Midrange Workstation

If you are considering building a midrange workstation, one important question you need to ask is whether your workloads will benefit from Hyper-Threading. This is the most important difference between the Core i5-3570 and Core i7-3770 CPUs. Anand previewed and reviewed the Core i7-3770 at length, and given that the cost differential between the two aforementioned chips is about $100, they're worth reading. Succinctly, workloads heavy on compression, encryption, multi-threaded audio and video transcoding, and multi-threaded software compilation are among the more common tasks that benefit greatly from the addition of the i7's Hyper-Threading. Many functions in Adobe Creative Suite 6 benefit from Hyper-Threading.

In my experience, Hyper-Threading increases productivity in certain SAS and Excel functions but not others. While we don't have the i5-3570 in Bench yet, comparing the previous generation i5-2500 (non Hyper-Threading) to the i7-2600 (Hyper-Threading) will give you a sample of applications that benefit from Hyper-Threading. Because so many productivity titles benefit from Hyper-Threading, we're recommending the Core i7-3770 here. Note that if you are interested in overclocking, you'll need to spend a few more dollars on the multiplier unlocked i7-3770K. While overclocking modern CPUs is often unproblematic (especially with modest overclocks that don't entail overvolting), a workstation needs to be as stable as possible, so we are not recommending an overclocked CPU for this build.

A second important question is whether your workloads will benefit from GPU acceleration. Many popular productivity titles like Sony's Vegas Pro 11, Adobe CS 6, and MATLAB, as well as more specialized software titles like those that model electrochemistry and align DNA sequences, can complete certain tasks much faster when accelerated by a GPU than when the work is done solely by the CPU. A more thorough discussion of GPGPU is outside the scope of this article; suffice it to say that if you are not already familiar with GPU acceleration, it is worth researching whether your workloads will benefit from it. If you are already familiar with GPU acceleration, you likely know which GPU models best fit your needs. Less expensive GPGPU-purposed video cards are typically within reach of a midrange workstation builder's budget, but for the sake of simplicity, one is not included in this build.

No workstation should be without an SSD—nothing improves overall system responsiveness like an SSD—so we include the Samsung 128GB here. Windows 7, Office 2010, and Adobe CS 6 will all comfortably fit on a 128GB SSD but you'll likely need more storage. If you're a heavy Photoshop user, you might want to consider adding another SSD to use as a scratch disk. You can certainly upgrade to higher-performance 7200RPM drives or add more storage drives as necessary, but 2TB will give you plenty of storage space to start.

The Intel BOXDH77KC is, in my experience, a reliable motherboard with plenty of expansion slots; it includes a slot for an mSATA SSD if you prefer to use that either in place of or in addition to the Samsung 830 128GB SSD. The 16GB (2 x 8GB) kit of Kingston DDR3-1600 RAM will likely be sufficient for most workstation users; if not, another 16GB kit can be added for 32GB total (note that you'll need Windows 7 Pro/Ultimate to benefit from more than 16GB). Powering everything, we're recommending the SeaSonic S12II 430B. This is an extremely well-built unit that will provide your components with stable, clean power. It's also very quiet.

Workstations come in legion configurations, and most people want them to be quiet and look clean. Fractal Design's Define R4 was reviewed by Dustin recently, and I agree with his pertinent conclusions: it is flexible, quiet, has great thermals, and is a very good value at just over $100. It can accommodate multiple, larger GPUs for GPGPU computing, many hard drives for lots of local storage, and is very easy to keep clean because of its many fan filters. It's also available with a windowed side panel if you want to impress people with your computer building skills.

Finally, this build includes a copy of Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. You can get an overview of the differences between Windows versions at Microsoft and Wikipedia. Some of the more relevant and important differences between Professional and Home Premium are the former's support for more than 16GB of RAM, Windows XP mode, domain join, and integrated backup and restore features. Here's our final baseline workstation--many higher end users will want to add an appropriate GPU, which is easy to do.

Component Product Price
Case Fractal Design Define R4 $110
Power Supply SeaSonic S12II 430B $60
CPU Intel Core i7-3770 $309
Motherboard Intel BOXDH77KC $110
RAM Kingston 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 $75
SSD Samsung 830 128GB $100
HDD Western Digital 2TB Green $110
Optical Drive Lite-On IHAS324 $20
Operating System Windows 7 Professional 64-bit $117
Cost: $1,011

That takes care of our primary builds for this guid, but read on for some additional concluding remarks.

Midrange Gaming Machines Closing Thoughts
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  • Samus - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - link

    since when did Anandtech start recommending Biostar and MSI motherboards? I've always ranked them somewhere at the bottom of the pile with ECS, Foxconn, Jetway and the other crap thats often near-free with a CPU purchase from Microcenter, Fry's, etc. They're all notorious for using low-grade capacitors, thinner PCB's, poor mosfet designs and overall poor layouts.

    Quality boards from Asus/Asrock, Gigabyte, even Intel, can be had for within a margin of negligibility. Just my .02 (although worth much more)
  • Impulses - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - link

    Really? Traditionally I'd put MSI about on par with Gigabyte... Every board I'd bought over the last 15 years has been an ASUS (except for one Abit back in 2000, RIP), until my current mobo, went with MSI because it just seemed like the better value near $150.
  • Stas - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - link

    Agreed. I, personally, always preferred brands in this order: Gigabyte, MSI, Biostar (high end models), ASUS
  • StevoLincolnite - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - link

    MSI's higher-end motherboards are some of the best, same with their graphics cards.

    They're certainly not throwing out crap like they did during the Socket 478 and Socket 462 or even Socket 370 days that's for sure, horrible horrible motherboards back then.
  • hsew - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - link

    I'm on board with gigabyte being my first choice. I'm especially fond of their solution to today's limited USB power spec. The software-based charging solutions from the other manufacturers just can't compete, especially when they are limited to Apple products. :(
  • JPForums - Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - link

    For me, brand preference depends on whether I'm making an AMD build or an Intel build. It also depends on whether I'm looking at higher end or mainstream boards. I tend to avoid budget boards, because it seems like no manufacturer can consistently make reliable budget boards.

    For high end Intel boards, I look to Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. They sometimes trade off top spot, but Asus's ROG and Sabertooth boards have worked out really well for me. While MSI used to be junk, they've worked their way up to be nearly the equal of Gigabyte at the high end. Both Gigabyte and MSI have boards I've found both impressive and reliable.

    For mainstream Intel boards, I look at to high end ASRock boards first, (if budget allows), then I look at Gigabyte and Asus in that order. A high end ASRock board can sometimes be priced somewhat comparably to mainstream Asus and Gigabyte boards. I've had better luck with ASRock's more recent high end boards than any mainstream board. When budget doesn't allow for high end, I've had better luck with Gigabyte's mainstream boards than comparable Asus models.

    For high end AMD boards, I look to Asus and MSI. Gigabyte, in my experience, has some quality control issues to work out on the AMD side. MSI's highend offering slots in just below the ROG series, but could be considered better than the Sabertooth series depending on target audience.

    For mainstream AMD boards, I again look to ASRock's highend first. I find MSI and Asus to be comparable here. While ASRock hasn't impressed me as much on the AMD side as the Intel side, their high end boards are still better than mainstream boards given Gigabytes quality control issues on their AMD lines.

    I've gotten nothing but crap from Soyo, EPoX, ECS, Biostar, Jetway, and Foxconn. I'm surprised to see a number of people here recommending Biostar. It may be time to reevaluate them. DFI was good in the day (if harder to setup optimally), but I haven't bought them since Socket 754/939. ABIT was great in their time, RIP. EVGA was reliable, but not the best performing. Seemed like they had some hiccups to work through. Intel is too limiting last I checked. Zotac seems work well for mini-ITX systems. That sums up my experience (I'm into triple digits for number of builds).
  • Samus - Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - link

    I agree with pretty much everything you've said.

    Especially Biostar. Unlike MSI, they have remained crap for the last two decades. Poor BIOS support, generally low quality components (unless high end) and the feel and layout is always bad.

    ASUS/ASRock tend to be very consistant with their layouts, leaning toward the conservative and less radical side. Both companies have excellent support. I remember working DIRECTLY with an engineer with my aging P6T on a BIOS problem, and the fix (a SLI bug) later found its way into a BIOS update.

    Intel is Intel. Although the boards are made by Foxconn, they're generally solid well supported, just a little boring when building a custom system.

    Gigabyte has had their issues, especially with their "server" boards, but they have always been reliable for me in the end. I had one finally fail after 7 years awhile back, an old Athlon 754 board with a VIA chipset. The board was actually in a server running Windows SBS 2003. It finally started giving trouble booting up (you'd have to play with cycling the power to get a POST) but it never completely failed, was just retired because it was 'on its way out.'

    Soyo is a terrible company all the way around. I've seen nothing but consistant LCD, PSU and motherboard failures from them, almost always from low quality transformers or power components. Their support is awful. 2-3 days for email replies and nobody EVER picks up their phone.

    EPoX is interestingly terrible because they aquired a bunch of Gigabyte engineers many years ago. It didn't help them produce any better product, though.

    ECS/Jetway/Foxconn are all the same to me. No matter how high-end the board might be priced, the support is terrible and their is always ONE MAJOR THING wrong with their board, usually something unbelievably thoughtless, like the position of the SATA ports or even the CMOS battery standing up and getting in the way or a card. Just when you thought you've seen it all, these big three can always screw up in an entirely new way. Good luck with any troubleshooting or BIOS support after the product has been on the market for more than 6 months, guaranteeing no future CPU support or long-term bug fixes.

    I never really liked ASUS because they are overpriced (usually the most expensive) and their website has been terrible forever (at least driver mirrors have improved) but they make very solid, reliable, well-supported products. I love my Xonar soundcard as well.
  • SciFiRules - Sunday, October 21, 2012 - link

    I agree with for the most part but I would say for current products I would tier as follows
    1 ASRock, best price product in general in my opinion
    Asus, pricey and historically bad support issues and website
    Gigabyte, recently more issues with early revision boards
    Intel, great corporate stuff if the price is right
    2 MSI, early revision issue, retarded support, still wary of them
    Biostar, I had more than a dozen fail (m7nc) at about 3 yrs old but less than 15% failure before that. I had like 4 calls in a week about dead computers with this paticular build , I felt like Dell Support.
    3 Foxconn, Elitegroup,aka ECS, PCchips, GQ, ect and FIC i only use them for replacements on older products when I cant locate better
    I loved the DFI Lanparty Ultra D and built many systems with these - I even have one working as a Loaner still. As for Soyo I think they came close to a good product with the k7 dragon line but that the best I can say about them. Abit had some good boards but I had little experience with them really. I never saw a tier 3 board I would have used or sold in a new computer a second time. I have had decent luck using tier 3 boards for replacing failing boards when the chipsets are very mature and they have high revision numbers in general though. The thinner layer pcb and lower quality limits the life expectancy but generally its borrowed time anyway. And thank god for Dell, Emachine...... for using crap power supply's which has kept me in food for years.
  • eBob - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - link

    Most of my builds have been with Asus mobos. I had a few bad experiences with MSI mobos and one of their DVD drives a few years ago which soured me on the brand. I did build a system for a friend using a Jetway mobo back in 2006. He just wanted something cheap, cheap, cheap for a second computer. He still uses it.
  • Pessimism - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - link

    I agree with your brand rankings with the exception of AsRock, which is Asus' pile-of-junk division. However, I look at purchasing in a different light: I'd rather a $60 motherboard that will last me five years before its capacitors explode, than a $150-250 motherboard that might last 7 or more. In either case, after 5 years both are so laughably obsolete that you are better off replacing them anyway. Going with the cheaper board nets you $100-200 for the next tier up in CPU, which more than makes up for the paltry 1-5% performance delta between the el-cheapo motherboard and the best of the super-bling-o-matic 35 USB port monsters.

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