The version we reviewed in August 2018 was formidable, but the new incarnation of Dell’s Precision 5820 tower workstation (starts at $969; $4,551 as tested) is downright scary. Big even by tower standards, this high-end, single-CPU system offers configuration choices for almost any budget and application. Its impressive expansion capabilities include up to six storage drives, eight memory slots, two professional-grade GPUs, and up to an 18-core processor. The primary drives even support hot swapping, much like a server’s. Well equipped for our review with an eight-core Xeon CPU and Nvidia Quadro RTX 4000 GPU, the Precision rocketed through our benchmarks. With just about every feature a workstation (or an IT department) could need, it’s our top choice for a deluxe, single-CPU workstation.
Defining the Workstation
The Precision 5820 is one of the elite members of Dell’s workstation lineup. It’s an entirely different machine than the Precision 3630 Tower, a smaller, lower-priced mid-tower that’s based on one of Dell’s OptiPlex business desktops.
The 5820 is a larger full-tower with much greater expansion capability and server-grade features that I’ll get into shortly. It shares many design elements with the even more ferocious Precision 7820 and Precision 7920, both of which offer two processors. But if one CPU is enough for your workflow, look no further than the Precision 5820, which offers up to the 18-core, 36-thread Xeon W-2195 chip. The Xeon W-2145 in our test unit has only eight cores and 16 threads, but it has higher base (3.7GHz) and turbo (4.5GHz) clock speeds that should make it more responsive for everyday tasks than higher-core-count chips with lower operating speeds.
The sky is the limit with this tier of workstation, more so than with any consumer-grade desktop. The fact that Dell offers the Precision 5820 with up to 68TB (with a T) of total storage and 256GB of RAM should be enough to tell you this is a serious machine. For this review, though, we asked the company to keep our review unit under $5,000, a reasonable price point for a mainstream workstation.
In addition to the Xeon W-2145 chip, it came with a 512GB PCIe solid-state drive containing Windows 10 Pro for Workstations; a secondary 8TB, 3.5-inch hard drive; and 32GB of quad-channel DDR4-2666 ECC memory (arranged in four 8GB DIMMs). The GPU is the midrange Nvidia Quadro RTX 4000 with 8GB of GDDR6 display memory. This kind of hardware means the Precision has no problem earning independent software vendor (ISV) certifications that guarantee proper performance with supported professional apps.
Doing a little comparison shopping, I configured a comparable Lenovo ThinkStation P520 for a nearly identical $4,524 and an HP Z4 Tower for a somewhat steeper $5,321. All told, the price of our Precision 5820 is justifiable for its as-tested build. Dell backs it with a standard three-year on-site warranty extendable to five years.
It’s ironic that the Precision 5820 struggles when it comes to value at its entry-level pricing. The $969 starting loadout’s low-clocked Xeon W-2102 processor (which doesn’t support Turbo Boost or Hyper-Threading), scanty 8GB of RAM, and slow 500GB hard drive won’t show its best colors, or even best the Precision 3630. Judging by my tinkering with Dell’s endless configuration options, you should budget closer to $2,000 for a more balanced configuration with a six-core CPU and at least 16GB of memory, and closer to $3,000 with a decent GPU pick.
Do It Like a Server
The Precision 5820’s industrious appearance will have no one mistaking it for a home or gaming PC. The grated, two-tiered front makes it look more like an enterprise server…
There’s a sturdy metal carry handle on the top edge and a matching one at the rear. The review unit tipped the scales at a portly 37.4 pounds, which is no surprise considering the tower is predominantly made of steel. Combined with this workstation’s overall size (16.5 by 7 by 20.4 inches), it’s no small feat to move, so the handles are a godsend. The rubber feet on the right side panel mean the workstation can be placed on its side, an orientation not many towers support.
The left side panel is easily removed for access to the interior. Removing it requires pushing a thumb depression, which pops out a handle which you then pull upward to release the panel. Be sure not to do this while the system is running, or you’ll be greeted with a high-pitched warning tone that scared the daylights out of me the first (and only) time I did it.
Looking inside, the interior of the Precision 5820 is dominated by its massive server-style motherboard…
The Xeon CPU is its centerpiece, covered with a plastic shroud to channel airflow over its heatsink. Removing the shroud requires no tools. Note the stacked fans to the right of the heatsink:
Lifting the shroud also reveals the eight slots for DDR4-2666 ECC memory, four of which were populated in our review unit with 8GB modules for a 32GB total. The memory runs in quad-channel mode when the RDIMMs are properly installed in multiples of four.
Under the memory slots are five PCI Express slots, two of which are x16 slots to accommodate graphics cards. Dell offers dozens of single- and dual-GPU options for the Precision 5820. The single Quadro RTX 4000 in our review unit is a $610 upcharge over the base 2GB AMD Radeon Pro WX 2100. Closely related to the GeForce RTX 2070, it boasts 2,304 CUDA cores and 8GB of dedicated GDDR6. The card has a single-slot design and gets its power from a single 8-pin connector. A support bracket anchors the GPU to the front of the tower for support. This way, the card’s weight doesn’t put extra stress on the PCIe slot, especially during shipping.
One of our review unit’s PCI Express x8 slots was occupied by Dell’s optional Thunderbolt 3 card, which has two USB Type-C connectors and a full-size DisplayPort video-in. The company offers numerous other PCIe card options including a full-height serial port. Below the last PCI Express x8 slot is a PCI slot for legacy devices, in case you have any of those lying around.
All the slots get fresh airflow from the bottom-mounted intake fan at the front of the chassis. My only nitpick there is the 5820’s lack of removable dust filters, which will mean opening up the tower from time to time to clean out dust bunnies. The workstation’s fans were always quiet during my testing, even while running benchmarks. I occasionally heard a low humming, but it was usually drowned out by background noise.
Storage Volumes and Key Connections
As for storage, the Precision supports up to five 3.5-inch or six 2.5-inch SATA drives. Dell also offers optional Ultra-Speed Drives, not included in our review unit, which are PCIe x8 cards holding two or four M.2 slots for SSDs. The four primary drive bays (supporting 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch drives or M.2 drives with caddies) face out of the tower front. Accessing them entails removing the right-side grate, easily done by pushing the release lever along the centerline.
When used as general storage, these drives are hot-swappable: Pushing the button on a drive bay pops out a handle, making it easy to hook a finger and pull out the drive. This is much more convenient than having to open the tower to swap drives as is true of the competing Lenovo ThinkStation P520 and HP Z4 Tower. One more 3.5-inch drive can fit in the 5.25-inch bay, which was empty in our review unit.
While we’re on the front panel, you’ll notice the centerline is populated with ports. The power button at the top, followed by a full-size SD card reader, pairs of USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C ports, and the audio combo jack. It’s a solid selection. You’ll also notice our unit’s optional slimline DVD burner just below the ports.
Moving to the tower’s rear, the motherboard has microphone/line-in and line-out audio jacks, a serial port, legacy PS/2 connectors, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, and six USB 3.1 Type-A ports.
There’s no built-in wireless connectivity, although Wi-Fi is available as an option. For video output the Quadro RTX 4000 GPU has three full-size DisplayPort connectors plus a VirtualLink (USB-C) port.
Another server-grade feature on the Precision 5820 is its swappable power supply. The latter’s modular cables disconnect right at the unit, meaning that replacing the power supply doesn’t require recabling the tower. Once the cables are disconnected, removing the PSU is a simple matter of pushing the blue bar at the rear to unlock it, then using the clear grab handle to slide it out.
After a new power supply is installed, you just need to reconnect the cables, which can be done in minutes. Now that’s easy serviceability. Our review unit has a 950-watt power supply, the strongest choice and a requirement for loaded configurations. The base power supply is 460 watts.
The Precision 5820 doesn’t include peripherals in its base configuration, but ours came with a generic wired USB keyboard and mouse that get the job done for basic productivity.
Workstations on the Workbench
Now let’s put the Precision 5820’s impressive hardware to the test. I used the following workstations for performance comparisons…
These units technically aren’t in the same class of machine as the Dell, although they more or less have comparable hardware when it comes to general performance. In fact, the Precision 5820 may take a back seat to them when it comes to raw CPU power; its Xeon W-2145 has eight cores and 16 threads like the Core i9-9900K CPUs in the Asus ProArt PA90 and HP Z2 Tower G4, but less aggressive clock speeds. The Corsair’s 12-core, 24-thread Core i9-9920X is more powerful still. For 3D power, the Corsair is the only unit here to use a consumer-grade GeForce RTX 2080 Ti GPU. The Quadro-class cards in the other units help them carry ISV certifications, which the Corsair lacks.
Storage, Media, and CPU Tests
Normally I’d start with PCMark 10, a general system performance or office productivity benchmark, but our Precision 5820 wasn’t compatible with the test. (The same thing happened with last year’s model.) Let’s briefly look at PCMark 8, then, which grades the performance of the primary storage drive.
Around 5,000 points in that benchmark is the magic number we expect for systems with solid-state storage, as is true of all these units.
Next is Maxon’s Cinebench R15 test, which measures CPU performance by taking advantage of all available cores and threads while rendering a complex image.
The Precision 5820 is on the tail end of this chart, as I predicted, but it’s far from a slouch. Something notable about the Xeon W-2145 is its 140-watt thermal design power (TDP) rating—which, combined with the Precision’s powerful CPU cooler, should allow it to sustain high clock speeds over long periods of time without running into power or thermal limitations. That said, the 95-watt Core i9-9900K chips in the Asus and HP didn’t have a problem matching its stamina in our Handbrake test, where we transcode a 12-minute 4K video to 1080p…
With workstations like these, we also use POV-Ray 3.7 for CPU assessment. This test uses ray tracing to render a three-dimensional image. (Note that it doesn’t use the ray tracing features of Nvidia’s RTX-class GPUs; this is purely CPU-focused.)
These results confirm the Precision 5820’s standing in relation to the others. Its Xeon chip is fast, but it’s slightly behind a Core i9-9900K in overall grunt.
The final test in this section is photo editing. We use an early 2018 release of Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud to apply 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG image, timing each operation and adding up the totals. This test is not as CPU-focused as Cinebench or Handbrake, bringing the performance of the storage subsystem, memory, and GPU into play.
The Dell’s middle-of-the-road result here isn’t as good as I expected, but it’s still reasonable and indicative that it’s more than powerful enough for advanced Photoshop tasks.
Workstation and Graphics Tests
We use two benchmark suites to gauge the gaming performance potential of a PC. In the first, UL’s 3DMark, we run two DirectX 11-driven subtests, the mainstream Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which is more suited to gaming rigs. Our other graphics benchmark is Unigine Corp.’s Superposition, which uses a different rendering engine to produce a complex 3D scene.
The Quadro RTX 4000 in the Precision 5820 predictably performs about as well as a GeForce RTX 2070 in these tests, as it shares most its hardware specifications with that card. It’s significantly slower than the HP’s Quadro RTX 5000, which is based on the RTX 2080, though of course you can order an RTX 5000 as a Precision upgrade if you like (in fact, you can get two of them).
There’s little else to take away from these results, as workstations are rarely tasked with playing games (unless you’re a game developer), so we’ll move on to Cinebench R15’s OpenGL test, which taps the hardware rendering capabilities of the GPU.
I don’t have results for the Asus ProArt PA90, but the others narrate the story just fine. Power doesn’t count for everything here, as the Corsair finishes dead last with its GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. That card lacks the OpenGL-optimized drivers of the Quadros in the Dell and HP, which are far more capable for this kind of work.
Our next, and most workstation-savvy, benchmark is SPECviewperf 13, which renders and rotates wireframe models using real-world viewsets from popular ISV apps.
The Precision 5820 and its Quadro RTX 4000 GPU did very well here. The Corsair’s GeForce card handled the Maya viewset pretty well, but as with Cinebench OpenGL, the Quadro cards in the HP and Dell dominated in Creo. (I unfortunately don’t have SolidWorks numbers for the Corsair.)
Last, I informally ran an experimental version of OctaneBench that rendered a single scene to test the RTX ray tracing features of the Precision’s Quadro RTX 4000. With RTX enabled, the workstation was able to render the scene over 3.5 times faster. It’s true that not many professional apps use RTX features right now, but results like that can make RTX cards a worthwhile upgrade in the long run.
A Top-of-the-Line Workstation Pick
The Precision 5820 offers everything that’s desirable in a high-end, single-CPU workstation. Dell’s daunting array of configuration options means this big tower can fit any budget and workflow. As reviewed, it presents a reasonable value for its feature set and level of performance. The standard three-year on-site warranty across all configurations is notable, too.
What elevates the Precision 5820 above much of its competition is its extra-mile features. It’s certainly not required for a workstation like this to have hot-swappable drive bays and an easily replaceable modular power supply, but it does. It even has carrying handles on top and can be oriented both upright and on its side.
The 5820’s cheapest configurations can be outperformed by lesser mid-tower workstations like Dell’s own Precision 3630, so don’t look to the system unless you have a healthy budget and can pack it with the components it needs to stand out. But when it’s as well equipped as our test unit was, it easily earns our Editor’s Choice for a full-tower, single-CPU workstation.