I saw a blog post the other day suggesting you should buy a workstation computer for home use. But I didn’t think it made a very convincing argument beyond saying it was a way to save money. So why buy a workstation computer, then? In a word, quality.
True workstation-grade computers, like an HP Z, Lenovo Thinkcentre or Dell Precision, are expensive computers built with best-of-breed components for reliability, not just performance. As such, once they hit retirement age, they still have years of useful life left in them, so they represent an incredible value.
Computers come in different grades, and so do most of the components inside them. PCs are like tires, only worse. The thing about tires is you can go into a tire store and buy good, expensive tires. The average consumer electronics stores have about three grades of PCs, and their best grades out like an $89 tire. Sure, they’re an OK value for the money, but an enthusiast will sniff at it.
Business-class PCs are much better than the ones you find in consumer electronics stores. Now we’re getting into something worth having.
Now, I don’t know if these really exist, but do you remember the line in the Blues Brothers, where Dan Aykroyd talks about how his new Bluesmobile has cop tires and cop shocks? Workstation PCs are the equivalent of those cop tires, the really good stuff that mere civilians can’t normally buy, or at least probably can’t afford to buy new.
With workstations, obsolescence is relative
Workstations remain useful long after they’re too old for their original purpose. These are the computers that sit on an engineer’s desk, or go into any other place that demands the best of the best in terms of performance and reliability. After a few years, that computer that cost $4,000 when new doesn’t seem as great anymore, not compared to a brand new $4,000 computer. It does seem like companies hold onto these computers longer than the normal three-year replacement cycle, but you can find a retired workstation at almost any price point you’re willing to pay. The difference is the more you pay, the newer and more decked-out it will be.
At the moment I’m writing this, I can get a stripped-down HP Z220 workstation for at little as $75. At that price it’ll have the slowest CPU they came with and not a lot of memory. But it will be faster than the cheap computers at a consumer electronics store, especially if I replace the hard drive with at least a half-terabyte SSD. And it will be very reliable and stable. You won’t get the random glitches you see sometimes with a $199 PC. These computers were designed not to glitch on you. So if they glitch, it’s the software you’re running, not the hardware.
What about proprietary parts in workstations?
The proprietary parts in workstations is overblown, I think. Yes, they may have odd form-factor power supplies and maybe even an odd form-factor motherboard, but you’re not buying these to swap the board out. You’re buying these workstations to get that board.
If you get a system with a Xeon CPU in it, you’ll have to use server-grade ECC memory in it, but surplus server memory can be less expensive, because not as many systems can use it.
If the system doesn’t already have a nice graphics card in it, you may want to put one of those in. You’ll want to put a high-capacity SSD in there too. But off-the-shelf graphics cards and SSDs work fine in workstations. You’ll just have to make sure the graphics card fits if you get a low-profile model of an HP Z. Plenty of them will, you just have to be a bit selective.
In the unlikely event a part does go out, there are plenty of spares. When these machines get recycled, the good ones get cleaned up and resold. The ones with problems get parted out so several other machines can live another day.
i-series CPUs vs Xeons
The cheapest workstations, generally speaking, have ordinary Intel i-series CPUs in them like any other corporate desktop. The best ones have Xeon CPUs in them like servers. Xeons outperform i-series CPUs from the same generation, sometimes by a lot. You can gauge performance between several machines by using cpu.userbenchmark.com, and even compare an aged workstation’s performance against the machines in consumer electronics stores. Just follow the link and pick whatever CPUs you’re interested in comparing.
If you just want a reliable machine to go online with, a workstation with an i3 CPU and an SSD will be just fine. It’ll be really cheap too. If you want a gaming rig, or something that can handle other high demands like video editing or development, spring for a Xeon. You’ll want to put a modern SSD in whatever you buy, and you may need a newer video card, depending on what your workstation comes with. But virtually any workstation can easily be outfitted with 32 GB of RAM or more, and give you several years of fast, reliable service at an unbeatable price.
That’s why I say to buy a workstation computer.
The workstation article I didn’t like said PC workstations will never be valuable. They may be right, but I didn’t think 486s would ever be valuable, but today they are. The most valuable ones are the recognizable name brands. Workstations have two things going for them. They’re rugged, so they’re likely to still work in 20 years when they stand a chance of being collectible. And they’re recognizable name brands. So I’m not saying the five-year-old workstation you snag today will be collectible someday. But if anything you buy today will be, those workstations stand as good of a chance as anything else.