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Lenovo ThinkStation S20 Workstation Review
Date: Sep 28, 2009
Author: Shane Unrein
Introduction, Features and Specs

IBM has been a name synonymous with computers and technology for nearly 30 years. That point alone leaves little doubt as to why Lenovo moved to acquire IBM’s Personal Computing Division in 2004. When the acquisition was finalized in 2005, Lenovo instantly became a global PC leader. Over the past four years, Lenovo has worked hard to become a household name. With slick product lines, like the IdeaPad, ThinkPad and the IdeaCentre, that goal is gradually becoming a reality.

One place where Lenovo probably hasn’t had to work quite as hard at making inroads, is the corporate environment. As IBM began phasing out its products, its business customers found a natural replacement in Lenovo, especially since Lenovo basically just took over IBM’s product lines. Now, Lenovo is trying to innovate and take things further. IBM’s notebooks were known for being durable, solid performers, and from what we’ve seen, Lenovo has maintained that legacy. Additionally, IBM’s workstations were known for being excellent, no-frills powerhouses. In this product spotlight, we'll see if Lenovo is successfully carrying on that tradition as well.

To that end, we have a Lenovo workstation – the ThinkStation S20 - on our bench for some testing. Some of you may be wondering what a “workstation” really is. Well, it’s a term more commonly used in a business environment, especially one in which CAD/CAM design, 3D rendering or high performance computing occurs, and it basically just refers to a higher-end desktop or laptop. In the environments we’ve worked in, we’ve heard workstations referred as high-end desktops or laptops, tech PCs, and technical workstations. In this context, workstations (at least the desktop variety) are frequently comprised of components you typically see in servers. In particular, the motherboards, memory and processors are often server class. It is also not uncommon to find workstations sporting high-end storage controllers and hard drives. The ThinkStation S20 we are evaluating today sports a 2.93GHz Intel Xeon W3540 processor, 4GB ECC DDR3 memory, a 500GB SATA hard drive, and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 video card. This Lenovo workstation is definitely packing some serious horsepower. Keep reading to see just how well this powerhouse performs.

Lenovo ThinkStation S20
Specifications and Features
Intel Xeon W3540 Processor (2.93GHz 1066MHz 8MB L2) - 130W
Nehalem-EN Architecture

Operating System
Windows Vista Business 64-bit


Graphics Card
NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 192-core (1.5GB DVI + DP + ST)

Motherboard / Chipset
Intel 36S Motherboard / X58 - ICH10R

Integrated Gigabit Ethernet LAN


Integrated Audio

Hard Drive
500GB 7,200RPM SATA Hard Drive

Optical Drive
Lenovo 16x DVD +/- RW Dual Layer

Expansion Slots
2 x PCIe x16 slot
1 x PCIe x4 slot
1 x PCIe x1 slot
1 x PCI slot

Rear Panel I/O
1 eSATA port
8 USB 2.0
1 serial port
1 optical S/PDIF-out port
1 optical S/PDIF-in port
1 RJ45 LAN port
Center/subwoofer, rear R/L and side R/L jacks
Line-in, line-out (front R/L) and mic-in jacks
3 x 3.5" Internal Bays
2 x 5.25" External Bays
1 x 3.5" External Bay

Power Supply

625W Power Supply


  • Ergonomic removable top handle
  • Front-access media ports with illuminated icons and a recessed power button
  • Superior cable management
  • Premium side cover latch for easy access to internal components
  • Innovative thermal design with optimized fan placement, for a cooler, quieter, more reliable PC
  • All ThinkStation models are rack-mountable
  • ISV certified
  • More environmentally friendly: now EPEAT Gold qualified, with up to 26% post-consumer recycled plastics
  • GREENGUARD certified
  • Included Accessories and Extras
    Driver CD
    Power cord
    ThinkStation Safety and Warranty Guide
    Quick Setup Guide
    Lenovo Preferred Pro USB Full Size Keyboard
    Lenovo Optical Wheel Mouse - USB Primax 400 DPI

    Warranty And Support
    3 Year Limited Onsite Warranty

    Price: $3,645 USD (as configured here)

    Smooth Creations Logo

    If you took the time to scan through the specs and features above, you may have noticed that hefty $3,645 price tag on our test S20. First off, it's important to realize that the S20 workstation starts at around $1,000, which means our evaluation unit has some big-time upgrades. And secondly, workstations typically carry higher price tags when compared to standard business desktops. Just looking at a couple of the individual components will shed some light on the matter. The Intel Xeon W3540 CPU (Intel Xeon Nehalem-EN "Bloomfield" core) carries a $550 street price, while the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 video card costs about $1500.  Whether or not components like these are worth their premium prices will have to be something you determine for yourself and will no doubt be dependent upon your budget, scope of work you do and your overall usage model.

    Intel Nehalem-base Xeon W3540 Quad-Core Processor
    The heart of the Lenovo ThinkStation S20

    Another fact we want you to be aware of is that Lenovo also sells two-socket workstations under the D20 name (the "S" in S20 is for single, and the "D" in D20 is for dual, as in dual socket). If you are making use of applications that can take advantage of multiple cores, then it may be worth stepping up to a D20. Keep in mind, though, that the Xeon W3540 in our evaluation S20 is a quad-core CPU with Hyper-Threading, which means it has 8 effective cores.  Xeon 5500 series chips support multi-socket installations and as such can scale to an even higher number of physical and logical cores for intensively multithreaded applications.

    Closer Look at the S20

    The Lenovo ThinkStation S20 arrives like any other system - safely tucked in a cardboard box, surrounded by styrofoam for protection. The S20 feels solid and is heavy but not surprisingly so. Just like the Lenovo ThinkStation S10 and IBM workstations that came before it, the S20 is a plain black box with a very simple, clean, corporate and industrial "feel" to it. While some people may want more flare in their design, many others prefer the understated and practical approach that Lenovo takes with its business-oriented devices. Right off the bat, you can see evidence of Lenovo's practical approach with that big handle on the top, front of the case. It is removable, but you'll be glad it's there when you have to move the machine.

    Just as you might expect, Lenovo offers standard, no-frills peripherals to go with its workstations. For an extra fee, you can get the Lenovo keyboard and mouse shown below. Both are very capable devices. In addition to the mouse and keyboard, Lenovo also includes a power cord, a couple of guides/manuals, and a driver CD.

    Gaining access to the S20's insides is very simple thanks to the cleverly-designed side panel, which by the way is lockable. If it's unlocked, all you have to do is pull up on the blue handle and then pull the panel off. We wish other manufacturers made their cases this easy to get into to. This is the type of design that on-site field technicians really appreciate. Tool-less design makes working on machines easier and faster, which means less downtime for end-users. Another thoughtful inclusion by Lenovo is the "System Service Information" diagram on the inside of the side panel. This shows the layout of the motherboard, lists Lenovo's support web site URL and includes a scannable barcode.

    Once you've opened up the S20, you get a good look at the clean layout and decent effort at cable management. We've definitely seen more immaculate and "stealthy" wiring jobs, but going overboard in this case would make fixing problems take longer. You can also see the simple-to-use hard drive rack-mounting system on the right in the second picture below. The third image shows the tool-less 5.25" bay in action.

    At the back of the S20, you can see the provided rear I/O options: 1 eSATA port, 8 USB 2.0 ports, 1 serial port, 1 SPDIF in, 1 SPDIF out, 1 RJ45 LAN jack, and 6 analog audio jacks.
    Test Systems & SANDRA Performance

    HotHardware's Test Systems
    General specifications

    Lenovo ThinkStation S20
    Intel Xeon W3540 (2.93GHz)
    4GB ECC DDR3
    NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800
    500GB SATA 7200rpm
    Windows Vista Business 64-bit

    Comparison Systems for SANDRA, PCMark Vantage, 3DMark06, Cinebench

    System 1:
    iBuyPower Gamer Paladin F970
    Intel Core i7 965 (3.2GHz)
    Asus P6T Deluxe V2 Intel X58 Chipset Motherboard
    12GB Corsair DDR3-1333 (2GB x 6)
    NVIDIA GeForce GTX 295
    128GB 2.5-inch SATA MLC SSD
    1TB Serial-ATA-II 7200rpm
    Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit

    System 4:
    Dell XPS 730x H2C
    Intel Core i7 Extreme i7-965 (3.2GHz @ 3.73GHz)
    Intel X58 Express
    6GB tri-channel DDR3 at 1066MHz (3 x 2GB DIMM)
    NVIDIA GeForce GTX 280 1024MB
    2x300GB Western Digital Velociraptor 10,000RPM SATA
    Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit

    System 2:
    Velocity Micro Edge Z55
    Intel Core i7 920 (OC to 2.93GHz)
    Intel "Smackover" DX58SO
    6GB Corsair DDR3-1333 (3 x 2048)
    2 x 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4850 CF
    750GB Hitachi 7200rpm HD
    Windows Vista Home Premium x64

    System 5:
    Intel Systems (non-gaming tests)
    Core i7 Extreme 965 (3.2GHz - Quad-Core)
    Core i7 940 (2.93GHz - Quad-Core)
    Core i7 920 (2.66GHz - Dual-Core)
    Intel DX58SO
    3 x 1GB Qimonda DDR3-1066
    GeForce GTX 280
    On-Board Ethernet
    On-board Audio
    WD150 "Raptor" 10k RPM HD
    Windows Vista Ultimate

    System 3:
    Smooth Creations LANShark Extreme
    Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 (3GHz @ 3.33GHz - Quad-Core)
    Intel P45 Express
    8GB Kingston HyperX DDR2 800MHz
    Diamond Radeon HD 4870 X2 2048MB
    300GB Western Digital Velociraptor 10,000 RPM SATA
    Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit

    Comparison System for SPECViewPerf, OpenGL tests, GPGPU tests

    Intel System
    Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6850 (3.0 GHz) Quad Core
    4GB Kingston DDR2-800
    eVGA nForce 680i SLI LT Motherboard
    NVIDIA QuadroFX 4800 1.5GB
    NVIDIA QuadroFX 5600 1.5GB
    NVIDIA QuadroFX 3700 512MB
    NVIDIA QuadroFX 1700 512MB
    ATI FireGL V8700 1GB
    ATI FireGL V8650 2GB
    ATI FireGL V8600 1GB
    On-Board Ethernet
    On-board Audio
    74GB WD "Raptor" 10k RPM HD
    Windows XP Pro 32-bit

    Let's start our S20 evaluation by examining the test results from SiSoftware's SANDRA benchmarking suite.

    SiSoftware SANDRA
    Synthetic Benchmarks

    We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA suite on the test systems (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multi-Media, and Memory).

    The S20 falls in line with expectations in the two processor tests, but the memory test may make you raise an eyebrow. Like the Velocity Micro and iBUYPOWER systems, the S20 features a motherboard and processor that supports triple-channel memory. However, Lenovo only populated two of the S20's six DIMM slots, which explains why it falls short of the performance offered by these other two Nehalem-based machines. In many real-world instances, triple channel configurations don't offer much of an advantage over dual channel ones, but we'd still configure a 64-bit PC like this with at least 6GB of memory in triple-channel mode.

    PCMark Vantage Performance

    For our next round of benchmarks, we ran the complete Futuremark PCMark Vantage test suite. This component of our testing provides a solid assessment of a system's overall performance.

    "The PCMark Suite is a collection of various single- and multi-threaded CPU, Graphics, and HDD test sets with the focus on Windows Vista application tests. Tests have been selected to represent a subset of the individual Windows Vista Consumer scenarios. The PCMark Suite includes CPU, Graphics, Hard Disk Drive (HDD), and a subset of Consumer Suite tests."

    Futuremark PCMark Vantage
    Simulated Application Performance

    In some cases, the S20 performs quite well against the other test systems. In other cases, it doesn't quite keep up, though clearly these are more standard, business-class and multimedia orientated workloads put forth in our PCMark Vantage testing.  We'll get into more workstation/professional class workloads in the pages ahead.

    Cinebench & 3DMark06 CPU Performance

    Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Maxon's Cinema 4D, a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and others. This benchmark is very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.

    Cinebench R10
    3D Rendering

    This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. Each test system’s final scores to render the scene are represented below.

    Please Note: The Lenovo ThinkStation S20, Gamer Paladin F970, Velocity Micro Edge Z55, and Dell XPS 730x H2C systems in this test are running 64-bit Windows Vista installations and the 64-bit version of this test, as that is how they were configured from their respective factories. The other Core i7 reference systems are running Windows Vista 32-bit and the 32-bit version of the benchmark.

    As you can see, the S20 offers great performance in Cinebench, especially when all the CPU cores get in on the action. The S20's results are right in line with the overclocked Velocity Micro Z55.

    Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU Testing
    Synthetic DirectX Gaming

    3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded DirectX gaming metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are processed with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance. Calculations that are normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the CPU for processing and rendering. The frame-rate generated in each test is used to determine the final score.

    The S20's results are right in line with what we expected in 3DMark06's CPU test, since processor core speed and number of cores are the most influential factors in this test.

    SPECViewPerf 10 Performance

    Before we dive into the numbers, here's a quick snippet of the next benchmark suite we'll step you though; SPECViewperf 10, courtesy of spec.org:

    "The SPECopc project group's SPECviewperf 10 is totally new performance evaluation software. In addition to features found in previous versions, it now provides the ability to compare performance of systems running in higher-quality graphics modes that use full-scene anti-aliasing, and measures how effectively graphics subsystems scale when running multithreaded graphics content. Since the SPECviewperf source and binaries have been upgraded to support changes, no comparisons should be made between past results and current results for viewsets running under SPECviewperf 10.  SPECviewperf 10 requires OpenGL 1.5 and a minimum of 1GB of system memory. It currently supports Windows 32/64."

    SPECViewPerf 10
    Workstation OpenGL Performance - www.spec.org

    Thanks to its Quadro FX 4800, the S20 performs at the top of the class in the first three Viewperf tests - 3dsmax, Catia and Ensight. For some reason, though, it falls a bit short in the OpenGL-based Maya test.

    SPECViewPerf 10 Performance (cont'd)

    SPECViewPerf 10
    Workstation OpenGL Performance - www.spec.org

    SolidWorks SW-02

    Once again, the S20 totally shines in the first three tests on this page. In the ugnx test, the S20 performs very similarly to the other system with the Quadro FX 4800, but the ATI FireGL cards are obviously more optimized for this workload as they mop the floor with the NVIDIA cards.

    GPGPU Processing Performance

    General Purpose GPU Processing
    GPU-Quant - www.gpucomputing.eu

    Since these tests focus on the GPU, we expected the S20 to post numbers nearly identical to those of the other configuration sporting the Quadro FX 4800. That is exactly what our results show and it handily out-paces all but our FireGL V8700 series card driven test system.

    GPGPU Processing Performance (cont'd)

    General Purpose GPU Processing
    GPU-Quant - www.gpucomputing.eu

    We had the same expectations with these GPGPU tests as with the Black-Scholes tests on the previous page, but our expectations were apparently wrong this time. Somehow, the S20 and its Quadro FX 4800 blow away the rest of the pack in all three of these tests.

    OpenGL Benchmark Performance

    Soft Shadows OpenGL Benchmark

    Since this benchmark is designed to test the OpenGL capabilities of a system, particularly the video card, we expected the S20 to perform on par with the other Quadro FX 4800 configuration. As you can see, the S20 posted a result that puts it right in that neighborhood. In this case, the Quadro FX 4800 and the ThinkStation S20 easily exceeds all the other cards tested.

    FurMark OpenGL Benchmark

    Once again, we expected the S20 to perform like the Quadro FX 4800 comparison system, and it did just that.  These tests are more minimally affected by host CPU throughput.

    Performance Summary & Final Thoughts

    Performance Summary: For the most part, the Lenovo ThinkStation S2 workstation performance matched our expectations. Thanks to its quad-core 2.93GHz, Hyper-Threaded Intel Xeon processor, it offers excellent CPU bandwidth. Add to that the Quadro FX 4800 GPU, and you also get a ton of pixel processing power, as our pro graphics-oriented benchmarks demonstrated.

    If you are not familiar with workstations, then you are probably still balking a bit at the price tag of the ThinkStation S20. Sure, $3,645 is a lot of money, but it is relatively competitive to the price you'd pay at Dell or HP for a workstation based on a similar component build. The simple fact is that workstations, as our test system was configured here ($1500 graphics sub-system and all), aren't cheap. Thanks to its new Intel Nehalem-based Xeon processor, ECC memory, high-end Intel workstation motherboard and professional series graphics card, the cost of its primary components stack up quickly. Still, when 3D rendering or CAD/CAM design needs to get done, as the saying goes, you'll want the right tools that are fit for the job. Often, that means looking at a machine like the Lenovo ThinkStation S20.

    If OpenGL performance is essential to your company's daily thoughput, the S20 offers a lot to be happy about. If you don't need quite the level of performance offered by our test unit, you can drop down a level or two on the graphics card and save a substantial sum. Regardless of how you configure it, we're sure many of you can appreciate the simple, understated appearance and mostly tool-less internal design. If that's not enough to make you check out the S20, then the 3-year warranty and surprisingly quiet operation might help. If you are in search of a new workstation for yourself or your company, we think it makes sense to add the Lenovo ThinkStation S20 to your list of considerations.

    •  Great performance
    •  3-year warranty
    •  Practical, inconspicuous external design
    •  Easy, mostly tool-less internal design
    •  Quiet
    •  Expensive (but no more so than comparable workstations)
    •  Design could be too plain for some people

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