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Intel Xeon E3-1275 Review: Sandy Bridge Goes Professional

What’s HD Graphics P3000 Worth?

Many of the benchmarks we ran, which you’re already accustomed to seeing in our regular processor reviews, are utterly anti-climactic. And while that’d seem like bad news for a company touting the extra graphics-oriented optimizations inherent to its workstation-specific Xeon E3-1200-series CPUs, it’s actually not.

For any workload that doesn’t require a potent graphics processor, HD Graphics P3000 performs just fine, enabling similar performance as a setup with discrete graphics. As you saw, that includes a majority of our benchmarks. Not having to drop a discrete card into your entry-level workstation frees up money. If I was doing a lot of Visual Studio or rendering work, I’d sink that savings into an SSD and use the Xeon’s value-added HD Graphics engine. Why not? It's there, you've already paid for it, and it's modestly-capable.

There are even a handful of situations where driver-oriented tweaks help Intel’s HD Graphics P3000 compete with entry-level professional cards like the Quadro FX 580. Make no mistake, though—the number of apps for which Intel is currently optimizing is small. We couldn’t get an official list of titles that run better on Xeon’s P3000 (rather than Core i7’s 3000) today, much less a roadmap for apps the company plans to optimize for in the future. Without this critical information, it’s impossible for professionals to make an informed decision with regard to whether HD Graphics is good for them, or if they’ll need an add-in board for official validation. For that reason, if your money-making app depends on 3D performance, don’t even chance it—buy the discrete GPU.

Nvidia’s been in the professional graphics space a long time, and its long list of validated drivers is going to be hard for Intel to match. Similarly, AMD makes it very easy to see if your app of choice is certified on its professional graphics products. Intel needs more of this sort of transparency if it hopes to win over customers on the merits of its graphics engine.

How About The CPU?

Now, there are features you explicitly give up when it comes to adopting Xeon over the desktop-class Core i7. Overclocking, for example, is out of the question. While the Core i7-2600K at $317 gives you an unlocked multiplier ratio (easily able to hit 4.5+ GHz), the Xeon E3-1275 at $339 is locked. Additionally, while Intel claims Quick Sync is enabled on the Xeon E3 lineup, none of the apps we used to test Quick Sync on the desktop seem to recognize it on the Xeon. Perhaps that’s just a software support issue.

On the other hand, though, the Xeon enables ECC memory support. It lives on a platform that enables additional PCI Express connectivity. It connects to a chipset that offers RAID support for Linux-based operating systems. In other words, there are real business-specific reasons to spend an extra $20 on a Xeon running at the same speed as a Core i7. And for the folks who need those specific differentiators, but were previously priced out of the workstation market, Xeon E3 does make sense.

And we only looked at the flagship Xeon E3-1275, too. If you slide down the stack to a processor like the Xeon E3-1225, which includes four cores, 6 MB of last-level cache, and the same HD Graphics P3000 engine for $194, you end up comparing to Core i5-2400. The desktop chip has the same basic specs for $184, but it’s limited to HD Graphics 2000. The Xeon’s better graphics and more professional feature set make it the obvious choice for an entry-level workstation without the need for a discrete GPU.

Where Are Thou, Motherboards?

It’s interesting that Intel chose not to build a motherboard on its own C206 chipset, opting instead to let Asus take the reins for its launch. With that said, the P8B WS is a solid workstation-class platform. Of course, it looks a lot like so many of the other P67 boards we’ve seen (despite its onboard graphics support), which is expected given the similarities between both Cougar Point-based chipsets. Given Asus’ thorough job, the lack of C206-based workstation motherboards from any other vendor is understandable. Server-oriented C204 and C202 platforms seem to be much more plentiful.

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