Introduction and picks
What comes to mind when we say workstation? If you're thinking some big, spaceship-like contraption, you'd traditionally be right. But these days, workstations are sleek and trendy machines that still provide intelligent performance for most applications. They're useful tools for designers, engineers, financial analysts and researchers running more demanding applications, like rendering complex graphics, financial analysis and computations and digital content creation. There are even a few amazing options that come in laptop form.
But, with so many on the market, what merits do the office "power users" look for when deciding upon which workstation is the best investment for an increase in productivity, limited downtime and improved reliability? Here are a few that we've reviewed that we recommend:
Dell Precision T7610
Boasted by Dell as the world's most powerful workstation, the Precision is a capable mid-range workstation, born out of the years of experience from the Austin-based vendor. It is well thought out, expertly designed, sturdy, powerful and reasonably priced for its value proposition to customers. This Dell system sticks to the big box approach, standing large at 438 (h) x 216 (w) x 545mm (d) (16.95 x 8.50 x 20.67 inch) and 14kg (31lb.), unlike Apple Mac Pro's minimalist look-and-feel and HP Z1 G2's all-in-one approach. Despite its size, two integrated aluminum handles, one at the front and one at the back, moving the bulky workstation is deceptively easy and ergonomically sensible.
Within the Dell Precision T7610 lies a full-size Extended ATX motherboard with an Intel C602 chipset. The latter is populated with 16GB of RAM (four 4GB modules) ECC DDR3 RDIMM clocked at 1.866GHz, an integrated LSI 2308 SAS/SATA controller and a 3GB Nvidia Quadro K4000 full-size card with two DP and one DVI-I port.
Expansion capabilities are nothing short of exceptional with one free processor socket as well as 12 other free memory slots (allowing up to 256GB when filled with 16GB memory modules) plus a 1TB hard disk drive from Western Digital, a Caviar Blue model with 64MB cache, along with a slimline optical drive plus a removable 1300W PSU.
Two Intel-powered GbE NICs (82579LM and I210), four front-facing USB ports (one of them USB 3.0), 6 rear ones (half of them USB 3.0), legacy IOs (serial plus a pair of PS/2 ports), up to 5 free PCIe slots of various flavors (when used with two processors) and one PCI, one external 5.25-inch bay, 4 x 3.5-inch or 8 x 2.5-inch front accessible hard drive bays. Four are accessible from an external 5.25-inch bay behind a removable plastic bay.
There are even customization options. Users can choose to add a storage solution from Intel called the Cache Acceleration Software - Workstation ( or CAS-W), which is described as the first enterprise-grade caching acceleration software application for workstations. Although, it is worth noting that should you want more system memory or two processors, you will have to chat with one of Dell's Customer Service Assistants as you won't be able to configure the base until at all online.
You can only tweak the software (McAfee, Microsoft Office or Dell's Data Protection Encryption Software), the peripherals (display, keyboard or mouse) or the services bundled with the machine (data protection, client installation, etc.). The upside - customers get a three-year next business day basic warranty plus a keyboard and mouse.
Why love the T6710? It proves to be a sturdy, capable, dependable and quiet workstation, delivering top-of-the-line firepower and data churning capabilities. Its base unit price starts at approximately $3445 (£2027.40 or AU$3660). Despite its size, it is a brilliant piece of hardware that is surprisingly quiet when in use, even under load.
- Read our Dell Precision T7610 review
Fujitsu Celsius W530
Desktop workstations can be both big and expensive, but not with the Fujitsu Celsius W530, a compact and affordable entry-level workstation designed to bridge the gap between high-end PCs and much more expensive professional models.
It only has one processor, but that's reflected in the £1,430 recommended price (around $2,160, AU$2,680), and we found it selling for a lot less than that online.
Despite the single socket and DDR3 memory, the Celsius workstation manages to deliver an impressive level of performance with its Quadro K2200 more than keeping pace with the Xeon processor on the graphics front. The decision to go with an SSD as a boot disk further helps here and although a 1TB data disk is far from generous there's room to upgrade and add more if needed.
Other things we liked were the built-in card reader and a good quality keyboard and mouse which, although not wireless, were a lot better than the very basic peripherals that came with the Dell Precision workstation.
Overall build quality is a little down on Dell standards, but that's to be expected given the price, and it is a tool-free design which makes it very easy to maintain.
Conservatively styled, the Celsius W530 is a very nice little entry-level workstation that we could see being used to run a mix of CAD/CAM, image editing and other graphics-intensive applications whilst also hosting general office productivity tools.
- Read our Fujitsu Celsius W530 review
HP Z1 G2
This device launched two years ago to much buzz as the only all-in-one that can be easily upgraded by its owner. The workstation works like this - you fold the screen over, lower it, open two latches at the base of the display, then the screen pops away from the rest of the unit, revealing its internal components - explaining the Z1 name, as it describes the shape of the hinge.
Furthermore, in terms of look-and-feel, plastic handles are attached to the power supply, graphics card, 3.5-inch storage caddy and the main fan assembly, all which lift out with a firm tug.
Although the first-generation HP Z1 felt like a proof of concept, the HP Z1 G2 is a truly powerful all-in-one that undoubtedly has a place in design studios. With the HP Z1 G2, the unique design has been retained, but with a better overall specification, including more powerful graphics cards and up-to-date processors, 802.11ac wireless and 20Gb/s Thunderbolt 2 ports that make the HP Z1 G2 more useful as a replacement for a traditional desktop workstation than the earlier version.
In terms of design, this workstation has a black plastic chassis at the front, with a single aluminum plate covering the back, with an HP logo adorned at its center. Unlike most all-in-one designs, the main unit is far thicker and is extremely bulk, weighing 21.3 kg. On the bright side, its defining characteristic is the LED-backlit 27-in IPS panel, manufactured by LG as the screen in an all-in-one is integral, particularly accurate color, brightness and contrast levels as applied to graphic design work.
Additionally, there is a six-speaker sound bar directly below the screen and a 1080p HD webcam built into the top, which takes 2MP still photos. HP bundles a wireless chunky keyboard and a fairly bog-standard mouse with the HP Z1 G2, similarly to the T7610.
When it comes to design studios, high-end HP Z1 G2 models will prove most interesting with 16GB of non-ECC DDR3 system memory. With all the fixins' - 3.4 GHz quadcore Intel Xeon E3-1245 v3 processor, Quadro K4100M, 16GB of memory, 256GB Micron mSATA SSD and 1TB Western Digital VelociRaptor HDD - the workstation is expensive, coming in at $7070. While this is a bit steep, it's part of the territory with design workstations. For those who prefer a more affordable version, HP's US site lists a Z1 G2 with a dual-core Intel Core i3 4130 processor, 500GB hard disk and Intel HD4400 integrated graphics for $2398.
So why the huge difference in price? The Quadro K4100M - the most powerful card you can have fitted in the HP Z1 G2 with certified drivers for guaranteed performance in design applications and Cuda support to accelerate functions in software that supports it.
This workstation goes toe-to-toe with Apple's most high-end 27-inch 2013 iMac, which can be configured with a Core i7 processors, and Nvidia GTX 780M graphics card. Why? Because it's refreshing to have an upgradeable all-in-onw when so many other manufacturers choose to seal their units shut, allowing only memory upgrades at most. What's next? Maybe HP's gaming version in a less bulky format.
- Read our HP Z1 G2 review
At just 9.9 inches tall and just over 6.5 inches in diameter, the Mac Pro packs a lot of power into a small frame. It features Intel Xeon quad-core or six-core processors. Every system ships with dual GPUs. Off the shelf, these are Dual AMD FirePro D300 or D500 cards, but you can custom-configure them up to D700 GPUs with 6GB of GDDR5 VRAM on the Apple Online Store. Likewise, the processor (a Xeon E5) starts at a quad-core 3.7GHz, but it can be upgraded as high as a 12-core 2.7GHz chip. Memory is industry-standard, so can be user-upgraded. Up to 64GB can be installed.
There are four high-speed USB 3.0 ports, and six Thunderbolt ports. These are based on the new Thunderbolt 2 protocol, which combines the two 10Gbs channels offered by first-generation Thunderbolt into one 20Gbs bi-directional channel, making it ideal for streaming large amounts of data, such as 4K video. As up to six Thunderbolt peripherals can be daisy-chained to each port, the Mac Pro can support up to 36 Thunderbolt devices at once. There's also a HDMI port and two Gigabit Ethernet sockets, but don't expect an SD card reader. For wireless connectivity, there's 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Off-the-shelf, the Mac Pro costs $2,999, £2,499, or AU$3,999. It's a powerful and expensive machine - a masterpiece of engineering.
- Read our Mac Pro review