Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6492/workstation-buyers-guide


I started building computers a decade ago to help make ends meet while I was an undergraduate. For the first time, I built more workstations than gaming boxes, HTPCs, and even budget systems in 2012. Whether this is a reflection of my social network getting older, or fleets of ageing Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad machines finally getting too long in the tooth to be truly serviceable, the rise of mobile gaming, or something else, I'm not entirely sure. But as readers of AnandTech know, the desktop computing segment is shrinking, and one area where the desktop is still undisputed king is in productivity.

Though there are many powerful laptops that can crunch through large datasets and have screens and keyboards that you can actually use for an entire day of work, these systems remain very expensive compared to similarly-performing desktops, and there are no truly mobile devices that can match the raw computational power, capabilities, and flexibility of a desktop. (Yes, I know: Clevo sells some notebooks with desktop CPUs, but we've looked at a couple of those over the years and always came away wanting something more.)

Fortunately for workstation users, 2012 has produced many tangible benefits. While Intel's Sandy Bridge E CPUs remain the most powerful mainstream workstation CPUs, Ivy Bridge chips brought what Intel called a "Tick+" compared to Sandy Bridge CPUs. Last year, AMD introduced its Bulldozer-based processors, which were disappointing. This year, AMD has narrowed the gap with its Piledriver CPUs. Though Piledriver chips don't match Intel's highest-end performance processors, at certain price points, Piledriver CPUs are worth consideration because they can outperform equivalently priced Intel products (with a few qualifications).

As for storage, stabilization of hard drive production in the wake of the Southeast Asia floods has brought massive 3TB and 4TB hard drive prices back down into the mainstream. Developments in the SSD market have brought reliable, high performance solid state storage down to prices at which they're pragmatic choices for uses in addition to solely operating system and application drives. DDR3 RAM prices have plummeted, to the point where you can sometimes pick up a whopping 32GB of desktop memory for about $100. Finally, competition has widened the field in terms of cases to include more than a handful of players in the premium workstation case market—including newer designs that are not only functional, but actually look nice and are quiet, too.

One important consideration in deciding whether to build a workstation is exactly that—whether to build a workstation. Arguably, you can build a workstation that is more reliable than anything you can buy from a large-scale integrator like Dell, HP, or Lenovo. Similarly, you can build a workstation better suited to your needs than a pre-built system. The question is whether you can provide the same level of support as a large company.

Many of AnandTech's readers have the DIY know-how to quickly diagnose computer-related issues (whether software or hardware induced), and many of us keep spare parts on hand, so we can fix a computer even before the next business day. However, do you have time to spend a few hours troubleshooting a broken down computer in the middle of a work day? Do you want to deal with that aggravation? Do you have spare systems already online that you can use while your primary productivity system is offline for a day or two?

These are important questions, and only you can answer them. If you'd rather not be your own technical support, it's best to stick with a pre-built that comes with support for your important computer. If your computer is more than important (i.e. mission critical), DIY is rarely a good idea. That is, the more important your productivity work is, the more likely it is you'll be better off going the pre-built route and avoiding the issues involved in providing your own part and support.

If you're sold on the idea of building your own workstation, the next general issue to consider is whether your workloads benefit from GPU computing. Succinctly, graphics cards are much more proficient than central processors at certain types of tasks; namely, those that are heavily parallelized. These tasks include scientific computing (such as Monte Carlo simulations, many bioinformatics analyses, and climate data work), audio signal processing (including speech processing), cryptography and cryptanalysis, as well as many functions used in video and image processing. One of the more popular software titles that makes extensive use of GPGPU computing is Adobe's Creative Suite 6; Adobe has an informative FAQ on GPGPU computing in CS6. Again, only you know whether powerful GPGPU capabilities make sense in your system, so for each of the builds we detail, we recommend a graphics card in line with the overall system budget (though you might want to spend more or less depending on your needs).

In this guide we outline four workstations, priced from $850 up to over $2,000. We start with the least expensive builds on the next page.

AMD workstation

Anand thoroughly reviewed AMD's latest Piledriver-based "Vishera" CPUs upon their launch a few months ago. Priced at $130, the FX-6300 hex-core model costs about as much as Intel's Ivy Bridge-based Core i3-3220. In terms of real-world workstation application performance (the details of which are presented in Anand's review), the FX-6300 bests the i3-3220 in a variety of tasks: Monte Carlo simulations in Microsoft Excel, multi-threaded video editing, software compilation in Visual Studio, and multi-threaded integer workloads such as those used in file compression/decompression. Compared to the i3-3220, the FX-6300's major weakness is its higher power consumption—under load the AMD chip pulls almost twice as much power as Intel's Ivy Bridge-based juice sipper (though in terms of absolute power, we're talking about less than 100W more). That said, Depending on what you're doing with your work computer, the FX-6300 is a relatively inexpensive option worthy of your consideration. You can see a detailed comparison of the FX-6300 to the i3-3220 in CPU Bench.

ASRock's 970 Extreme3 AM3+ ATX motherboard is a straightforward, fully-featured product that, in my experience, is quite reliable. It offers plenty of expandability for peripherals with its two PCIe x1 and two PCI lanes, and users interested in GPGPU computing will find two PCIe X16 lanes (though when both are populated, one runs at x16 and the other at x4). We're pairing this board with a 16GB kit of basic DDR3-1600 from Corsair, consisting of two 8GB sticks. This leaves two slots open for an easy, drop-in upgrade to 32GB if you deem that a wise use of your money.

Regarding storage, two of the most reliable products on the market get the nod—Intel's 520 Series 120GB SSD and Western Digital's 1TB Black HDD. Both carry five year warranties from their manufacturers, whereas most SSDs and HDDs carry two- or three-year warranties. The combination of a fast OS and application SSD with a fast, high capacity HDD is a good general solution for most workflows; you might be better off with a single large SSD, or your work might be more cost effectively completed with a tiny SSD (like Intel's 520 Series 60GB) and multiple larger, slower hard drives (like Western Digital's Green 2TB). And of course, don't forget external backup storage!

BitFenix's Ghost gets our nomination to house everything. Dustin reviewed this sleek-looking case recently, and like him, I've enjoyed building systems in this case. Its thermals are more than up to the task of cooling a higher TDP CPU like the FX-6300. Keep in mind that all of our case suggestions in this buyer's guide are interchangeable, so if you happen to like a case detailed in another build, you can certainly put these parts in that case. Powering everything, we have Antec's Earthwatts 380W. Though Antec has switched OEMs over the course of this product's history, I have now installed this model into over 100 systems in the last few years, and one has failed. In other words, it's about as reliable as a low-cost, mainstream PSU comes.

Finally, this build includes a copy of Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. You can get an overview of the differences between Windows versions at Microsoft and Wikipedia. Some of the more relevant and important differences between Professional and Home Premium are the former's support for more than 16GB of RAM, Windows XP mode, domain join, and integrated backup and restore features.

Component Product Price Rebate
Case BitFenix Ghost $100  
Power supply Antec Earthwatts 380W $45  
CPU AMD FX-6300 $140  
Motherboard ASRock 970 Extreme3 AM3+ ATX $85  
RAM 16GB Corsair Value Select DDR3-1600 $60  
SSD Intel 520 Series 120GB $130  
Hard drive Western Digital Black 1TB $110  
Graphics card Sapphire Radeon HD 5450 1GB $35 -$15
Optical drive Lite-On iHAS124-04 $18  
Operating system Windows 7 Professional 64-bit $137  
  Total: $860 $845

Intel workstation

I consider the next tier up from the AMD FX-6300/Intel Core i3-3220, in terms of workstation productivity, to be the AMD FX-8350/Intel Core i5-3570 tranche. At this price, however, the pendulum swings closer to Intel's CPU—largely because the AMD FX-8350 uses about 100W more under load to sometimes accomplish less actual computational work. That said, be sure to read how the FX-8350 compares to the Core i5-3570; if the AMD chip will be better for your workloads (despite its electrical gluttony), you can use it instead of the FX-6300 in the build above. If your workloads benefit from Hyper-Threading, you should consider stepping up from the Core i5-3570 to the Core i7-3770. You can see how the two Intel CPUs compare once again in CPU Bench.

Like the AMD FX-6300 workstation detailed above, we're including 16GB for this workstation. The ASUS P8B75-V is a reliable B75 chipset-based board with plenty of room for expansion (such as drop-in expansion to 32GB of RAM). Both PCIe lanes are able to function at x16, though one is a PCIe 2.0 slot and the other is a PCIe 3.0 slot (not that this distinction is particularly important at this point in time). Perhaps the only drawback to the B75 chipset is that it has only one SATA III port, though if you have only one SATA III SSD, this is not an issue.

For storage, we're recommending the Samsung 840 Pro. If you follow Anand's SSD reviews, we noted the pre-production firmware resulted in dead drives, but that the production firmware appears to have corrected this issue. Given the track record of the Samsung 830, I have no reservations recommending the 840 Pro for production systems. We're also stepping up the storage capacity with a 2TB rather than 1TB Western Digital Black platter-based drive for this system; though again, only you know how much storage you'll need for your workloads.

I've recommended the Fractal Design Define R4 before, and continue to use it extensively for custom builds. Its combination of good thermals, excellent acoustics, and slick looks make for a very compelling $100 case. Finally, the Seasonic S12II series has an outstanding reputation for supplying clean, reliable power, and the 430W version provides enough juice for the build detailed below as well as any single GPU graphics card on the market, if you're interested in GPGPU computing.

Component Product Price
Case Fractal Design Define R4 $110
Power supply Seasonic S12II 430B $60
CPU Intel Core i5-3570 $215
CPU alternate Intel Core i7-3770 $300
Motherboard ASUS P8B75-V B75 ATX $90
RAM 16GB Corsair Value Select DDR3-1600 $60
SSD Samsung 840 Pro 128GB $150
Hard drive Western Digital Black 2TB $180
Optical drive Lite-On iHAS124-04 $18
Operating system Windows 7 Professional 64-bit $137
  Total (with i5-3570): $1,020
  Total (with i7-3770): $1,105

On the next page, we step up to a Sandy Bridge E-based workstation.

Six Cores, Twelve Threads of Computational Prowess

Intel's high-end CPUs based on the Sandy Bridge-E architecture were released late last year and remain the most powerful chips available to mainstream consumers. Using the LGA 2011 socket rather than LGA 1155, there are four SBE SKUs available. Anand reviewed the initial two chips released, and the entry level hex-core model, the Core i7-3930X, remains the most compelling value. Bench details how it stacks up against the Core i7-3770. The quad core Core i7-3820 doesn't perform substantially better in terms of raw computation than the LGA 1155 Core i7-3770, but it does allow you to take advantage of the 2011 platform's benefits, such as support for up to 64GB of DDR3 RAM and four full-sized PCIe lanes.

ASUS' P9X79 PRO performed very well in Ian's tests, and is an extremely feature-rich board. We're including 64GB of memory here, mostly because we can—if you don't use that much RAM in your workflow, there's no need to buy this much DDR3. We've also stepped up the SSD capacity to 240GB, which will accommodate large file manipulation, such as editing RAW image, HD video, and some database files. We're also including a 2TB Western Digital Green drive, though as with the RAM, you might need more or less storage depending on what you do with your workstation.

Sandy Bridge E CPUs neither come with integrated on-die graphics nor a heatsink, so you'll need to include at least one discrete GPU in your build as well as decide on what kind of cooling to use. Corsair's Hydro series offers simple liquid-cooling up to the task of cooling 130W TDP SBE CPUs. We're recommending the recently updated H60, but if you want more aggressive cooling, you can step up to the H80 or H100.

If you're not interested in GPGPU computing, a single GeForce 210 GPU will suffice, and that's what we're listing in our main table. If you want something more potent, AMD and NVIDIA both have their selling points, and for mainstream work you could go with either the Radeon HD 7970 or the GeForce GTX 680. Sapphire's 3GB 7970 starts at around $370, with mail-in rebates bringing it down to $350; the least expensive 2GB GTX 680 is from Galaxy and will set you back around $440 ($420 after MIR). Of course, implementing multiple GPUs for GPGPU is straightforward given the P9X79 PRO's ample PCIe lanes.

For those that want true workstation level graphics, the AMD vs. NVIDIA debate tends to be far more lopsided in favor of NVIDIA. We're still waiting for the "Big Kepler" Quadro card (it seems all of the GK110 chips are currently selling out in the Tesla K20/K20X cards), but even the GK104-based Quadro K5000 is extremely potent without using too much power. If your use case still benefits more from AMD's GCN architecture, AMD's FirePro S9000 typically costs less than the NVIDIA competition while still providing compelling performance.

Unfortunately, the target release date for the S9000 appears to be set for December 31, 2012, with Newegg listing it at $2399 at the time of writing. Meanwhile, the Quadro K5000 is readily available and goes for around $1750 right now, so AMD's parts will need to come in below MSRP if they want to get any traction. (Of course, GK110-based Quadro is probably just waiting in the wings for S9000 to finally hit retail—the Tesla K20 currently tips the scales at over $3200.) While the 560W PSU we're recommending below is fine for a single card, make sure you have ample power if you're going to use two high-end workstation GPUs. Power supplies generally run at maximum efficiency around the 50-60% load mark, so a 1000W PSU would probably be a good fit.

Rounding out the build, we have Corsair's 650D case and Seasonic X-Series 560W power supply. Seasonic's X-Series 560W earned Martin's high praises. It's more than powerful enough to run the detailed system, and could even handle a graphics card (or two, or even three depending on which models you use). Dustin reviewed the 650D very favorably. Its cooling capacity is able to handle even multiple GPU, higher TDP SBE CPU systems well while keeping noise levels low. I'm usually not a fan of windowed cases, but when you have a system this powerful and impressive, you should flaunt it!

Component Product Price Rebate
Case Corsair 650D $200 -$20
Power supply Seasonic X-Series 560W $125  
CPU Intel Core i7-3930K $570  
CPU cooler Corsair H60 $77  
Motherboard ASUS P9X79 PRO ATX $305  
RAM 64GB Corsair Value Select DDR3-1600 $240  
Graphics card Sparkle GeForce 210 1GB $30  
SSD Intel 520 Series 240GB $250  
Hard drives Western Digital Green 2TB $110  
Optical drive Lite-On iHAS124-04 $18  
Operating system Windows 7 Professional 64-bit $137  
  Total: $2,062 $2,042

We have a few concluding remarks on the next page.


As stated plainly on the first page of this guide, it's critically important to consider whether to build a workstation yourself, or to buy a pre-built from a company that can provide support. If you're capable (and willing) to support the workstation yourself, or if your system isn't mission critical (like a prosumer-grade photo or video editing system that can be offline for a few days without impacting your wallet), then a DIY workstation can be a good value and enjoyable experience.

Before putting together a workstation, be sure to be especially cognizant of your storage and graphics cards needs, as these will be wildly variable between different workloads. Regardless of whether you need low or high powered components, pay attention to prices over the holidays. Component costs are especially dynamic this time of year, and you can save a lot of money by doing your research and watching for sales.

As always, AnandTech's General Hardware forum is a great place to share information with fellow PC enthusiasts, and the Hot Deals forum is full of useful tips for scoring cheap parts. Those interested in GPGPU computing can check out our Video Cards & Graphics forum for information on how various models perform in different scenarios. We also welcome you to share your workstation specifications and what you use your workstation(s) for in the comments section.

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