The Precision 5820 Tower is Dell’s second-most powerful desktop workstation—which, judging by the $ 5,567 test model we received, is akin to saying the Boeing 747-8 is only the second-biggest airliner in the world. (Precision 5820 models start at $ 1,249.) It’s an evolution of the Precision 5810 Tower, which we reviewed to high praise back in 2015. Dell’s pricier Precision 7820 looks similar but offers dual processors, whereas the Precision 5820 offers “just” one: In our test unit, a monster 10-core Intel Xeon W-2155, alone a $ 1,185 option and requiring an upgrade to Windows 10 Pro for Workstations. We mock-configured a competing HP Z4 with a near-identical loadout, and it came up to $ 7,118. On paper, the Precision 5820 is a better value and a total beast for pro applications that can take advantage of its specialized memory, pro-grade Quadro/Radeon Pro graphics, ISV certifications, and Xeon horsepower.
Laser-Focused on Business
Spiffy, curvy designs aren’t a top priority for power-tower workstations like the Precision 5820 Tower. The black-and-silver exterior of this unit has a sober, serious look. You’ll have trouble getting its massive 16.5-by-6.9-by-20.4-inch (HWD) hulk of a chassis to blend in anywhere outside a black-box convention.
Sturdy metal carry handles on the front and rear help if you have to move this 34-pound beast around. You’ll appreciate them; lugging this tower is like moving a suitcase full of ingots. It can stand upright or even sit on its side, the latter courtesy of rubber feet on its right panel. The metal case is strong enough that you can rest a monitor on top. The front panel has a honeycomb pattern for air intake.
Tool-less access to the interior is courtesy of a switch on the left side panel. The internal components are laid out neatly, as is the wiring. The massive Intel “Skylake-W”-based motherboard has the CPU in the center. It’s topped by a tall air cooler, and straddled by eight RDIMM slots for specialized error-correcting DDR4-2666 ECC memory.
The RAM configuration in the review unit I’m looking at comprises eight 8GB DIMMs (64GB total). The memory is running in quad-channel mode for serious bandwidth, and this RAM upgrade adds $ 1,378 to the base model’s 8GB setup. For a “mere” $ 3,327 over our 64GB setup, you can max out the Precision 5820 Tower with a staggering 256GB of RAM. The review unit is powered by a swappable 950-watt power supply in the top of the chassis, allowing for headroom should you care to configure with more than one video card.
The motherboard offers plenty of room for expandability. You get two PCI Express (PCIe) x16 slots in full x16 bandwidth for graphics cards, one PCIe x16 wired internally as an x8 slot, another wired as x4, and one final PCIe x16, wired for x1. There’s even a single old-school PCI slot. You can install PCIe cards without screws or tools; a clip holds down a retainer bar that keeps cards in place.
For storage, the motherboard has eight SATA ports, plus one extra that’s allocated to an optical drive. If you want an M.2 slot for high-speed SSDs, however, you’ll need to opt for one or more of Dell’s PCIe Ultra-Speed cards.
The review unit I have in hand has the Dell Ultra-Speed Duo card, which has two M.2 Type-2280 slots on it, one of which is occupied by a 512GB PCIe drive with NVMe support. On our unofficial Crystal DiskMark benchmark testing (using a 50MiB cluster size), the drive delivered 2,188MBps read and 1,363MBps write speeds. Those aren’t record-breaking numbers, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s very fast storage. (A Dell Ultra-Speed Quad card, with four M.2 slots, is also an option.)
Dell offers the Precision 5820 Tower in configurations with up to 24TB of storage. With aftermarket drives, you can go higher than that, even, on the internal storage. The chassis fits up to six 2.5-inch or five 3.5-inch drives, plus the mentioned M.2 SSDs. Given the ready availability of 10TB 3.5-inch hard drives, your only limit is your budget.
Four of the 3.5-inch drive bays are accessible by removing the right-side grillework portion of the front panel. The drives themselves are hot-swappable; just pull the release handle and slide out the caddy. To add another 2.5- or 3.5-inch drive, you’d need to sacrifice the 5.25-inch optical bay, which came occupied in this test unit by an 8x DVD burner in the tester reviewed here. Alternately, you can always go with external drives to expand the storage, especially if you spring for an optional PCIe expansion card with two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Connected to the Nines
Like power and gravitas, ports and slots are something the Precision 5820 Tower has no shortage of.
The front of the test unit here has a full array: a headphone/microphone combination jack, two Type-C USB 3.0 ports (the topmost one supporting PowerShare, for device charging over USB with the system powered down), a pair of Type-A USB 3.0 ports, a full-size SD card slot, and the power button.
On the rear, the ports on the motherboard’s panel include six Type-A USB 3.0 ports, onboard Ethernet, PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, a serial port, and microphone line-in (blue) and audio line-out (green) ports. The rest of the ports back here will vary depending on the configuration you opt for. The tester machine received at PC Labs makes use of an Nvidia Quadro P4000 graphics card, and thus had four DisplayPort video-out connectors. It also has an Intel PCIe network card with a single Ethernet port, plus another PCIe card with two Type-C USB 3.1 ports and a DisplayPort video-in connector.
Dell’s $ 99.99 KM717 keyboard and mouse combo is included in the price of this review unit. Both devices wirelessly connect through a single USB dongle, each powered by a pair of included AAA batteries.
The keyboard has an aluminum deck and an attractively thin profile. Its major feature is its ability to remember a connection for up to three devices. A switch at the top right allows you to shift among 2.4GHz wireless and two Bluetooth channels. Aside from that, this keyboard is no-frills. It lacks backlighting, and the tactile feedback from the keys is very shallow. The typing angle isn’t adjustable.
The arc-shaped mouse is designed to fit the palm of your hand. Its optical sensor is located along the front edge. In addition to the two main mouse buttons and the scroll wheel, it also has one button on either side. The mouse is usable overall, but it isn’t designed for larger hands. Overall, we’d probably pass on this keyboard/mouse combo at its current price. You can do better from third parties for the money.
Sky-High Parts: Xeon and Quadro Power
In the Precision 5820 Tower, Dell offers a variety of Intel Xeon W-class processors. Introduced in the second half of 2017, these CPUs sport four to 18 cores. The 10-core Xeon W-2155 CPU in our review model effortlessly powers through any task. Each core runs at 3.3GHz, with the capability to Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz. The top-end processor choice is the 18-core Xeon W-2195, although it’s clocked lower; each core runs at just 2.3GHz, with a Turbo Boost up to 4.3GHz. As noted earlier, you can step up to the Precision 7820 for dual CPU support if you need even more power.
Now, if you know you need a Xeon chip, you certainly have your business-specific reasons. A major one mandating why you’d spend extra for a Xeon is if you need support for Error Correcting Code (ECC) memory. This is mainly a concern in situations where not a single bit in calculations can be wrong, such as in certain scientific, architectural, financial, or aeronautical calculations. Another is sheer uptime engineering; Xeons are designed for constant cranking in environments such as high-demand servers or render stations. If that’s not key for you, and you simply need heavy multi-threaded power, it would be significantly cheaper to stick with a consumer-class Core i7 chip, available in Dell’s OptiPlex business desktops. (Intel’s enthusiast-minded Core X-Series is also an option.)
Beyond ECC for professional users, of course, are ISV certifications. These are stamps of approval, of a sort, for specific professional-grade applications in fields such as media production, engineering, and architecture, which guarantee that the hardware will run up to snuff with the software. With high-end workstations like this one, it’s a complex interplay between the system maker and the relevant software makers. Dell’s list of partners for its Precision workstations can be found here, and it includes a list of partners that includes expected players like Adobe, Autodesk, Avid, and Dassault Systems. (Dell also offers a software-level optimization service that tweaks the workstation for specific ISV-certified applications.)
In many cases, specific ISV suitability ties in to graphics horsepower, and Dell offers the Precision 5820 with a formidable assortment of AMD Radeon Pro and Nvidia Quadro professional graphics cards. This tower can accept two of them, with each PCIe x16 slot supporting up to 300-watt graphics cards. The test unit I was loaned for review has one highly potent Quadro P4000 with 8GB of memory. Combined with the Xeon W-2155 CPU and 64GB of memory, this Precision 5820 configuration is fit to handle any demanding creative task with aplomb, including rendering CGI imagery and authoring virtual-reality simulations.
The standard warranty on the Precision 5820 is three years with onsite service. Up to a five-year warranty with next-day onsite service is available. Windows 10 Pro for Workstations, required for harnessing the 10-core CPU in our review unit, is cleanly installed, with just a few Dell apps present.
Cooling isn’t an issue for the Precision 5820. Two internal 80mm fans, a 120mm fan, and the two fans in the power supply draw cool air in the front and send it out the rear. The fans are well-behaved, running quietly during our performance tests.
Let’s Fire Up the Big Iron
It goes unsaid that the Precision 5820 has little trouble with our benchmark suite. Anything in need of CPU power won’t find a 10-core Xeon W-2155 CPU lacking, although there are faster machines out there.
When you’re looking at raw CPU grunt, offerings from Intel in its Core X-Series and AMD in its Ryzen Threadripper line serve up well more than 10 cores and 20 addressable threads. For one, the overclocked 18-core Intel Core i9-7980XE Extreme Edition (a $ 2,000 CPU) in the Falcon Northwest Talon (2018) more than doubles the Precision 5820’s score in the CPU-centric Cinebench R15 benchmark, and it is predictably faster in the video-encoding test Handbrake.
Another example is from the AMD side of the aisle. The 16-core AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X in the Alienware Area-51 Threadripper Edition also exceeds the Precision 5820’s score, but it falls behind in Handbrake. Compared to the old Haswell-era 10-core Xeon E5-2687W v3 in the Precision 5810, however, our Precision 5820 is significantly faster. It’s noteworthy that, excluding the Dells, the other machines in this comparison are for gaming, not professional work.
The Nvidia Quadro P4000 in the Precision 5820 takes a back seat in these entertainment-driven benchmarks, especially next to the pair of GeForce GTX 1080 Ti graphics cards in the Velocity Micro Raptor Z95 (2017). The Quadro’s strength lies in its professional application support; it’s designed for rendering and complex situations using applications such as AutoCAD. As noted, the Precision 5820 can be configured with up to dual Quadro or AMD Radeon Pro GPUs for the ultimate performance.
A Few Workstation-Specific Tests
We also subjected the Precision 5820 to several workstation-minded tests, including Cinebench R15 OpenGL and POV-Ray 3.7 to test its professional hardware.
Its 157-frame-per-second (fps) showing in Cinebench outpaced that of the MSI WT73 Mobile Workstation, which was equipped with a Quadro P5000 (albeit the mobile version). Thanks to its 10-core CPU, the Precision 5820 did remarkably well in the CPU-dependent POV-Ray 3.7 test, completing the all-cores test run in a time of just 61.3 seconds. Although not an apples-to-apples comparison, the Core i7-7820HK quad-core CPU in the aforementioned MSI notebook stood at 160.6 seconds. In the same benchmark, the Dell also achieved 4,107 pixels per second (pps), handily outpacing the 1,622 pps score from the MSI.
I also ran the Creo, Maya, and SolidWorks viewsets in SPECviewperf, with the Dell tower ringing up at 150fps, 217fps, and 151fps, respectively. (See much more about SPECviewperf here; it’s predominantly a workstation-graphics test that simulates a variety of pro-application workloads.) PC Labs had not reviewed a desktop workstation with the Quadro P4000 or P5000 to date; the closest thing was the mobile version of the Quadro P5000 in the aforementioned MSI workstation laptop. The results of two of the sets were close enough to call a virtual tie; the Maya test, however, saw a twofold advantage for the desktop P4000 card.
Sky-High Limits, Just Mind Your Budget
The Precision 5820 Tower is a highly capable business workstation. Our approaching-$ 6,000 test unit is several times the price of the base system, but it is far from the most expensive configuration you can order. Nonetheless, the 10-core Intel Xeon W-2155 processor, Nvidia Quadro P4000 graphics card, and 64GB of quad-channel ECC memory made short work of our benchmark tests. On top of all that, it runs quietly and has excellent expandability.
If you need professional hardware to get the job done, consider the Precision 5820 Tower—in your specific, custom config, suited to your apps of choice—as your partner in crime. Just keep the options within reason for what you do, or you’ll need to plan a bank heist before you can hoist this weighty power tower to your desk.