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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  • Kristian Vättö - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I don't personally find the Intel SSD 520 to be a good value anymore. Sure, it comes with a 5-year warranty but so does almost all high-end SSDs nowadays. Its performance isn't worth any extra either because to be honest, it's slow compared to other high-end SSDs. Especially if you're dealing with incompressible data, SandForce really isn't the best choice and I think it's important for workstation users to have consistent performance, which SandForce cannot provide.

    If Samsung SSD 840 Pro is out of reach, I would recommend either Corsair Neutron GTX or Plextor M5 Pro. At 120/128GB, they cost around as much as the Intel SSD 520 but if you go for the 240/256GB model, you'll be able to save a few bucks. Both also come with 5-year warranty if that's a concern.
  • mrdude - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I came in here to post this but I'm glad I'm not the only one.

    The Intel drives really don't offer anything special anymore, particularly since Corsair's LAMD acquisition. Plextor also offers a 5 year warranty and they've got the best Marvell in-house firmware on the market with rock solid stability and fantastic performance. Since their M3 they've been my SSD of choice and the drives I recommend to everyone, but now it's a toss up between Corsair's Neutron and Plextor's drives. Of course, if we're talking power consumption in a laptop then it's pretty one-sided.

    As far as quicksync and video editing goes, it highly depends on the software involved. Some software responds well to CUDA/openCL and blazes through with GPU assist and shows no signs of even slight distortion or muddiness while other software maintains great image quality via fixed-function units like QuickSync. The most consistent as far as image quality goes will always be a straight CPU approach, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's the only viable solution.
  • Doctor Z - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    You do realize that for most users who need power, dual and quad-CPU server motherboards make better workstations. Why didn't you include those Zach? Because they're in the $10,000-$30,000 range fully-loaded?
  • A5 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    If that's what you need, you aren't building your own. You're either part of a company that will buy it for you (and therefore your IT department will want something serviceable with a warranty) or you're running your own business (and can deduct the expense) and need something that is rock-solid reliable.
  • JDG1980 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    If it doesn't have ECC RAM, it's not a workstation. Period. Not one of the builds showcased in your articles includes this basic feature - an inexcusable omission.
  • Pityme22 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    First, you have to identify the programs used by the workstation to even begin commenting. I.e. You dont mention CAD programs which for use of all features require a Quattro or FirePro graphics cards. Anand, I am very surprised that you let this "article" be posted as it is very much below normal AnandTech standards. Shame, Shame.
  • jamesgor13579 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I completely agree with many of the other posters here. If it does not have ECC is isn't a workstation. I work in R&D for a large tech company. There is a reason ALL of our desktops have ECC. RAM just isn't that reliable.

    Here is an excellent example of why:
    I am an ASIC designer. We have to run a lot of simulations of the logic and timing to make sure everything works. Once our design is layed out, modeling all of the timing takes a lot of memory. Dozens of GB just to simulate part of the design. Someone was cheap and built a three "workstations" out of desktop motherboards and 64GB (8x8GB in a socket 2011) non-ECC memory. Well less than a year later when it was crunch time on the project and the machines were running week long simulations, two of them started randomly crashing. Guess what, it was the RAM. Replaced one DIMM and the machine worked again.

    If you need your system to work, Non ECC RAM is not OK.
  • Makaveli - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Doesn't that just mean you had a bad stick of memory?

    And your telling me that can't happen with ECC memory?
  • smpltn - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    650D paint chips easily
  • Kevin G - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Depending on the task at hand ECC is a requirement. The graphic artist or video editor would likely only encounter a pixel being off color for a memory error. Those types of fields can generally tolerate such errors. The CAD, research or financial markets for example absolutely need to have ECC due to the need for continual data integrity.

    As such, more consideration should have been put into AMD motherboards (the FX line supports ECC but not all motherboards do) as well as socket 1155/C200 series chipsets for the low end and midrange builds. Even if the use-case doesn't need ECC, I'd have still opted to include such a motherboard with the AMD FX build. High end socket 2011 build I'd recommend the Gigabyte X79S-UP5 motherboard supports ECC memory as it is really based upon the C606 chipset. This motherboard would cover a wide range of workstation uses. Only those wanting dual sockets would have to look else where.

    The graphics card choice is also 'interesting'. For simple 2D work, a low end consumer card is more than enough for some use-case scenarios. For things like image editing, getting a low end FirePro or a Quadro would make sense for superior drivers and 30 bit color support. Other use-scenarios are starting to use GPU's for some heavy processing: video editing applications for example for accelerating some effects. High end consumer cards are often equal to midrange workstation cards due to artificially crippling GPGPU performance on the consumer side. Selecting between cards often boils down to specifically what applications the workstation will be running.

    Power supply selection is a bit weak. A workstation tends to be expandable and I'd provision some room for future expansion. Upgrading the lowend builds here with a midrange or better consumer GPU would entail a PSU upgrade as well. The article does mention getting bigger PSU's with bigger video cards but I see it wiser to provision a PSU with these possible upgrades in mind before purchasing them. Only with the niche GPGPU workstation area I can see multiple video cards being worth considering so that does put a reasonable upper bound on PSU requirements.

    For a workstation I always recommend that a pair of hard drives are setup in a RAID1 array to protect your data in the event of a disk failure. A five year warranty won't help you when your drive is dead and you have to pay for downtime and recreating work from your most recent backup. Speaking of which, including good backup software/external storage and a solid UPS would be wise for a workstation regardless of use-case scenario. When you're using a system for work, you want it to work continuously.

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