Thursday, 23 April 2015

Review: Overclockers RENDA PW-E7F

Review: Overclockers RENDA PW-E7F

Introduction and design

Entering the professional workstation market seems to be a natural progression for component vendors, who normally sell fully built gaming PCs as well as the individual parts. As Overclockers is such a well-established UK retailer, if anything, it's surprising that it has taken this long for the company to do so.

Workstations aren't the same as gaming PCs though. The big difference is that a workstation will come with a FirePro or Quadro professional graphics card, which can cost many times more than AMD's Radeon and Nvidia's GeForce gaming products.

Although the physical differences between the two categories of graphics card are minimal, because workstations are aimed at people who depend on their computer's 3D performance for their livelihood, reliability and software compatibility matters more than performance alone.

There's the option of ECC memory on a FirePro or Quadro, and certified drivers that have been fully tested with applications such as Maya and 3ds Max before release. OpenCL acceleration (and Cuda in Nvidia's case) of certain software products is also more of a consideration with a professional graphics card.

FirePro W8100

Specification

The PW-E7F comes with a FirePro W8100, which is the second-fastest professional card in AMD's lineup. It has 8GB of GDDR5 video memory and 2,560 shader processors, AMD's unified parallel compute units. FirePros are generally brilliant with OpenCL-accelerated software tasks, favoured by many software applications nowadays over Nvidia's Cuda, which is supported on Quadros only.

If you'd prefer a Quadro, or a less high-end graphics card, the full range is available on the RENDA customisation page.

The PW-E7F comes with an Intel Core i7-5960x processor, the top-end eight-core processor from Intel's Haswell-E line. With eight processor cores, it bridges the gap between Intel's desktop processors and workstation-focused Xeon chips.

There aren't huge technical differences between Xeons and Core i7 processors. Xeons can use ECC memory, and the Xeon E5 processors can be used in dual-socket motherboards that support two CPUs. That sort of configuration is really only found in ultra-high-end workstations, which usually carry five-figure price tags.

A workstation with a pair of Xeon chips inside it could offer up to 40 processor cores, and a truly astonishing level of performance in highly parallel, multi-threaded software.

But this is overkill for people who might not be using multi-threaded software exclusively. What's more, Xeon processors usually run at slightly slower clock speeds than Core i7 chips. The venerable quad-core Core i7-4790k runs at a clock speed of 4GHz, which is a great deal quicker than most Xeon processors, which languish around the 3GHz mark, and many software applications will run better with a faster-clocked CPU than with dozens of CPU cores.

The Core i7-5960x is a great choice for the RENDA PW-E7F then. Its eight cores still give it a decent ability to handle multiple threads in long rendering jobs, for example, but with the 4.3GHz overclock applied, it's blisteringly fast at all other processing tasks too.

If you want a Xeon-based system, Overclockers has a few different models listed, some with dual processors such as the PX-6, along with more entry-level Core i5 systems.

Overclockers RENDA PW-E7F rear

An Asus X99-E WS workstation motherboard holds it all together, a variant of the firm's popular LGA 2011-v3 enthusiast motherboard. It's stuffed full of features and expansion options. There are seven PCI-Express slots, 10 rear USB 3.0 ports, a dozen SATA 3 ports and a pair of SATA Express ports, along with a single M.2 slot supporting x4 PCI-Express.

This review model costs £4,114 (around $6,180, or AU$7,930), which is typical for a high-end workstation.

Design

Desktop workstations from big-name vendors such as Dell, Fujitsu, HP and Lenovo normally use a custom-built chassis, often with removable sections to facilitate easy upgrading. Independent system builders such as Overclockers instead rely on off-the-shelf cases, no different from the kind you or I might have for our home PC.

Overclockers RENDA PW-E7F water cooling 1

Air-cooled RENDA workstations come in Lian Li aluminium cases, while the water-cooled varieties, including the PW-E7F, are supplied in a hefty Phanteks chassis, which has a bit more internal space for the radiators, tubing and other garb that's required for a water-cooled rig.

The build quality is top notch, as expected. Overclockers has gone to some serious effort to ensure not a single cable is left hanging anywhere that obscures access to the insides of the PW-E7F. The SATA and power cables are carefully routed around holes in the case.

Of course, this level of tidy cable management isn't beyond the skills of many home PC builders, and just requires some time and effort to get right. But when paying good money for a PC to be built for you, it's something that a vendor should be expected to do, and Overclockers has certainly done well here.

Overclockers RENDA PW-E7F water cooling 2

A 1200 Watt SuperFlower LeaderX power supply, rated as "80-plus platinum pro" guarantees even an overclocked processor and top-end graphics card won't be a problem, while giving the flexibility to add additional graphics cards or storage.

By default, a 256GB Samsung 850 Pro SSD and a 2TB Seagate Barracuda hard disk are included, although if you're spending this amount of cash, it makes sense to pay a bit extra and order a larger SSD, perhaps even 1TB if you'll be working with gigantic media files. There's 32GB of DDR4 RAM on board.

The water-cooling setup comprises of water blocks and a triple radiator from EK, and a Bitspower tank (reservoir). This is a break from the traditional approach of workstation vendors, for example Scan uses all-in-one closed-loop water coolers from Corsair for its 3XS systems. One of the advantages of water cooling is a much tidier system and easier access to the internals than is afforded by a giant heatsink and fan in an air-cooled workstation, and it's pretty efficient as well. The reservoir is visible to the lower right of the CPU, and when the PW-E7F is turned on it really looks awesome.

That said, looks are arguably less important for a workstation than a gaming PC, and what matters is efficiency and quiet operation.

Here's where the PW-E7F falls down a bit. With so much silicon, the three 120mm fans have their work cut out, and the result is a definite low hum when the workstation is powered on. It's not enough to seriously complain about, but is noticeable. Having tested quite a few desktop workstations of equal or greater processing capacity, I can say the PW-E7F isn't the loudest I've used, but it's definitely not the quietest either.

Support and performance

Warranty and support

When risk-averse IT managers makes purchasing decisions, independent workstation vendors are less of a safe bet than larger, global workstation manufacturers. Being smaller fry in a giant corporate pond is a turn off.

To counter this inherent disadvantage, independent vendors offer a more specialised service. You won't find the Dells or HPs of this world selling water-cooled systems, you get a bit more control over the exact specification, and the warranty at least has to match the big boys.

As with a few other aspects of its RENDA brand, Overclockers is trying to go one better than its competitors, probably because it's so new to the market. A five-year warranty, rather than the typical three is on offer, with the first three years as collect and return, although as of writing Overclockers is not offering on-site engineers.

Overclockers RENDA PW-E7F internal

Performance

I ran all the usual standard TechRadar Pro benchmarks on the PW-E7F, along with some tests more suitable for workstations.

The standard benchmark results were as follows:

  • 3DMark: Fire Strike: 7668; Sky Diver: 26582; Cloud Gate: 37119; Ice Storm: 190316
  • Cinebench 15: CPU: 1717 points; Graphics: 191.07 fps
  • PCMark 8 (Home Test): 4967
  • PCMark 8 (Accelerated): 5575

Cinebench 15 is equally effective for testing gaming PCs and business machines, and is a superb early show for the RENDA. 1717 points in the CPU test reflects both the high clock speed and the eight cores of the Core i7-5960x.

The OpenGL test gave a similarly great result, hitting 191.07 fps. That's a brilliant score, which reflects how the graphics card has a bit of extra headroom when paired with a processor running at 4.3GHz. These are some of the best scores I've recorded from a workstation.

The 3DMark results show equally good performance, but being weighted towards gaming, aren't particularly worth paying too much attention to.

It's SPECviewperf 12 which really demonstrates the strength of a powerful workstation such as the PW-E7F. In these tests, AMD FirePro cards tend to fare better in the Maya-04 section, while Nvidia Quadro cards have traditionally done better in the other sections, although this has recently changed with Nvidia's brand new top-end Quadro M6000 graphics card delivering a serious boost to this aspect of performance. This is worth noting for Maya users.

Overclockers RENDA PW-E7F side open

The PW-E7F scored 78.65 in Maya-04, where a similar workstation with an Nvidia Quadro K5200 managed 64.72. In the Catia-01 section though, AMD's W8100 falls behind a bit with 64.96 recorded by the PW-E7F compared with 87.99 from that same Quadro-powered system.

A final test is Luxmark, an OpenCL-based ray-tracing benchmark, which is a great indicator of compute rendering performance. The RENDA PW-E7F managed a score of 1193 in the Room GPU test, with 23832 in the Sala test and 18500 in the Luxball HDR test.

These figures compare really well with other high-end workstations. The combination of an overclocked Core i7-5960x and high-end GPU pushes performance way ahead of the vast majority of Xeon-based workstations, with a high clock speed, eight processor cores to handle multi-threaded tasks and great OpenCL performance.

Verdict

We liked

The RENDA PW-E7F is the first workstation I've tested from Overclockers, and it's a solid performer. The Core i7-5960x is a brilliant workstation processor, and with a 4.3GHz overclock applied, it chews through most benchmarks. Complementing that, the AMD FirePro W8100 delivers both great graphics and OpenCL performance.

We disliked

As of the time of writing, Overclockers doesn't have Nvidia's latest Quadro M6000 listed as an upgrade, although expect this to change soon. And while the custom-made water cooling system looks great, the PW-E7F isn't particularly quiet. Finally, it's also worth noting that while Overclockers is offering a five-year warranty, there is currently no on-site option.

Final verdict

Fast, meticulously built and relatively good value for money, when it comes to performance the RENDA PW-E7F hits the target every time. The Core i7-5960x is a great processor for highly multithreaded, parallel computing tasks, and running at 4.3GHz drives performance to a new level. This is one of the fastest machines I've ever used.








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