5 workhorse workstations built for the tough jobs

New 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 is more powerful than normal. Whether they are 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, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Super Micro. We asked for a bare minimum of a high-range quad-core processor, 4G of memory, a strong midrange graphics card, at least one 500G 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 PassMark’s Performance Test 7 benchmark software suite. That allows us to look at each aspect of system performance and show each device’s strengths and weaknesses. The results largely made up our Performance grade.

For our Ease of Access grade, we looked at the insides of each workstation: how easy was it to get at the components and could they be removed without using tools. Cable management played a big part in determining this grade.

The Upgradability grade 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.

If a workstation had components above and beyond the required minimum, they were reflected in the Features grade. Extra ports and peripherals primarily drove this grade.

Last, we looked at the price and assigned a Value grade based on how much the workstation cost in relation to how well it performed in the other categories

Apple Mac Pro

Apple Mac Pro

The Mac Pro MC561LL/A from Apple is the only computer in the roundup to have two quad-core processors, and it still manages 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 is necessary once in a while in some environments. Technically, the Mac Pro also has two handles on the bottom, but we see those used primarily as feet.

The five USB 2.0 ports — two in front — and four FireWire 800 ports — also two in front — are definitely adequate for most computer users’ needs. They are 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 has two Gigabit Ethernet ports.

Apple Mac Pro (MC561LL/A)

Pros: Everything easy to get to; good price.
Cons: Relatively low performance score.
Performance: B
Ease of Access: A
Upgradability: B+
Features: B+
Value: A
Price: $3,499 ($3,199 government)

Once inside, we were most impressed with the layout of the components. The processors and memory are 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 is quite easy to get to, and with minimal cabling, cable management is excellent.

Upgradability is also very good. There are two memory slots open, and it has 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 one external 5.25-inch one. That leaves 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 6G 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.

First, that is still a respectable benchmark score. It just happens 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.

Apple is selling the Mac Pro MC561LL/A for $3,499, which is a good price for a two-processor system. The government price of $3,199 makes this a real bargain. This workstation would do well for users who prefer to use Mac OS X.

Dell Precision T5500

Dell Precision

Dell’s Precision T5500 is a well put together computer with a lot of features. It has more ports than any other workstation in the roundup. 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 — an external Serial Advanced Technology Attachment port, a serial communications port, and even a parallel port for older printers.

Unfortunately, one shortcoming we found was that this Precision model had only a 250G 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. There are a few places where the cabling is bracketed in such a way to make it awkward to get to things, but that is only in a few places. With the exception of the power supply, everything can be removed without using tools. One thing we didn’t see on the other computers is a physical intrusion detection switch that can tell you if the case has been opened since the last time you had done it.

Dell Precision T5500

Pros: Exceptional 2-D graphics performance.
Cons: Some cables in the way; low hard drive performance.
Performance: A-
Ease of Access: B
Upgradability: B+
Features: A-
Value: B+
Price: $4,404

There was also a decent amount of room for upgrades. Only four of the six memory slots are used, and it has an empty PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot and two empty PCI Express x8 expansion slots. There also was 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. Its score of 2,274.2 puts it squarely in the middle of the pack. 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. However, it’s 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 has a six-core processor.

HP Z600 Workstation

HP Z600 Workstation

Hewlett-Packard’s Z600 Workstation is a well-designed piece of computing 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 are comfortable to grasp and could be used to easily move the workstation.

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

Everything inside the Z600 is designed for ease of access. Everything except for the motherboard can be removed without using tools. Even the power supply is special in this regard. We were able to pull it out to find that it plugs into a socket beneath 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 is given an 80 PLUS Bronze rating for power efficiency.

HP Z600 Workstation

Pros: Pull-out power supply; case handles.
Cons: Low performance results; less room for upgrades.
Performance: B
Ease of Access: A
Upgradability: B+
Features: A
Value: A-
Price: $4,531 ($3,987 government)

The inset handles have a price, and that is in the upgradability grade. It only has 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 have gone where a handle resides. The motherboard does 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 are three memory slots still available.

The HP scored near the bottom of the group 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. Although the 6G of memory did reasonably well, the Nvidia Quadro 2000 more than canceled that out with its subpar graphics performance.

At a $4,531 list price, the HP Z600 is a bit more expensive than we would have liked. However, its government price of $3,987 is definitely more like it and actually makes it a good buy. This workstation would be ideal for network administrators who must move computers frequently.

Lenovo ThinkStation C20

Lenovo ThinkStation

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

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

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

Lenovo ThinkStation C20

Pros: Excellent graphics performance.
Cons: Somewhat hard to get into.
Performance: A-
Ease of Access: B
Upgradability: B+
Features: A-
Value: B+
Price: $4,660 ($3,736 government)

The ThinkStation’s power supply is rated at 750 watts. This means that it has 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 ThinkStation’s upgradability, both in quantity and variety. Its memory only uses two of the six DIMM slots, leaving plenty of room there. The motherboard has 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 are also three empty 3.5-inch internal drive bays and one 5.25-inch external one.

The Lenovo did well in our benchmark tests, achieving a score of 2,334. This places it second in the roundup. Though the Intel Xeon X5650 performed very well in the CPU tests, its 4G of memory didn’t do as well. But what gave the ThinkStation such a good grade was the high-end NVidia Quadro FX 4800, which totally blew the competition away in the 3-D graphics test.

The Lenovo ThinkStation C20’s list price of $4,660 leaves something to be desired. However, the government price of $3,735 was more to our liking. This workstation computer would do quite well in the hands of a video editor or 3-D modeler.

Supermicro SuperWorkstation


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

The SuperWorkstation has a good number of ports. Although there are 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 round out the connections. We were also pleased to find the SAS RAID enclosure the SuperWorkstation had.

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

Supermicro SuperWorkstation (SYS-7046A-T)

Pros: Fast performance; lots of memory; RAID drive.
Cons: Large and heavy for desktop use.
Performance: A+
Ease of Access: A-
Upgradability: A
Features: B+
Value: B+
Price: $4,395

The SuperWorkstion’s super-sized case also allows for several upgrades. The motherboard has room for a second processor, and only six of the 12 memory slots are used. The Redundant Array of Independent Disks enclosure has seven open slots for hard drives. There is also one 5.25-inch external bay, and one that can be used to hold a 3.5-inch or 5.25-inch device. The number of available expansions slots is decent: one PCI Express x 4 and three PCI. The second PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot that is available on other computers in this roundup was taken up 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 24G — yes, you read that correctly — of memory completely blew away its competition in that area.

That is 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 are performing an inordinate number of operations at once, there is 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.

Supermicro has set the list price for the SuperWorkstation SYS-7046A-T at $4,395. That's a very 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 won’t be an issue.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Dec 16, 2010 KingMel

The composition of the performance test is unclear. However, based upon the results, it appeared to include a significant portion of functions that were not highly optimized for multi-processor/multi-core. As always, take the performance metrics with a shaker of salt. They may not be even close to representative of the performance achieved in your suite of applications. I would prefer to see some real world tests based on scientific, engineering, and image processing software, but I suppose that would have favored UNIX-based operating systems over Windows.

Fri, Oct 15, 2010 Michael Crock Lake Oswego, OR.

Yes the OS is a critical factor, A good kernel to use such as a modern Linux kernel world give a good comprehensive idea of the actual performance of these computers. 2.6.35 would be modern and up to date. The use of Windows shows a limited view of computer performance as it is encumbered with a great deal of unimportant baggage. Remember the world is growing and windows is not.

Fri, Oct 15, 2010 CJ

The tests were kind of inadvertently skewed by limiting everything to Windows 7. Obviously only one box could run OS X, so the others lose points for that. The results would have been far more telling if you'd also run some computational tests on all the boxes with a stripped down Linux kernel, and run some other tests with a real-time kernel.

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