Buyer’s guide to workstations

If you want to get serious work done,you need a serious computer. We test workstations that answer exactly that description

Buyer’s guide to workstations

This is a group test that brings new meaning to the word power. The workstations we have on test this month are the Formula cars to the MPV, except without the annoying 1 habit of breaking down. They devour video, race through rendering, and laugh in the face of our standard benchmarks.

Designed for professional tasks where every second counts, choosing the right machine for your needs is far from straightforward. So, turn over the page for our detailed guide on how to make the right decision, and see p90 for all the results detailing the workstations’ scores in our panopoly of benchmarks.

Most of all, though, buy wisely. At these prices, the wrong machine will be a costly mistake.

Buyer’s guide to workstations

Spending on the wrong area could burn money and actually slow you down. We explain where to concentrate your cash, depending on the task

For everyday activities, almost any reliable computer will do. At home, the only task warranting a PC with significant processing or graphics power is gaming. For professional content creation tasks, however, much more care needs to be taken with your system purchase – this is where workstations come in.

Although the word “workstation” could refer to any computer used primarily for job-related activities, in the rarefied world of PC manufacturing it generally means a system designed for intensive professional tasks, particularly content creation. We have nine examples of the genre on test this month.

The kind of tasks normally ascribed to a workstation include things such as 3D animation, video editing, image editing, scientific analysis, graphic design and computer-aided design (CAD). Although a powerful “everyday” computer should be fast enough for all of these tasks, in practice you should focus your budget on particular components depending on the tasks you’re performing.

For example, if you plan to encode video, you won’t necessarily need the fastest professional graphics card out there. But you could benefit from a high-clock-speed, multi-core processor, lots of RAM, and as much storage as you can afford, preferably in a performance-enhancing RAID configuration.

Quid pro quo It’s trickier to apply such a rule of thumb to 3D animation, one of the key markets for workstations, because it depends on which stage of the workflow the system is needed for. The initial modelling and animation design phase has very different requirements to the final rendering stage. Most 3D software makes little or no use of multiple cores during modelling, so spending money on an expensive Xeon with several cores will be a waste if this is your primary activity.

A fast quad-core processor may well be the most cost-effective option here, with plenty of RAM, and the best professional graphics card you can afford.

For rendering, however, the converse is almost true. The 3D-rendering process is one of the most efficiently parallel tasks a computer can perform. This is why graphics cards have progressed by adding rendering pipelines over the years, without any significant increase in core clock speed.


Buyer’s guide to workstations

RIGHT Nvidia’s Quadro 4000 is the obvious choice for performance and value

Unfortunately, however, although there is software that can harness all these GPU cores for final rendering using either the Nvidia CUDA or more general OpenCL systems, it’s not widely used.

We’ve incorporated tests to show the abilities of each system with these two APIs. Nevertheless, having lots of processor cores is the way to go for final 3D rendering, with less emphasis on the clock they’re running at. The graphics card is almost irrelevant.

Traditionally, this has meant 3D animation workstations will be skewed towards either modelling or rendering, although the overclocked multi-core Intel Core i7 processors used in virtually all of this month’s entries are capable of both. They’re still best suited for the modelling end of the pipeline, though, which is why one manufacturer sells its workstation with an optional personal network render appliance using multi-core Xeons.

But for CAD, which is more of a modelling task with far less emphasis on photo-realistic final output rendering, a fast modelling workstation will almost always be your best bet. The SPECviewperf test we run includes viewsets from popular CAD software, which shows the systems’ capabilities in this area as well as other types of 3D content creation (such as engineering and medical visualisation).

Jack of all trades In reality, the systems in a small 3D animation company or independent artist’s studio will need to be jack of both modelling and rendering trades, leading frequently to a compromise in both.

Larger companies, on the other hand, will set up a dedicated farm of servers for this task, so workstations can focus primarily on modelling.

Beyond 3D, image editing benefits from a fast processor speed and plenty of RAM, but usually doesn’t gain much from multiple cores or a high-end graphics card. That said, some applications’ filters and effects can be accelerated by CUDA or OpenCL; take a close look at what your chosen software takes advantage of, because this could be the most important part of your buying decision.

BELOW There’s a reason three manufacturers chose this Fractal Design chassis it’s easy to access and has enough space for powerful components

BELOW There’s a reason three manufacturers chose this Fractal Design chassis: it’s easy to access and has enough space for powerful components

Video editing, unlike image editing, often gains from multiple cores as well as clock speed. Again, the software you use will dictate whether the graphics card is of any benefit. Sony Vegas supports OpenCL, and Adobe Premiere Pro’s Mercury Playback Engine includes acceleration from Nvidia’s CUDA, for example.

But the benefits of this acceleration only apply to certain activities, not across the board.

Of course, it’s not all about performance. In this Labs we have a selection of homegrown UK workstation manufacturers such as Chillblast, InterPro, Scan, Yoyotech and Workstation Specialists, versus mainstream big brands such as Lenovo and HP. The latter are generally more likely to offer clever chassis designs.

However, workflow fluidity can make a huge difference to the economic viability of your business, and cost is always a consideration, so the fastest, most reliable workstation you can afford, tailored for your specific needs, can make all the difference.

ABOVE Choosing the right specification for the right application, such as video editing, reaps huge dividends

ABOVE Choosing the right specification for the right application, such as video editing, reaps huge dividends

Read on to find out which workstation will be best for your content-creation activities.

How we test

We wanted to give the broadest possible workstation advice, so we used a wide variety of software for testing. The PC Pro Benchmark suite assesses image-processing and video-encoding abilities, and then multitasking. These are combined into the overall score you’ll see at the foot of every laptop and PC review in the magazine. This gives a good indication of a PC’s general speed, but for this group test we added tests specifically aimed at higher-end workstation tasks.

To test 3D modelling, we added SPECviewperf 12, which runs OpenGL (and one Direct3D) viewsets based on a number of popular 3D content creation, engineering and medical applications, including Autodesk Maya and Dassault Systemes SolidWorks. Maxon Cinebench R15 also contains an OpenGL modelling test, alongside a highly multithreaded 3D-rendering test, which benefits greatly from multiple processor cores.

We tested CPU- and GPUaccelerated 3D rendering with the Nvidia CUDA-orientated Bunkspeed Shot and OpenCL-powered LuxMark 3.1. At the time of writing Bunkspeed Shot wasn’t compatible with Maxwell-generation Nvidia GPUs, which all but one of the systems were using, so the Bunkspeed score is another assessment of CPU-based rendering ability, and a good one as it uses the popular Iray engine.

ABOVE LuxMark is an excellent test of 3D-rendering performance

ABOVE LuxMark is an excellent test of 3D-rendering performance

We tested the raw performance of the storage subsystem with ATTO’s Disk Benchmark. The end result is a comprehensive set of results showing exactly which type of software each workstation is best suited for. Head to p90 for a full breakdown of our results across all of the benchmark tests.

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Labs WorkstationPCs

Labs WorkstationPCs

Buyer’s guide to workstations test results

Buyer’s guide to workstations test results

Buyer’s guide to workstations test results

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