How to chose a workstation

One of the most common question that I see on forums is “what graphic card should I buy for faster in order to lower my rendering times?” It seems like many people don’t know what computer parts contribute to performance increase of certain actions.

Although I am not a “tech geek”, I know the basic principles that I need to have in mind when acquiring a workstation so I will try to illustrate them here.

Remember, these are only general guidelines, and are meant to be “a starting point” for making a decision regarding the choice for the main components of a workstation (CPU, Ram, Graphic card).

The CPU
The processor is the part responsible for rendering. The faster the CPU, the lower the rendering times.

*A little bit of history (you can skip this part, if you are in a hurry)
Until a few years ago, the CPU’s performance was directly measured in MHZ. However, since AMD athlon appeared, it has started to generate a lot of confusion; the AMD processors were comparable in terms of performance with the ones provided by Intel, and at the same time, they functioned at a lower clock frequency (less MHZ, same performance). Further more, the AMD products were considerably cheaper.
However, Intel still managed to be the choice for people that wanted the most powerful CPUs on the market and did not care too much about the price.
The first real hit that blew Intel away happened about 2 years ago, when AMD launched their dual core processor (X2) for the desktop market, followed shortly by the new opterons based on the same technology for the server and workstation segment. It was probably the first time in history when Intel was seriously threatened. They tried to counter-attack with their own dual-core line of CPUs, but the benchmarks showed that they were nowhere near the AMD products in terms of performance.
So until recently, AMD has been the leader of the game. Intel took the crown back when they launched the core2 duo (originally based on the technology used for their laptop processors).

Why did I bring this up? The point that I was trying to make is that now, there is no real unit to measure a CPU’s performance, so you always need to visit a lot of hardware dedicated websites and analyze the benchmarks.

At the moment, the best option for CPUs comes from Intel (for 3d rendering purposes).

The xeon series:
The advantage of using Xeon processors is that you can have 2 of them on the same mainboard, which translates in double performance regarding rendering times. This way you can have the power of up to 8 single processors, all merged into 1 workstation (2 x 1 quad core xeon processor)
However, the main disadvantage is that the other parts (memories and mainboards especially) are more expensive than those for desktop systems.

Top products:
Quad core:5355, 5345, 5335
Dual core: 5160, 5150, 5150 , 5140, 5130
*all of them are a better in 3d rendering applications, than their direct competitors from AMD (the opteron series).

The desktop series:
The main difference between xeon processor designed for workstations and servers and the “ordinary” desktop processors is the fact that you can not use 2 desktop processors on the same mainboard. Other than that, the performance between the two types is almost the same.

Top products
quad core: QX6700, Q6600
dual core: X6800, E6700, E6600, E6400
*again, for 3d rendering these are better than their direct competitors from AMD

RAM memory
Although this is not as important as the CPU for the rendering speed, it becomes a crucial factor if you work with very large 3d scenes. While rendering, if ram memory is not enough, the software will you use hard disk space, which will slow things down, and even cause crashes.

Some things that you need to have in mind when buying ram:

-capacity – the higher the better. Given the fact that the slots available on the mainboard are limited, you may want to consider acquiring 1 memory stick of 2 GB instead of 2 x 1 GB (for example); it will make things easier if you want to upgrade later.

-latency (CAS): the lower the better;

-frequency (expressed in MHZ) – the higher the better

-ECC registered or not? – if you are like me, you don’t even want to know what this means. All you need to know is that ECC registered memory is for dual processor platforms, while non-eCC is for standard desktop systems.

The graphic card
This one is responsible for the speed in viewport navigation. IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RENDERING TIMES!
There is also an ongoing battle here between the 2 majors players in this field (nvidia vs ati). However, unlike in CPU’s case, you can’t go wrong by picking whatever the most popular graphic card for your budget is, no matter the producer.

As I said at the beginning of the article, these are only general guidelines but at least, now you have an idea regarding which parts of the computer is responsible for rendering and which part increases your viewport navigation speed so you know what you should look for when doing further research.
If you feel like adding something to what I have written above, please be my guest!

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4 Comments
  1. Berna says:

    Thank you, I study architecture and I’m amazed of how all this time I was always complaining about the graphic card.
    Now I’m just ashamed haha.. but thanks a lot!!!

  2. Dadi Dindul says:

    i usually purchased my systems with either of the two….ATI or Nvidia…the last one i bought was had an error….it didnt come with any but only the onboard intel card…..

    like u said, i noticed the systems rendered at the same speed but had glitches while modelling on the viewport navigation…..

    thanx really,…

  3. Yaser says:

    of course todat the CPU is not the only important hardware for rendering, as you know the GPU (VGA)
    is going to play an important role to reduce rendering time

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