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What Are the Pros and Cons of Windows-Based Workstations Versus Desktops?

Posted on 2010-08-24
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Hi everybody,

In the past, I have used desktops that were pretty packed for power users. My current PC is a quad core using an Intel i7 CPU (920@2.67 GHz), with 8 GB of RAM and running Windows 7 Home Premium-64-Bit. There are 2 internal drives, totaling 2 TB and 3 external drives totaling 3 TB.

For reasons not germane to this question, I am looking into purchasing EITHER a new different desktop OR a workstation. The workstation had been suggested to me primarily because of expandability and generally having a 3 year in-house service warranty.

After briefly looking on line at the various workstation options for Dell and Lenovo, my impression is that except for the in-house warranty, you get a LOT LESS BANG FOR YOUR BUCK. The cost is usually at least 50% higher than a desktop. And, this is for a  workstation having a slower processor, less RAM, and less hard drive storage. Bottom line, what am I missing?

One more thing-assuming that at the end of this discussion, workstations do seem to be a good alternative, what have your experiences been with price negotiation with your sales reps?

When buying desktops, it's pretty much you pay what you see, although what you see changes based on coupons, discounts, etc. However, with the business workstation, I "heard" that there was more room to negotiate, in order for them to get you as a client. True or false?

Thanks for your help.
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Question by:photoman11
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by:jorlando66
jorlando66 earned 50 total points
ID: 33513030
Workstations are generally "hardware certified" machines used for high end graphics and processor intensive applications.  In the past this was an important distinction, but as technology has progressed and manufacturing tolerences improved the line has began to blur.
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by:jorlando66
ID: 33513055
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by:ConchCrawl
ID: 33513100
Are you speaking of Dell or HP?
Workstations have always been considered "professional grade" and the price always will indicate that :-). They are normally for users that do a lot of graphics or number crunching not your typical user. They usually have higher capabilites than your typical desktop.
IMO, todays desktops will perform for over 90% of the people out there.
Pricing will depend on your relationship with the vendor, I haven't experienced much "negotiating the price" with either of them unless you are big time :-).
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by:Lee W, MVP
ID: 33513593
When purchasing Workstation, Optiplex, PowerEdge Server, or PowerVault Storage, DO NOT BUY ONLINE.  You will overspend so much!  Instead, get a business rep - you don't need to officially switch, brands if Dell isn't your current brand, just call them up tell them you want to setup an account for a small business and do it.  Then configure your system online.  Once configured, Send a copy (pdf of the page is what I usually do) to the sales rep.  TYPICALLY, I get 15-30% off the online price.  BEST time to buy is mid October, Mid January (VERY BEST TIME), Mid April, and Mid July.  Financial End of quarters are best and end of year even better.

As for the systems, They are GENERALLY designed for high-end CAD or other specific and demanding task.  The graphics card options don't necessarily play games well but should do CAD FAR better than the ones you buy for games.  If that's your purpose, go with a workstation.  If not... consider a high-end optiplex.
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by:ConchCrawl
ID: 33513651
Good point on the biz rep, leew. I haven't been in the purchasing side for a while and I'm pretty sure my boss has a dedicated biz rep to get his quotes. I was speaking more the individual user and online purchasing.
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by:Cliff Galiher
Cliff Galiher earned 80 total points
ID: 33517428
As an aside, that 3 year warranty is nothing to sneeze at. Add a 3 year warranty to a "desktop" and you'll see the price jump significantly. So you *do* pay for it. Having it bundled is nice.
Also, increasingly, there is a terminology gap as well. A desktop increasingly used to refer to a form-factor (vs mini-tower for example) where a workstation is distinct from the server so it clarifies the type of use. You can have a desktop workstation, or a tower workstation. Or a tower server or a rackmount server.
So the same thing can mean very different things to different people.
For what its worth, I find purchasing workstations worthwhile regardless of formfactor becuassse of the more standardized hardware. If you want to standardize your deployment image, which I also recommend, it is much easier to do on Dell's Optiplex line, for example, even across different model numbers, than it is for their Dimension line. By the nature of their designs and intended uses, there is just more stnadardization on the Optiplex systems, which when youwant to install an image on 50 or 75 PCs, adds up to significant savings in time...so the slight increase in cost for comparable hardware (because again warranty cost matters too, is more than made up for in the setup and maintenance long-term.
HTH,
-Cliff
 
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by:Lee W, MVP
ID: 33517689
> Add a 3 year warranty to a "desktop" and you'll see the price jump significantly
I disagree somewhat.  I don't get too many desktop, but at least until recently, a Desktop Optiplex system from Dell came standard with a 3 year warranty and you could get them for as little as $400 sans monitor.  
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by:zkrieger
ID: 33517864
we use both.  for HP their workstations are like high end gaming machines... good components, big power supplies, lots of fans, etc.

their desktop line is low end. the power supplies cannot support PCI-e video cards that need PCI-e dedicated power connectors, they only support 2 hard drives, etc.

that said, they are expensive, so depending on what your needs are should dictate what you buy.
do not buy workstations for daily office work.

do consider them for programmers, high end VMware users, etc.  IE people that will actually stress a computer and use a local raid 5 disk set, etc.  (or play games at work, yes, we do that too)
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by:Cliff Galiher
ID: 33518302
leew: Optiplex, until recently was marketed as a "workstation" thus my clause that definitions themselves have become somewhat muddy. I agree, Optiplex's 3 year warranty was not particular expensive, but an optiplex's at the price point you mention were lower powered as well (targeting the low-end business where gaming/multimedia would not be used) and you couldn't even get a Dimension with the same processor/RAM, so the price was impossible to accurately compare.
When you got to similar hardware, Optiplex's gend to be more expensive than Dimensions,...until you add a warranty to the Dimension to make it comparable. That was the only point I was making. But I can understand how the confusion crept in. Workstation vs Desktop is a very complex question because of the lack of clarity in the definition behind teh question. Again, no fault of the questioner...just the pace of the industry.
-Cliff
 
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by:Lee W, MVP
Lee W, MVP earned 90 total points
ID: 33518323
Dell has had the Workstation line for at least 10 years, if not longer.  I've never seen them advertise (in such a way that I can remember it) an optiplex system as a workstation and I've been ordering them for about the last 12 years or more.

When you base your pricing analysis on the web site, yes, the optiplex tends to be more expensive.  When you base the price analysis on what a sales rep can get you, they are pretty darn close - within a few dollars most of the time.  Reps cannot discount dimensions but they can do very good discounts on optiplex systems.  But yes, the low end systems are low end - but you can say that about ANY inexpensive system.  For most businesses I know, the low end systems are more than sufficient - typical customer usage in my environments are office and web and email... of course, there are a few users who do much more than that... but MOST do not.

(This really just a continuation of the discussion for the potential benefit of anyone interested).
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by:gikkel
ID: 33527272
Typically true workstations are built using the same type of board for a server with a few minor adjustments to allow for high-end graphics.  Although Dell's T1500 series uses the Intel Core series, you should expect a workstation to come with a Xeon or Opteron processor.  It should also have at least 2 cpu sockets (hence the necessity for a Xeon).  Workstations will also let you upgrade to a ridiculous amount of ram (96+ gb), with support for ecc.  Workstations should also use a professional video card, mainly the nvidia quadro or ati fire series.  There are major architectural differences that justify the increase in price.  
However, since I'm an engineer I use software that can benefit from the raw power of a workstation.  It is highly dependant on your user.  I personally will NEVER go back to a desktop setup.  As for the price, I always build my own...and the decrease in price is astounding.  If that's not an option and price is a major concern, stick with a desktop. Other than that, you'll notice the difference between an entry-level workstation and a desktop is that they offer a low-end professional graphics card - and you'd be better suited with a desktop.
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by:photoman11
ID: 33545519
It sounds like a lot of the decision comes down to utilization so, I guess I should give an idea of how I use mine. I'm thinking that I fall into a weird category because I don't use a lot of high-end graphic memory-intensive programs; but I do use a lot of applications simultaneously.

Since it will get into charts and legends, I will explain my PC usage in the attached document. I hope this will make it easier to suggest one direction or another.

Thanks again for your help.
EE--PC-Applications-Utilization.xlsx
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by:ConchCrawl
ConchCrawl earned 90 total points
ID: 33545816
IMO, a better built desktop with a nicer video card and a dual core i5 or better and at least 4GBs of RAM and you're smoking. As well as, saving some money :-) over a workstation. Nothing in your list indicates you need a "professional workstation". I have a similar setup and run VM's with servers for testing and never lack in anything. I would recommend Windows 7 Pro to take advantage of this and I think you will find it much faster.
Hope this helps.
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by:zkrieger
zkrieger earned 90 total points
ID: 33546160
Photo for the list you gave us, i use a 64 bit OS with 8gb ram, 1tb hard drives in a mirror and a quad core CPU.  Desktops are fine for that.

workstations would be:

I need 4+ monitors that all display 3d graphics.
I need 6+ tb of local storage in a raid 5.
I run 3+ local VMs as well as the base OS and all are used for more than basic testing.
and finally:
I need a more rugged machine for an adverse environment that is not well temperature controlled.

we recently purchased some lower end HP z400 workstations.
1 cpu, quad core, 12gb ram, 2x1tb hard drives in a mirror and a SSD for the OS.
These will be used by our application programmers who will be using SQL 2005 and 2008 on their local machine as well as 3 VMs each, 1 with SQL and 2 with different versions of web applciations. they all use 3 monitors and will be testing complex SQL stored procedures to generate reports against a 600GB database stored on an iSCSI SAN that they all share. They also use all normal office applications and have 4 other VM images that they fire up as needed to emulate our end user computers.

I consider them "light" workstation users.
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by:gikkel
ID: 33546851
You really don't require a workstation - your applications aren't very resource intensive (with the exception of Photoshop).  You would however, benefit from a professional graphics card.  The ATI FirePro series are phenomenal and affordable.  I would recommend 6gb ram and a core i5 or i7.  You would also benefit from an SSD (as would everyone).  
My typical workload - Windows 7 Ultimate x64 running 3-5 sessions of AutoCAD Civil 3D, ArcGIS, 5-10 Excel files, 10-20 Word docs, Access, HEC-RAS, Opera, Outlook, Photoshop, Google Earth, Acrobat, IE, VMware, and more.  I have yet to see a hiccup.
If you have the option of building your own, there's no reason you couldn't start with a workstation base and gradually upgrade if necessary.  If you buy the right parts, it would last upwards of 5 years, and even then could be cycled down the chain.  However, if you're anything like me, you'll want the best of the best...and it starts to get really expensive.
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by:photoman11
ID: 33547356
I guess the consensus is that a workstation is excessive overkill, and I don't need it. That's cool. This is the background to my question:

One year ago, I purchased an HP PAVILION 9150 - a quad core using an Intel i7 CPU (920@2.67 GHz), with 8 GB of RAM and running Windows 7 Home Premium-64-Bit. There are 2 internal drives, totaling 2 TB and 3 external drives totaling 3 TB.

Unfortunately, this model has turned out to be a giant stinking lemon. Even in HP's own forum, it has the distinction of being the longest running post (consisting of 99% dissatisfied customers) at 375 pages (last time I looked).

On paper, the machine should be a screamer and handle everything I have with ease. Suffice it to say that that is not the case and, thank God I used a credit card when purchasing, which had an extended warranty provision. Because the repairs if done, would exceed the purchase price, and therefore I'm going to dump it and replace it with the extended warranty reimbursement, which is roughly up to $1000.

Part of my dilemma all along has been that I don't know how many of the issues I have experienced are because of the lemon, the software, or Windows (Or unknown issues).

Part of the "lessons" I've gained from this experience, has me leaning in the following direction:

- Dell or Lenovo (I have only had experience with Dell, and it was positive)
- The thought of a warranty in which the manufacturer visits my location rather than sending the unit into theirs, is very appealing. Since the Dell workstation has this type of three-year warranty, that was one of the primary appeals.
- I have become very un-trusting of the standard power supply built into normal retail desktops. So I don't know if the workstations offer options for upgrading with bigger ones, because I'm pretty sure that with desktops, it is not an option.
- I still do not have a feel for what are the major elements that contribute to outstanding performance. Having a quad core using an Intel i7 CPU (920@2.67 GHz), with 8 GB of RAM, I would not say that I experienced anything approaching lightning speed, other than by exception.

There were comments regarding Windows 7 Pro, graphics cards, and SSD; all improving performance. Although I do currently have 2 regular monitors and an HDTV connected, I would like to get a 3rd monitor, so price-wise, what should I be looking at as far as getting the highest performance for the dollar? What's the most important component? Graphics card? Windows 7 Pro? Etc.

I have no idea whether an Intel i7 is overkill or if an Intel i5 is enough.

I guess bottom line, if I do want a three-year in-house service type of warranty, in a PC or workstation with the kind of performance mentioned above; is there going to be that much price difference between a non-discounted desktop and a discounted workstation?

I still don't understand the impact of the hardware specifications at this level of detail, so I have to throw myself on the mercy of Expert Exchange. Sorry about the long post.
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by:gikkel
ID: 33547534
It all comes down to price.  Get Windows 7 x64, Pro should be fine.  Skimp on memory and disk size as they're easily upgradeable and overpriced from system builders....
You may actually want to look into the Precision T1500 workstation - which is not really a workstation, but isn't overly expensive and has a good warranty.  Pick a good cpu, the core i7 880 should be good.  Remember, frequency is still very important.  You can pick the Ati FirePro V4800 graphics card, which will run 3 monitors.  The board only has four slots available for memory, so you should at least get 2x2gb and buy additional third-party memory.  Dell is, however, starting to get very proprietory (well, has been), so be cautious about what you buy.   You're looking around $1500.  If you want to spend more, get a better workstation - they are typically very stable.  
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by:photoman11
ID: 33549031
I looked at the T1500 and its description is a CAD kind of application. That seems to be significantly more than what I would need it for graphics wise. But, I don't know what the pricing is on this since it seemed difficult to find out on the Dell site.

You mentioned "Pick a good cpu, the core i7 880 should be good.  Remember, frequency is still very important." What do you mean by frequency?

My last question involves power supply which it seems everybody, including Dell, skimps on. You've any thoughts on this? It doesn't usually provide an option to even upgrade on power supplies when purchasing the unit.

Anyway, thanks very much for your help.
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gikkel earned 100 total points
ID: 33559841
CPU frequency is the clock rate (or speed) of each core, measured in hertz (typically gigahertz).  Since you are working on multiple applications simultaneously (and a few are multithreaded applications), you will benefit from a quad core cpu.  Although the core i5 series should be sufficient, they don't support hyperthreading with their quad core processors.  Hyperthreading allows each core to work on two tasks simultaneously, which allows 8 threads in a 4 core cpu.  I would prefer to purchase any core i7 over an i5.
The T1500 is basically a desktop with a professional graphics card...and if you customize a desktop and workstation with roughly the same specs, you may actually find the workstation to be cheaper.  
Dell typically matches the power supply with power requirements at the time of purchase. For instance, if you choose a model with 2 graphics cards installed, the power supply would be at a higher wattage because of the power requirements.  You may, however, have the option to choose an energy efficient model.  You typically cannot upgrade the power supply.  
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by:photoman11
ID: 33564347
Thanks everybody. I guess time will tell.
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