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Using The SuperWorkstation

Supermicro 5046A-XB: X58 Workstation Barebones

If you’re interested in performance data on Intel’s Core i7, I’d invite you to check out our launch coverage of the Core i7 920 and 965 processors, which were benchmarked with a number of audio/video encoding workloads, 3ds Max, Cinema 4D, and Photoshop.

If you’re interesting in seeing how closely various X58-platforms perform against each other, please check out our recent high-end X58 motherboard roundup. Moreover, you can expect to see the C7X58 in an upcoming roundup of X58 boards in the $200-$300 range in the middle of March.

For this review, I wanted to focus on actually using the 5046A-XB in a production setting as a “daily driver,” so to speak. From build-up to deployment to actual use, I was interested in its strengths above and beyond the average desktop an enthusiast might build. After all, could a traditional “workstation” not also be built using one of the boards in the roundup linked above, using one of the same desktop Core i7 processors? The chipset's memory capacity is similar from one platform to the next, so we don't see why not.

The first thing I noticed in populating the barebones with hardware was that the heatsink/fan assembly recommended by Supermicro overhung the first memory slot and came very close to blocking the second as well. Using standard-height DDR3 modules (we tried offerings from Qimonda and OCZ) this was an issue. No way would taller modules, like Corsair’s Dominators, fit properly. The three possible answers would be to use a cooling solution other than Supermicro’s, low-profile DDR3 memory modules, or simply three memory slots rather than six to populate the board’s triple channel configuration. Naturally, that'd be a problem for anyone looking to go over 12 GB, and even then, we're told that the the ICs needed for 4 GB modules are prohibitively expensive right now. It'd be hard to justify a move to 12 GB across three slots or 24 GB across six.

Hardware installation was otherwise quick and easy—a 10-minute process simplified by the fact that storage slides right into a pre-wired backplane. Software installation was similarly straightforward. Windows Vista Ultimate x64 loaded right up, and an hour later it was up and running with the latest patches and drivers (the joys of downloading at 2.5 MB/s).

As we worked with the platform’s various sub-systems, we noticed that the HD Audio circuit was very noisy. Using a set of Sennheiser HD 600s, the electrical chatter heard even when nothing was playing was distracting. As a result, you’ll likely want to use a discrete sound card (that also means using a single-slot graphics card in the PCIe slot adjacent to the expansion interface of your choice—the board boasts one PCIe x8 slot and one PCI slot).

Aside from its length, which leads to the enclosure sticking out beyond office furniture, the 5046A-XB is a true business asset. Equipped with an i7 920, two graphics cards (needed for a quad-output display), and three case fans, the barebones package is quieter than any of the enthusiast enclosures from our recent full-tower roundup. Moreover, the machine’s backplane makes for easy storage expansion right up front. It’s only unfortunate that we couldn’t find any drive adapters to get a couple of 2.5” SSDs into the 3.5” drive trays.

Check prices for Supermicro's 5046A-XB

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