Workstations: Which one is the best one for your needs?

| November 10, 2010 | (11)
Intel 80GB SSD

The Intel 80GB SSD, featured in the $2500 Workstation.

After doing some Updates to the $500 and $1250 Workstations yesterday, today I’ll be doing a comparison of the $500, $1250 and $2500 Workstation Builds, to help you figure out which one is the best one for you.

Obviously, performance goes up as you go from the $500 Workstation to the $1250 and from the $1250 to the $2500 Workstation.

The question is: How much does it go up and is it worth it for your needs?

I’ll get started with a comparison of all the components in each build and will follow up with my recommendations on which Workstation to pick based on your work.

Hardware Comparison: $500 Workstation V.S. $1250 Workstation V.S. $2500 Workstation:

CPU

  • The $500 Workstation is equipped with the Athlon II X4 640, which can be upgraded to either the Phenom II X4 965 3.4GHz Quad-Core or the Phenom II X6 1090T 3.2GHz Six-Core.
  • The $1250 Workstation is equipped with the Core i7 950 3.06GHz Quad-Core, which can be upgraded to either the Core i7 970 3.2GHz Six-Core or the Core i7-980X 3.33GHz Six-Core.
  • The $2500 Workstation is equipped with two Intel Xeon E5620 2.4GHz Quad-Core, which can be upgraded all the way up to two Intel Xeon X5670 2.93GHz Six-Core.
  • The i7 950 is faster by approximately 40% (X264 HD Encoding), 70% (Cinebench Multi-Threaded), ~50% (3dsmax) compared to the Athlon II X4 640.
  • The Phenom II X6 1090T (Top upgrade for the $500 Workstation) closes up the gap, but the i7 950 remains faster on average, according to AnandTech.
  • Of course, if you upgrade the CPU of the $1250 Workstation to the Core i7-980X, it trounces even the Phenom II X6 1090T, as seen here.

Data is hard to by for Xeon CPUs (from the $2500 Workstation), so I’ll have to use theoretical performance to do some comparison:

  • On paper, the Xeon CPUs in the $2500 Workstation are a tad faster clock-for-clock compared to the i7 950, thanks to their larger cache.
  • By default, the $1250 Workstation offers 12.24GHz of computing power (i7 950 3.06GHz x 4), while the $2500 Workstation offers 19.2Ghz of computing power (2x Xeon E5620 2.4GHz Quad-Core).
  • Upgrading the $1250 Workstation with the i7 980X (6 cores at 3.33GHz = 19.98GHz) will offer slightly more power, making this an interesting alternative, since that combo brings the cost of the $1250 Workstation up to $1950 ($1245 + $705 CPU Upgrade), resulting in a Workstation that costs less and offers more CPU processing power.
  • Then again, keep in mind that the $2500 Workstation CPUs can also be upgraded. If you go with two Intel Xeon X5650 (least expensive Xeon 6-core: 2x 6 cores x 2.66GHz), you get 31.92GHz of CPU processing power.
  • Go with the fastest CPUs available for the $2500 Workstation (Two Intel Xeon X5670 Six-Core 2.93GHz) and you get a whooping 35.16GHz of processing power.

Motherboard

  • The $500 Workstation is equipped with the ASUS M4A88TD-V EVO AM3 AMD 880G HDMI SATA6Gb/s USB3.0 ATX, which features SATA 6.0Gb/s, USB 3.0 as well as an integrated video card. It is a very reliable board with a lot of features given its relatively low price (For a workstation).
  • The $1250 Workstation is equipped with the ASUS Sabertooth X58 LGA 1366 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0, which also SATA 6.0Gb/s, USB 3.0, as well as ceramic-coating on its heatsinks, to provide better heat dissipation, “TUF” Capacitors, Chokes and MOSFETS, which are certified by military standard to ensure greater durability and best of all, a 5 years warranty.
  • The $2500 Workstation is equipped with an ASUS Z8NA-D6C Dual LGA 1366 ATX, which is an amazing board in my opinion because it supports two CPUs while using the ATX format and requiring only one 8-pin EPS power connector, while being priced $270. This means that you can use a standard mid-tower case, as well as a standard power supply, instead of having to use more expensive “server-class” parts.

RAM

  • The $500 Workstation is equipped with 4GB, which can be upgraded to either 8GB or 16GB.
  • The $1250 Workstation is equipped with 12GB, which can be upgraded to 24GB.
  • The $2500 Workstation is equipped with 24GB by default.

More RAM means that you can have more programs and files open at once before running out of memory and without having to resolve to the relatively slow hard drive(s) or SSD. Of course, you can easily upgrade to have more RAM, although the $500 Workstation is “limited” to a maximum of 16GB. Also, remember that Windows 7 home premium only supports up to 16GB.

Video Card

  • The $500 Workstation is equipped with an Integrated Radeon HD 4250 128MB SidePort Memory, capable of handling two displays.
  • The $1250 Workstation is equipped with a Radeon HD 5570 1GB, capable of handling two displays per default and three with an adapter (~$25)
  • The $2500 Workstation is equipped with a Nvidia Quadro 600 1GB, capable of handling two displays.

The $500 Workstation video card is fine for simple jobs, but do not accelerate much, while the Radeon HD 5570 in the $1250 Workstation is powerful enough and has plenty enough memory (1GB) to help accelerate programs UI, video decoding and the like. It’s a nice “basic” video card, good enough for many applications that can use such a card to speed up things. Finally, the Quadro 600 1GB found in the $2500 Workstation is also powerful enough and has plenty enough memory (1GB) to help accelerate programs UI, video decoding and the like, on top of being powerful/optimized enough to take care of some basic 3D rendering, autocad and the like.

Storage

  • The $500 Workstation is equipped with a single Samsung 500GB hard drive.
  • The $1250 Workstation is equipped with four SAMSUNG Spinpoint F3 500GB SATA in RAID 10. Total Capacity: 1TB.
  • The $2500 Workstation is equipped with an Intel 80GB SSD and four SAMSUNG Spinpoint F3 500GB SATA in RAID 10.

Upgrading from the $500 to $1250 build brings a nice performance improvement, as well as redundancy, while moving up to the $2500 Workstation greatly improve performance by including a SSD. Nothing prevents you from upgrading the storage in any of the three builds though.

Optical Drive

All three builds are equipped with the same main recommendation and offer the same upgrade options.

Power Supply

  • The $500 Workstation is equipped with a SeaSonic S12II 520W 80 PLUS BRONZE Certified.
  • The $1250 Workstation is equipped with a SeaSonic S12II 620W 80 PLUS BRONZE Certified.
  • The $2500 Workstation is equipped with a CORSAIR 850W 80 PLUS SILVER Certified Modular.

Of course, the recommendations for the power supply are based on the power requirements of the build itself. While the $500 and $1250 Workstation are equipped with “only” an high-quality, reliable and efficient power supply, the $2500 Workstation takes it up two notches higher, by having a more efficient power supply that’s also modular. Once again, upgrading is possible in all three builds.

Case

  • The $500 Workstation is equipped with an Antec Three Hundred Illusion.
  • The $1250 Workstation is equipped with a NZXT Phantom PHAN-001BK.
  • The $2500 Workstation is equipped with a Corsair Graphite Series 600T.

All three cases feature fan speed adjustment options, with the Antec having a switch attached to every fan, meaning that you have to open your case to adjust the fans speed, the NZXT features individual fan control on top of the case, while the Corsair Graphite Series 600T features a knob that controls all fans.

While the Antec Three Hundred Illusion is fairly basic inside, when it comes to wire management and the like, both the NZXT Phantom and Corsair 600T excel in that domain. Quite frankly, you could switch cases, as in use the Corsair 600T in the $1250 build and the NZXT Phantom in the $2500 build and you’d get similar results.

Cooling

  • The $500 Workstation is equipped with the stock AMD CPU Cooler. It’s not the best, it’s not the most silent, but it’s included with the CPU and it does the job of keeping the CPU at safe temperatures.
  • The $1250 Workstation is equipped with a ZALMAN CNPS10X Performa CPU Cooler. This is a great cooler, that’s also affordable. It will keep the CPU cool, without sounding like a jet engine.
  • The $2500 Workstation is equipped with two Supermicro SNK-P0040AP4 Xeon 4U CPU Coolers. Going with a server motherboard means using server class CPU Coolers. The Supermicro SNK-P0040AP4 is not as good as say the Zalman Performa, but it is far better than a stock cooler and it will keep the Xeons cool, even after hours and hours of intensive work.

Sound

Both the $500 and $1250 Workstations feature integrated sound cards, while the $2500 Workstation comes with a dedicated sound. Of course, in any case, you can easily upgrade the sound card to one that fits your needs better,

Network

Both the $500 and $1250 Workstations feature an integrated LAN port, while the $2500 Workstation comes with two of them. You can also easily install a wireless USB or card to get access to your wireless network.

Which Workstation and/or upgrades do you need for your apps?

The following applications will have no trouble running on the $500 Workstation and/or require the following upgrades:

  • Microsoft Office
  • Microsoft Project and Office Pro
  • Camtasia
  • Sound Forge: Consider a dedicated sound card.
  • Visual Studio: Consider a RAID 10 array, an hybrid HDD/SSD or a SSD if you work with large files that read/write a lot to the disk. A basic video card (Radeon 5550, 5770, 4670X2 or Geforce GTS 250, depending on your monitors requirements.) will help speed up the UI and free the CPU from some tasks.
  • Sage Timberline Office: Go with Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate; apparently the Home Premium edition will give you problems with networking.
  • Rhino3D: A basic video card (Radeon 5550, 5770, 4670X2 or Geforce GTS 250, depending on your monitors requirements.) will help speed up the UI and free the CPU from some tasks.
  • CorelDRAW Premium Suite X5: A basic video card (Radeon 5550, 5770, 4670X2 or Geforce GTS 250, depending on your monitors requirements.) is recommended for video editing.
  • GPGPU, F@H, SETI, GPUGRID, BOINC, etc.: These programs will run best on a powerful GPU. Considering the price point of this build, I recommend getting a Geforce GTX 460 768MB, a card that offers performance unheard of before at its $170 price point.

The following applications will have no trouble running on the $1250 Workstation and/or require the following upgrades:

  • Microsoft Office
  • Microsoft Project and Office Pro
  • Camtasia
  • Sound Forge: Consider a dedicated sound card.
  • Visual Studio
  • Sage Timberline Office: Go with Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate; apparently the Home Premium edition will give you problems with networking.
  • Rhino3D
  • CorelDRAW Premium Suite X5
    Pinnacle Studio 12 and Sony Vegas 9/Pro
    Cinema 4D: While it will run just fine with the $1250 Workstation as it is, this is an application which scales very well when you add performance to your PC, meaning that the better that are your parts, the faster that your renderings will be completed. A Firepro/Quadro will greatly improve performance, so will a Core i7 980X. Keep in mind that performance will benefit even more by going with the $2500 Workstation.
  • GPGPU, F@H, SETI, GPUGRID, BOINC, etc.: These programs will run best on a powerful GPU. Considering the price point of this build, I recommend getting either a Geforce GTX 460 768MB, a card that offers performance unheard of before at its $170 price point or a Sapphire Vapor-X Radeon HD 5870 1GB, a powerful video card that keeps power consumption, temperatures and noise at a reasonable level. Gaming PCs are also an excellent alternative, if top-notch reliability isn’t as crucial.

The following applications will have no trouble running on the $2500 Workstation and/or require the following upgrades:

  • Microsoft Office
  • Microsoft Project and Office Pro
  • Camtasia
  • Sound Forge: Consider a sound card that fits your needs.
  • Visual Studio
  • Sage Timberline Office: Go with Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate; apparently the Home Premium edition will give you problems with networking.
  • Rhino3D
  • CorelDRAW Premium Suite X5
  • Pinnacle Studio 12 and Sony Vegas 9/Pro
  • Cinema 4D: While it will run just fine with the $2500 Workstation as it is, this is an application which scales very well when you add performance to your PC, meaning that the better that are your parts, the faster that your renderings will be completed. A faster Quadro card will improve performance and so will faster CPUs, especially the 6-core variants.
  • Adobe Applications: Creative Suite 5 Master Collection, Photoshop, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Lightroom, Illustator, Indesign, Bridge, Bibble, Flash, Dreamweaver, etc.: If you have intensive work that brings a modern (Quad-Core and higher) PC that its knees, consider faster CPUs. Once again, the faster that your CPUs are, the faster that the rendering/work will complete.
  • Nvidia CUDA: Consider at least a Quadro 2000 for better performance. The higher-end, the more performance that you’ll get.
  • Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 5.0 and Autocad programs: For Autocad programs, you’ll want to upgrade to a faster Nvidia Quadro card to improve performance. While the Quadro 600 can handle some light workloads, it is not recommended if 3D modeling and Autocad is what you’ll mainly use this Workstation for.

The following applications require upgrades:

The following apps will greatly benefit from additional CPU processing power, so my recommendation would be to get at the very least the $500 Workstation and upgrading the CPU to at least a Phenom II X4 965 or even better, the Phenom II X6 1075T. For even better performance, consider the $1250 Workstation with an Intel 6-core CPU upgrade or the $2500 Workstation with two CPUs.

  • Pinnacle Studio 12 and Sony Vegas 9/Pro: A dedicated video card is a must, a basic video card (Radeon 5550, 5770, 4670X2 or Geforce GTS 250, depending on your monitors requirements.) will do.
  • Cinema 4D: A dedicated video card is a must and this is an application which scales very well when you add performance to your PC, meaning that the better that are your parts, the faster that your renderings will be completed. I’d go with a Geforce GTX 460 768MB (Consumer video card) or a Radeon Firepro V5800 (Professional video card) as a baseline for good performance at a good price. I also recommend upgrading the CPU to at least a Phenom II X4 965 or even better, the Phenom II X6 1075T. However, keep in mind that performance will benefit even more by going with the $1250 Workstation.
  • Nvidia CUDA: This requires a Nvidia video card.
  • Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 5.0 and Autocad programs: For Autocad programs, you’ll want a professional level video card, such as AMD Firepro or Nvidia Quadro.

Adobe Applications: Creative Suite 5 Master Collection, Photoshop, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Lightroom, Illustator, Indesign, Bridge, Bibble, Flash, Dreamweaver, etc.

There are a lot of people out there who use those applications, in various ways. If anything, you’re the one who’s using your workstation and who knows the best how demanding (or not) your work is.

My point being that you should know that, for example, working with very large images (High-MP RAW, 16-bit, Hundred of MBs or several GBs each) will obviously be much more demanding than working with smaller pictures (10-15MBs each from an entry-level DSLR for example). I say pictures here, but this also applies in the same way to video, 3D, designing, modeling, etc.

That said, while I will do my best to make “generic” recommendations based on various scenarios, I recommend that you use your own work experience/judgment (how demanding it is on your PC) to make your decision. I’ll also be available to answer your questions in the comment section below this article.

Adobe Applications: Let’s get started:

With the $500 Workstation:
It will do the job with a single active application, with a few medium or several small file(s). For example, with Photoshop, expect to be capable of handling up to twenty 10-15MB open pictures at once or so before your PC will start slowing down. Upgrading the RAM to 8GB is highly recommended if you intend to work with/open more files at once than the example above, say several (10-15) medium files or up to 40-60 small files. Upgrading to 16GB of RAM will help you handle even more files.

Now, while more RAM will help you keep your PC running smooth with many files open, it won’t speed up its processing speed while you’re actually working on files. This is where your CPU comes in: The faster that it is, the faster that your task will be rendered/completed/etc. I highly recommend upgrading the CPU to the X4 965, as it will provide a ~20% performance improvement over the X4 640. Six-Core CPU options are to avoid: They provide very little improvement over the X4 965.

For two or more applications running simultaneously, you’ll want to upgrade the CPU to the X4 965 and you’ll at least 8GB of RAM, 16GB if you tend work with a lot of small files or larger files. However, keep in mind that if do work on both applications at the same time (i.e. you let one app do its work in the background while you work on another app), this will most likely cause slowdowns, even with the X4 965. I recommend going with the $1250 Workstation to handle several applications at once for optimal performance.

Several apps (i.e Premiere Pro CS5, After Effects and Photoshop) support Nvidia CUDA hardware acceleration; consider a Nvidia Geforce or Quadro Video Card to improve performance.

With the $1250 Workstation:
As it is without upgrades, it is capable of handling a few active Adobe application, with tons (100+) of small files, many (30-40) medium or several (10-15) large file(s).

For example, with Photoshop, expect to be capable of handling up to sixty 10-15MB open pictures at once or so before your PC will start slowing down, as it runs out of RAM.

Of course, these are guidelines, the actual number of files that your Workstation will be capable to handle will depend on how heavy/demanding those files are.

RAM upgrade available

If you need to handle more files than that, want to be on the safe side or simply want to be future-proof, you can choose to upgrade and go with 24GB of RAM too.

Processor upgrade available

Now, while more RAM will help you keep your PC running smooth with many files open, it won’t speed up its processing speed while you’re actually working on files. This is where your CPU comes in: The faster that it is, the faster that your task will be rendered/completed/etc.

If you can afford it, I highly recommend upgrading the CPU to the Core i7 980x, as it will provide a ~20% performance improvement over the Core i7 950 and will allow you to run more applications simultaneously.

Also keep in mind that if do work on several applications at the same time (i.e. you let a few apps do their work in the background while you work on another app), this could cause slowdowns, even with the i7 980X. I recommend going with the $2500 Workstation to handle many (5+) applications working at once for the ultimate performance when it comes to a Workstation.

Several apps (i.e Premiere Pro CS5, After Effects and Photoshop) support Nvidia CUDA hardware acceleration; a Nvidia Geforce or Quadro Video Card, instead of the recommended Radeon card, is highly recommended to improve performance.

With the $2500 Workstation:
As it is, the $2500 Workstation will easily handle your workload. For even more performance, faster renderings and the like, consider upgrading the CPUs to either faster models, 6-cores models or both.

Conclusion:

I hope this clears up your questions. If you still have questions regarding which Workstation is best suited to your needs, leave a comment with your questions and I’ll get back to you.

Category: Computer Builds, News, Workstation

About Mathieu Bourgie: HR Founder - Computer expert with 13 years of experience in building, fixing and modifying PCs. Over the years, I’ve developed a passion for PC hardware and now I enjoy helping others build their own PCs! In April 2008, I launched Hardware Revolution and ... Read more at my about page .

  • Vesa Loikas

    Thanks for the wonderful and informative series – and this comparison tops it off!

  • http://twitter.com/Jyuan94 Jason Yuan

    Great detail and thorough and fluent information! Nice Job!

  • bob sauce

    Great work, Matt! Thanks!

  • janbalcom

    Would the cpu passmark benchmark be a better way to estimate theoretical performance comparing the xeons with i7 980? I kind of cringe at adding up cpu speeds, although I do it myself for “quick and dirty” estimates.

  • liveonc

    In Denmark, the office environment places weight on the “exterior” visual experience, as productivity can be lost in a depressing environment. There's also power consumption, as energy savings can reduce the overall cost. As for acoustics, again it's back to the office environment not costing loss in productivity. Some other things that I see being matters to consider are practical issues to do with ergonomics, but also with work related enhancements, such as the BenQ 24″ LED XL2410T which actually is a gaming monitor, but I see that 120Hz, LED backlight, & the ability to adjust the height, tilt, pivot, stroke and swivel, all are features beneficial for an office environment.

    All these things I just mentioned has nothing to do with the “best bang for the buck”, but is it really all that matters?

  • Guest

    Hello,

    I saw this thread over the adobe forum – http://forums.adobe.com/thread/710133?tstart=0 – and through my own research I've seen a plethora of people with a similar problem so I am kind of worried about buying this motherboard – I am not to much of a technical person so most of the tech talk I don't understand so I am wondering is this memory issue resolved through a update and is it likely i'll have to get mushkin memory not to have this issues i was planning on getting ripjaw 12g memory for my editing machine that I am going to build before christmas – just need some insight before I go ahead and make the purchase.

    thanks so much for your help.

  • hendri

    Thanks mat,can i use my leadtek quadro fx1800 with ASUS M4A88TD-V EVO AM3 ?

    • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

      Sure, that shouldn’t be a problem.

  • Vtw722

    what is the life span of these builds?

  • Vtw722

    what is the life span of these builds?

    • Engineergeek

      I have a home built PC that is in its 8th year and another one that is
      in its 5th year. The only thing I have done with the 8 year old PC is
      replace the memory chips that went bad after 6 years. If built out of
      quality parts and kept cool with good CPU cooler and fans in the case,
      the PC can last several years.