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.