Entry-Level to High-End: What You Get for Your Workstation Dollar

15 Sep, 2011 By: Alex Herrera

Editor's Note: This article is a sidebar to the main feature, "How to Configure a Workstation for CAD," originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Cadalyst magazine.


In tracking the workstation market, Jon Peddie Research breaks workstations into several categories: mobile, low entry desktop, premium entry, mid-range, and high-end. Not surprisingly, the higher the category, the steeper the price.

Nearly two-thirds of workstation purchases in Q1 2011
were entry-level systems. (Source: Jon Peddie Research)

Until recently, the lowest desktop category was entry, plain and simple, composed of high-volume, single-socket machines. But with Intel’s introduction of the Westmere platform generation in 2010, the entry category split into two discernible subtiers: low and premium. Low entry machines are typically minitowers and low-profile, small–form factor machines. Today’s premium entry system is most often a mini-tower configuration with two PCI Express x16 slots for graphics and perhaps more drive bay capacity.

Mini-towers have fewer slots and bays for additional add-in cards and drives. Small–form factor machines put a real premium on capacity, with perhaps only two drive bays and space for one lowprofile PCI Express card for graphics. Small–form factor workstations have found a compelling home in certain installations that don’t necessarily demand maximum performance and where priorities include noise and heat reduction and space optimization. These homes are not typically CAD oriented. A mini-tower will be a better bet in most cases and will allow for future upgrades of your graphics card, memory, or storage if needed.

Mid-range and high-end. Stepping up to the mid-range and high-end, you’ll typically find dual-socket Intel Xeon processors along with full tower enclosures to handle more slots and drive bays. Spring for a dual-socket system and you’ll get twice as many CPU cores, twice as much memory bandwidth, and twice the memory capacity.

Some OEMs are going to great lengths to show off the enhanced speed of processors and increased capacity of both graphics cards (for multi-monitor or high-performance computing support) and larger storage capabilities. BOXX’s top-end 4800 and 8500 series workstations feature overclocked CPU performance that provides a 25% higher frequency rate — that is, an Intel 2600k (Sandy Bridge) processor running at 4.5 GHz instead of 3.4 GHz. These workstations also provide support for as many as eight drive bays and an incredible seven PCI Express slots, allowing users to populate 18 TB of total storage and house seven single-width or four dualslot graphics cards.

This high-end BOXX workstation is equipped with four double-width GPUs.

But there’s more to be had at the upper end of the market, as vendors such as HP are taking a page from Apple’s book and investing an impressive amount of time and money to engineer hardware aesthetics and ergonomics, resulting in advances such as tool-less and (almost) cable-less designs; carefully designed air flow; and custom, workstation-specific, high-efficiency power supplies.

About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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