Up from Nehalem: Westmere-based Dell Precision workstation wows

Intel's new six-core chip delivers even more processing power to midrange workstations

In July of last year, I reviewed a group of new Nehalem-based workstations from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo. The outstanding characteristic of these machines was the terrific performance conferred by the new Intel processor architecture. In this review, I examine an update to one of the models, the Dell Precision T5500 workstation. It now ships with the latest incarnation of Intel's Xeon family, code-named Westmere. Benchmarks show it to be stronger and faster, while consuming less power.

The result is an excellent 12-core workstation that combines top performance, excellent graphics rendering, and miserly energy consumption, all in a desktop form factor. Let's look at the details.

Dell Precision T5500: The workstation

The Dell Precision T5500 workstation is the midrange machine in the vendor's lineup. That lineup could be viewed as serving three tiers: value (sub-$5,000), which includes the T1500 and T3500 models; midrange ($5,000 to $10,000), consisting of the T5500 model; and the high-end (greater than $10,000), which includes the highly expandable T7500 model.

In past years, the midrange has been a somewhat forgotten tier; customers wanted either value or all the power they could possibly get, regardless of cost. As a result, they favored the ends of the spectrum, rather than the middle. However, there is a growing appreciation that the high-end machines command a very high premium for the extra power and scalability. Today, the midrange machines, which are remarkably powerful systems in their own right, are emerging as a good blend of value and power.

The Westmere-based T5500 model reviewed here is in most ways identical to its older brother. It has the same case and desktop form factor. The physical attributes such as USB ports, PCI slots, and network adapter are all the same. Likewise, the graphics card is the same Nvidia Quadro FX 4800 model. This particular graphics adapter has been a staple of workstation vendors as it combines excellent performance with a good price. In addition, it is energy efficient, and with 1.5GB of video RAM, it has plenty of room for handling memory-consuming graphics.

The FX 4800 is notable for another reason: It has only one DVI port. The remaining two ports are DisplayPort, a technology that rose to fame in the Apple universe. These ports are quickly emerging as the new norm on graphics adapters due to the fact that they support more colors (up to 1 billion hues) than dual-link DVI. They also support longer cables, and they can send both audio and video signals on the same cable.

Dell Precision T5500: The processor
Westmere is a die shrink of the previous generation of Nehalem processors. Die shrink means that the processor is literally etched onto the silicon using smaller connections (in this case, 32 nanometers). The upshot is that the same processor takes up less room, consumes less power, and runs faster. Intel chose to use some of this newfound room to add two cores on the processor die. This feature -- six cores -- is the distinguishing attribute of Westmere. How much this additional capacity delivers when compared with Nehalem's four cores is examined in the next section.

Test Center Scorecard
  35% 20% 20% 15% 10%  
Dell Precision T5500 Tower Workstation 10 9 9 7 9



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