In-Depth

5 Workhorse Workstations Built for Tough Jobs

These new desktop PC models offer plenty of power and room for more.

No matter how hard a network administrator tries to standardize an organization's computing needs, reality almost never complies. Nearly every office has at least one user who needs a computer that's unusually powerful. Whether they're using computer-aided design software or producing multimedia content, those power users need superior processing power and excellent graphics capability.

Enter the workstation, the powerhouse category of desktop PCs. These devices are nearly as powerful as most servers -- even more powerful in some ways -- and are generally needed for resource-heavy tasks.

We received workstation computers from Apple Inc., Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Lenovo and Super Micro Computer Inc. We asked for a bare minimum of a high-range quad-core processor, 4GB of memory, a strong midrange graphics card, at least one 500GB hard drive and a DVD R/RW drive. We then gave the manufacturers some wiggle room on price, allowing them to add things such as more memory or a second processor or maintain the minimum specification in hopes of coming in at a much lower price. What we ended up getting was a few of each.

We ran them through their paces with the PassMark Performance Test 7 benchmark software suite. That allowed us to look at each aspect of system performance and show each device's strengths and weaknesses. We also looked at the insides of each workstation: how easy it was to get at the components, and if the components could be removed without using tools. Cable management was also a consideration.

Another area of the review was based on how much room the workstations had for adding things such as additional memory and peripheral cards without needing to replace existing components. Empty card slots, memory slots and drive bays were the primary areas of concern here.

Mac Pro MC 561LL/A
The Mac Pro MC561LL/A from Apple is the only computer in the roundup to have two quad-core processors. Despite that, it still managed to have the lowest price in this review.

We were pleased about one of the first things we noticed: the handles at either end of the top of the casing. They made it easy to move the workstation, which would be necessary once in a while in some environments. Technically, the Mac Pro also had two handles on the bottom, but we saw those used primarily as feet.

The five USB 2.0 ports (two in front) and four FireWire 800 ports (also two in front) were definitely adequate for most computer users' needs. They were supplemented by two USB ports on either end of the keyboard and a wireless mouse for a net gain of two USB ports. The Mac Pro also had two Gigabit Ethernet ports.

Once inside, we were most impressed with the layout of the components. The processors and memory were on a separate board on the bottom of the case and could be pulled out to make changing memory or processors easy. The internal hard drive bays also slid out without needing to detach any cables from the drives. All in all, everything was quite easy to get to, and with minimal cabling, cable management was excellent.

Upgradability was also very good. There were two memory slots open, and there was one PCI Express 2.0 x16 and one PCI Express x4 expansion slot. We were also pleased to see three empty internal 3.5-inch drive bays and an external 5.25-inch one. That left a decent amount of room for upgrades before the original components would need to be tossed out.

In our performance benchmark tests, the Mac Pro had the lowest score: 1,861.5. Although its two Intel Xeon E5620 quad-core processors helped it considerably with most of the CPU tests, in the rest -- such as one to find prime numbers -- some of the single-processor systems performed better. Its 6GB of memory and ATI Radeon HD 5770 graphics card each held their own in their respective tests, but there were enough negatives to cancel out the gains in the CPU test.

However: 1,861.5 was still a respectable benchmark score. It just happened to be at the bottom of a very good pack. Second, because we had to run the benchmark tests in

Windows 7 to have something to compare with the others, we must assume that the Mac Pro could do better when running in its native OS X. In other reviews, the need to run in Windows had not affected the Apple product's score significantly, but this highly tuned, two-processor system was a different case.

The Mac Pro MC561LL/A is priced at $3,499, which is a good price for a two-processor system. This workstation would do well for users who prefer to use Mac OS X.

Dell Precision T5500
Dell Precision T5500 is a well-put-together computer with a lot of features. It had plenty of ports. We were pleased to find eight USB 2.0 ports -- two in front -- in addition to the PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports. It also had three FireWire ports -- one in front -- and an external SATA port, a serial communications port and even a parallel port for older printers.

Unfortunately, one shortcoming we found was that this Precision model only had a 250GB hard drive. Given that a workstation such as this generally would need to have a great deal of software installed, that drive size might not be adequate.

Inside, we found that the components were reasonably easy to access, though there were a few places where the cabling was bracketed in such a way to make it awkward to get to things. With the exception of the power supply, everything could be removed without using tools. There was also a physical intrusion detection switch that could tell you if the case had been opened since the last time you'd opened it.

There was also a decent amount of room for upgrades. Only four of the six memory slots were used, and it had an empty PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot and two empty PCI Express x8 expansion slots. There was also a variety of empty drive bays: two 3.5-inch internal, two 5.25-inch external and one 3.5-inch external.

The Dell Precision T5500 did pretty well in our performance benchmark tests, scoring 2,274.2. Its ATI FirePro V5800 graphics card did extremely well at representing 2-D images. The six-core Intel Xeon X5680 processor handled most of the math tests well, and the 4G of memory excelled in most tests. Its hard drive definitely prevented the computer from getting a better total, but it was a solid performer all-around.

The Dell Precision T5500 sells for $4,404 as configured for this review. We found that to be an acceptable price, considering the great number of ports and the fact that it had a six-core processor.

HP Z600 Workstation
HP Z600 Workstation is a well-designed piece of computing equipment that's very easy to access. The first things that caught our attention were the handles placed at the top two corners of the case without adding anything to its outer dimensions. These handles were comfortable to grasp and could be used to easily move the workstation.

We were impressed with the unit's whopping number of USB 2.0 ports: nine, with three in the front. And that was in addition to having PS/2 ports for a mouse and keyboard. However, it had only one FireWire 800 port.

Everything inside the Z600 was designed for ease of access. Everything except for the motherboard could be removed without using tools. Even the power supply was special in this regard: We were able to pull it out to find that it plugs into a socket beneath the unit that interfaces all of the power cables and runs them under the motherboard. The only disadvantage to its unusual shape is that if it ever needed to be replaced, you couldn't just run out to the computer store and get any old rectangular power supply. But you probably wouldn't want to if you could, because this power supply was given an 80 PLUS Bronze rating for power efficiency.

The inset handles have a price, and that's in upgradability. The Z600 only had two empty 3.5-inch internal bays and two empty 5.25-inch external ones. At least one more 3.5-inch internal bay could've gone where a handle resides. The motherboard did have a few more available expansion slots than average: one PCI Express 2.0 x16, two PCI Express x8 and two regular PCI slots. In addition, there were three memory slots still available.

The HP scored poorly in our performance benchmarks. Its score of 1,884.8 was largely because of its Intel Xeon X5660 six-core processor's low performance in most of the CPU tests. The 6GB of memory did reasonably well, though.

At a $4,531 list price, the HP Z600 is a bit more expensive than we would've liked. Still, this workstation would be ideal for network administrators who need to move computers frequently.

Lenovo ThinkStation C20
The ThinkStation C20 from Lenovo had many high-end features for multimedia use, and moving it around was made easier by the case handle toward the front of the top panel.

There was no shortage of USB 2.0 ports with the ThinkStation. It had 10 total, with two in the front. That was the most of any computer in this roundup, although the ThinkStation's lack of any PS/2 ports meant that two of these ports were taken up by a keyboard and mouse. There was also an external Serial ATA port and ports for 5.1 surround-sound speakers.

Inside was where the ThinkStation showed some weakness. Some components weren't easy to access because of the support structure. And the blue tabs that were supposed to indicate tool-free entry were often not visible or intuitive in their operation. However, the cables were tied back pretty well.

The ThinkStation's power supply was rated at 750 watts. This meant that it had more than enough power for all of its components and then some. However, it might also draw more electricity than others in this roundup.

We were pleased with the upgradability, both in quantity and variety, of the ThinkStation. Its memory only used two of the six DIMM slots, leaving plenty of room there. The motherboard had a plethora of usable expansion slots: one PCI Express 2.0 x16, one PCI Express x1, one PCI Express x 4 and two regular PCI. There were also three empty 3.5-inch internal drive bays and one 5.25-inch external one.

The Lenovo did well in our benchmark tests, with a score of 2,334. This placed it second in the roundup. The Intel Xeon X5650 performed very well in the CPU tests, but its 4GB of memory didn't do as well. Still, what we loved about the ThinkStation was the high-end Nvidia Quadro FX 4800, which blew the competition away in the 3-D graphics test.

The Lenovo ThinkStation C20 list price of $4,660 left something to be desired. This workstation computer would do quite well in the hands of a video editor or 3-D modeler.

Super Micro SuperWorkstation SYS-7046A-T
The SuperWorkstation SYS-7046A-T from Super Micro was built more like a server than a workstation. That was evident in its size and some of its components. The case was 25.5 inches front to back -- a little long for some desktops, and possibly awkward if placed underneath a desk.

The SuperWorkstation had a good number of ports. Although there were only six USB 2.0 ports -- two in front -- the PS/2 ports for a keyboard and mouse made them all potentially usable. Two Gigabit Ethernet ports, two serial communications ports and the surround-sound ports nicely rounded out the connections. We were also pleased to find the SuperWorkstation SAS RAID enclosure.

When we opened the case, we were happy with the way the insides were laid out. The cable management was good, and everything was easy to access. We liked that there was a partition between the motherboard and drive enclosures, which had four fans in a row. That would definitely ensure that airflow would proceed constantly in one direction.

The super-sized case of the SuperWorkstion also allowed for several upgrades. The motherboard had room for a second processor, and only six of the 12 memory slots were used. The RAID enclosure had seven open slots for hard drives. There was also one 5.25-inch external bay, and one that could be used to hold a 3.5-inch or 5.25-inch device. The number of available expansion slots was acceptable: one PCI Express x 4 and three PCI. The second PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot that was available on other computers in this roundup was used in the SuperWorkstation by the SAS controller card.

In our performance benchmark tests, the SuperWorkstation scored the highest: 2,928.2. Although its Intel Xeon X5650 processor had one of the slower performances in the roundup, its 24GB -- yes, you read that correctly -- of memory completely blew away its competition in that area.

That was an impressive amount of memory, but it should be noted that, although it totally outstripped the others in the large RAM test, it actually scored second lowest in all the other memory tests. That means that unless you're performing an inordinate number of operations at once, there's a limit to how much extra RAM will help, and the SuperWorkstation might have exceeded that limit.

That being said, its performance in many areas was very good, enabling it to earn a top score of 2,511 even when excluding the RAM test from the results.

Super Micro has set the list price for the SuperWorkstation SYS-7046A-T at $4,395. That's a good price for all that RAM and the eight-bay RAID drive. This workstation would do very well in any situation in which its physical size wouldn't be an issue.

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