You can now get a lot more for your money when buying a workstation than you could even six months ago. More powerful components and falling prices mean that with a modest budget, you can pick up a computer with up eight processor cores, 8GB of RAM and oodles of storage to boot.

In this group test, we’re looking at models for those working largely in 2D, with modest 3D requirements: including illustrators, graphic and Web designers, motion-graphics artists and video editors. We will cover higher-end workstations for 3D artists and VFX pros in the near future.

As usual, we approached manufacturers and asked them to create a system for us, replicating as closely as possible the purchasing experience. We supplied them with a price range of £1,400-£1,900 plus VAT, which represents a standard budget for a workstation at this level. We also supplied list of applications that we’d be using on it: Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, InDesign, QuarkXpress, After Effects, and Premiere Pro. The vendors then designed systems to fit our criteria.

All workstations supplied for this group test include Intel chips. AMD is still very much a player in the low-end consumer and server markets, but for power-hungry creatives, most vendors – including both the big brands and
the specialists – recommend Intel. The field here is split between single-processor Core 2 Duo systems, dual processor Xeon set-ups and models with a single Xeon chip.

Each processor includes four cores (four chips on the same piece of silicon), so dual processor systems have a total of eight cores. As most creative applications are multi-threaded – and can therefore take advantage of each of these cores – a workstation with eight cores can be much more powerful than four-core systems. However, on our budget, including two Xeon chips limits the scope for other components.

Core questions

A Xeon chip is essentially the same as a Core 2 Duo unit, and having a system with a single Xeon has the advantage that you can buy and plug in a second chip later. However, Xeon chips and motherboards are more expensive than their Core 2 Duo equivalents.

Memory prices have dropped significantly recently, so it’s relatively inexpensive to load up your workstation with RAM Software that manipulates hi-res images, such as Photoshop, can be very RAM-hungry, so a graphics workstation should have at least 4GB of RAM – and 8GB if you can afford it.

32-bit operating systems such as the standard versions of Windows XP and Vista can only access up to 3GB of RAM, so it’s worth plumping for the 64-bit versions of XP or Vista (or Mac OS X 10.5), which can access much more (up to a theoretical limit of over 17 billion GB). Most vendors of Windows workstations have chosen Windows XP 64-bit rather than the newer Vista – as performance on XP can be better and less prone to crashing.

Many creative applications exist only in 32-bit versions – including all of Adobe’s design tools – so can only access 4GB of RAM each when run on 64-bit platforms. However, it’s still worth having more than 4GB in a system, as some applications split themselves into multiple processes (for multiple chip cores) when rendering, each of which can use up to 4GB of RAM of its own. It also allows you to run more than one application at once with each able to access up to 4GB.

eSATA's good

All workstations in this group test include Serial ATA (SATA) storage. A good workstation should also include at least one eSATA port for connecting external SATA-based hard drives, which are up to six times faster than USB 2.0.

Despite the models here being graphics workstations, it’s not necessary for them to have ‘workstation-class’ graphics cards. These are higher-grade cards that are tuned for pro-level 3D applications and are generally more reliable and robust than standard ‘gamer’ boards – but are also much more expensive. For our budget and applications, ‘gamer’ boards are more appropriate.

Other things to look for when choosing a workstation include quiet running (especially if you work with audio) free bays and slots for future expansion; ease of access to internal components; a wealth of ports and slots for connecting devices and media cards; and a good keyboard and mouse.

This is often an afterthought for manufacturers, but since you’re going to be using them for seven hours a day or more, comfortable and responsive input devices are a must.

Models reviewed

Apple Mac Pro

Armari Magnetar QS2

CAD2 Imagine DQX-Light

Dell Precision T7400

HP xw6600

Scan 3XS PVE-930

Xworks X8i-C2Q

How we tested

These workstations were benchmarked using tests based on some of the most popular cross-platform applications that you’ll find in most creative studios. All tests were repeated three times and an average taken.

Adobe Photoshop CS3

This test performs 25 actions upon a 200MB image – including smart filters and 3D transformations – within Photoshop CS3. The test was also run in latest beta version of Photoshop CS3. Results are in seconds and smaller bars are better.

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional

This renders a five-second 3D composition built of three uncompressed 1080i HD layers, each with filters and transforms. AE CS3 is designed to take advantage of multiple processors and cores, and runs natively on Intel-based Macs. Results are in minutes and seconds, and smaller bars are better.

Cinebench 10 – rendering

Cinebench is based on Maxon Cinema 4D and provides a processor-based benchmark by rendering a scene. Results are in Cinebench’s proprietary units, and longer bars are better. The multiplier indicates how much faster the test runs using all available processors and cores compared to single processor or core.

Cinebench 10 – real-time 3D

Based on Maxon’s Cinema 4D 10 software, Cinebench tests real-time 3D
performance by moving a camera through a relatively simple 3D scene. Results are in Cinebench’s proprietary units, and longer bars are better. The multiplier indicates how much faster the scene runs compared to running the same test without using the 3D card to accelerate performance.