The sweet low end
The HP xw4600 is a very capable workstation that costs less than half of the two midrange systems, and it delivers much of their wallop. As reviewed, it has a single Intel Core 2 Quad quad-core processor running at 2.4GHz, an Nvidia Quadro FX 1700 graphics card with 512MB of video memory, and 4GB of system memory. It also has the same form factor and whisper-quiet operation of its larger xw6600 sibling.
However, look at the performance. Its SPEC ViewPerf rating of 47 puts it only slightly behind the two midrange systems. The CPU results (see benchmark results table) are approximately half of theirs, but it also has half as many cores. As a result, core for core, this system is close to the performance of the midranges. The question that becomes critical is whether you need eight cores. Surprisingly, even for workstation applications, the answer is often no. Both Dell and HP stated that the bulk of their current workstation sales are for quad-core, not eight-core systems. And unless your software will truly use all eight cores and needs to do so frequently, the quad-core system will frequently be just the right solution. If so, the xw4600 is where you should start looking. Consider this: If you were to pull one of the processors out of the midrange systems, their performance profiles would look a lot like the xw4600, but their prices would be much higher.
The xw4600 also has some unique, ingratiating aspects. Its power consumption is very moderate. It runs at 88W when at 0 per cent. And when it's going flat out at 100 per cent, its wattage is less than any of the other systems at rest. That's saying something. Essentially, the heat generated from the xw4600 is never going to be an issue.
The workstation also has unique expandability, including eight drive bays and 10 USB ports -- more than any other system reviewed here. One of those ports is internal, a comparatively new development. Internal USB ports are located inside the systems for use by dongles. By putting the dongle ports within the workstation, the problem of software keys being misappropriated is greatly reduced. The only expandability not included on the xw4600 is a second processor socket. You get just one quad-core chip on this machine. However, the US$2,056 price tag includes four-hour onsite service, which is better than any of the service plans for the other systems.
In my view, this is where you should begin the search for a workstation. Unless you have very heavy processing needs and the software to make use of eight cores, this might also be the place where search will end as well. (Most ISVs should be able to tell you whether their software can take advantage of eight cores. Even with this vendor information, you should run a trial on an eight-core system to validate the claim yourself.)