Supermicro 5046A-XB: X58 Workstation Barebones

Using The SuperWorkstation

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

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • LightWeightX
    I have not used the system in the review however based on my experience and those of other IT Professionals of SuperMicro we have renamed the company to SuperCrapo.
  • WyomingKnott
    Hmm. Aside from LeightWeightX's comment, this appeals to me. I'd appreciate your feedback on my reasoning.

    I want to build a new home computer. I'm less of a gamer and more of a tinkerer, with occasional heavy audio processing. I like to play with things like raid arrays when I have spare time.

    I am sufficiently concerned with unavoidable memory errors that I would like to use ECC memory - I would sacrifice some speed to avoid random crap happening while I am working.

    I believe that, now that the front-end bus and memory bandwith bottlenecks have been addressed, the next key point is disk speed and IO rates. For this reason, I want to play with a RAID array. Five disks so that I can have a hot spare, plus a single disk for systems, and the removable hard drive that I use for backup.

    Is RAID and ECC going just too far for an enthusiast system, or will these meaningfully increase performance and reliability? If you would RAID, would you buy an (expensive!) controller with hardware XOR processing?

  • jeffunit
    Having the power supply point to it's certification is nice, but 80% efficiency is nothing spectacular. Antec has the earthwatts line which has been 80% efficient for several years. Enermax has a 82% minimum efficiency line. Dell sells a 90% minimum efficiency power supply - that's noteworthy.

    As for 'workstation' - perhaps it will be one with the yet-to-be-announced-xeons which support ECC. It certainly isn't now. Though the i7 is crazy fast, memory errors are a concern to anyone doing serious computation. Thats why I got a phenomII, and enabled chipkill ECC and memory scrubbing every 8 hours for my memory. If a BIOS doesn't have options like that, you may have a fast gamers rig, but you don't have something for serious data processing.
  • enealDC
    Well this IT professional has been in the business for more than 10 years and let me say that SM is not a crappy company...
  • I would think the supermicro x8sax would be a better board to use as a workstation. More slots 2 pcie 2.0, 2 64-bit pci-x, and 1 pci 32.
  • cdillon
    WyomingKnott, I think you are justified in your concern about memory errors. The more RAM we install in our systems the greater the chance that memory errors will occur. It doesn't matter how good your system is, ECC RAM is absolutely necessary for stability. I use ECC RAM and fault-tolerant RAID in all of my servers and also on my workstation at home and I never see "random" problems. When I do rarely come across a problem it is the reproducible type, which is the easiest kind of problem to try to solve! At least you know you can look elsewhere for the source of a problem when you are able to rely on certain pieces of your hardware.
  • hustler539
    When will Graphics Charts be updated!!??
  • Shadow703793
    Not sure if this is possible with i7 yet, but one way to over come the unavailability of the OCing options on the board would be to do BSEL and volt mods, risky? yes; worth it? maybe.

    In all seriousness you wouldn't buy this kind of board for OCing anyways. These Server class boards are geared for max reliability.

    And +1 for enealDC. SuperMicro is well respected for their server boards.
  • TechDicky
    You mention the power supply efficiency, as not being all that great... I don’t disagree with you, as I don't know what the other power supplies efficiency is at various loads. But for those who may not know as much about power supplies, your comments may be misleading.

    First it is important to distinguish a few things about power supply ratings. If the efficiency stated by a company is simply a single percentage or says “upto xx%”, then it is really not telling you the whole story. Efficiency is not a singular figure, rather it is more like a curve. It starts out low at very low loads, as the load increases, so does the efficiency, then toward peak loads it falls off again. So just as important (if not more important) than the peak is how flat the curve is.

    That said, it is more reasonable to say that this psu is 80 PLUS, and upto 85%, since the curve never dips below 80% and 85% is the peak, not 80%. Really the 80Plus certifications tell you the most about the efficiency curve. The certifications are based on efficiency ratings at 20%, 50% and 100% loads. In order to obtain the various certifications the psu must achieve these levels.

    | Certification | 20% Load | 50% Load | 100% Load |
    | 80 PLUS | 80% | 80% | 80% |
    | 80 PLUS Bronze | 82% | 85% | 82% |
    | 80 PLUS Silver | 85% | 88% | 85% |
    | 80 PLUS Gold | 87% | 90% | 87% |

    Seeing the reported rating for all three loads actually gives you even better information since as in this case, the psu is considerably better than the bare minimum required for 80 PLUS and is only lacking a 2% efficiency at 20% load to be certified as an 80 PLUS Bronze.

    The point is that this power supply is really quite nice. But certainly there are others that are better. But before you can honestly know if a psu is better than this one, you need more than a single figure.

    That said, I generally agree with the comments here including your other comment on ECC. This rig is not very impressive overall... and I wouldn’t seriously consider this a workstation class system that is worth the bucks it costs. About the only parts I think are worth having are the case and psu. Again, not that either of these are the best, but they are pretty good. But that’s it. Considering all of the limitations of this board, I don’t care how well made and how stable it is, its just not worth it.

    To respond to some of your comments/questions, this is really not the rig for you. You will pay more than it is worth if you are just a “tinkerer” or “enthusiast”. Even if it were a better motherboard at a better price, true workstation class hardware cost considerably more than other systems, and the added stability you are referring to, might not be quite the same thing as the stability of a workstation system. Think of it like this. If you were going to leave your system running for a week or more solid and the whole time, it was going to be rendering a video or an image and even very small memory errors over the course of that span could wreak havoc on your work, then that is a workstation. If on the other hand, you plan to use your computer for various tasks, maybe home video editing, and some personal photo editing, etc, and you expect to have it running maybe 4 hours a day, or even if you planned to use it for working and expected to use it for 8 or 9 hours a day. But don’t want to be hassled by an occasional hiccup, and even given that you would like to play with some RAID, you could buy or build a much more suitable system for considerably less money that you would be very happy with.

    With ECC, again, I personally think it is probably unnecessary for your case. There is certainly nothing wrong with ECC, but I doubt if you would notice a difference. I honestly believe that most stability issues for the average enthusiast are the result of several factors:

    1) Cheap Parts – Just because you don’t need an Intel or other brand server motherboard doesn’t mean that you should settle for a PCChips or no name motherboard. Buy good quality parts.
    2) Components running out of spec – Just because you are not overclocking does not mean that your components are running within their specifications. For example a cheap or faulty power supply might cause voltage to sag in places. Even if you have a great power supply and a great motherboard, you’re voltages may not be perfectly within spec. It is very possible to confirm voltages and adjust them via the BIOS to get them to run closer to spec, or even slightly over if necessary. Most components have an acceptable under and over voltage range. It is better to be slightly over voltage but within the acceptable range, than to be under voltage outside of the acceptable range.
    3) Excessive heat – Most people do not give much consideration to the heat generated in their system. They are quick to notice fan noise, but are slow to think about the impact of a slow moving or stopped fan, a system clogged with dust and dirt, or of inadequate cooling to begin with. It’s a delicate game of balance to avoid excessive noise and provide sufficient cooling. This doesn’t mean that you have to run water cooling, etc. (even though those can be very quiet and very efficient). But if you plan to run RAID you may want to just give up on the idea of a quiet system anyway. Even if not, do not sacrifice cooling for a quiet system. Don’t be afraid to switch to aftermarket heatsink/fan combos, but read up on them, good reviews/ratings and make sure they allow enough clearance for your motherboard, case, other components, etc. use enough case fans and arrange them for equal flow or positive pressure, not negative. (that means equal volume of air moving in and out or more air moving in than out) fans have different speeds, sizes and blade pitch with all add up to different volumes of air. So use CFM to arrange and not number of fans or size of fans. Also do not have fans blowing in close to fans blowing out. Chances are the hot air will be redrawn in.
    4) Software – Viruses, adware, bloatware, crappy applications that run all of the time and have memory leaks, etc… Software is just as likely to be your problem as hardware is. Perform a fresh install of a stable OS (64-bit if you can), install anti-virus and anti-adware, keep them running and keep them upto date. Install only the applications you need. If you want a “scratch pad pc” then use a separate computer or a virtual computer. Don’t download and install crap on your system you want to be stable. Don’t install something that a friend gave you. Don’t surf questionable sites from your system, in fact don’t surf at all, use a separate computer or virtual machine to surf the web. Reboot regularly. Learn about processes and programs that automatically run. Download and learn to use “AutoRuns” from Microsoft (previously SysInternals). And when you first do a fresh install record everything set to automatically run, get rid of things that are running that you can. And keep that list handy… once a month compare the current state to the list and remove new crap that has set itself to autorun.

    Think of it like this, lets say you are not getting a new computer but a new car. First, if you only look at price and you buy a brand new car for $9,000, (yes it can be done), you are probably not going to expect much of it or be very happy with it. Now if you move up the scale and look at a nice car that is $35,000 or another one that is $60,000. Ok, so either one could be a very nice car. You really may like the $60,000 car, it may hug the road a little tighter, it may have a quicker take off, but if you drive it around for a while (few years), you constantly over rev the engine, you never change the oil, never change the plugs or filters, never perform any maintenance on it. After a short while, it starts running hot, but you ignore it and keep driving it hard anyway, a warning bell starts to ding so you cut the wire, you start to develop an oil leak that you also ignore, its not really going to matter if you got the $35,000 car or the $60,000 car, because either one of them would be running like crap by now… it doesn’t matter what kind of system you buy if you don’t maintain it. Once you make sure you are going to maintain it, then don’t buy the cheapest piece of crap you can, but that doesn’t mean you need to buy a Rolls Royce either.

    If you really want to play with RAID then you are not going to be disappointed in a hardware RAID card. I don’t mean a card that gives you enough connections to run software RAID on a bunch of drives either. It needs to be a RAID controller that actually has a processor on it. Again, you don’t have to buy a $1000 card, but don’t buy a $100 or $50 card and expect it to perform like a true hardware RAID controller. Also there are a lot of factors in running RAID, like the drives. Don’t setup a RAID and cripple it with 7200 RPM SATA drives. Yet again, if you cant get 8 x 15,000 RPM SAS drives then that’s ok, but don’t buy standard home consumer hard drives that you spent $50 bucks each for. Finally if you are going to setup a RAID 5 for storage that is great, but don’t run a single drive for the OS, etc. Run 2 drives in RAID 1 (mirrored) if you cant do that (i.e. you are only going to use 4 drives, etc) then run RAID 10 or 5 on all drives as one large virtual disk and then when partitioning carve it up into System and Data partitions.

    Well, I guess now that I have a book written, I should go… :D

  • cangelini
    Cheers for the response Tech!