Best Buy

We review workstations featuring Intel's new Core i7 (Haswell-E) processors and Nvidia's Quadro K2200 and K4200 graphics cards, which are designed for creative tools from the likes of Adobe, Autodesk and Maxon.

Update December 8 2014: Scan's 3XS GW-HT20 workstation added to the review.

InterPro's IPW-HWE was the first workstation we reviewed to feature one of Intel's new Core i7 processors – which sit at the top of that range and add more cores and support for DDR4 RAM, things core (ahem) to raising the performance of the intensive, multi-threaded applications from the likes of Adobe and Autodesk that we use every day. Scan's 3XS GW-HT20 is the next.

These workstations also is the first we've seen to include Nvidia's new line of professional-level graphics cards, the Quadro K2200 and K4200. The K2200 is more powerful not only than the card it replaces but that card's big brother too – and the K4200 almost achieves that too.

The new Core i7 chips are based on the same 'Haswell' platform as the Xeon E5 v3 processors that were launched just before them – but are less expensive, and by design you can put only one on a motherboard. They have many of the same benefits over the older generation of Ivy Bridge. There are more cores – these new Core i7 chips feature six or eight cores, while the older models had four – and there's support for DDR4 RAM.

DDR4 RAM offers faster connections speed than the DDR3 RAM that's likely inside your current workstation, so anything that's held in RAM by your applications from information it needs quickly to RAM previews will be stored and accessed faster. The only downside to DDR4 RAM is that it's currently scarce and therefore expensive – and prices could come down quickly if supply goes up.

The new Core i7 chips also have more cache for storing small amounts of information that the processor needs straight away than older models – either 15 or 20MB, whereas older units had 6 or 8MB.

A choice of three chips

While there are lots of Xeon E5 v3 models to have to choose between – as those chips are aimed at many different types of servers as well as power-hungry creative workstations – there are just three new Core i7 chips, targeted specifically at 'content creators' (ie us) and high-end gamers. These range from the 'flagship' 8-core, 3GHz 5960X Extreme Edition with 20MB of cache to the 6-core, 3.5GHz 5930K and the 6-core, 3.3GHz 5820K.

InterPro's IPW-HWE workstation that we're reviewing here has this last, 6-core, 3.3GHz 5820K chip - though the workstation vendor has overclocked this using an Intel TS13X water cooling system. The Scan 3XS GW-HT20 has the 8-core Core i7 5960X, which has been massively overclocked with a Corsair H100 watercooler from 3GHz to 4.2GHz – hence the higher price. Unlike the Xeon processors used in single-chip workstations from the likes of Dell and HP (as well as all dual-processor models), it's still possible to overclock Core chips - which has cranked up the IPW-HWE performance in our test apps to make it the most powerful single-chip workstation we've ever seen.

The IPW-HWE was the first workstation we've seen with one of Nvidia's new line of Quadro graphics cards. The Quadro K2200 is an upgrade to the K2000, and is the least powerful/expensive of the new range. The 3XS GW-HT20 has its big brother, the K4200 (replacing the K4000). The line is completed by the K5200 (replacing the K5000). An upgrade to the K6000 – which we'd be surprised if it wasn't called the Quadro K6200 – is expected shortly.

The IPW-HWE's chip, 32GB of RAM and graphics card all plug into an Asus X99-Deluxe motherboard. This has eight RAM slots, of which four are free for later upgrading, on-board SATA 3 and USB 3.0 connectors and five PCI-Express x16 slots. The K2200 takes up one of these, so there's four left for connecting devices specific to the type of work you do from Blackmagic's DeckLink video capture cards to FusionIO's ioFX PCI-E storage boards. There's also adequate space for adding these boards and up to two SSDs and four hard drives inside the Corsair Obsidian 450D mid-size case.

The 3XS GW-HT20 has an Asus x99-S motherboard, which means it's missing the Deluxe version's on-board wireless networking and Bluetooth – and has eight USB 3.0 ports rather than 10. Again there are four free RAM slots and four free PCI-Express x16 – though you do lose a x2 slot as the K4200 is a double-height graphics card. It has 16GB of RAM, half that of the IPW-HWE.

The Scan 3XS GW-HT20

For drives, the both workstatons have a pretty standard configuration for review units we get sent at those prices, a small SSD for Windows and your apps and a large hard drive for your projects. The IPW-HWE has a 240GB SSD – a PNY® Prevail 3K Endurance Edition to be exact – and a 2TB Seagate Barracuda 7,200rpm hard drive. The 3XS GW-HT20 has a 256GB Samsung 850 Pro SSD and the same 2TB hard drive.

This storage set-ups aren't to everyone's taste, but we're not going to hold that against InterPro. Here at Digital Arts, we're reviewing workstations for a wide-range of creatives working with still images - photographers, illustrators, designers - and motion, including both animation and video from HD to 4K.

The choice of storage included in our review IPW-HWE would be appropriate for some from the first group and a few from the second - but it's likely from here that you'd need to select a storage set-up it's a good baseline that you would build from to fit your individual needs and budget. For example, many designers, photographers and animators would see a big performance boost from replacing the 2TB media hard drive with a 1TB SSD, but this would add approximately £220 to the price - while editors and VFX artists working with HD need something bigger, probably in a RAID array. If you're working with 4K, well, you probably should start off by looking at one of these dual Xeon systems rather than a Core i7 box.

Core i7 vs Xeon

Here we've reviewed the IPW-HWE and 3XS GW-HT20 against a range of potential competitors and models from current and previous generations (including Scan's own GW-HT10 that the GW-HT20 replaces).

Drawing from review models we've seen from Boston, Dell, Fujitsu and Scan - we're comparing the IPW-HWE and 3XS GW-HT20 to workstations with two of the current generation of Xeon processors, or one of the previous generations of Xeon or Core i7 chips; to those with DDR3 and DDR4 RAM; to those with the older version of its graphics card (the Quadro K2000) and that card's bigger brother (the K4000).

Core i7 5820K review

Based on our rendering tests using Cinebench – which is based on Cinema 4D – and the more demanding LuxRender part of Spec's SpecWPC workstation benchmark – the Core i7 is much more powerful than the previous generation of both Xeon and Core i7 chips. In part this is due to the extra cores, but the single-core part of Cinebench shows a marked improvement. This should lead to better performance across your creative apps, even on non-multi-threaded tasks.

Nvidia Quadro K2200 review

The IPW-HWE's Quadro K2200 is essentially that range's entry-level card – there are the cheaper Quadro K620 and K420, but they're for people who want workstation-class reliability but not performance, such as city traders.

Despite being small – it fits in a single slot – and not consuming much power (68W), it's a powerful board. There's 4GB of RAM for starters - which a few years ago was the standard for top-of-the-line cards - and 640 CUDA processing cores. While you'd expect it to be better than its predecessor, the K2000 – which has 2GB of RAM and 384 cores - our tests show that it's also more powerful than its older big brother, the K4000 (3GB of RAM and 768 CUDA cores. However, the newer card has architectural changes that mean the number of cores isn't comparable from one generation of cards to the next).

Nvidia Quadro K4200 review

The 3XS GW-HT20's K4200 has the same 4GB of RAM as the K2200 but has over twice as many processing cores (1,344). It doesn't get the prize of trumping its predecessor's big brother though, as looking back to when we reviewed the K5000 – while the K4200 was a whopping 76% faster than the Quadro K5000 in Cinebench, it was five per cent slower in Maya.

In the relatively simple Cinebench OpenGL-based real-time 3D test, the IPW-HWE produced framerates between 5 and 10% higher than older workstations with the K4000 - and almost twice as high as one with the K2000. Using SpecWPC's Maya test – which rotates a scene with 727,500 vertices in modes from wireframe to its maximum preview quality, so taxing the graphics card much harder – the K2200 gave over 25% better performance than the K4000, and over twice that of the K2000.

The 3XS GW-HT20's K4200 was 25% faster than the IPW-HWE's K2200 in the more arduous Maya test and 41% faster in Cinema 4D.

It’s notable that none of these workstations have AMD graphics cards. This is likely because in the past we’ve used some of Adobe’s Creative Cloud applications as our core test applications, mainly After Effects and Premiere Pro as these draw on all elements of a computer: CPU, RAM, graphics and storage – and therefore give an overall picture of a workstation’s performance. The parts of After Effects and Premiere Pro that are accelerated by the graphics card generally perform much better on Nvidia’s Quadro boards – which use its CUDA language to translate video and animation processing onto the graphics card – than on AMD’s FirePro – which is using Open CL. Whether this is because CUDA is better, more appropriate for what those apps want to do or because Adobe’s implementation of CUDA is better than Open CL, I don’t know – but it’s likely why our review workstations generally come with Nvidia cards.

However, following Adobe move to a subscription-based service for its software, it’s released a series of minor updates that appear to have boosted the performance of the apps overall – which as a user is what you’d hope for from Adobe’s approach. However, this prevents us from comparing review workstations even a few months apart. When we can establish a fixed benchmark across workstations, we’ll reintroduce these tests.

SpecWPC does give an overall figure for all of its tests – which as well as real-time 3D work in Blender and Maya includes photoreal rendering (LuxRender), non-GPU accelerated video encoding (Handbrake) and disk performance (IO meter). However, to my mind, the results over-favour the IO meter test, and therefore the speed of the workstation’s storage system – so it’s not always a useful indicator. This is especially true for workstations with SSDs smaller than 512GB, as SpecWPC often needs more space to run that these workstations have on their SSDs - so we run them from the media drive, which delivers much lower IO meter scores.

This is why the 3XS GW-HT20 has recorded a lower overall score than its predecessor, the 3XS GW-HT10. The newer workstation is, of course, more powerful – but we couldn't fit a full run of SpecWPC on its SSD, throwing the results off.

For completeness though, we’ve included the full set of results below.

The IPW-HWE was the most powerful single-chip workstation we’ve ever seen – and a lot less expensive than Xeon-based models – but the 3XS GW-HT20 has trumped it. There is a £315 price difference between the two, for which you gain a faster chip and more powerful graphics card – but lose 16GB of RAM (or vice-versa).

With that in mind, I'm going to declare this head-to-head review a tie – except to say that either model would be a worthwhile upgrade from last year's model (or older).