A fast computer is a good computer

I'm an impatient man. If what I click doesn't happen instantly or there's any kind of lag or slowness, I'm immediately looking for ways to fix it. Slow computers suck.

My little Dell Optiplex SFF PC with an i5-6500 CPU is struggling with the extra work I've thrown at it lately. It already has 32GB of RAM and a speedy Samsung 970 Pro SSD, so the weak link is the CPU with processes fighting for time when I'm trying to ingest scans from 6 scanners at once (some running in virtual machines), whilst also processing batch operations in Photoshop to clean up images.

This slowness set me on the path of looking for an upgrade. A PC that can handle running two VMs (for my old scanners that don't have Win 10 drivers but otherwise still work excellently), Photoshop and suck in images off 6 scanner at once. I'd like to assign 4 or more cores to Windows 10 and at least 2 cores to both Windows 7 VMs. But I'm also a cheapskate and have sunk more cash into this hobby than I really should have - so what's out there that'll be a cost effective upgrade?

The obvious option is to build my own Ryzen 9 PC. The 3900X is a 12-core beast that's also stupidly cheap considering the performance. Here's the PC I'd build (pricing from Scorptec on the 14th of June, 2020):

It would be a very nice computer that would be a pleasure to use but $2,419 is more than I can justify spending on what is a secondary computer.

The only other way I can think of to get a bunch of cores in a PC that isn't a rack-mount server that'll make my ears bleed sitting in the same room as it, is an 5-ish year old workstation PC. HP Z-series, Dell Precision, Lenovo ThinkStation and for shits and giggles, the Mac Pro.

These sorta computers cost an absolute bomb brand new but after a few years they depreciate harder than a luxury car. They're also confusingly named. After a bit of research I've come up with the following list of workstation models actually worth damn in 2020:

LGA2011 socket, C602 chipset, DDR3-1866 RAM

  • Lenovo ThinkStation C30 (dual CPU)
  • Lenovo ThinkStation S30
  • HP Z420 V2
  • HP Z620 V2 (dual CPU via riser board)
  • HP Z820 V2 (dual CPU)
  • Dell Precision T3610
  • Dell Precision T5610 (dual CPU)
  • Dell Precision T7610 (dual CPU)

LGA2011-3 socket, C612 chipset, DDR4-2400 RAM

  • Lenovo ThinkStation P410
  • Lenovo ThinkStation P500
  • Lenovo ThinkStation P510
  • Lenovo ThinkStation P700 (dual CPU)
  • Lenovo ThinkStation P710 (dual CPU)
  • Lenovo ThinkStation P900 (dual CPU)
  • Lenovo ThinkStation P910 (dual CPU)
  • HP Z440
  • HP Z640 (dual via riser board)
  • HP Z840 (dual CPU)
  • Dell Precision T5810
  • Dell Precision T7810 (dual CPU)
  • Dell Precision T7910 (dual CPU)

Some notes on the workstations:

  • Anything older than LGA2011 is too slow to be useful. Anything newer than LGA2011-3 is too expensive. Anything other than LGA2011 or LGA2011-3 (e.g: LGA1150) doesn't have enough cores.
  • HP's Z6xx series workstations support dual CPUs but need an additional riser card for the 2nd CPU. The HP Z8xx is a larger case with both CPU sockets already there and more expansion than the Z6xx.
  • Px00 ThinkStations support up to V3 Xeon CPUs only, whereas the slighly newer (but same chipset!) Px10 models support V4 CPUs. The P900/910 is a bigger version of the P700/710 with more slots and HDD bays.
  • Dell's T7910 and T7610 are bigger versions (extra slots/drive bays/beefier PSUs) of the T7810 and T5610 respectively.

I scoured Intel's ARK for a list of LGA2011 and LGA2011-3 CPUs that will suit (minimum of 2.4Ghz base frequency, 12 cores if single CPU, 6 cores if dual CPU, Hyperthreading, VT-x & VT-d support) and put them in a Google Spreadsheet. There's some gaps because I can't find pricing for some CPUs, they just aren't on sale from anyone right now.

Pricing varies wildly depending on what I can find on eBay/Aliexpress. Just while writing this article, the cheap E5-2690 v3 CPUs I saw on eBay have been sold! Based on current pricing/availability though, I'd be placing these CPUs in any workstation I get:

  • Single or dual LGA2011-3: E5-2690 v3, 12c/24t, 2.6Ghz - $350 each
  • Single LGA2011: E5-2696 v2, 10c/20t, 3.0GHz - $260
  • Dual LGA2011: E5-2667 v2, 8c/16t, 3.3GHz - $190 each

Any workstation I buy will also need:

  • A graphics card - I have an RX580 I got for $200 off Facebook
  • A 1TB NVMe Samsung 970 Evo Plus SSD - $300 after cashback at the moment
  • Extra RAM - price depends if DDR3 or DDR4 and how much extra RAM is needed

Ideally, I'd love to get a dual CPU LGA2011-3 workstation - either the Precision T7810/T7910, HP Z840 or Lenovo P700/710/900/910. Looking at pricing on these units however, they might still be out of my price range.

The cheapest dual LGA2011-3 box I could find was a ThinkStation P700 for $899 down in Moorabbin (there's a P700 in Sydney that's cheaper, but it's so low spec that to bring it up to speed would cost more than the $899 one).

Here's the specs once I upgrade it:

  • Lenovo ThinkStation P700 for $899
  • 2x E5-2690 v3 (24 cores, 2.6Ghz base) +$650
  • 32GB DDR4 ECC RAM (included)
  • 1TB NVMe SSD +$300
  • AMD RX580 8GB GPU +$200
  • Nvidia K2200 GPU (sell for ~$125)
  • E5-2603 v3 CPU (sell for ~$50)

All up cost is $1874. Cheaper than the 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X by around $700, but more power hungry and when not using all 24 cores, probably not as quick as the more modern Ryzen. Probably worth spending the extra $700 to get a more modern PC.

What about LGA2011? Or a single CPU LGA2011-3? After scouring around eBay for the last few days, value winner is a Dell Precision T5810 for $400 shipped from Brisbane.

The CPU & GPU it comes with are basically useless and like $30 resale value at best - but it comes with 32GB of RAM for the $400. Here's the upgraded specs:

  • Dell Precision T5810 for $400
  • E5-2690 v3 (12 cores, 2.6Ghz base) +$300
  • 32GB DDR4 ECC RAM (included)
  • 1TB NVMe SSD +$300
  • AMD RX580 8GB GPU +$200

Total cost is $1,190. Not as cool as 24 cores ($1864) and not as shiny as a new Ryzen 9 3900X ($2419), but with 12 cores it will definitely get the job done without as much cash leaking out of my wallet.

There's one last alternative to investigate though - Chinese X99 mainboards! Over on Aliexpress you can buy brand new X99 based dual LGA2011-3 mainboards with NVMe M.2 slots for like $150-$250.

Sounds awesome but once you get all the other bits you need, the price ramps up. Here's an example build:

  • 2x E5-2690 v3 CPUs - $650
  • 2x CPU coolers - $200
  • 32GB DDR4 ECC RAM - $300
  • Dual socket X99 mainboard - $200
  • 1TB Samsung SSD - $300
  • 8GB RX580 GPU - $200
  • Fractal Design Meshify S2 case - $289
  • Modular power supply - $169

By taking this route, I'd be spending $2300. For that price I may as well get the damn Ryzen 9 3900X for just $100 more!

With all the options I can think of laid out before me, what am I gonna do? The Dell T5810 is the rational choice with 12 cores for under $1200, but I would love a dual CPU beast with 24 cores! I think I'll take a step back and see if any cheap dual CPU workstations or nice CPUs pop up on eBay/Gumtree/Facebook over the next few weeks.