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Professional workstations are all about powerful multi-core processors, masses of memory and hugely scalable graphics cards connected to multiple, high-definition, monitors. The trouble is all that comes at a price so, for aspiring users with more modest means, Dell has its Precision Tower 3000 Series which, despite being a lot less scalable than the flagship Precision 7000 Series, still manages to tick the workstation boxes for those with more modest requirements.
Dell's Precision Tower 3000 workstation can be had in one of two formats, housed in either a compact slimline chassis (the 3420 model) or a full-fat 3620 mini-tower like the one we reviewed. This had lots of room inside for expansion, including housings for up to four 2.5-inch drives or two 3.5-inch devices as well as a full-size optical drive. That said, ours was mostly empty and buyers who don't need lots of drives or multiple add-in adapters may prefer the smaller format, which can be equally well specified in other areas.
Build quality may not be quite up to that of the 7000 Series, but it certainly doesn't disappoint, with a removable side panel for access plus, on our review unit, a single 290W power supply and an extra-large-diameter fan underneath to help with the cooling. A beefier 365W PSU is available as an option (for more demanding users wanting requiring multiple video cards) and the processor also comes with its own fan, as do most of the plug-in graphics cards. Despite all this cooling gear, the end result is remarkably quiet and relatively unobtrusive in operation.
Dell's motherboard is highly integrated, with a single socket to take a wide variety of processors across a range of price points. A couple of standard configurations are on offer on Dell's UK website, but you can choose exactly what you want to go inside, which is incredibly important both in terms of performance and how the graphics side of the equation is handled.
Our review system, for example, was fitted with an Intel Xeon in the form of a quad-core 3.5GHz E3-1240 v5. This is a fast and very capable processor but, unlike the 6th-generation Core i5 or i7 alternatives (also quad-core), it doesn't come with integrated graphics. Ours didn't at least - although, just to confuse matters, there is a Xeon variant you can order that does.
Opt for one of Core i5 or i7 processors and you get Intel HD 530 graphics built in, leaving the two slots provided for extra GPU cards. However, with no graphics on the chip we tested, our workstation was totally reliant on its plug-in adapters. There's an absolute limit of two, but you can only fit one if you go for one of the top-end cards that requires extra power.
Given the target market, this limitation needn't be a problem, but it does need to be borne in mind. And if you go for a Xeon processor without on-board graphics, the integrated HDMI and DisplayPort connectors on the motherboard become redundant, which can be a little confusing when attaching a monitor for the first time.
When it comes to plug-in graphics cards, you really are spoilt for choice. Our review unit came with an Nvidia Quadro K620 with 2GB of video RAM, which is a reasonable enough entry-level adapter for undemanding 2D/3D modelling applications. It also sports two interfaces -- DVI + DisplayPort -- and, for an extra £88 (ex. VAT), you can have two Quadro K620s and support up to four monitors, without breaking the bank.
Returning just over 80fps when running Cinebench R15, the Quadro K620 is far from the fastest GPU on the block, and more demanding buyers will be looking for something with a little more heft behind it. To this end, Dell offers a range of Nvidia and AMD FirePro cards to suit a range of needs and budgets, making it just a matter of paying your money and taking your choice.
Of course you'll need to factor a monitor or two into the price as well. For our tests we used a 25-inch Dell UltraSharp UP2516P (£380 ex. VAT), which delivered high-quality results at resolutions of up to 2,560 by 1,440 pixels. However, plenty of others are available -- both from Dell and other vendors. Dell also sells stands to help with multi-monitor installations.
In terms of memory it's all about DDR4 these days, with four DIMM slots on offer to extend the 8GB we were given up to a whopping 64GB if needed. You're also spoilt for choice in terms of storage, in this case managed by an integrated Intel Rapid controller that, although limited to 6Gbps SATA, does offer host-based RAID protection.
Our review system came with just one internal drive, a 250GB 2.5-inch Samsung SSD, but other SSDs are available, including an M.2 PCIe SSD card to fit the special slot provided on the motherboard. Magnetic disks are, similarly, available in abundance. Moreover, with ten USB ports - six of them USB 3.0 - plus an optional Thunderbolt 2 adapter, storage is unlikely to be much of an issue, no matter what your application needs or budget.
A Gigabit Ethernet network interface comes as standard along with reasonable, if basic, built-in audio capabilities. In fact, the only real disappointment was the cheap-and-cheerful USB keyboard/mouse combo included in the box. Some very smart wireless alternatives are available, but we'd really like to see them included on a product like this. Apple understands this, and Dell should follow suit.
As with all Dell workstations independent software certification comes as standard, added to which Dell bundles a neat optimisation tool of its own to fine-tune the hardware settings to better meet the demand of leading application workloads.
Overall, there's a lot to like about the Precision Tower 3000 Series, and not much to get disgruntled about. Although you could easily get carried away and end up spending more than you intended, the £788.20 (ex. VAT) 3620 model reviewed here is an affordable yet capable addition to Dell's Precision lineup and a very welcome one for workstation buyers on a budget.