The Specs To Look For In A Workstation Computer

For everyday computer use, processing power is rarely a consideration anymore, but when you're looking at a workstation system for more advanced technical tasks, all those specifications become vital. These are the features you should look for.

Monitor picture from Shutterstock

Your exact needs will obviously vary depending on the use the workstation will be put to. That said, the space has become highly commoditised, and the specs suggested below cover a wide range of possible use cases. The difference between a workstation, a high-end gaming PC and a server isn't as clear as it used to be -- all will use many of the same components -- but major manufacturers still generally draw the distinction and list workstations separately.


While the workstation market was once divided on RISC versus CISC lines, that's no longer a relevant distinction: we now live in a purely x86 workstation world. In that space, your choice is between Intel's Xeon and AMD's Opteron, with Intel options somewhat more dominant.

Current Intel models are likely to run the Xeon E3 (either 3.10GHz or 3.40GHz; go for the latter if you can afford it). The cheapest models will be dual-core, but we'd suggest going for quad-core as a minimum to ensure you get a decent life from your investment. For heavy workloads, multiple sockets can help you beef up available power.


While you'll see workstations for sale with 8GB of memory or less, that doesn't make sense given the workloads involved. 16GB is the absolute sensible minimum, and it's not unheard of to go up to 128GB for more demanding applications. Make sure your workstation supports ECC (error correcting code) to minimise the risk of errors.


You're unlikely to encounter a workstation with a conventional hard drive smaller than 500GB; go for 1TB or more if you can afford it. Workstation operators typically work with large files, so local storage is beneficial. Look for RAID support to automate failover in the event of a drive problem.

Using an SSD will give you much better performance, but you won't have such large storage volumes. Stripping multiple 256GB SSDs can be worthwhile in some scenarios.


What you choose here will depend on the budget, application and the number of existing screens you have sitting around that can be reused. Workstation users often require a multi-monitor environment, so make sure the graphics card you choose can support that and has appropriate outputs. Nvidia's dominant model in this space is the Quadro; AMD's FirePro is an alternative.

While it is possible to recycle existing displays, workstation users will typically spend many hours in front of their machine, so don't skimp here by forcing them to use an old, low-resolution display. Bundled monitors with workstations are also often cheaper than if you pick them up separately.

Operating System

Most workstations will ship with a 64-bit version of Windows 7. You'll often have the right to upgrade for free to Windows 8; whether you want to do that is a matter of personal choice. If your enterprise licensing already covers your OS or you're planning to run Linux or Unix, you can save money by ordering a hardware-only workstation, though this may require a little cajoling of the vendor.


    RAM, RAM, RAM. As much as you can get. Don't worry about ECC, you'll end up spending twice the money to get the same amount of RAM, much better off getting twice as much RAM and a blue screen if it dies.

    Everything else is down to usage. If you're not constantly hammering the processor, there's no need to get a Xeon, an i7 or even i5 will save you a heap of cash.

    Storage, again down to usage. An SSD for system drive is pretty much essential, but after that, it depends on what you're doing. If you've got a SAN at your workplace you might be keeping everything on there. If you've just got a single workstation, you'll want to have something internal to work with, probably back up externally.

    Graphics, yeah, again, needs dependant. A reasonably low end graphics card form Nvidia or ATI will give you a number of displays. 2 of them will double it. It then comes down to if you're going to use the graphical processing power or if you're just using it to drive monitors with code and spreadsheets.

      "Don't worry about ECC, you'll end up spending twice the money to get the same amount of RAM"

      That's… really not good advice. It's highly dependant upon the work being done.

        Generally, if it is something like high end graphic design, the ecc isn't that important. If it is a lot financial data, then get the ecc ram.

        If you're that worried about RAM failure/corruption, you'll need a lot more than what's been recommended in this article to ensure your system stability.

    128gb of RAM? What would require that outside of design/rendering software (at which point I wouldn't really classify it as a workstation anymore)? I don't mean that facetiously, I'm genuinely curious what could need that much.

      Sadly, an accountant I know who had a 30GB Quickbooks file when compressed. ...

      Advice, start a new Quickbooks file every financial year.

    lol just checked... My workstation has 3GB of ram....

      Or maybe you're running a 32bit O/S and so you can only use 3(.2)GB of RAM?

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