- Choosing between a workstation and desktop computer for your business is not a one-size-fits-all decision.
- Your employees are 85% more likely to stick with the company if they have the right technology to support their roles.
- With faster processing speeds, larger storage capacity, and lots of memory, workstations are the tool of choice for jobs that handle data- and graphic-heavy workloads like video editing, animation, architecture, and engineering.
Animators, architects, data scientists, and video editors have something in common: They all require superior capabilities when it comes to the computers they work on. When researching the benefits of a workstation vs. desktop, the decision ultimately comes down to the type of work your company does. For people who need a powerful machine with a lot of storage and speed, a workstation is the best bet.
What Is a Workstation?
A workstation is a high-performance computer that can handle heavy workloads. A basic workstation can resemble a desktop PC with a tower, a mouse, and a keyboard. But it’s what’s inside that makes all the difference.
With a large central processing unit (CPU) and massive storage space, a workstation can run multiple applications simultaneously at much faster speeds. It’s designed for data-heavy, technical workflows, like rendering visual effects and CAD. For people who tackle larger projects, workstations are purpose-built machines that are more time- and cost-efficient, while less prone to disruption.
From media and entertainment to architecture and engineering, workstations are critical tools for many industries. Workstations enabled a Disney animation team to bring the ocean to life in Moana. Architects and engineers use them to design infrastructure and buildings. Data scientists leverage the speed of workstations for complex data crunching.
There are a lot of options when it comes to choosing the right workstation. Often, specific jobs and specific software, like Autodesk AutoCAD, will have minimum component requirements that can help you find the right machine. Here are five features that make workstations stand out from the crowd:
Workstations are workhorses, designed to run for long periods of time. But that increases the chance of memory errors caused by electrical or magnetic interference from within the computer.
Error-correcting code (ECC) memory is an extra chip added to random access memory (RAM) that repeatedly scans data to detect and repair any data damaged in transmission. ECC makes your workstation more reliable by fixing single-bit memory errors in real time, before they affect your system, and enhances the machine’s reliability by preventing crashes and saving you downtime.
Multiple Processor Cores
An entry-level workstation often has a CPU with eight cores, while high-end workstations have anywhere from 28 to 64 cores. Each core can perform tasks independently. This means the more cores your workstation has, the better it can run several applications at once. Generally speaking, doubling the number of cores cuts rendering time in half. However, a multicore processor doesn’t guarantee better performance: The software you use must be programmed to recognize the different cores.
RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks)
RAID combines multiple internal hard drives in a single array to store and process data and to save information in the event of a crash.
There are several types of RAID systems:
- Mirrored systems contain drives that are exact replicas of one another so there is always a complete backup of data.
- Striping distributes data across multiple drives.
- Parity RAID systems distribute data across multiple disks (striping) and create a checksum—a third disk that can detect errors and replace corrupted data.
SSD (Solid State Drive)
SSDs are a way to store data (like applications and files), and they work differently than their predecessors, hard-disk drives (HDD). There are no moving parts in SSDs, so there’s less chance of mechanical failure. Data is stored on microchips, enabling faster processing. SSDs have several advantages that make them perfect for the big projects a workstation often handles:
- More energy efficient
- Not prone to overheating
- Lighter in weight
The trade-off is that they’re currently more expensive per unit of capacity than HDDs.
Workstation graphics processing units (GPUs) are designed for rendering 3D visuals. Built for speed, endurance, and reliability, these cards can run for longer periods of time to render huge visual files and are critical workstation components for video editing and CAD.
Laptop vs. Desktop vs. Workstation
How much computing power do you need? If you’re a writer who uses the Internet and word-processing software, you’ll most likely choose a laptop or a desktop for work. But if you’re the safety inspector at a nuclear power plant, you’ll need a workstation.
Technology is not a one-size-fits-all decision. With the cloud, Internet of Things (IoT), and rapid-fire mobile communication, people can be more productive than ever. Having the right tools is vital to the employee experience. In fact, your employees are 85% more likely to stick with the company if they have the right technology to support their roles. That means getting your architects, animators, engineers, and computational masterminds the workstations they need to excel in their jobs.
Here are some of the primary differences among laptops, desktops, and workstations:
Overall, computer costs have come way down, but how much you spend depends on how much speed, storage, and power your business needs. A barebones laptop might run you $250 whereas a top-of-the-line machine can be $3,000. Business desktop PCs can cost from $500 to $3,500 or more. A workstation, built for maximum performance, can start at $1,500 or cost more than $10,000 for a high-end machine.
Both laptops and desktops have enough power to do basic tasks such as email, Internet searches, and word processing. Higher-end versions can run some sophisticated software for architectural projects and visual content creation. But they will take a lot longer than a workstation designed specifically to perform these tasks, because a desktop has up to 16 CPUs while a workstation can have up to 64.
An operating system creates the user interface with the hardware and software in every computer. Desktops and laptops run off of single-user multitasking operating systems. These allow users to run multiple programs on the machine at once. For example, you can write an email, print from your computer, and open a Microsoft Word document simultaneously. Workstations, on the other hand, use multiuser operating systems, enabling several people working at separate terminals to access and connect to a single operating system.
The internal components of a workstation are held to a higher standard than those of a laptop or desktop PC. Each part (motherboard, CPU, RAM, internal drives, video cards, and so forth) is built for endurance. Workstations can continue to run when all the humans have gone home, creating animations or crunching large data sets overnight.
Laptops and desktops typically don’t need as much storage as a workstation because the file sizes they handle are much smaller.
Most laptops have 4 GB, 8 GB, or 16 GB of RAM. Standard desktops often have 4 GB, 8 GB, 16 GB, or 32 GB. Workstations should start at 64 GB based on the workloads they’re designed to handle. The big difference? Most laptops and desktops have RAM attached to the motherboard, making it impossible to add more memory.
What Are the Advantages of a Workstation?
Although desktop computers have come a long way since the first PCs came onto the scene, workstations are still your best bet for running high-end visual software programs and designing high-resolution graphics and 3D models.
A workstation can scale as you need more memory and processing speed. Most components are interchangeable, so people can build the exact system they need for maximum performance. They can choose how much RAM they want and the number of cores in their CPU.
Workstations are built for the long run. Their hardware and higher-end components can handle multiple projects at once without getting sluggish. Workstations can also be left running on their own to complete a task.
Top-of-the-line workstations can be expensive, but an entry-level model won’t cost much more than a high-end PC. These low-barrier-to-entry models allow freelance video editors or independent architects who purchase their own equipment to get the benefits of a workstation without a big initial investment.
Now, take it up a notch: Workstations are great, but for highly specialized megaprojects, there are supercomputers. But what are the advantages of a supercomputer?
With the ability to hold hundreds of thousands of cores, a supercomputer is the most powerful and fastest type of computer in the world—with a processing speed 1 million times faster than a powerful laptop. A supercomputer can be a single machine or multiple computers working together as a single entity. They’re built for highly specific computational tasks like weather simulation and climate modeling and complex medical and scientific calculations.
For Big Hero 6, Disney used a 55,000-core supercomputer comprised of 2,300 workstations to run Hyperion, a rendering program developed by Disney Animation. Fugaku, the fastest supercomputer in the world, can complete 415 quadrillion computations in a second and was used to simulate how breath droplets travel through the air during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How Workstations Support Remote Work
Remote work was on the rise even before COVID-19 hit—a trend accelerated during the pandemic. By the end of 2022, 25% of the workforce will do their job from somewhere other than the office. It’s a trend made possible by digital technologies and processes, like building information modeling (BIM), that have paved the way for remote collaboration. Architects and engineers can power up Autodesk Tandem on their home-based workstations to design digital twins simultaneously.
It’s no longer necessary to decide between a home computer vs. a business computer, because a workstation can be both. Workstations were once primarily mainstays of office-based jobs, but they’ve become much more accessible. Many models can even be found at consumer electronics stores. In the future, virtual workstations might take the place of the physical machines, fueling this “work from anywhere” momentum.
Investing in Workstations for Your Business
Ultimately, the choice between a workstation vs. desktop computer comes down to user need. Your human-resources team doesn’t need workstations, but your engineers do. Although the initial investment can be substantial, the processing speed alone will save you in the long run. But like any technology, workstations (like desktops and laptops) should be replaced every three to five years to eliminate the chance of data loss, security breaches, and downtime.
Providing the right tools to help employees maximize productivity is good business. When it comes to workstations, you need to ask yourself the following: How much does it cost you in downtime and in time spent dealing with issues that come from underperforming computer hardware? And keep in mind that your employees will be much happier if their equipment helps them be productive. That alone is worth the investment.
This article has been updated. It originally published in March 2013.