Six Cores, Twelve Threads of Computational Prowess

Intel's high-end CPUs based on the Sandy Bridge-E architecture were released late last year and remain the most powerful chips available to mainstream consumers. Using the LGA 2011 socket rather than LGA 1155, there are four SBE SKUs available. Anand reviewed the initial two chips released, and the entry level hex-core model, the Core i7-3930X, remains the most compelling value. Bench details how it stacks up against the Core i7-3770. The quad core Core i7-3820 doesn't perform substantially better in terms of raw computation than the LGA 1155 Core i7-3770, but it does allow you to take advantage of the 2011 platform's benefits, such as support for up to 64GB of DDR3 RAM and four full-sized PCIe lanes.

ASUS' P9X79 PRO performed very well in Ian's tests, and is an extremely feature-rich board. We're including 64GB of memory here, mostly because we can—if you don't use that much RAM in your workflow, there's no need to buy this much DDR3. We've also stepped up the SSD capacity to 240GB, which will accommodate large file manipulation, such as editing RAW image, HD video, and some database files. We're also including a 2TB Western Digital Green drive, though as with the RAM, you might need more or less storage depending on what you do with your workstation.

Sandy Bridge E CPUs neither come with integrated on-die graphics nor a heatsink, so you'll need to include at least one discrete GPU in your build as well as decide on what kind of cooling to use. Corsair's Hydro series offers simple liquid-cooling up to the task of cooling 130W TDP SBE CPUs. We're recommending the recently updated H60, but if you want more aggressive cooling, you can step up to the H80 or H100.

If you're not interested in GPGPU computing, a single GeForce 210 GPU will suffice, and that's what we're listing in our main table. If you want something more potent, AMD and NVIDIA both have their selling points, and for mainstream work you could go with either the Radeon HD 7970 or the GeForce GTX 680. Sapphire's 3GB 7970 starts at around $370, with mail-in rebates bringing it down to $350; the least expensive 2GB GTX 680 is from Galaxy and will set you back around $440 ($420 after MIR). Of course, implementing multiple GPUs for GPGPU is straightforward given the P9X79 PRO's ample PCIe lanes.

For those that want true workstation level graphics, the AMD vs. NVIDIA debate tends to be far more lopsided in favor of NVIDIA. We're still waiting for the "Big Kepler" Quadro card (it seems all of the GK110 chips are currently selling out in the Tesla K20/K20X cards), but even the GK104-based Quadro K5000 is extremely potent without using too much power. If your use case still benefits more from AMD's GCN architecture, AMD's FirePro S9000 typically costs less than the NVIDIA competition while still providing compelling performance.

Unfortunately, the target release date for the S9000 appears to be set for December 31, 2012, with Newegg listing it at $2399 at the time of writing. Meanwhile, the Quadro K5000 is readily available and goes for around $1750 right now, so AMD's parts will need to come in below MSRP if they want to get any traction. (Of course, GK110-based Quadro is probably just waiting in the wings for S9000 to finally hit retail—the Tesla K20 currently tips the scales at over $3200.) While the 560W PSU we're recommending below is fine for a single card, make sure you have ample power if you're going to use two high-end workstation GPUs. Power supplies generally run at maximum efficiency around the 50-60% load mark, so a 1000W PSU would probably be a good fit.

Rounding out the build, we have Corsair's 650D case and Seasonic X-Series 560W power supply. Seasonic's X-Series 560W earned Martin's high praises. It's more than powerful enough to run the detailed system, and could even handle a graphics card (or two, or even three depending on which models you use). Dustin reviewed the 650D very favorably. Its cooling capacity is able to handle even multiple GPU, higher TDP SBE CPU systems well while keeping noise levels low. I'm usually not a fan of windowed cases, but when you have a system this powerful and impressive, you should flaunt it!

Component Product Price Rebate
Case Corsair 650D $200 -$20
Power supply Seasonic X-Series 560W $125  
CPU Intel Core i7-3930K $570  
CPU cooler Corsair H60 $77  
Motherboard ASUS P9X79 PRO ATX $305  
RAM 64GB Corsair Value Select DDR3-1600 $240  
Graphics card Sparkle GeForce 210 1GB $30  
SSD Intel 520 Series 240GB $250  
Hard drives Western Digital Green 2TB $110  
Optical drive Lite-On iHAS124-04 $18  
Operating system Windows 7 Professional 64-bit $137  
  Total: $2,062 $2,042

We have a few concluding remarks on the next page.

AMD and Intel Mainstream Workstations Conclusions
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  • Next9 - Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - link

    there is another important argument - NBD on site warranty.

    If there is any problem with your real workstation, you call the vendor and next day, you have functional machine.

    If there is a problem with you do-it-ourself consumer grade so-called workstation, you are left on your own.
  • PCMerlin - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I have to agree with you Next9. The stability of ECC and raw power of Xeon, along with the Quadro or Fire series video cards should be the only combination for a serious CAD or other graphics workstation.

    I would NOT want to be the tech that has to answer the call when a designer wants answers to why the drawing he/she just spent the better part of the day working on just got "zapped" when his/her system blue-screened.

    In the regular workplace, the helpdesk guy can be the "hero" by restoring a crashed system back to life. CAD designers and engineers, on the other hand, would be perfectly happy if they never saw anyone from the IT world during their day-to-day work.
  • zebrax2 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    What happened to the workstation GPU review?
  • A5 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Is that what the kids are calling it these days? ;)
  • GrizzledYoungMan - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    While I agree with you on some points (see below), I'm still deeply skeptical of the usefulness of quick sync for professional video encoding. The image quality of those Intel commodity hardware encoders is really poor relative to any halfway decent software encoder. And pros tend to value quality over a few minutes (or even hours) of encoding time, as it so heavily affects the perceived overall quality of their product.

    But maybe that's changed? Perhaps a comparison article is in order?
  • JarredWalton - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I believe the point is that if you're uploading something to YouTube (which will futz with the quality, so there's no point in ultra-high rendering quality in the first place), Quick Sync is awesome. E.g. "Here's a preview clip -- it encoded in one minute on my little Ultrabook with Quick Sync, and since it's on YouTube the loss in quality doesn't matter."
  • GrizzledYoungMan - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I don't want to nitpick, but the fact that youtube generally recompresses any video delivered to the site isn't a justification for skimping on the quality of video delivered to youtube, it's a rationale for being even MORE careful about what you deliver to youtube.

    Speaking from experience, it's definitely possible to get video up on youtube that looks great, you just have to deliver at the highest quality possible. If memory serves, youtube accepts files of up to 20GB in size with no practical limit on bitrate, so I usually max out bitrate (via high quality settings, larger frame size, frame rate, etc etc) as much as possible relative to the length of the clip and the file size limit.

    In general, the rule when encoding is that good video put through bad compression gives you mediocre video. Mediocre video put through bad compression gives you bad video.

    To put it another way, the more information (by way of better quality compression) delivered to the youtube encoding pipeline, the better the overall result.
  • Next9 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    What is the point of using garbage consumer grade boards like ASUS or ASrock?

    ASUS boards usually lacks proper VT-d, ECC, AMT and other professional features support. BIOS/UEFI interface is complete piece of shit with GUI targeted at 10 year old kids full of stupid tawdry "features" with no real value to usability.
  • Rick83 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I was about to say the same - This review lacks consideration of S1155 Xeons, C216 chipsets, ECC...basically all that makes the distinction between a desktop and a workstation.
    And even the C216 ASUS Board does not support AMT.

    With th current price of these components, you would only add around 200 dollars to the mid-end machine, to bring it up to workstation spec.
    ECC-UDIMMs are only mildly more expensive than non-ECC-UDIMMs, S1155 Xeons are only marginally more expensive than the i7, and come with all features unlocked, and the Supermicro X9SAE(-V) (the only boards for the S1155 workstation market, that can be found in retail) go below 200 dollars, if you shop around - twice the price of the bargain bin B75 board, but you get so much more for your money....

    There's little use in going higher end, as anything that requires more performance should probably not be at your workplace, but rather in a server room.
    The AMD route is an interesting way of getting ECC at a slightly cheaper price. But only if you can stomach losing remote management.
  • Ktracho - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    What motherboard(s) would you recommend for for ECC and full VT-d support? I built a system with 3 Tesla cards with the idea that one or two of them could be dedicated to a virtual machine, but I didn't realize the motherboard also needed to support VT-d. I have no idea how to find out what motherboards have this feature.

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