I was at a meeting in New York this week with a major PC vendor, and one of the things the company’s sales data shows is that people who should be buying workstations — or even gaming machines — are buying mainstream Windows PCs instead. (The focus wasn’t on gaming, but on productivity and performance.)
Given I’ve been covering PCs and workstations since the early 1990s, I want to explain the difference between the two and when you should consider one over the other.
The big difference
The main difference between workstations and Windows PCs is that PCs are usually built for business (where IT makes the final decision), and workstations are for individual users. Originally, workstations were mostly used by engineers who need higher performance and have less tolerance for even small errors. The configurations generally required two things: error checking memory (ECC) and certifications from software vendors who made the apps designed to run on them.
Workstations are designed to maximize the productivity of a user that’s gated by that productivity — in other words, someone for whom wasting time costs more than the difference in price between a workstation and a PC.
Workstations don’t always have to comply with every company standard, leaving the purchasing and IT people (the latter is often left entirely out of the loop) in a subordinate position behind the user.
How workstations have evolved
Workstations began as very expensive machines mostly used for computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing. You needed a couple of guys to move them, so, for a long time, there was no such thing as a truly mobile workstation. In addition, they favored powerful CPUs because discrete graphics weren’t really a thing.
You can now get thin, light workstation laptops, though the greatest performance continues to come from desktop configurations. Generally, mobile workstations cost significantly more, are heavier, and have less battery life than PCs. But in terms of targeted application performance, they are more accurate and perform better.
Workstations vs. gaming PCs
Gaming companies often admit that 10% to 20% of their sales go to high-performance users. That’s because gaming machines deliver the same (or better) performance as a given workstation at a lower price. Still, they generally aren’t certified by application vendors, don’t use ECC memory, and rely on gaming GPU solutions.
Animators, video/photography editors, and those running simulations — the kind of people who use gaming machines — don’t necessarily need those features. And if you do want to game, workstations tend to lag gaming machines. The hard part is getting IT to sign off on one; it’ll typically get flagged as an excessive expense (which can be resolved, but may reflect badly on the department).
Gaming machines also tend to be less sturdy than a workstation and have flashy visual cues that might make others see you as less professional. I’ve carried gaming machines on and off in my career and I’ve gotten a few derogatory comments along the way. Frankly, I kind of liked the attention and envy. My favorite was a Ferrari co-branded notebook that had a V-12 start up sound; you knew when I was in the room.
In short, a gaming machine can be a better value for a given performance than a workstation, but they should be avoided for high-tolerance work or where absolute performance is paramount.
GPU vs. CPU
While most workstations have hefty, discrete GPUs, some mobile workstations use integrated graphics. This works fine for applications like spreadsheets that are CPU, rather than GPU, intensive. CPUs are great with numbers, discrete GPUs are better for anything image-based, or for analytics, AI, and most engineering. Most users prefer a workstation with a good GPU, but some do just fine with a hefty CPU and integrated graphics. The latter comes with a lower price and potentially longer battery life.
Choosing between the two
The vast majority of Windows PC users are just fine with business-oriented computers, and many can get their work done with consumer PCs. However, if your productivity is tied to your PC, it’s time to consider a workstation. It’s also a good idea to look to other high-performing users doing similar tasks, and to the software vendor providing the application you use to come up with the ideal configuration.
Another consideration: if you are using the cloud heavily, another way to get performance is to run your apps in the cloud rather than on the device. This could reduce the need for a workstation.
Finally, I’ve known people who wanted a workstation for gaming but were generally disappointed in the result. If you’re a game developer, that may be different. But for playing games, they just aren’t as good as a gaming machines.
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