Here at Cyberpower, we mostly deal with PCs that are used for gaming. The latest titles are best played using the best components, and we understand exactly how to bolt them together in a custom-built PC to achieve the best results for our customers. And yet, there are other functions that a custom gaming PC might perform. As well as playing with them, you can actually get some work done. But is a machine that’s specialised for the former actually going to be any good for the latter? Does a gaming PC have what it takes to be a workstation, too?
What’s a workstation PC?
A workstation PC is anything you’re using for business-critical applications. If you’re earning a living from your computer, then it’s technically a workstation. With that said, the term is more often used to refer to a high-performance machine that’s specialised in a given kind of computer-driven work.
Given that workstation machines need to be dependable, it’s often a good idea to have them professionally assembled. If you make a mistake when you’re putting together a gaming PC, then you might lose out on the opportunity to play a few games. If you make a mistake when putting together a workstation machine, then you might lose an entire afternoon of work, or suffer from data loss.
Does a case matter?
If you take a look through the Cyberpower catalogue, you’ll notice that the cases are a little bit different. We like the Fractal Designs cases; they’re made from brushed aluminium, and provide an aesthetic that stands up to anything on the market.
This is a bit like business attire for your computer. It’ll make you feel that little bit more business when you sit down to work at the start of the day. Plus, there are some practical advantages to a quality one, not least of which is the noise-dampening, which might be invaluable if your machine is at the heart of a recording studio.
Graphics cards for professionals
Both Nvidia and AMD have their own line-up of graphics cards for gaming: the GeForce and Radeon, respectively. But they also have another distinct lineup of cards built for professional applications: Quadros and Radeon Pros (formerly FirePro). These latter cards are entirely built in-house, rather than being outsourced to third parties like Sapphire, Asus and Gigabyte. But what other differences are there?
So what are the differences, here, other than price? Firstly, the professional-grade chips are going to be selected for reliability. They’re also equipped with more memory – the Quadro RTX 8000 comes with 48GB, twice that of the current gaming flagship, the 3090 RTX. And that memory comes with ECC tech (more on that in a bit).
And that’s just scratching the surface. Depending on your profession, all of this might make a huge difference. If you need to render another 43,200 frames for your new Pixar blockbuster, and you have a matter of weeks to do it in, then Quadro makes sense. If you need to run a weather simulation in order to decide where best to land your fleet of million-dollar aircraft, then a Quadro-equipped server or two might just be a worthwhile purchase.
On the other hand, the evolution in both Nvidia’s Ampere and AMD RDNA™ 2 architecture has revolutionised the graphic card game. So you may just consider a standard yet modern GPU like the RTX 3090 or RX 6900XT.
Do I need ECC RAM?
Certain server machines and super-high-end workstation PCs come equipped with a special memory called Error Correction Code (ECC). This works with the help of an extra memory chip on each stick, which acts as a sort of ‘supervisor’ for the rest of the memory. You can tell when you’ve got an ECC stick, as it’ll have nine chips rather than the usual eight (you can see this if you decide to remove the heatsink and the RGB lights).
ECC memory only works in certain kinds of motherboards and with a certain kind of premium CPU like the Intel Xeon, or the AMD Ryzen Threadripper Pro. But it will reduce your crash rate to near zero. Which is extremely useful for million-pound data servers, but not so much for single-users.
If you’re wondering whether you need ECC, then the chances are overwhelming that you do not need ECC. However, depending on the type of job you’re using a workstation PC for, it might be worth upgrading your memory for peace of mind.
What kind of work am I doing?
Let’s run through a few professions and look at what they each need from a workstation PC. In some cases, it might be that a gaming rig fits the bill nicely; in others, a little bit of extra investment might be required.
Photography & graphic design
If you’re working with images, then your most important purchase is almost certainly your monitor. But what makes for a great gaming monitor might not be so fantastic if you’re editing still images.
Graphics professionals need to be sure that the colours on the display will accurately represent what their clients will ultimately see once the image is exported to a different display, or printed out and put on billboards and flyers. For this reason, professionals in this field tend to prefer IPS panels to TN or VA ones. Refresh rate and response time after all, only matter when you’re in a game.
We’ve already covered what’s needed from a music-production PC in another blog. But let’s summarise, here. Music professionals need powerful computers with fast, multithreaded CPUs, lots of memory and huge storage drives. But they also need a few extra peripherals.
A set of high-quality studio monitor speakers are a requirement, but so too is the audio interface that will link your machine, your speakers, and all of your instruments. Historically, this was a sound card that literally slotted straight into your motherboard; now it’s an exterior device that attaches via USB.
3D modelling is something we’re going to cover in a separate article in the coming weeks, but for now, it’s enough to say that if you’re dealing with high-polygon objects, you’ll need a powerful graphics card. But popular programs like Blender also demand a great deal from the CPU, too, with modifiers and shape keys and drivers and everything else that involves real-time maths being worked out on the fly. The more complex your scene, the more of a hog it’ll be on your machine. And since there’s no real limit to how much detail you can cram in there, the demands can quickly scale beyond the limits of what a standard gaming rig can cope with.
I need a workstation PC!
If you’ve read all this and persuaded yourself that your existing gaming rig might not be fit for purpose in your new career, then we’ve got you covered. As well as amazing gaming PCs, we also put together sleek-looking professional ones. They can be customised to your particular needs, too – so give them a try!