Can't stand the heat? Get the right desktops

The GCN Lab adds an energy efficiency test to its workstation suite

Heat. It can be a killer. Despite vendors' best efforts to build power-efficient systems, data centers are in a vicious cycle: Pull in enough power to drive dense, high-performance servers, then consume even more power just to cool them down.

Workstations can be power-hungry, too. Ever have your office's cooling system mysteriously turn off only to feel the heat rise immediately from the army of PCs that keep your agency productive?

Today's dual-core desktop processors are designed to be energy-efficient. It's a claim the GCN Lab has often wondered about. For this review of the latest high-end workstations, we decided to test more than just application performance. With the help of our benchmark partner Alterion, we tested each system to find out which consumes the most (and least) power under various computing scenarios. Perhaps the most important scenario is when the system does absolutely nothing, which as IT managers know is most of the time.

Quickly, what are we talking about here in terms of real-world significance? Consider, for instance, power consumption while systems are idle [see Page 46 for additional details about our power consumption testing]. A small office with a few PCs isn't likely to appreciate a 50-watt difference between two systems (the largest gulf we measured between idle systems was actually 68 watts per second). But at current electricity rates, which if anything are heading north, a 50-watt difference is about 10 cents a day, or about $25 a year per PC. In an agency of 1,000 PCs, that's $25,000 per year. In a massive enterprise such as the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet, which has hundreds of thousands of seats, we're talking millions of dollars. And that doesn't take into account the extra electricity a facility consumes to cool down a densely packed office.

Energy-friendly designs

The overall most power-efficient PC we tested was the Dell OptiPlex GX620, a system we've been impressed with in the past. (For comparison's sake, we brought in an ultraslim Hewlett-Packard Compaq dc7600 that was specifically designed for energy efficiency; see that review next issue.) What's more, the Dell set new standards in our GCN/Alterion performance benchmark tests, giving users the best of both worlds: high performance and energy-efficient operation.

In fact, you'll recognize several of the systems we review here as the latest and greatest versions of desktops we tested last November [GCN.com, GCN.com/602].

Two things are at play. First, virtually every vendor has upgraded its high-end business systems with newer processor technology. Desktops don't refresh as often as they used to, so we've noticed they take some of their bread-and-butter models and continually tweak them over longer periods of time.

Second, in addition to our new power-consumption tests, this is the first time we've tested desktop PCs with our upgraded Alterion performance tests. Alterion recently overhauled its application benchmarks to support dual-core processors. In our previous review, we jury-rigged the current tests to run two instances simultaneously'a process that worked remarkably well and illustrated the power of dual-core CPUs. The new benchmarks natively support dual-core and do an even better job measuring the overall performance difference between systems, as well as between platforms, namely desktop and notebook systems.

Of course, some things don't change no matter how you measure it. The Dell OptiPlex remains the fastest desktop we've tested, although the souped-up (and pricey) Alienware MJ-12 7550, with is Advanced Micro Devices CPU (and owned by Dell), can also crunch some serious numbers. But you wouldn't want an army of Aliens'just sitting around the system ate up the most power by far.

GCN chief technology editor Brad Grimes contributed to this review.

About the Authors

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.

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