How to Decide if It Make Sense to Upgrade Your Workstation’s CPU

eWEEK HOW-TO FEATURE PART 4: Retrofitting your old professional workstation with faster processors may seem like a no-brainer, but in reality it requires some thought, and some cost analysis.

Workstation Processor Upgrades

Now that we’ve outfitted our old HP Z620 Professional Workstation with more memory and solid-state drives configured in a RAID data storage system, one of the few things remaining that can be done is to replace the CPU that came with the machine with one that’s faster. 

But before you start searching on Amazon for new Xeons, it pays to spend some time thinking about the process, whether it makes economic sense and ultimately, your need for speed. 

The old workstation that we’re using for this series is outfitted with a pair of Intel Xeon E-2620 processors running at 2 GHz. Each of these processors has six cores. This means that through the processors’ multithreading capability applications potentially have access to 12 full cores per processor. 

In other words, this workstation as currently equipped can make available a whopping 24 cores for application processing. Impressive, isn’t it? Perhaps, but considering that most applications use only one core, the 23 extra cores might as well not be there. 

However, some applications, including some professional CAD programs as well as components of the Creative Cloud suite from Adobe, notably Photoshop, Lightroom and Premier Pro, use multiple cores to improve performance. One way to understand this is to open the Microsoft Resource Monitor, which is part of Windows 10, and watch. You’ll notice that only one of the cores is doing much actual work. The others will show occasional blips, but not much else. 

But open an image Adobe Photoshop, especially an image in RAW format (that’s an uncompressed image used by professionals that represents data in a digital image) where the computer has to do more work, and you’ll see activity in all of the cores. In the case of the Z620, there was obvious activity in all 24 cores, although some cores were doing more work than others. 

If you do a lot of work with this sort of image, then more cores will make things happen faster because the processor can put more cores to work. But a faster processor can also make things happen even faster, so adding cores doesn’t necessarily help a lot. But a faster processor will help. 

However, you can do both. Depending on your workstation’s age and the type of motherboard, and processor it originally came with, you might be able to kick up the speed. But then you have to decide if it’s worth doing. A new Intel Xeon chip set can cost as much as $1000 for a pair. 

Start by deciding if your computer can accept a faster processor. The HP Z620 is designed to accept a variety of processors, and when the computer was new, you could order it configured with any of an array of processor choices. 

HP provides a list of the processors it supports in its QuickSpecs, something it makes available for most of its products. If you look at the list of supported processors, you’ll find that the Xeon E-2690 processor is about 50 percent faster and has eight cores. For this computer, that processor should be a direct replacement. 

But there’s more to it than that. Just because this will work in the HP machine doesn’t mean you can do it in another workstation. You will need to find out from the manufacturer of your computer what the BIOS and the chipset will support. 

If you’re not sure, or can’t find out, CPU-upgrade.com has a handy list of upgrade possibilities for each processor, along with a likelihood that it will work. The likelihood reflects a variety of factors and none of the listed CPUs are 100 percent guaranteed to work in your computer model. That’s why you need to check with your manufacturer. 

Once you’re certain that the CPU you want will work in your workstation, you then need to decide where to buy it. In the case of the Xeon E-2690 that we want to use for an upgrade, the prices run from $109.99 each for a used one on eBay to refurbished choices that range from $125 to $250 from a variety dealers. New processors cost either $360 on NewEgg or $419.53 on Amazon

Buying a used processor on eBay is just what you’d think; the Xeon was pulled from an existing computer that was being disassembled for parts. A refurbished processor means that the Xeon was cleaned and tested before the sale. Depending on where you find it, a refurbished processor may have a warranty. I noticed that both the used and refurbished processors on eBay have a 30-day return period, but you have to pay return shipping. 

If you’re thinking about buying a used processor, be prepared to run a series of tests to confirm that it’s actually working. Refurbished processors have been tested, so you don’t have to test, but you may want to anyway. 

Other things to remember are that processors may come in several versions. The Xeon E-2620 is available through version 4. But in the test machine only the original version, version 1, will work. The chipset won’t support newer versions. You’ll need to check that on your computer’s specs. 

It’s also important to remember that you’re paying to upgrade your workstation because you need to use it for some function important to your business. While it may not be a mission critical function, it’s at least important enough to pay for these upgrades. Skimping on the processor might not be the best option. 

By now you can see that upgrading the processor in your old workstation might give you a speed boost, but it’s a lot more complex than just adding memory. Considering that the performance boost may not be huge—in our test machine it’ll be about 50 percent—you’ll need to consider whether you’re getting the best bang for your buck.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...