My wife overheard me a few days ago saying: “You’ve given me years of good service. But your performance has slowed down, I now have better performing alternatives. So I’m going to replace you.” She reminded me that marriages can terminate two ways that begin with the letter “D”, and divorce is only one of them.
I reassured my wife that I wasn’t talking to (or about) her. Instead, I was talking to (and about) my 6 year old Dell Dimension 8400.
The 8400 was one of the very first PCI-Express computers. However, as hardware requirements inevitably increased over the years, it became progressively slower. Reformatting the hard drive, increasing RAM, and upgrading components only slowed down the hands of time. And some upgrades – the video card in particular – caused more problems than were solved (by overloading the power supply).
I decided to get a cutting edge workstation with a processor that uses the Nehalem microarchitecture (discussed below). I thought it would be easy to choose a workstation. Just make a few component choices, compare a few prices, and done! Not exactly. I found myself in a fog of choices.
Consequently, I did what I usually do. Research and learn. I wrote this article while I was researching, to help myself remember the various choices and their pros and cons.
I’ve now made my choice. But sometimes the destination is less important than the road traveled to get there. So I thought I’d share with you my decision-making process as well as my choice.
Was the research worth it?
Given the value of my time – at least according to what my employers pay for my time – no. The time I spent researching probably would have paid for at least one new desktop.
Yet I’m glad I did the research. I learned a lot, including information I can use in the subject I teach, computer science. And besides, I enjoy learning this stuff.
Additionally, I rarely suffer buyer’s remorse over purchases I’ve thoroughly researched. Continuing to be happy about a purchase — or avoiding unhappiness — is worth something.
OK, enough justification. Let’s get to the research results.
When I purchased my Dell Dimension 8400, one important goal was to future proof my purchase to the extent possible. So I therefore chose one of the very first PCI-Express machines, thinking that would be a leading technology for a few years, which is as long as you can hope for. By and large, that expectation proved correct. But nothing lasts forever, especially when it comes to computers. And six years is eons for a computer.
Consistent with the future proofing goal, I wanted a processor that uses Intel’s latest and greatest Nehalem microarchitecture. Its advantages are listed here. I particularly like the QuickPath Interconnect and the ability to support 3 memory channels. I won’t delve further into the technical details because they’re mostly over my head. Suffice to say that I believe Nehalem is the right choice for future proofing.
I initially chose Intel’s Core i7 processor, which in different variations has been out for about one year. However, In choosing the Core i7, I missed that it’s not the only Nehalem processor I should consider for a workstation. But more on that later.
Performance vs. Gaming
Many of the Core i7 computers are for gaming. Games are fun. My favorite pits hideous alien insects against community college administrators. Sadly, the alien insects die a horrible death, being unable to survive endless committee meetings and bickering over mission and vision statements.
But I digress. I’m not a gamer. Rather, I’m looking for performance to do my job(s). So those looking for a gaming machine likely would make different choices than I did.
There are two forks in the road. One is OEMs like Dell, HP, etc. The other is boutique vendors.
The Dell was available only from its Home unit; the Small Business unit sells only the lesser XPS 8000. Nevertheless, the Dell was my only choice among the main vendors. It’s hard to find anyone selling the ASUS, and its support is limited. Apparently no online or other resellers are selling the Gateway model. The HP model had outdated choices for the processor, video card and other components.
I’m not as familiar with the boutique vendors. So I may have missed some good choices. But here’s what I turned up:
Here my main concern was vendor reputation and support. I’m shelling out a lot of money for this machine. I want one that’s well made. Of course, problems happen. If so, I need accessible and knowledgeable support. And I’m willing to pay for it. Listening to a foreign script reader ask me in bad English if my computer is turned on tries both my time and patience.
Help provided by OEMs is a known quantity to me (good and bad). However, I haven’t had prior experience with the boutique vendors. So I did a Google search.
Of course, you have to regard web reviews with some skepticism. These are anonymous reviews. Also, vendors have been known to seed review sites with their own reviews, which obviously are both biased and not real. That being said, if you’re carefully skeptical, there is a rough overall accuracy to the reviews.
I tried ResellerRatings.com. As a reality check, I checked the ratings of a company I regard as stellar, Newegg. I also checked some outfits which shall go nameless that I’ve had problems with. There seemed to be an overall accuracy to the ratings. Or at least the ratings were in accord with my perception of reality.
Maingear seemed the clear choice. Again, YMMV.
I went to the Dell and Maingear websites and configured the following. I chose a64 bit OS so I could access more than 3.2GB of RAM. I chose RAID 1 because this workstation is relatively mission-critical.
|Dell XPS 9000||Maingear Shift|
|OS||Win7 Pro 64 bit||Same|
|Motherboard||Type not specified||EVGA X58 SLI|
|Processor||Intel Core i7-920||Same|
|RAM||6GB Tri-Channel @ DDR-3 1066MHz – 6 DIMMs||6GB Tri-Channel Kingston HyperX DDR3-1600MHz – 3 DIMMs|
|HDD||2 x 1TB (Raid 1) SATA 7200 RPM||Same (though may be better HDD)|
|Video||nVidia GeForce GTX 260||Same|
|Sound Card||Soundblaster® X-Fi™ Titanium||Auzentech X-Fi™ Forte 7.1|
|Optical Drives||Dual Drives: Burner (DVD/CD/BD) and DVD+/-RW||Similar|
|Liquid cooling||Don’t believe so||Asetek X120 Liquid Cooling|
The Maingear is about 50% more expensive than the Dell. That’s a big difference, even considering the superior specs. So why consider the Maingear?
First, the Maingear’s superior power supply (which can be upgraded further) and cooling. These units draw a lot of power; some BSODs I’ve had on my current desktop appear to be caused by the anemic Dell power supply not supplying enough power for my upgraded video card. These units also get very hot.
Second, there’s a reason Dell’s unit is cheaper. Dell uses less expensive components. This isn’t a criticism; it’s reality, given the lower price. And less expensive isn’t bad if they nevertheless do the job.
But a contrary consideration is how quickly computers become yesterday’s news as new and better (and often less expensive) systems become available. So why plunk down a huge amount of money?
Xeon for Desktops
Despite my dithering, I felt I was making progress. However, I was troubled that the computers I was considering seemed more directed to gaming than high-performance business workstations. Was I looking in the wrong place?
While pondering between the Dell and the Maingear, I also was configuring a replacement server for one of my employers. The servers I was examining mostly use a Xeon processor. I’ve been aware of Xeon for a while. But for servers. I wasn’t aware that Xeon also was an option for a workstation. I also wasn’t aware that there are Xeon models that are, in essence, Core i7. (This is the nuance I missed earlier).
I mentioned before that the Core i7 uses the Nehalem microarchitecture. But so does the Xeon 3500 series, which also adds optional ECC memory support. There also is the Xeon 5500, which adds support for 2 CPUs. But 2 CPUs seems like overkill for both my usage and my budget. So I focused on the Xeon 3500 series.
(Note: There are differences between the Core i7 and the Xeon when it comes to overclocking the processor. But that’s more an issue for gamers.)
I now focused on OEMs which sold desktops or workstations using a Xeon 3500 series processor. The main competitors were the Dell Precision T3500, Lenovo ThinkStation S20 and HP Z400. As a reality check, I also spec’d the T3500’s Core i7 brother, the Dell Precision T1500. I’m sure there are other workstations I could add to the list.
|Dell Precision T1500||Dell Precision T3500||Lenovo ThinkStation S20||HP Z400|
|OS||Win7 Pro 64 bit||Same||Same||Same|
|Processor||Intel Core i7-860||Intel Xeon W3520||Same||Same|
|RAM||4GB (2 x 2), DDR-3 Memory,1066MHz||6GB (2 x 3), DDR-3 Memory,1066MHz||Same||Same|
|HDD||2x500GB (Raid 1) SATA 7200 RPM||Same||Same||Same|
|Video||512MB NVIDIA Quadro FX 580||Same||Same||Same|
|Optical Drives||Dual drives:
DVD/CD burner and reader
The T1500 had served its purpose in the comparison. The T3500, with more RAM (the max available for the T1500 is 4GB) and other superior specs (e.g. an extra PCI-Express slot), was not that much more.
The HP is much pricier. I’m also not too enamored of HP support these days.
Interestingly, the Dell XPS 9000 has similar specs and price. However, my understanding is that the Precision line has better components than the XPS line.
So the comparison came down to the Dell Precision T3500 and the Lenovo ThinkStation S20. Interestingly, there are two reviews which compare these two units:
Both reviews lean to the T3500. However, the reviews are about 5 months old, and some of their criticisms of the S20 no longer apply (maybe Lenovo heard them). They also point out aspects of the Lenovo which are superior to the Dell. More on that below.
I upgraded support (important in my view) and some components. I also got a best and final price (it pays to talk to a live person and ask).
|Dell Precision T3500||Lenovo ThinkStation S20|
|OS||Win7 Pro 64 bit||Same|
|Processor||Intel Xeon W3520||Same|
|RAM||6GB 2 x 3), DDR-3 Memory,1066MHz||Same|
|HDD||2x500GB (Raid 1) SATA 7200 RPM||Same|
|Video||512MB NVIDIA Quadro FX 580||Same|
|Sound||Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeMusic||Integrated|
|Optical Drives||Dual drives:
DVD/CD burner and reader
|Support||3 yr Pro||3 yr Priority|
I chose the Lenovo ThinkStation S20. Why?
Price was a reason. There’s almost a $200 differential. Dell does provide a sound card. But it’s relatively inexpensive. And the superior X-Fi Titanium is only $99.99 at Newegg.
But price wasn’t the main reason. One more important reason (for me) is that, per the reviews, access is easier inside the Lenovo case. There’s a reason my brother is a surgeon and I’m not. The family joke is that I have the hands of a sturgeon. So the more room I have to work with, the better. Also per the reviews, the Lenovo motherboard was more expandable.
Finally, I was interested in trying something new. I’ve owned a number of Dell desktops. My experience has been satisfactory. Maybe that’s damning with faint praise. Basically, my experience has been that Dell’s choices in components are OK, but not superior. I’m not complaining; you can’t reasonably expect low prices and superior components. The Lenovo may be no different. But you don’t know until you try.
The Lenovo ThinkStation S20 should arrive around mid-December. I’ll certainly let you know what I think of it.