Take a quick look at the site of the major workstation manufacturers and you’ll find many systems at prices that would buy you a nice new Mercedes C-Class. If you have high-end requirements and expectations, but you don’t have the bank account to go with it, you might be surprised to learn that with a little research you can configure a massively competent personal computer from strictly consumer enthusiast parts that will challenge the megabuck workstations. So unless you’re using proprietary or highly technical software, but only want a system that will scream on Photoshop, 3D Rendering, or Video Encoding, let your fingers do the walking through the online sites and buy amazing performance on 10% of the budget of a conventional workstation.
Most workstations are outfitted with Intel Xeon central processing units (CPU), and in most cases the difference between them and the consumer Core i7 versions are…er…well…there really aren’t many. Most Xeons are Core i7s with tweaks that allow them to be used in multiple socket versions and to access ECC registered RAM memory, both aspects of computing that most readily available professional software really doesn’t care about. The hands down favorite for consumer workstation use is the i7-3770K. For around $300 you’re getting about 95% of the performance of the much more expensive CPUs while enjoying the power of four hyperthreaded cores (which show up as eight in your Task Manager) that will handle anything you can throw at them. The i7-3770K will also rock your world in single threaded applications, running them at an impressive 3.9GHz, and that’s before you’ve delved into the BIOS and overclocked (OC) it… but please keep your OC at no more than 10% for system stability and long term reliability.
You want to get a quality motherboard which allows you to easily mildly OC your i7 3770K, so hands down the best BIOS for the task is one of the fully graphical ones such as the Asus EFI. No more indecipherable DOS text on your screen, but an elegant and easy, mouse-maneuverable BIOS that allows you to configure your system any way however you want it in a snap. Buy the Asus P8Z77-V for under $200 and you’re set to go.
The primary rule on RAM memory is very simple: The more the better. 8GB RAM is available in packs of 4 for as little as $150, so you can fill up the four slots on your LGA-1155 motherboard and enjoy the astounding responsiveness and performance of 32GB of RAM. Your Photoshop will love you for it.
The Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is responsible for running your monitor so you want to make sure that you have one that has the power to keep up with your demanding applications. Only rabid gamers need to spend $1,200 on Nvidia GTX690s or go with multiple GPU setups, as that’s complete overkill for the consumer workstation. An extremely capable video card for this use is the AMD HD7970 or the Nvidia GTX580. Both are available at around $300 and they have capabilities that most consumer workstations will never tap. Compare that with a formal workstation’s typical FirePro V9800 which provides about half the performance for a mere $2,800 and you’ll be a consumer workstation advocate for life.
You have to have a Solid State Drive (SSD) for your C: Drive, and that’s all there is to that. A Crucial M4 256GB unit will allow the installation of your Windows plus any applications you’ll ever need for under $200, and for all your huge files install a $150 Seagate 7200.14 3TB as your E: drive.
There’s no need to go with 1 kW+ power supplies when a midrange one around 700 watts will provide all the juice your components will ever need. The Rosewill Capstone-650M boasts top of the line 80Plus Gold rating and will give you change from your $100 bill.
Add another $100 for a basic DVD optical drive, an Arctic Freezer-13 CPU cooler, and a mid-tower case and welcome to the elite world of superpowered consumer workstations… for just $1,500!