desk. And that's not where the usefulness stopped. On more than one occasion during my long-term loan from Lenovo, I needed to pop open a scene on the E31 SFF to make edits. This quickly led me to working hours on end on the Lenovo, sometimes without even realizing that I wasn't on my monster box. In comparison, my home-built system sports an Nvidia Quadro 5000 video card, a serious monster for 3D. Due to the size limitations, the E31 SFF houses an Nvidia 600 card, which, while pales in comparison to the Quadro 5000, is no slouch in any regard, especially for this small of a form factor. My large datasets were very workable on the Lenovo, which gave me the confidence to know that this little guy would indeed make for a great primary machine as well, though I would strongly suggest 16GB of memory or more. Students, hobbyists and professionals would all benefit from the fast responsiveness packed into the tiny, unobtrusive case. Plus, the E31 SFF is pretty configurable on the Lenovo Website. It can accommodate up to 32GB of DDR3 memory, up to two hard drives (I recommend SSDs!!), and an optical drive. The case has easy access USB and audio ports up front and plenty of ports in the back, including a Gigabit Ethernet port, four USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports. While you won't be opening the case and VITAL STATS PRODUCT: Lenovo's E31 SFF workstation WEBSITE: PRICE: Starts at $679 · small form factor · includes an Nvidia 600 card ·impressive render times slamming a ton more gear inside, you have a lot of upgrade options using USB, though eSata would have also been a good addition. However, I'm sure you can add in a half-height PCI Express card to add functionality. Even though I didn't expect the Lenovo E31 SFF to blow me away in terms of graphics power, I was very pleasantly surprised by its rendering capacity and its workability in my 3D scenes. The Quadro 600 inside makes most scenes easy to work with; making this is an entry- to mid-level production machine perfect for reasonably-sized scenes. Adding SSD drives and an external eSata RAID array would make this a serious contender for a good composite workstation as well, though mine was not equipped that way. FINAL THOUGHTS All in all, I was very happy with the E31 SFF while I had it. And though it wouldn't replace my big box and its Quadro 5000 anytime soon, it was a big help in my overall workflow, allowing me to offload a lot of processing and rendering, and in a good number of cases, taking on scene management duties as my primary box. I would easily recommend the E31 SFF to anyone looking to add power to his or her current workflow (just add in more RAM); it's small and unobtrusive, quiet and pretty powerful. I'd even say that I'd rather see the E31SFF used in my classrooms to replace the iMacs for the students to use on my unreasonable homework assignments. 5/2/13 4:27 PM

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