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Best workstation PC 2018: The most powerful desktop hardware, from £2,500

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Which workstation should you spend your hard-earned cash on in 2018?

If you’ve got a high-end professional job to do – such as large-scale data analysis, or graphical modelling – then a typical desktop PC just won’t cut it. You need a system that’s designed specifically for these demanding applications. You need a workstation.

Don’t panic, though. Fundamentally a workstation is just a powerful PC. The difference is that you can expect components that are a step up – or several steps up – from typical consumer fare. That means meaty multi-core CPUs, and professional graphics cards, specially designed and certified for CAD and animation applications.
Needless to say, you can also expect to drop a lot of money on one of these formidable systems – which is why it’s important to make the right choice. Here’s our rundown of five of the best workstations, along with advice on how to choose the perfect workstation to suit your needs.

How to choose the best workstation PC for you

The first thing to think about when choosing a workstation – or customising one – is the CPU. AMD’s Ryzen chips provide more cores for the money than Intel – but Intel’s architecture is often faster for single-threaded tasks, and the latest Coffee Lake chips are notably better value than their predecessors. In a sub-£3,000 machine, you’re equally likely to see an AMD chip or an eighth-generation Core i7.

Higher up the price range, the contest is between AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper chips versus Intel’s Core i9 range, which offers up to 18 cores. Here Intel’s offering is a lot more expensive than AMD’s, so you can choose between maximum performance or “bang for buck”.

Picking the right GPU

The graphics card in a workstation isn’t just for the odd bit of game-playing: workloads such as video rendering can take advantage of a GPU’s massively parallel design to gain a big performance boost. AMD’s Radeon Pro range is aimed squarely at professionals, but the consumer-grade Radeon Vega also has the power to handle high-end applications.
It’s a similar story on the Nvidia side of things: the company’s Quadro cards are its official professional offerings, but there are drivers available for the GeForce Titan X and Xp gaming cards that are optimised for professional applications. If you choose a consumer card for your workstation, you won’t get the same level of support, but it’s a very effective way to save money – and it might be a smart choice if you’re working on a game or VR content, as it allows you to develop and test on exactly the same hardware that end users will be using.

How much to pay?

When it comes to workstations, the sky’s the limit, but you can divide the market roughly into two: souped-up desktop PCs, that combine premium parts with consumer components, and all-out professional systems. While there’s no hard and fast rule, you can expect to pay under £3,000 for one of the former type, and more – perhaps a lot more – for the latter.
Whichever approach you take, there’s no need to throw money away: workstation specifications are almost invariably open to customisation. If you don’t need a super-powerful GPU, or only need eight CPU cores instead of sixteen, discuss your needs with the vendor and you may well be able to make a deal.

READ NEXT: Best desktop PC

Best workstation PC 2018: The most powerful desktop hardware

1. Armari Magnetar S16T-RW1000G2: Best AMD-based workstation

Price: £4,799

Armari’s latest Magnetar workstation is based on an AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X processor, rather than a more common Intel CPU. This has a nominal 3.4GHz clock speed, 16 cores and 32 threads. As if that weren’t enough power, Armari has set the processor to 4GHz across all cores, with a water-cooling system to keep temperatures under control.

The GPU is, unexpectedly, a consumer-grade GeForce GTX chip. But this isn’t such a crazy choice: it’s the high-end Titan Xp, which is optimised for professional applications. With a massive 3,840 CUDA cores and 12GB of GDDR5X memory, it has plenty to offer when it comes to GPU-based rendering.

It’s all backed up with 64GB of DDR4 RAM and a 480GB Intel Optane NVMe SSD – this isn’t the fastest SSD we’ve seen for reading, but write speeds are exceptional, and it’s partnered with a 4TB conventional hard disk for general storage. In all, the S16T-RW1000G2 is a superb all-rounder, as long as your software works with the GeForce GTX GPU. It isn’t cheap, but you get a huge amount for your money.

Buy it now from Armari

Key specs - Processor: 3.4GHz AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X overclocked to 4GHz; Motherboard: ASRock X399 Taichi; RAM: 64GB DDR4; Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan Xp (12GB); SSD: 480GB; Hard disk: 4TB; Case: Armari S50-G2-S4HS (220 x 445 x 430mm); Operating system: Windows 10 Professional 64-bit; Warranty: 3yr (1yr on-site, 2yr RTB, parts and labour)

2. PC Specialist Apollo X02: Best general-purpose workstation for under £3,000

Price: £2,500

 

The Apollo X02 is very affordable by workstation standards, yet it features a brilliant eight-core Intel Core i7-7820X CPU, so you get masses of parallel processing power. It’s fast too: PC Specialist has pushed all eight cores to a super-fast 4.6GHz.

The CPU is partnered with 32GB of 3,000MHz DDR4 SDRAM, and there are four DIMM slots free for upgrading to the motherboard’s 128GB maximum. For graphics, there’s a high-end Nvidia Quadro P4000. With its 1,792 CUDA cores and 8GB of GDDR5 memory, this is the gold standard for professional 3D graphics acceleration under £1,000.

Storage is pretty standard: you get a 500GB Samsung 960 Evo M.2 NVMe SSD, alongside a 2TB SATA-connected 7,200rpm Seagate Barracuda Pro hard disk. Should you need more storage, the Corsair Carbide 200R has three 3.5in bays easily accessible from the side panel, and PC Specialist has even found space for a DVD writer.

The Apollo X02 is great for highly parallel, CPU-intensive tasks, but not quite such a strong performer for single-core workloads. Its modelling abilities are very good, though; for the price it’s a hell of a powerful system.

Buy it now from PC Specialist

Key specs - Processor: 3.6GHz Intel Core i7-7820X overclocked to 4.6GHz; Motherboard: Asus Prime X299-A; RAM: 32GB DDR4; Graphics: PNY Quadro P4000 (8GB); SSD: 500GB; Hard disk: 2TB; Case: Corsair Carbide Series 200R (210 x 497 x 430mm); Operating system: Windows 10 Professional 64-bit; Warranty: 3yr (1yr RTB parts and labour (first month collect and return), 2yr labour only)

3. Scan 3XS WI6000 Viz: The most powerful workstation under £5,000

Price: £4,650

This beast of a system is based on Intel’s blockbusting Core i9-7980XE processor. It has a whopping 18 physical cores and 36 virtual ones thanks to Hyper-Threading – and Scan has overclocked all of them to 4.2GHz to ensure phenomenal performance. It’s combined with 64GB of 3,000MHz DDR4 memory, with four DIMM slots free for future upgrades. And storage is generous too, comprising a lightning-fast 500GB Samsung 960 Pro NVMe SSD connected via M.2, plus a 2TB Seagate Barracuda hard disk.

All of this makes the WI6000 Viz gobsmackingly powerful for CPU-based tasks, but there’s less emphasis on GPU-based activities; you get an Nvidia Quadro P4000 card rather than the more expensive P5000. This card is no slouch, though: with 1,792 CUDA cores and 8GB of GDDR5 memory, it’s more than equal to general modelling and 3D design.

Overall, the WI6000 Viz is an immensely powerful workstation. It can take on all comers at many sorts of workload and holds up impressively even when tasked with jobs outside of its comfort zone. Considering that the price of the CPU makes up over a third of this system’s cost, it’s also terrific value.

Buy it now from Scan

Key specs - Processor: 3.7GHz Intel Core i7-8700K overclocked to 4.8GHz; Motherboard: Asus Prime Z370-P; RAM: 32GB DDR4; Graphics: PNY Quadro P4000 (8GB); SSD: 512GB; Hard disk: 2TB; Case: Corsair Carbide 400Q (215 x 425 x 464mm); Operating system: Windows 10 Professional 64-bit; Warranty: 3yr (1yr on-site, 2yr RTB, parts and labour)

4. Workstation Specialists WS-X1180: Best all-rounder if money’s no object

Price: £5,567

Like the Scan 3SX, the WS-X1180 uses an Intel Core i9 chip – namely the 16-core Intel Core i9-7960X. It runs at a nominal 2.8GHz, but Workstation Specialists has pushed it all the way up to 4.3GHz, for a huge amount of rendering power. Unusually, it’s partnered with an AMD Radeon Pro WX9100 GPU; this has a hefty 4,096 Stream processors and 16GB of very-high-speed HBM2 memory, affording a whopping 484GB/sec of memory bandwidth.

The combination makes the WS-X1180 a worthy alternative to the Scan 3XS WI6000 Viz. Performance isn’t hugely dissimilar in CPU-based tasks, since the WS-X1180 has fewer cores, but a faster clock speed. And when it comes to 3D modelling, the AMD graphics card really shows its strength, with fantastic scores in Maxon Cinebench 15 and SPECviewperf 12.1.

Workstation Specialists hasn’t gone overboard with the trimmings: you get 64GB of RAM, but no spare DIMM slots. And storage-wise, you get just a 500GB Samsung 960 Evo SSD, with no supplementary hard disk. On the upside, the warranty includes three years of on-site, next-business-day cover, making this an excellent choice for hard-working professionals.

Buy it now from Workstation Specialist

Key specs - Processor: 2.8GHz Intel Core i9-7960X overclocked to 4.3GHz; Motherboard: Asus Prime X299-A; RAM: 64GB DDR4; Graphics: AMD Radeon Pro WX9100 (16GB); SSD: 500GB; Hard disk: N/A; Case: Corsair Carbide 400Q (215 x 425 x 464mm); Operating system: Windows 10 Professional 64-bit; Warranty: 3yr on-site next business day

5. Overclockers Renda G3-CS: Best value for GPU-intensive roles

Price: £2,500

Like Armari, Overclockers equips its Renda workstation with a consumer-grade graphics card. It’s no lightweight, though: the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti is one of the fastest consumer graphics cards currently available, with twice as many CUDA cores as a Quadro P4000 card. This makes the Renda G3-CS terrifically powerful for modelling and GPU rendering tasks. Just be aware that it doesn’t have professionally optimised drivers or official software vendor support.

CPU duties meanwhile are handled by an Intel Core i7-8700K, overclocked all the way to 5.1GHz. While this is a fast chip, it can’t keep up with the massively parallel Core i9 processors found elsewhere. It’s also supported by only 16GB of DDR4 memory, although there are two DIMM slots free for upgrades; storage comes in the form of a 512GB Samsung 960 Pro Polaris NVMe SSD for OS and apps, plus a 2TB Western Digital Black 7,200rpm SATA hard disk.

The Renda G3-CS isn’t the most versatile workstation in the world, but it makes a superb 3D animation workstation. If that’s all you need then for £2,500 it’s a steal.

Buy it now from Overclockers

Key specs - Processor: 3.7GHz Intel Core i7-8700K overclocked to 5.1GHz; Motherboard: Asus Prime Z370-A; RAM: 16GB DDR4; Graphics: Asus GeForce GTX 1080 Ti ROG Strix OC (11GB); SSD: 512GB; Hard disk: 2TB; Case: Phanteks Enthoo Pro (235 x 550 x 535mm); Operating system: Windows 10 Professional 64-bit; Warranty: 5yr (3yr collect and return parts and labour, 2yr RTB labour only)