This summer’s proving to be a great time to pick up a new workstation. The debarcle around Intel’s first generation of chipsets for its ‘Sandy Bridge’ Core i5 and i7 processors – which had to be recalled and replaced – is now a distant memory, and the latest generation adds even more nifty new ways of squeezing as much power as possible out of your system. We’re also seeing one vendor overclocking Xeons in a crazy manner usually reserved for Core chips. And lastly, we’re seeing new lines of graphics cards from both AMD and nVidia.
First up is Armari’s Magnetar Z35s. This has an Intel Core i7 2600K processor which has been overclocked from its standard speed of 3.4GHz, 16GB of DDR3 RAM – the maximum most creative applications can realistically make use of – and a mid-range AMD FirePro graphics card, the V5900. As with all of the models we’ve looked at here, despite the overclocked chip, the computer is backed up with a full warranty – though Armari offers only two years to its rivals’ three.
The Magnetar Z35s is the first workstation we’ve seen to tap Intel’s new SRT (Smart Response Technology) for combining a solid state drive (SSD) with a hard drive. Usually, for max performance, you’d run the SSD as a system drive and use your hard drive for your media. SRT allows you to use the SSD as a cache for your hard drive, keeping recently used project files and application data for an overall power boost.
SRT is a neat idea and our tests bear out its superiority over the standard set-up. The only downside is you lose the storage capacity of the SSD, but a 60GB loss when you’ve got a 2TB hard drive is no big deal. An ideal arrangement would use two SSDs (one system drive and one cache) and a hard drive, but you wouldn’t find that in a £1,399 PC – which is an exceptionally low price for the power the Z35s delivers.
At the other end of the affordability scale is Cryo’s new Octane EDP-WS. At over seven grand, it’s for those with the greatest needs and biggest pockets – but it’s a monster truck of a computer. It looks like one – its bright red metal chassis with a glowing blue flash will divide opinion, though it’s available in a more modest black case – and unfortunately, it also sounds like one, too. It was noisier than the other two models here combined.
The EDP-WS has two 3.46GHz six-core processors that have been overclocked to 4.5GHz. 12 cores at 4.5GHz is the definition of ludicrously fast. Coupled with 24GB of RAM, a 120GB SSD, 4TB RAID 0 storage and a Nvidia Quadro 5000 graphics card, this is the most powerful computer we’ve ever reviewed.
The last model we looked at was InterPro’s IPW-SB [i7], which has a FirePro V7900 graphics board, the most powerful new card in AMD’s range – at least until the V9800 and V8800 are replaced with the V9900 and V8900. The V7900 has the same 2GB of RAM as the lower-end V5900 in the Magnetar Z35s, but has over twice the number of processing cores and a much faster memory interface.
Like the Magnetar, the IPW-SB has a Core i7 2600K processor and 16GB of RAM. It uses the more traditional 120GB SSD system drive with a hard drive for media, so you get 120GB more storage than Armari’s model – but not the performance boost. Its chassis isn’t as stylish as the Magnetar’s but it’s classy enough.
The launch of these workstations coincided with new versions of Adobe Creative Suite and Autodesk Maya, so we’re working from a blank slate with our benchmark tests. The Cinbench results show that Cryo’s beast offers around 2.5x times the pure processing power of its rivals, but also that InterPro has got more from overclocking its Core i7 chip than Armari. However, Armari’s use of SRT caching gave it the edge over InterPro in our key After Effects test, which is the best representation of overall performance – and the lead position in our Photoshop benchmark.
In Cinebench’s relatively modest real-time 3D test, InterPro’s FirePro V7900 outpaced the far more expensive Quadro 5000 – but in our more draining Maya 2012 scene, the 5000’s high-end features shone through to pull way ahead.
All three workstations are worthy purchases. The Octane EDP-WS is unstoppably powerful, the IPW-SB [i7] offers real-time 3D performance without breaking the bank, but the Magnatar Z35s takes the overall price for innovative use of drive tech and an unbeatable price.