Lenovo ThinkStation C20

Lenovo originally designed its compact ThinkStation C20 workstation for financial markets where both the number-crunching power of the system and the amount of space it saves is important. However, the ThinkStation C20, released in June, can also be considered a graphic artist’s tool for running sophisticated software that manipulates 3D graphics and renders video, or as a software development platform.

The ThinkStation C20 was designed to have a substantially small footprint without sacrificing performance. Having the ability to attach up to eight monitors also makes it ideal for tracking several trading boards at the same time – as well as making its transition into a 3D graphics computer a natural.

Lenovo claims that the ThinkStation C20 is the smallest dual-processor workstation currently available. Given its 16.8 x 5.1 x 17.5 in. dimensions, I tend to believe them.

The system is available with a variety of memory, graphics, hard, and optical drive options. The $1,439 base unit comes with a single 2GHz Xeon E5503 processor, 1GB RAM, an NVIDIA Quadro NVS290 (with 256MB) and a 250GB hard drive, usable as a low-end workstation.

The review unit ($6,674) is powered by dual Intel Xeon 5640 processors. Each CPU has four cores delivering 8 virtual threads; it operates at 2.66GHz with a maximum turbo frequency of 3.06GHz. (Intel’s TurboBoost technology allows the processor to scale between base and maximum clock speeds, depending on how many cores are in use and how heavy the workload is on each core.)

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The Lenovo motherboard uses an Intel 5520 chipset. The system also includes 8GB DDR3 RAM, a 500GB hard drive and a DVD R/W optical drive.

What turns the ThinkStation C20 from a simply powerful system to a graphics workstation is the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 graphics card, a high-end solution that contains 192 CUDA parallel processing cores and1.5GB of memory. It’s not part of NVIDIA’s latest line-up of professional graphics cards, but is just one generation behind.

Out of curiosity, I went looking for the prices on a pair of Xeon 5640 processors and a Quadro FX 4800 graphics card — the core components that give this workstation its kick — to see if something like this could be built cheaper. I found that those components alone added up to about $3,000 — making the final cost of the system understandable.

Even though the ThinkStation C20 is compact, it does offer some expansion possibilities. There are two PCI slots and two available 3.5-inch bays for additional internal hard drives. However, because the second processor is tucked in under the DVD R/W drive there are no additional externally accessible 5.25 options.

The front of the case offers two USB 2.0 ports plus microphone and headphone jacks. Around back you’ll find eight more USB 2.0 ports, two S/PDIF digital audio ports and the usual six analog audio outputs.

Testing the C20

To test the ThinkStation C20’s 3D graphics rendering talent, I used a benchmark called SPECviewperf 11, which measures the 3D rendering performance of systems running under OpenGL. The test was developed and distributed by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC). I used a resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels.

The benchmark’s test files, called viewsets, are developed by tracing graphics content from actual applications. Current viewsets represent graphics functionality in Autodesk Maya 2009, CATIA V5 and V6, EnSight 8.2, LightWave 3D 9.6, Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 5.0, Siemens NX 7, SolidWorks 2009 and Siemens Teamcenter Visualization Mockup.

In order to provide a comparison, I also ran that benchmark on a high-end gaming PC from Digital Storm called Black OPS Assassin. The Assassin is equipped with an Intel Core i7 930 2.8GHz (3.2GHz/3.9Ghz overclock) and 6GB of DDR3 RAM, and it carries a pair of NVIDIA GTX 480 graphics cards in SLI configuration. At the time I tested it, the Assassin carried a price of $3,391, about half the price of the C20.

I wanted to know whether a less-expensive gaming platform that had been optimized for graphics could be an alternative for a powerful, but very pricey, business graphics system such as the ThinkStation C20. However, the Assassin beat the ThinkStation C20 only when using the EnSight 8.2 viewset — which deals primarily with wireframes, 2D polygons and textures. Otherwise, the ThinkStation C20 trounced the Assassin across the board.


At $6,674, the ThinkStation C20 obviously demands a premium price — but, as its performance numbers prove, it’s a premium computer. For graphics professionals, the Lenovo ThinkStation C20 could represent a real increase in productivity. You just can’t get that kind of outrageous performance level on the cheap.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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