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PC or Workstation - What’s the Difference?

By Ralph Grabowski, June 21, 2012

In the early days of desktop CAD, you could tell a workstation from a regular desktop computer. Workstations ran UNIX for their operating system (instead of DOS), were really expensive (at over $10,000), and came primarily from 2 manufacturers, Apollo and Sun. Apollo was bought by HP, and although the Apollo name is gone, HP is today #1 in the workstation market. (Sun was bought by Oracle, and their hardware now powers much of the Internet.) Numbers 2 and 3 are Dell and Lenovo (formerly IBM's desktop computer division).

Today, workstations run Windows and Windows software like AutoCAD and SolidWorks, and look just like desktop computers and large laptops, but with somber, tough looks and sometimes sporting large handles, such as the Lenovo ThinkStation and ThinkPad illustrated below.

Figure 1: Today's workstations look much like large desktop and laptop computers. (Photo credit: Lenovo)

So, if they operate the same software and look like regular computers, how do workstations differ? They are different in 3 areas: CPU/ GPU, expansion capabilities, and quality. Let's take a detailed look at each area.

CPUs and GPUs

Desktop computers use consumer grade CPUs from Intel and AMD that have names like Core i3 and A-series (aka Trinity). In contrast, all workstations use Intel's highest-end Xeon CPU. A Xeon differs from a Core by having greater capabilities and higher pricing. For instance, the top-end Xeon E-7 CPU has a list price of $4,600, although the cheapest Xeon E-3 is around $200. while the typical Core i3 CPU is $100-$150.

Here is what you get with the higher priced Xeon:

Except for the E3-1200 model, Xeon CPUs do not have built-in graphics, as do Core CPUs. And, Xeon's clock speed is no higher than that of Cores, curiously enough.

Be aware that low-end workstations tend to use Intel Core i5 or i7 CPUs, or the low-end E3-1200 Xeon. This allows them to boast sub-$1,000 pricing, but then they lack the expansion capabilities of Xeon-based workstations. Even among Xeon CPUs, some are less worthy: for instance, some Xeon are available as more capable 2600 or 1600, or as the underperforming E3 1200. You can visually identify these less capable CPUs by the workstation's small desktop housing, as well as being found in laptop workstations - but only the spec sheet will tell you for sure.

Desktop computers today usually come with integrated graphics. This means that what used to be on a graphics board is now integrated into the CPU. The integration allows lower prices, but also poorer performance in some cases. In contrast, workstations almost always come with 'discrete' graphics, which means they have a separate graphics board. In all cases, these are Quadro models from nVidia or Firepro models from AMD. (nVidia Geforce and AMD Radeon discrete graphics boards are targeted at gamers.)

DIscrete graphics are usually faster than integrated graphics, and support crucial graphics interface standards, such as OpenGL and DriectX 3D. These standards allow CAD programs to offload graphics generation to the graphics board, and are the reason you now get real-time 3D renderings complete with drop shadows. I called these standards 'crucial,' because without them, your CAD program grinds to a crawl. (OpenGL works on just about every platform, even smartphones, while DirectX is limited to Windows.)

Professional graphics boards don't just generate graphics on behalf of software; they are capable of running programs using OpenCL and CUDA. The capability, however, is being adopted more much slowly than I would expect, and currently is typically limited to programs that benefit from highly parallel computing, such as finite element analysis and computational fluid mechanics. A more trivial example is AutoCAD's option to hand off texture generation to the graphics board.

To the frustration of nVidia and AMD, each year Intel improves the capabilities of its homegrown integrated graphics (known as GMA), When I did some benchmarking last year, I found the Intel GMA on 2000 my desktop computer was as fast as nVidia's Quadro graphics board; the primary exception I found was that the Intel GMA was much slower at displaying hidden-line removal. (AMD has integrating its more powerful ATI graphics into some of its CPUs.)


Where workstations shine is in the area of large numbers. For instance, your desktop computer is limited to a maximum of 16GB RAM and perhaps less. In contrast, many workstations handle 256GB, and a new model from Dell takes 512GB - assuming you can afford the price tag! The benefit is that more of your CAD program's drawings and other data stay in RAM, and so operate faster. (Any computer needs to run 64-bit Windows to access more than 3GB RAM.)

Workstations use ECC memory, which corrects for the errors that sometimes occur in RAM; desktop computers do not. In some cases, additional software even maps out areas of RAM were errors occur repeatedly, blocking them from further use.

Desktop computers usually host just a single CPU that holds at most 4 cores, versus workstations that can take up to eight CPUs, each with up to 10 cores; that's like 80 equivalent-CPUs. On the downside, software does not 'scale' linearly with more CPUs and cores, and so an 80-core machine is not 80x faster than a single-core one.

Workstations support more monitors than do desktop computers. Primarily, this is a function of the number of graphics boards, for workstations have the room for multiple graphics boards, each of which has ports for 2-3 monitors each. For instance, every Lenovo desktop workstation can display graphics on up to 8 monitors.

Although solid state drives are slowly dropping in price, hard disk drives are still necessary for capacity. The top Lenovo workstations supports 10TB worth of drives. While desktop computers can now handle hard drives larger than 2TB in size, they tend to run at a leisurely 7,200 rpm (5,400 rpm on laptops). Hard drives for workstations are available in 10,000 and 15,000 rpm models, and I have found this doubling noticeable.

Workstations feature larger and more efficient power supplies that output 600, 800, 1,000 watts or more at 90% efficiency. Home computers might have as few as 200W available. The need for so much power in workstations is all that extra hardware, such when they hold multiple high-end Quadro 4000 graphics board at 140W for each - in addition to top-end Xeon CPUs at 130W each.

Some workstations can be converted to rack mount-computers by sliding off the cover and then screwing on side rails. Rack mounting allows a firm to stack many computers on top of a small floor space.


Because they are meant for all-day production work, workstations are designed to run 24/7, and so are manufactured better quality components than desktop computer, which are designed for low pricing. Many workstations feature tool-free access to add and remove components, which means large plastic knobs and levers instead of small screws.

HP, Dell, and Lenovo each put their workstations up to test to ensure they work with specific hardware configurations, graphics boards, and target software, such as Inventor and Solid Edge. This is known as 'ISV Certification.' Commonly, benchmarks created by SPEC are run, as well as testing by the ISVs (independent software vendors) like Autodesk and Siemens PLM.

Some Xeon and Core CPUs have VPro management functions, such as locking drives remotely in case they are stolen, apply security patches to all PCs, provide remote support, and even manage computers when they are 'turned off.'

Workstation Body Styles

Workstations come in 2 basic styles, desktop towers and laptops with 15” or 17' screens. Among towers, you get a choice between larger towers that can take a large number of peripherals, like multiple graphics board and storage devices, and large amounts of RAM; these typically sit on the floor next to the desks of a firm's top designers. Or you can pick among cheaper mini-towers that are small enough to be on the desk, but have few expansion possibility; these small form-factor desktops also tend to have Xeon CPUs with fewer capabilities or Core CPUs.

All-on-one desktops cram all of the computer guts into the back of the monitor. These have some popularity among consumers. They are kind of portable like a notebook computer, but boast larger screens, and recently HP released a workstation version.

Workstation laptops are popular at schools, for they fit nicely on desks, as well as designers who have to travel. Like mini-towers, they have lower specs than full workstations, and are very limited in expansion possibilities.

At the opposite end of the portability spectrum is the rack computer, which is mounted horizontally in a frame. In this configuration, workstation computers are used as servers and, internal clouds.


I've described the many differences between workstations and desktops, and fundamentally it comes down to the Xeon CPU and the added capabilities it allows. Me, I wouldn’t buy a workstation, because it is too expensive for my modest needs; I am content with the few speed boosting upgrades I’ve applied to my 3.1GHz 4-core desktop (doubled RAM to 8GB, added an 8GB ReadyBoost drive).

But I am not a design firm. Companies who live to see another day these days need exciting new designs executed quickly, and so these are the customers of workstations. Such firms have formal benchmark processes that test representative workstations from HP, Dell, Lenovo, and others to confirm whether the latest models are sufficiently faster than earlier ones to justify the (roughly) $2,000-expense. And then they hand them over to their top designers.

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HP Workstations

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About the Author

ralph Ralph Grabowski, TenLinks senior editor, is one of the leading CAD journalists and authors, with over a 100 books and many hundreds of articles. His upFront.eZine may be the industry’s longest running newsletter. Ralph holds a civil engineering degree. More…

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