This mini workstation is ideal for 2D CAD or entry-level 3D modelling

  • Quad Core Intel Xeon E3-1270 v3 ‘Haswell’ CPU (3.5GHz)
  • 16GB (4 x 4GB) 1,600MHz DDR3 Non-ECC memory
  • Nvidia Quadro K600 (1GB DDR3) GPU (310.90 driver)
  • 256GB LiteOn LCS-256M6S SSD
  • Dell motherboard (Intel C226 chipset)
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
  • 3 year ProSupport and Next Business Day On-Site Service
  • £1,672

Small Form Factor (SFF) workstations are very much in vogue. But while HP and Lenovo have sold these micro machines since 2012, it has taken Dell a little longer to acknowledge that good things do come in small packages.

Dell’s new Precision T1700 SFF is tiny. With a compact 290 x 312 x 93mm chassis, it is significantly smaller than a standard desktop workstation. It is also leaner than the competition: Lenovo’s E32 SFF is 338 x 375 x 102mm, while HP’s Z230 SFF comes in at 339 x 382 x 105mm.

In part this is down to an exceptionally clever chassis design, which layers components on top of each other, but also because the T1700 SFF can only squeeze in a single 3.5-inch drive or two 2.5-inch drives. In contrast, HP’s and Lenovo’s SFF machines support up to two 3.5-inch drives.

The limited storage options in the T1700 SFF will not be an issue for some, particularly those who keep their data on a network. But it will mean users will not have the luxury of having a high-performance 2.5-inch SSD and high-capacity 3.5-inch HDD in the same system, a popular choice in mainstream workstations.

Our test machine’s 256GB LiteOn SSD might be a little light on capacity, but it is very fast storage. The Precision T1700 SFF boots to Windows in a lightning quick 15 seconds and read / write speeds of 495MB/s and 424MB/sec show it is no slouch at handling big datasets. It is by no means the fastest solid state drive out there but it does make the Precision T1700 SFF feel incredibly responsive when juggling apps and opening and saving files at the same time.

The 2.5-inch drive is housed in a caddy located under the slimline DVD drive, which slides out smoothly simply by pulling on a blue lever. The caddy needs a bit more encouragement to leave the chassis, but once you understand how the mechanism works, it actually pops out very easily.

Adding a second 2.5-inch drive is pretty straightforward — the major challenge was attaching the SATA cable to the motherboard. For larger capacity drives, the caddy converts so it can accommodate a single 3.5-inch HDD.

Despite the T1700 SFF’s diminutive frame there is no trade off in processing power and Dell offers a wide choice of the latest Intel ‘Haswell’ CPUs including Xeon and 4th Gen Intel Core.

Our test machine’s Xeon E3-1270 v3 is fast: one notch below the top-end Xeon E3-1280 v3 so you get good performance without paying the biggest premium. With four cores running at 3.5GHz it is ideal for CAD or BIM. It also includes support for Intel HyperThreading, which is great for multi-threaded renderers, such as mental ray used in 3ds Max and Revit.

Dell has not scrimped on memory either, with 16GB (4 x 4GB) of 1600MHz non-ECC DDR3 more than enough for mainstream design. The machine has a maximum capacity of 32GB, but you will need ECC memory to max it out, which will cost a little more.

The big tradeoff in the T1700 SFF is when it comes to graphics. The low-profile Nvidia Quadro K600 (1GB) is the only real option for 3D CAD here, but its entry-level status means it is probably best suited for working with small BIM models.

Those who need a bit more oomph should look at the Precision T1700 Mini Tower (MT), the big brother to the T1700 SFF. The T1700 MT expands the choice of GPUs to the Quadro K2000, Quadro K4000 or AMD FirePro W5000. It also supports up to two 3.5-inch or four 2.5-inch SATA drives so there are more options for storage.

Of course, the beauty of the T1700 SFF is in its incredibly small footprint. It is practical as well: two fast USB 3.0 ports on the front are nicely spaced so you are not constrained when plugging in chunky USB memory sticks.

If you work with 2D CAD or small to medium BIM models and are in the market for an entry-level workstation the T1700 SFF is an excellent alternative to a standard tower.

In terms of warranty, our test machine includes three years of ProSupport, but pay attention if you are buying the T1700 SFF off spec. Unlike other Dell Precisions, it only comes with one year as standard.

Dell Precision Performance Optimizer

Dell workstations now come with a free mini app to help users keep track of their workstation resources.

The Dell Precision Performance Optimizer (DPPO) presents dials for memory, CPU, storage and GPU that show how each component is being utilised at any point in time or over a set period. This information can then be used to identify where bottlenecks occur, which components might benefit from an upgrade, or how workflows could be adjusted.

Of course, this is all possible with diagnostic tools like Microsoft Process Explorer, but the neat thing about DPPO is that it is all presented in one easy to understand user interface.

There are some other features, including application profiles that tune the system for specific software, but application support is currently quite limited and focused on manufacturing rather than BIM. It also appears to be mostly about enabling / disabling CPU cores, HyperThreading and power saving, so will probably appeal more to novice users.

The software can also be used to update, software, drivers and firmware and these can be scheduled for times when your workstation is idle.

Overall, DPPO is an interesting little tool very much in the same vein as HP’s Performance Advisor.