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What is a Workstation?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A workstation is a computer designed for professional use by a single user. It usually has more capacity than a personal computer, but is not as high-powered as a mainframe computer that is designed to support very complex calculations and multiple users. Workstations provide people with computing power for a variety of tasks that may require high power, such as creating three dimensional digital models. Many computer manufacturers build workstations and can develop custom systems to order for unique applications.

The specifications of a workstation shift as computing standards change. What was once viewed as a high-powered, top-of-the-line workstation might today be less powerful than a calculator used by a high school student. As specifications and technology change, workstations get faster, able to process more data, and capable of more complex tasks. Like other computers, workstations tend to be replaced after several years of use with models that have higher specifications and better capabilities.

Workstations are used by people who need more power than might be available with a personal computer, but less than with a mainframe. An example might be a scientist who needs to be able to run complex data processing routines as he or she interprets results from a study. Workstations can also perform tasks like modeling for architects and compiling code for programmers. While some personal computers may be able to handle these tasks, not all are.

Improving technology has allowed workstations to become smaller. A high-powered laptop can qualify as a workstation, and desktop workstations may have relatively small tower units. Desktops usually have large screens, and sometimes multiple screens, to support tasks that require a lot of screen space. The resolution of the screen is also typically high quality for clarity and crispness. Especially for people like animators, using a sufficiently high-powered workstation with a high resolution screen is very important because it allows them to clearly see what they are doing.

This term is also sometimes used in networking, to describe any computer connected to a network. In this case, a workstation is a computer that someone on the network is using for work, but it may not necessarily be a workstation in the computing sense. For example, an office might have a network capable of supporting 30 workstations, including laptops people bring in and out of the office for low-level work, along with true workstations for heavy duty computing.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By lighth0se33 — On Jul 05, 2011

I work at home as a writer, and my home office workstation suits me perfectly. I recently got a widescreen LCD monitor, and it allows me to open two documents side by side. This is helpful when crafting an article from research, because I can open my source on one side of the screen and the article I'm writing on the other.

I have plenty of space on my hard drive for saving my work. In addition to the software I use for writing, I also have photo editing software for those times when I need to post pictures along with my articles.

It might not be as fast as a big company workstation, but for all my intents and purposes, it is perfect. I work full-time from home, and I can do everything I need with my computer.

By shell4life — On Jul 04, 2011

@orangey03 - I also work from a graphic workstation, but the company that I work for is on a tight budget, and they haven't upgraded their programs in years. I can still function with the old ones, but sometimes they cause trouble.

For example, a lot of our clients email us versions of artwork or pre-designed ads to work with, and they have made these files using newer versions of programs than we have. Often, I am unable to open their attachments because of this.

We haven't upgraded Adobe Acrobat in years, and sometimes I will receive PDF files that give me an error message stating that some elements of design may not be visible with my version of the program. The files sometimes look okay, but who knows what I may be missing, since I have no way of knowing what the original looked like.

I just wish that the company would upgrade our workstations with new programs. Before long, we may be unable to perform our jobs.

By orangey03 — On Jul 04, 2011

I am a graphic designer with a high-powered workstation. At least, it has more power than my home computer.

We use primarily four different programs to do our designs, and I can easily have all four of these open at once without slowing down the computer's response time. The internet there is also super-fast, so I can work more efficiently there than I can from home.

In addition, I also have access to thousands of fonts from my workstation. I don't even know if that many could fit on my PC. I do work in a fast-paced environment, so it is good that my workstation enables me to zip around between programs and actions with no technical delays.

By Frances2 — On Jul 03, 2011

@omgnotagain – That’s not a workstation at all. It’s called a terminal computer. They were really popular in the early days because computer memory was so expensive. I’m surprised your employer still uses that old way of doing things. You must be working with some very sensitive information.

The computer you use at work is simply a way for you to access the main server’s operating system and data. This is different from a workstation because the computer (the server in the building’s basement) is being accessed by several people at once.

By omgnotagain — On Jul 02, 2011

@Frances2 – The office workstations where I work all connect to one big server in the basement of the building. The computer I use doesn’t even have a hard drive. It just stores everything on the big server. What’s the name for that kind of workstation?

By Frances2 — On Jul 02, 2011

@anon129578 – That depends on the workstation setup. If the workstation was built for a scientist, it should have the processing capabilities and necessary software required to perform scientific calculations. It would also be an expensive piece of equipment, because high end scientific software requires a lot of memory and processing power.

On the other hand, if the workstation was built for a secretary, it won’t need nearly as much memory or processing power. It would probably just be as powerful as a regular home computer.

By anon129578 — On Nov 24, 2010

Do workstations perform scientific computations?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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