The HP Workstation Z420-versus-desktop debate has raged for years. Workstations, of course, are computers for demanding commercial markets, especially those that rely on visualization and graphics technologies, such as computer-assisted design (CAD), 3D animation, oil and gas exploration, and medicine. Desktops are, well, just desktops—the same old consumer-class PCs we’ve been planting in home offices and cubicles for ages.
The only problem is that, on the inside, workstations and desktop PCs use remarkably similar components. So what’s the hefty price markup on workstations for? Why should a mid-range, single-processor workstation such as HP Workstation Z420 start at $1,099 ($1,839 as tested) while a functionally equivalent desktop would sell for hundreds less?
CPUs? The HP Workstation Z420 we reviewed has a 3.6GHz quad-core Intel Xeon E5-1620. The only silicon-level differences between this chip and Intel’s Core i7-3820 are that the Xeon supports error-correcting code (ECC) memory and has vPro functionality enabled for remote system management. According to Intel’s Web site, as of this writing, both chips sport a tray price of $294.
How about those all-important graphics? The heart (if not the brain) of the HP Workstation Z420 is its Nvidia Quadro K2000 graphics processor, which is the second-lowest part in Nvidia’s latest Kepler-generation stack.
By no small coincidence, the consumer-class GeForce GT 640, with the same GPU and number of CUDA cores , currently sells on Newegg.com for $90. Historically, Nvidia has neutered its dual-floating-point performance in the GeForce line in order to help preserve the differentiation between the two series. Quadro cards also tend to have broader OpenGL support, which has traditionally played well with commercial graphics applications. But in terms of underlying hardware, the chips are essentially identical.
HP Z420 Workstation Quadro
HP Workstation Z420 will tell you that it optimizes its workstations for toolless maintenance and upgrading, but that’s a red herring. Anyone who has bought a gaming tower in the last few years knows that toolless features are now standard, even in many low-end cases.
We could go on, but the truth is that the real value of workstations boils down to only two things: quality control and support. A workstation from a top-tier manufacturer such as HP will have undergone every sort of environmental test imaginable. Nvidia builds and checks all of its Quadro cards in-house while the GeForce equivalents are licensed out to OEMs. This isn’t to say that you can’t have a $399 Walmart PC run reliably for five years or that a workstation can’t go belly up after a week, but the odds of a workstation being more reliable than a desktop are considerably higher.
The real kicker is support. Imagine being a software vendor—an Adobe, an Autodesk, whoever—and charging gobs of money to commercial users who expect, in return, that when they call with a problem you will have a solution instantly. That level of support requires massive investment. You have to exhaustively test and qualify every component (and firmware update and driver and on and on) in order to ensure that it’s absolutely compatible with your application. Clearly, you can’t do this for the entire field of hardware. But if you limit your qualifications only to workstation-class components, the task is manageable.
So when you as a customer call Software Vendor X for support with your CAD application and the vendor finds out you’re running a Core i7-3820 processor rather than a Xeon E6-1620, you may be out of luck. That—a fully ISV (independent software vendor) certified solution with a lengthy life cycle and three-year onsite-service warranty—is what you’re paying for with the Z420 and its brethren, and that’s why we’ve yet to encounter a business that charges clients thousands of dollars for graphics work that is unwilling to pony up for workstations. Time is simply more valuable than hardware.