PC workstation Buyers Guide
Sit quietly and you can almost hear itthe growl of more and more powerful
technical workstations. Many desktop PCs now give performances that back claims to
Technical workstations have come in two flavors: the conventional RISC desktop machine
running Unix and the high-end PC with an Intel chip running Microsoft Windows NT. But the
number of choices is expanding.
With its growing family of speedy Pentium chips, Intel Corp. blazes a trail into
territory previously ruled by RISC. Although high-end RISC machines will keep the
performance crown through 1999, a wise observer wont bet the farm on their chances
of maintaining supremacy after that.
Pentium III workstations are rolling out now. Intel will release a 550-MHz Pentium III
Xeon chip later this year.
Tackling a tough computing job requires an industrial-strength machine. Graphic- and
numeric-intensive softwaresuch as mechanical computer-aided design, electronic
design automation and scientific visualizationrequires a fast CPU, large amounts of
synchronous dynamic RAM, solid graphics performance and exceptional disk speed. Only
high-performance workstations provide that kind of power.
Whether you choose an Intel or RISC CPU, you must also evaluate other component choices
that affect workstation performance. If you focus on the main application you intend to
run, you can easily specify a hardware system that fits. Need help? Read on.
For detailed and impartial information on system performance, check the benchmark
results published by Standard Performance Evaluation Corp. of Manassas, Va., at http://www.spec.org.
Find CPU benchmarks results for both Intel and RISC workstations at http://open.specbench.org/spec. The tests
measure both integer (SPECint95) and floating-point (SPECfp95) speed. Open benchmarks
results for various
3-D graphics systems are at http://open.specbench.org/gpc.
The Viewperf benchmarks include various workstation applications. Youll also
find detailed hardware configurations from several vendors to help you configure a system.
This Buyers Guide lists sample machines from the largest workstation vendors. In the
Intel arena, top-tier PC makers Compaq, Dell and Gateway all offer workstations with
Pentium II Xeon chips. The systems are directed at high-volume buyers and have mainstream
features and performance. Other vendors focus on machines that deliver high-end graphics
performance, such as Intergraphs TDZ/Wildcat 3D graphics or SGIs new Visual
Workstation/Cobalt graphics system.
Specialty vendors such as Aspen Systems Inc. of Wheat Ridge, Colo., DeskStation
Technology Inc. of Lenexa, Kan., MaxVision, Polywell, SAG and TriStar offer custom-built
workstations that use Alpha and Intel CPUs. Many PC desktop suppliers, such as Comtrade,
Micron, Micro Pro, Quantex and Sys, also offer advanced workstation models.
Unix RISC workstation vendors Hewlett-Packard (HP Series C) and IBM (RS/6000) offer new
RISC desktops with outstanding performance. Digital Equipment Corp., now owned by Compaq,
is still strongly focused on developing faster AlphaStation Unix and NT machines.
In its latest UltraSparc, Sun Microsystems Inc. is pioneering new levels of
floating-point performance, while selling affordable entry-level Ultra 10 and Ultra 30
All Intel machines listed include 450-MHz Pentium II or Pentium II Xeon CPUs, 128M of
synchronous dynamic RAM, minimum 8G hard drives, accelerated graphics port video adapters
with 8M video RAM, 10/100Base-T Ethernet network interface cards, minimum 19-inch monitors
and Windows NT Workstation 4.0. That configuration defines a solid midrange CAD
Prices for desktop PCs with those specs typically range between $2,500 and $3,000. If
you want a system with a heavy-duty chassis, error-checking and correcting memory,
Ultra2-SCSI hard drive and a midrange 3-D accelerator, expect to pay between $4,000 and
$5,000. For maximum 3-D performance, a high-end accelerator can add at least $1,500 to
$2,000 to the price. RISC systems are priced higher but generally have better CPU
Choosing between a Pentium II or a Pentium II Xeon CPU is getting easier. The Xeon
holds a performance edgearound 10 percent faster at the same clock speedand it
costs only about $200 more for the standard version, which has a built-in 512K cache.
Pentium II Xeon chips with 1M or 2M internal cache are available at a considerable
premiummore than $1,000 per chip. These chips are primarily designed to improve CPU
throughput for servers. If youre running a multithreaded application on a
workstation and you need better floating-point speed, adding a second Xeon 512K chip is a
more cost-effective answer. For maximum floating-point performance, you cannot beat having
multiple processors, whatever the type.
Xeon motherboards use the 440GX chip set, are usually dual-processor capable and have
an empty slot on the motherboard for a field upgrade. Pentium II motherboards that use the
440BX chip set are usually single-processor by design, although you can sometimes upgrade
to a dual-processor version. If you want to expand to two processors later, make sure you
specify a dual-processor-capable motherboard on the machine youre buying.
A second CPU is helpful if your applications are multithreaded. Threaded applications
can use a second CPU to greatly improve performance for tasks such as rendering 3-D
animation sequences or running a large statistical analysis.
All 450-MHz CPUs require high-speed SDRAM memory. The 128M of RAM youll see
listed in the chart is standard for most workstations, but some users need between 256M
and 1G of RAM, depending on their applications and size of common data sets. Many vendors
also offer ECC SDRAM, usually reserved for servers. It is no faster than standard SDRAM,
but it offers extra reliability. Adding 128M of ECC RAM costs about $350.
Graphics accelerators vary widely in both price and performance. If you are primarily
running 2-D apps such as image scanning, photo editing or line drawing, good available
choices are many and varied. All listed Intel systems use AGP graphics and have at minimum
8M of video RAMentirely suitable for most 2-D work.
AGP 3-D accelerator cards that pack between 8M and 16M of RAM are becoming common.
Cards such as the nVidia Riva TNT, 3D/fx Voodoo Banshee and Matrox Millenium G200 fall
into this category. Designed for the 3-D game market, they also give excellent 2-D
The boards usually cost less than $150, but their OpenGL drivers are still maturing,
and their performance falls short when stressed by high-end 3-D users.
Permedia 2 cards from Diamond and Accel Graphics are a step up for serious 3-D users.
Many vendors now offer the cards as standard equipment on baseline workstations. The cards
usually come with 8M of RAM and offer reliable, if modest, 3-D acceleration. Their mature
OpenGL drivers wont easily crash when youre running an application such as 3D
Studio Max or Lightwave 3D. If you intend to do some 3-D work but have a limited budget,
these accelerators are worth considering.
At the high end are OpenGL accelerators from Intergraph, SGI and 3D Labs, among others.
At a cost of between $1,000 and $2,000, theyre relatively expensive, and memory
add-ons can easily double the price. They typically come with between 32M and 96M of
dedicated video and texture memory.
If you need maximum 3-D performance, use large texture maps or want real-time
interactivity, these accelerators can do the job. High-end creation tools, such as Alias
Maya or Softimage 3D, require this kind of 3-D power. Choosing among them is best left to
the 3-D graphic benchmark experts; check the SPEC benchmark Web site.
Workstation users will pump a lot of data through their systems, so a fast local disk
is essential. When youre shopping, consider interface type, rotation speed and
internal buffer size, all of which affect disk performance.
For database searches, random access speed is most important. But large monolithic data
sets, such as detailed 3-D models and streaming video, usually need a high sustained data
transmission rate. The rate is limited by the interface design and greatly affected by
hard drive rotation speed. Older, less expensive drives spin at 5,400 rpm. Most newer
drives run at 7,200 or 10,000 rpm.
The baseline for disk interface performance is Ultra ATA, or Ultra EIDE, with a peak
data transmission rate of 33 Mbps. The lowest price systems in the table use Ultra EIDE
drives, which run at 5,400 or 7,200 rpm and have an internal buffer of between 256K and
512K. The drives offer a lot of storage for the price, but disk expansion and peak
performance is limited.
Ultra-Wide SCSI, known as UW-SCSI, offers a maximum data transmission rate of 40 Mbps,
better multitasking performance and more drive connections than Ultra EIDE. Most UW-SCSI
drives run at 7,200 or 10,000 rpm and have internal buffers of between 512K and 1M.
UW-SCSI offers the best price-performance ratio.
High-end Pentium II Xeon systems usually have the newest hard drive interface: the
Ultra2 SCSI Low- Voltage Differential, which runs at rates of up to 80- Mbps data
The Ultra2 SCSI interface allows connection of more drives to a single controller and
use of much longer cables. It creates less SCSI bus noise than UW-SCSI. If youre
working with broadcast-quality digital video or other very-high-bandwidth data types,
stick with Ultra2 SCSI.
A good workstation is built like a good serverin fact, many vendors use identical
chassis for servers and workstations. The chassis should have plenty of room for
expansion, a big power supply and multiple fans to keep everything cool. If you want a
highly expandable system, investing in an industrial-strength enclosure is worthwhile.
Before you decide on a chassis, think about how many hard drives you plan to add. The
higher the hard drives rotation speed, the more heat and vibration it generates. If
you plan on having several fast drives running together, make sure the workstation chassis
can handle the power, heat and vibration load.
The display screen is a critical component of any workstation. Most workstations have
come with a 20- or 21-inch monitor, although many users were stuck with 17-inch displays.
The 19-inch monitor is a good compromise in screen size, physical space and cost.
On a 19-inch display, resolutions of up to 1,280 by 1,024 pixels per inch are
practical, though most can display up to 1,600 by 1,200 ppi.
If you intend to run at that resolution all day, move up to a 21-inch or larger
monitor. Adding a larger monitor will typically add between $300 and $500 to the price.
Although weve listed none here, new-generation flat-panel LCD displays are
becoming more common. When prices drop a bit, they will likely become the standard for
single-screen workstation users.
But for now, workstation-quality LCD displays are still pricey. SGIs new 17-inch
1600SW sells for $2,599as much as some complete systems.
But dont get bogged down in hardware specifications; its your applications
that should come first.
Regardless of what hardware vendors claim about system versatility, most technical
workstations are used primarily for one type of application, such as CAD, drafting, 3-D
visualization or statistical analysis. Clarify ahead of time exactly what software
application is used most often on the workstation you are buying.
Software vendors can help. Ask for their hardware recommendations when you are
specifying new systems.
Although many software vendors are officially platform neutral, youll find that
most are potentially valuable hardware consultants, at least unofficially.
Ask their technical support staffs what systems they would choose to run, and
youll probably end up with a short list from which to choose.
Because workstations are more powerful and costlier than office PCs, you might think
theyll have a longer productive life.
False. If youve been used to upgrading workstations, as with PCs, in five-year
cycles, you may be rudely surprised at how fast CPU and graphic technology is evolving. On
the bright side, faster performance gains are accompanied by productivity increases.
The next few years look like a bonanza of new technology, so you may be tempted to wait
a while before upgrading. But ship dates can slipsometimes for years. If you need
more performance, there has never been a betteror cheapertime to
Ted Drude writes about workstation hardware and software in Madison, Ala.