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Overview

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 and Intel Mainstream Workstations
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  • Kristian Vättö - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I don't personally find the Intel SSD 520 to be a good value anymore. Sure, it comes with a 5-year warranty but so does almost all high-end SSDs nowadays. Its performance isn't worth any extra either because to be honest, it's slow compared to other high-end SSDs. Especially if you're dealing with incompressible data, SandForce really isn't the best choice and I think it's important for workstation users to have consistent performance, which SandForce cannot provide.

    If Samsung SSD 840 Pro is out of reach, I would recommend either Corsair Neutron GTX or Plextor M5 Pro. At 120/128GB, they cost around as much as the Intel SSD 520 but if you go for the 240/256GB model, you'll be able to save a few bucks. Both also come with 5-year warranty if that's a concern.
    Reply
  • mrdude - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I came in here to post this but I'm glad I'm not the only one.

    The Intel drives really don't offer anything special anymore, particularly since Corsair's LAMD acquisition. Plextor also offers a 5 year warranty and they've got the best Marvell in-house firmware on the market with rock solid stability and fantastic performance. Since their M3 they've been my SSD of choice and the drives I recommend to everyone, but now it's a toss up between Corsair's Neutron and Plextor's drives. Of course, if we're talking power consumption in a laptop then it's pretty one-sided.

    As far as quicksync and video editing goes, it highly depends on the software involved. Some software responds well to CUDA/openCL and blazes through with GPU assist and shows no signs of even slight distortion or muddiness while other software maintains great image quality via fixed-function units like QuickSync. The most consistent as far as image quality goes will always be a straight CPU approach, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's the only viable solution.
    Reply
  • Doctor Z - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    You do realize that for most users who need power, dual and quad-CPU server motherboards make better workstations. Why didn't you include those Zach? Because they're in the $10,000-$30,000 range fully-loaded? Reply
  • A5 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    If that's what you need, you aren't building your own. You're either part of a company that will buy it for you (and therefore your IT department will want something serviceable with a warranty) or you're running your own business (and can deduct the expense) and need something that is rock-solid reliable. Reply
  • JDG1980 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    If it doesn't have ECC RAM, it's not a workstation. Period. Not one of the builds showcased in your articles includes this basic feature - an inexcusable omission. Reply
  • Pityme22 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    First, you have to identify the programs used by the workstation to even begin commenting. I.e. You dont mention CAD programs which for use of all features require a Quattro or FirePro graphics cards. Anand, I am very surprised that you let this "article" be posted as it is very much below normal AnandTech standards. Shame, Shame. Reply
  • jamesgor13579 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I completely agree with many of the other posters here. If it does not have ECC is isn't a workstation. I work in R&D for a large tech company. There is a reason ALL of our desktops have ECC. RAM just isn't that reliable.

    Here is an excellent example of why:
    I am an ASIC designer. We have to run a lot of simulations of the logic and timing to make sure everything works. Once our design is layed out, modeling all of the timing takes a lot of memory. Dozens of GB just to simulate part of the design. Someone was cheap and built a three "workstations" out of desktop motherboards and 64GB (8x8GB in a socket 2011) non-ECC memory. Well less than a year later when it was crunch time on the project and the machines were running week long simulations, two of them started randomly crashing. Guess what, it was the RAM. Replaced one DIMM and the machine worked again.

    If you need your system to work, Non ECC RAM is not OK.
    Reply
  • Makaveli - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Doesn't that just mean you had a bad stick of memory?

    And your telling me that can't happen with ECC memory?
    Reply
  • smpltn - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    650D paint chips easily Reply
  • Kevin G - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Depending on the task at hand ECC is a requirement. The graphic artist or video editor would likely only encounter a pixel being off color for a memory error. Those types of fields can generally tolerate such errors. The CAD, research or financial markets for example absolutely need to have ECC due to the need for continual data integrity.

    As such, more consideration should have been put into AMD motherboards (the FX line supports ECC but not all motherboards do) as well as socket 1155/C200 series chipsets for the low end and midrange builds. Even if the use-case doesn't need ECC, I'd have still opted to include such a motherboard with the AMD FX build. High end socket 2011 build I'd recommend the Gigabyte X79S-UP5 motherboard supports ECC memory as it is really based upon the C606 chipset. This motherboard would cover a wide range of workstation uses. Only those wanting dual sockets would have to look else where.

    The graphics card choice is also 'interesting'. For simple 2D work, a low end consumer card is more than enough for some use-case scenarios. For things like image editing, getting a low end FirePro or a Quadro would make sense for superior drivers and 30 bit color support. Other use-scenarios are starting to use GPU's for some heavy processing: video editing applications for example for accelerating some effects. High end consumer cards are often equal to midrange workstation cards due to artificially crippling GPGPU performance on the consumer side. Selecting between cards often boils down to specifically what applications the workstation will be running.

    Power supply selection is a bit weak. A workstation tends to be expandable and I'd provision some room for future expansion. Upgrading the lowend builds here with a midrange or better consumer GPU would entail a PSU upgrade as well. The article does mention getting bigger PSU's with bigger video cards but I see it wiser to provision a PSU with these possible upgrades in mind before purchasing them. Only with the niche GPGPU workstation area I can see multiple video cards being worth considering so that does put a reasonable upper bound on PSU requirements.

    For a workstation I always recommend that a pair of hard drives are setup in a RAID1 array to protect your data in the event of a disk failure. A five year warranty won't help you when your drive is dead and you have to pay for downtime and recreating work from your most recent backup. Speaking of which, including good backup software/external storage and a solid UPS would be wise for a workstation regardless of use-case scenario. When you're using a system for work, you want it to work continuously.
    Reply

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