By Neil Bennett | on March 06, 2012
Pros: Exceptional performance; Armari especially suited to CG rendering; Workstation Solutions boasts video-focused drive system
Cons: Very expensive
Intel’s new Xeon E5 processors boast all the technological improvements the chipmaker debuted in its latest line of Core i7s. The Sandy Bridge architecture underpinning them has smaller components than the previous generation (using a 32nm production process rather than 45nm), so it’s possible to get up to eight processor cores on a chip rather than six.
There’s more cache, four memory channels instead of three for faster memory access, and support for faster memory to boot. There's also support for soon-to-appear graphics cards that use the PCI Express 3.0 bus, plus other innovations, but the bottom line is more power for your creative applications. The new chips come at quite a price, though, so they’re best suited to high-end CG/VFX projects (indeed they don’t offer much extra bang for your buck over Core i7s in applications such as Photoshop).
Here we’ve looked at two of the first workstations to offer Xeon processors. Both are preproduction models, but the differences between what we tested and what Armari and Workstation Specialists will have released by the time you read this are largely cosmetic.
Armari Magnetar X32-AW1200
Workstation Specialists WS2850
The two workstations feature near-identical specs: each has two eight-core Xeon E5-2687W chips running at 3.1GHz, 32GB of ECC RAM, and an Nvidia Quadro 4000 graphics card with 2GB of its own RAM. The only difference is the drive system: the WS2850 has a 120GB SSD and two 1TB hard drives striped to RAID 0, while the Magnetar X32 has a 240GB SSD and a 2TB drive. All told, both are equally good: the former suiting a VFX or post-production set-up better, the latter more appropriate for a CG rig.
We compared these workstations mainly to Cryo’s Octane EDP-WS, the fastest model we’d tested that uses the previous generation of chips – it has two 3.4GHz six-core units overclocked to 4.5GHz. Intel has locked out overclocking on the E5 range, but even so we saw a 25 per cent boost in the Cinebench 3D rendering test.
In After Effects, the Cryo had the edge, helped by its more powerful drive system. Otherwise, compared to other Xeon machines we’ve seen with similar drive set-ups, the new chips have about a 20 per cent advantage. However, they made little difference in Photoshop – it’s only the hungriest applications that benefit.
The Magnetar X32 gets extra points for a great new case design, but the main reason it pips the WS2850 is that it costs around £300 less.