Build a Mac Pro equivalent workstation for 1/3 the cost

Build a Mac Pro equivalent workstation for 1/3 the cost

Summary: Conventional wisdom tells us that a digital content creation and CAD professional had to fork out $6000 to $10,000 dollars for a high-end 8-core dual-processor workstation, but this is Real World IT where I say screw conventional wisdom.  I've put on my mad scientist hat again and brewed something up for $2311 with equal or better performance than a $6803 Mac Pro (as configured in Apple screen cap to the left).

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Conventional wisdom tells us that a digital content creation and CAD professional had to fork out $6000 to $10,000 dollars for a high-end 8-core dual-processor workstation, but this is Real World IT where I say screw conventional wisdom.  I've put on my mad scientist hat again and brewed something up for $2311 with equal or better performance than a $6803 Mac Pro (as configured in Apple screen cap to the left).  Now granted you can't run Mac OS X so that might be a show stopper for a Mac user, but there are plenty of Windows users who want something that will run just as fast.  If that's you, then keep reading!

The Mac Pro is essentially based on an Intel 5000 series dual-processor chipset.  At present time, it still only comes with 65nm "Clovertown" processors maxing out at 3.0 GHz and not the recently launched 45nm "Harpertown" processors and newer motherboard that use the Intel 5100 series "San Clemente" chipset.  As I showed in my quad-core CPU comparisons, the newer 45nm processors costing $300 can rival $1200 65nm processors.  Furthermore, the 5100 series chipset supports cheaper and more energy efficient registered DDR2 memory instead of the power-hungry FBDIMMs (fully buffered DDR2 memory) used in the Intel 5000 series motherboards.

My home-brew 8-core solution costs about a third of the price with performance equal or better than the fastest Mac Pro you can buy on the market.  But when it comes to SSE4 optimized video encoding which nearly every video encoding software package is going to support, you can expect a massive increase in performance over the 65nm "Clovertown" quad-core processors.  Other improvements in my solution is a 5-drive hot-swap SATA back plane which allows you to easily swap out up to five hard drives.  The video card I used is an NVIDIA Quadro NVS290 designed specifically for the workstation market and it is also used in Sun's single processor workstation.

Apple on the other hand uses the out-dated ATI Radeon X1900 XT which is actually a desktop gaming graphics card and not a workstation card.  Below is the exact configuration and pricing for this system.  I also threw in a cordless Logitech EX110 keyboard and optical mouse.  Since Apple includes free shipping, my quoted prices (as usual) includes the cost of shipping.  I also rounded to the nearest dollar and I do not include the effect of rebates in the quoted prices though I mention one rebate in the part description.  I got these prices by roaming the search engines to find reasonable prices mostly from places that I have personally shopped before.

Updated 5:45PM - All Windows drivers for the Intel 5100 series "San Clemente" chipset have now been confirmed and can be downloaded here so both systems are confirmed to operate any x86 or x64 version of Windows XP, 2003, Vista.  I have also verified XP and Vista x86/x64 driver support for all the other components.

Note that the use of FBDIMMs on the 5400 series platform adds about 7 watts of power consumption per DIMM, but the 5400 series "Seaburg" chipset has the added benefit of a 50% larger snoop filter and official DDR2-800 support so it's a higher end chipset.  While the 5400 series chipset supports up to 16 FBDIMMs, the 5400 motherboard listed below has 4 DIMM slots whereas the 5100 series motherboard listed below has 8 DIMM slots.  You can get higher memory capacity 5400 series motherboards but they cost a little more so it a toss up which chipset you should use.  You can get a Supermicro X7DWN+B for example which has dual gigabit LAN and 16 FBDIMM slots for an extra $150 over the price of the Tyan S5392ANR.

High-end 8-core 2P Workstation (5400 series "Seaburg" version):

Part Price
Tyan TEMPEST I5400XL (S5392ANR) Intel 5400 series "Seaburg" 408
8 GB fully buffered DDR2-667 ECC memory (2GB x 4) 340
Two Intel E5410 quad-core "Harpertown" 45nm 2.33 GHz CPUs 616
Seasonic 650W 88% efficiency "80 Plus" power supply 160
Cooler Master Stacker ATX chassis Cosmos EATX (updated) 172
NVIDIA Quadro NVS290 PCI-Express 256MB 120
Sound Blaster Audigy 7.1 36
AMS 5-drive SATA hot-swap backplane (model DS-3151SSBK) 102
Two 500GB 7200RPM SATA hard drives 200
18x DVD burner with SATA interface 36
Logitech EX110 wireless optical mouse and keyboard 35
Vista Business x64 edition OEM (dual-processor support) 145
   
Total (including shipping but not tax) $2368
High-end 8-core 2P workstation (5100 series "San Clemente" version):
Part Price
5100 series "San Clemente" dual-processor motherboard 381
8 GB Registered DDR2-667 ECC memory (4 x 2GB) (4 slots open) 310
Two Intel E5410 quad-core "Harpertown" 45nm 2.33 GHz CPUs 616
Seasonic 650W 88% efficiency "80 Plus" power supply 160
Cooler Master Stacker ATX chassis (additional $60 rebate) 170
NVIDIA Quadro NVS290 PCI-Express 256MB 120
Sound Blaster Audigy 7.1 36
AMS 5-drive SATA hot-swap backplane (model DS-3151SSBK) 102
Two 500GB 7200RPM SATA hard drives 200
18x DVD burner with SATA interface 36
Logitech EX110 wireless optical mouse and keyboard 35
Vista Business x64 edition OEM (dual-processor support) ??? 145
   
Total (including shipping but not tax) $2311
If you don't know how to build a PC or you're rusty, here's a step-by-step guide.  You can also have a local PC shop assemble the whole thing for around $100 or so and some will even install the OS for a little more money.  Other shops may just sell you all the parts for a minimal markup with no charge on assembly if you take this parts list to them.

As for which LCD display to buy, make sure you buy something that isn't a typical TN type panel with lousy viewing angles and lousy 18-bit color.  Dell's $700 24" 2407WFP-HC is highly rated and it uses a high color PVA type panel with true wide viewing angles that don't drastically drop in contrast ratio when viewed off center.  The inexpensive $300 24" Soyo (available at Office Max) is actually an MVA type panel with true 24-bit color and wide viewing angles.  If you don't need a super high color gamut, picking up two of the 24" Soyos for dual-screens might be a great solution.  For comparison purposes, the Apple iMac 20" uses the lousy TN type display while the 24" iMac uses the superior PVA, MVA, or IPS TFT technology.

Update 5:45AM - What about Dell workstations?

Larry Dignan asked me what about Dell solutions for the workstation market.  That's a great question and I just looked it up on Dell's website.  I configured a Dell Precision T7400 with identical CPU and GPU configuration but with the older Intel 5000 series chipset [Update 6:40AM - reader s_souche pointed out that the T7400 is actually based on the newer 5400 series "Seaburg" chipset which also uses FBDIMMs and has the highest memory capacity].  One problem was that it only allowed me to configure half the memory using 4 1GB FBDIMMs.  This makes me wonder if there are only four DIMM slots in the entire system which would be rather unusual for a 5400 series motherboard.

It was also crazy that they charge an extra $350 to upgrade to a 500 GB SATA hard drive when those drives are barely worth $100 to begin with.  The total price for the RAM deficient system was $3817.  You will have to go out and buy your own 2GB FBDIMMs if you want to get up to 8GB RAM.  That's not as bad as the Mac Pro configuration above but it's still far worse than my home brew.

Topics: Processors, Apple, Hardware, Intel, Storage

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303 comments
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  • Yeah ... but

    .... what kind of frame rate would I get in Crysis? ;-)

    Seriously though, good system and I've thought about building my own dual processor system for a while now. I haven't had a dual proc system since a Pentium Pro system I had years ago (still here somewhere).

    Nice system ... when you going to build it?
    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • If I can get the parts for review, I'll build it

      If I can get the parts for review, I'll build it. But it's not in my budget to own something like this.
      georgeou
      • build it and install OS X

        Why not just install tiger-x86-flat.img and be done with it, you would have a faster computer...AND be running OS X

        What are the Mac fans going to say about that?
        Qlueless
        • What do Mac fans care?

          Building PC's has been around since the begining. People have done some pretty
          strange things to early Apple II's all the way up to George's iMac clone well sort of.
          Sure people can do the OSX thing as well at least till the next security upgrade or
          patch. It doesn't mean much too me except that "IF" I had an urge to do this (I did
          it in the past and well I'm over it now) but still if one has the urge it's nice to know
          one can. I doubt however that it means much besides that..... that it's nice to know
          it can be done. I do like the case.

          Pagan jim
          Laff
          • Your say you doubt it means much...

            I say it means $4500 extra to buy the Apple product. That seems pretty significant to me. This has always been one of the issues with Mac OS (other than Apples brief experiment with allowing clones) that makes it different from either Windows or Linux. With either Windows or Linux, you can buy hardware from any vendor or even buy the pieces and assemble it yourself. With OSX you have to buy from Apple if you want it to be legal.

            People gripe about Microsoft being a monopoly, but at least with Windows you can buy the hardware from anyone you want. Only the Apple faithful can delude themselves into believing that paying more double the price of a Dell or triple the price of a DIY is OK.
            cornpie
          • Show me the money

            "more than double the price of a Dell". OK, you go out and do the comparison
            shopping. Find the Dell that matches the Mac with the same features at half the price
            and then wel'll talk. I've done the shopping and it's not the case. Be sure to show your
            work.
            winski
          • I often find it useful...

            to read the original article before commenting. That usually helps to keep yourself from looking foolish

            Had you done so in this case, you would have seen that George had already done exactly that. In fact that was the whole purpose.
            cornpie
          • And where's your work?

            ...proving the results of your shopping?
            jordjarn@...
          • RAM, RAM, bad, bad

            As a Mac enthusiast since 1984, I have long criticized Apple's extremely
            high charges for RAM--and have always purchased the base system and
            added my own. For George to discuss "budget" systems but take Apple's
            full RAM upgrade price is disingenuous--or misleading. They now offer
            only a single, base model Mac Pro with 1 GB RAM, and charge (gasp!)
            $2,099 to take it up to the 8 GB George used. His own DIY example shows
            8 GB for $310/$340. That alone takes almost $1,800 out of his
            comparison, keeps Apple's 1 GB in place for a total of 9 GB--and makes it
            much more realistic.

            George, why didn't you take it up to the full 16 GB RAM and really make
            your misleading point?
            frabjous
          • How is getting a quote straight from Apple's website...

            GEORGE'S error??
            Don't you think you should be pointing the finger at Apple? Normal Apple dodos would get the "upgraded" system as they intend to use it, not buy a low-RAM one and then upgrade it themselves.
            tikigawd
        • Not sure if that will fully support the GPU or San Clemente chipset

          Not sure if that will fully support the NVIDIA GPU or 5000 series San Clemente chipset. Apple is using the ATI X1900 and 5000 series chipset. Even if I do get it working, I won't be able to talk about it since I risk being sued by Apple.
          georgeou
          • Many people have and are talking about it.

            The newest hacked versions of OS X can run NVIDIA with and without a bit of extra tweaking. The only way to find out if the San Clemente chipset works with OS X is to try it and, if it doesn't, tweak until it works. Apple can't successfully sue for telling about successfully doing it or how to do it, they only succeed because people are afraid of the cost to defend against litigation.
            Golem
          • But how many work for a Major Media Outlet?

            Sure you could sue some lowly blogger, but who would care. ZDnet on the other hand, has a bit of Ad Revenue. Apple would love to collect a bit of that just because they can.

            However, what George can do is acquire the hardware for review and have an unnamed source install OS X. Then George could verify that OS X does run on this system.

            If I remember correctly, Reporters don't have to disclose their sources.
            nucrash
          • Let me check with legal on using that unnamed source

            It would be pretty easy to get it to work if I used a 5000 series mobo and X1900 XT graphics card. That would essentially be identical to Apple's spec. Of course Apple will probably come out with an updated Mac Pro using the Seaburg chipset with DDR2-800 FBDIMMs. In that case we can clone the newest hardware with an identical motherboard chipset and whatever graphics card they'll be using.

            Let me check with legal on using that unnamed source ;).
            georgeou
        • Deluded

          So you would attempt to run a serious business on a software hack to run the insanely superior OS X and not have decent drivers or support to save some short term $$$?

          I am glad you aren't running my company
          AlienSexGod
          • The only thing insane

            is the extent of your hyperbole.
            rtk
          • for cost comparison

            It would just be for cost/performance comparison. It's hard to really say that system A works faster than system B unless they both have the same OS installed. Yes you would not be able to add the "cost" of OS x to the price of the clone PC. But you could give it an "assumed value". I personally would value OS X at approximately $200, but that's just what I value it at.. since you can't buy it without getting a Mac.. we will never know the actual MSRP.

            It would just be "fun" to see the clone at $2000 beat the hell out of the $6000 Mac running the same software.
            Qlueless
      • I'll build it!

        Hey George, I signed up for this zdNet blog just to let you know that I am building this system almost exactly to spec. The two exceptions are the graphics card - which I've replaced with a refurb Quadro FX 4600 from Nvidia - and the SATA hot swap - which I've replaced with a single 500Gb hard drive. I've also left out the peripherals that you specified, as I already have these. Although I've spent a little more on the Video card, I still managed to secure this hardware/Vista for just under $3,300. And when I say I, I mean my company. We're upgrading for 3d visualization capabilities. Anyhow, I thought I'd let you know. I'll keep you posted as to how this system works out for me. By the way, thanks for the specs. I think that it's going to be a screaming system.
        mfranks.architect@...
    • hey - that question matters

      ... what kind of frame rate would I get in Crysis? ;-)

      hey - I work for a CAD company - these questions matter!

      Seriously, though, probably decent, but not with all the bells and whistles in a consumer card since the card is optimized for throughput and OpenGL (DirectX takes a back seat) and generally have shaders that are one generation back.

      I'm not sure if that will continue in the future because speculation has it that the next generation of shader will be tessellation shaders (geometry shaders can do this, but with limited vertexes and a significant impact to performance), and tessellating geometries is at the core of 3D CAD. A tessellation shader capable of doing CSG with other geometric primitives would be optimal - for instance, passing in a sphere and a subtract cylinder and some granularity and instantly get a sphere with, say 27000 vertices and a hole bored into it.
      Clewin
    • Too slow CPU, no dual gige, only 4 RAM slots...

      Your PC will still be cheaper when all is said and done, but you're still inflating the prices and not comparing similar systems. For example, if you're complaining about lack of tech skills, then you should know that no one buys their RAM and storage through Apple. They're ridiculously overpriced. Anyway, some discrepancies:

      Mac Pro: Quad-Core Xeon 3.0GHz
      Your PC: Quad-Core Xeon 2.3GHz
      Mac Pro: 8 RAM Slots, for up to 16GB RAM
      Your PC: 4 RAM Slots, for up to 8GB RAM
      Mac Pro: FireWire 400 (1394a) & 800 (1394b)
      Your PC: Not
      Mac Pro: Dual Gigabit Ethernet
      Your PC: Single Gigabit Ethernet

      Though the following don't affect performance, they're nice:

      Mac Pro: Solid (thick and rugged) Aluminum Case
      Your PC: Aluminum (thin) + Plastic
      Mac Pro: Cables Inside: Zero
      Your PC: Cables Inside: Rat's nest
      Mac Pro: Looks Awesome (subjective)
      Your PC: Looks like.. a PC (subjective)

      You also doesn't need a special version of the OS to take advantage of all those features on the Mac Pro (unless you're going to run Windows.) Nor do you need to worry about if any drivers are 64-bit or 32-bit, or if the software will run on a 64-bit system. Mac OS X utilizes either 32-bit or 64-bit software seamlessly.
      olePigeon