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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  • Rick83 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    With 3 Teslas, you definitely want a C606 based chipset, otherwise you'll run out of PCIe fast. Haven't looked intensely at that market yet, because it's outside my needs/budget.
  • Next9 - Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - link

    What about Supermicro? They have plenty of single socket and dual socket LGA2011 motherboards? Even with onboard audio and USB 3.0. Or there are also C32/G34 alternatives if you prefer Opterons.
  • Ananke - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I absolutely agree. Workstation path is Supermicro/Tyan/Intel motherboard with Xeon, ECC RAM, etc. and NVidia GPGPU. If you use mostly Maya, than you can cheap with some consumer Radeon. Eventually, redundant PSU. Such system can go as high as $50k though.
  • Next9 - Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - link

    Cheap Radeons are also great in Virtualized environment (Vt-d/IOMMU). Consumer grade GeForce cards have often problems with direct HW passthrough.
  • Penti - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Workstation features and text-mode firmware is what you want, not to be reminded about the GUI BIOS's of 486 computers of the past. It wasn't a good idea then and isn't now. Working implementations is all that matters.

    I guess high-end should be something like a LGA2011 Xeon machine. Of course something like a Supermicro board will have it's own (third party) IPMI and KVM over IP embedded BMC/stack. Or a 4P Opteron Piledriver machine. For high-end enterprise type stuff. (Boxx sells systems with dual processor Opteron or Xeon, I guess dual processor Opteron will give a boost for some, at least with G34 quad-channel and 2/4P on top of that). At least those systems where you have the choice to go 2P or 4P is what you would call actual workstations. Which performs better or fit other uses then a say clocked 3770k any how. Between a six core SB-E and Ivy Bridge quad-core there just won't be a lot of difference to justify the shift. If you want VT-d you could find Z77 boards with support for it if your looking. Just not Asus boards. Provided you choose a CPU that as support for it too, like 3770 (non-k). Probably Q77 vPro/AMT supported boards too if you look for them. If you do any creative multimedia type stuff you probably want a much more powerful graphics card then GF210 btw. In the terms of supporting stuff like Adobe's Mercury Playback Engine, CUDA acceleration or professional CAD or modeling software.

    All depends on need. If you need it a good machine will probably be worth it.
  • Olaf van der Spek - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    What's up with the Radeon 5450 suggestion? With only 64 bit DDR3 it's seriously low on memory bandwidth, which might even cause trouble on the desktop.
  • DanNeely - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I've ran a 2560x1600 and 1200x1600 monitor simultaneously on significantly slower cards without trouble before. You're not going to be able to do anything GPU heavy on them but the desktop's requirements are so low virtually anything can handle them.
  • slatanek - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    just wanted to add, for all adobe cs6 users (premiere pro especially) go with nvidia for the graphics. amd's gpu's get limited support and it's osx only (mercury engine mostly).
    for the lack of ecc, v-td etc. I understand that Zack stated/advised that if your work is critical (thats where you'd use ecc after all) you'd be better off with pre-build systems that come with full service. thats why, I assume, no mention of the pro features.
  • ggathagan - Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - link

    Are you sure about that?

    In CS5, the Mercury engine only supported CUDA.
    As I understand it, however, Mercury has been modified in CS6, dropping CUDA support in favor of OpenCL and OpenGL

    "MGE is new to Photoshop CS6 and uses both the OpenGL and OpenCL frameworks. It does not use the proprietary "CUDA framework from nVidia."
  • TeXWiller - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    That is an inappropriate selection for a workstation. Try the W-series instead. And since we are talking about entry-level workstations, the E3 Xeons and AMD based ECC-supporting consumer boards should have been included, like the other commenters have pointed out. The A300s don't support ECC but would have been an interesting point of comparison.

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