From the onset, let's be clear about the definitions.
- A desktop PC or personal computer is usually powered by an x86 (either Intel or AMD) processor, runs Microsoft's Windows operating system, is connected to a monitor and the mains and is usually fixed. Yes, there are a myriad of other combinations (ARM-based and Android or the endless flavours of Linux), but we'll stick to those for now.
- A workstation PC is a subset of the desktop PC family. They are primarily used by engineers (in the widest interpretation of the term), analysts, designers, content creation professionals, developers and anyone that requires data manipulation with a strong visual slant.
- A Gaming PC is the consumer alter-ego of the workstation PC and, as its name implies, is used mostly for gaming. However, their sheer performance and value-for-money ratio have made – for some – a compelling alternative to their workstation siblings.
But there's more to that: workstations are built with reliability, first and foremost, in mind, because they address a very different audience; one that earns a living working on a computer.
Quite different to a gamer. Which is why all workstations worthy of the name will come with an array of technologies that will enable it to remain in working order as long as possible. These include:
- ECC RAM: A more expensive memory type that corrects any mistakes before they affect your computer.
- RAID: The ability to backup data transparently, at OS level, by using a secondary hard disk drive or SSD.
- Warranty: Most of them come with onsite next business day warranty for three years or more by default. That can be upgrade to a longer period with even shorter intervention times.
- Redundant PSUs: Inherited from servers, they allow another power supply unit to take over immediately should the main one fail.
- Manageability: Most workstations will offer tool-free access to the components with their cases being designed to suit 24x7 workflows (that means extra fans).
The other big differences include:
- The CPU: Intel's Xeon is the preferred processor for workstations. Xeons support features like multiple sockets, ECC memory and way more of it, far more cores and cache memory – essential for heavy workloads and number crunching.
- The graphics card: Forget about the AMD Radeon or Nvidia Geforce. When it comes to professional graphics and mission-critical reliability, optimisation and certification are more important than sheer performance and pricing. You simply won't get that on consumer grade graphics cards.
- The OS: Windows 10 Home on a workstation? Don't count on it. It's Windows 10 Professional or Windows 7 Professional all the way. That's because the latter version comes with business features that have limited value for home users.
- The type of motherboard: Some offer the ability to run more than one processor with 16 or more memory slots available, space for multiple graphics (or compute) cards, dual Gigabit LAN ports, Thunderbolt and even legacy ports. That means that they are often far bigger than your mainstream model.
The bottom line means that a workstation PC can (and will) cost more than an equivalent gaming PC. The sky is essentially the limit for top-of-the-range models.
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Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.