Our company has recently seen fit to expand our post-production into a second HD edit suite. Rather than purchase a standard workstation from a reseller, we built our own to our own specifications, and we saved quite a bit of money doing so. To get a similarly equipped machine would have been about $2500 from Dell and over $3000 from Apple.* All of our components were purchased from either NewEgg or ZipZoomFly.
*These are only roughly equivalent specs – to get a precise match on either side would mean some very expensive custom modifications. A Dell Precision 490 with 2.3ghz Quad CPU, 2GB RAM, RAID controller, DVD burner and a professional Quadro FX video card is roughly $2,600 with nothing on sale and no discounts. A MacPro with 2.6ghz Quad CPU, 2GB Ram and two 7300 GT video cards is $3,200 with a comparable warranty and no RAID. Neither system’s configuration even offers so many hard drive bays or the two free RAM slots, so as you can see, comparisons are very rough.
In the style of ArsTechnica’s famous system guides, here’s the breakdown of what we built for our latest edit suite, and what we recommend for a basic yet powerful HD edit station. We build this system around a production pipeline that would involve Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects and the Cineform codec. It is designed to hold a lot of data and process that data quickly, and in our extensive tests, we have found that it works extremely well and extremely fast.
Motherboard: Asus P5B-PLUS Intel P965 – $135
This ATX Intel motherboard supports dual-core or quad-core processors in 32-bit or 64-bit and has a bus speed of 1066mhz. There are four DDR II SDRAM slots that allow a maximum dual channel capacity of 8GB. Plenty of connectivity is available with two FireWire ports, eight USB ports, and built-in Gigabit ethernet. However, the greatest strength of this motherboard for video users are its 2 IDE channels, 8 SATA channels and two onboard RAID controllers (supporting modes 0, 1, 5, and 10) which make it an ideal fast storage machine. There is also a built-in ESATA port and three PCI slots that could support ESATA cards.
A PCIe slot is reserved for the video card, and there is a built-in 7.1 surround sound audio card as well. There’s a little bit of static that comes through a few of the six audio connectors on the back panel, but when we switched to the case’s front panel it went away. Another sales point for this particular motherboard is its overclockability, but we haven’t tried that yet. This is a passively cooled motherboard, which means that it doesn’t need fans to keep the chipset at a low temperature.
Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 – $300
This CPU gives you four 2.4GHz processors with two separate 4MB L2 cache chips. This is the only place where this system guide differs from the computer we just built; at the time we bought our components, a quad core chip would have been twice as much as the $220 dollars we spent for the Core 2 Duo. However, a mere $80 more for double the power makes this an easily justified upgrade today.
RAM: 2GB Crucial Memory – $115
Crucial is a reputable RAM manufacturer, and we ordered two 1gb Ballistix sticks, which are DDR2 800 SDRAM chips that take advantage of our motherboard’s dual channel capabilities, and are classified as “high-performance memory.” Because we still have two empty RAM slots available, we could easily upgrade to 4 or 6 gigabytes or RAM at any time.
Video Card: Gigabyte nVidia 8600 – $140
The top video accelerator manufacturers are ATI and nVidia. For games, the two are almost comparable, but nVidias tend to be better for our work, offering more stability and a few more options. Modern graphics cards are optimized for accelerating 3D video games, but more and more production software titles like Premiere Pro and After Effects can use their processors to accelerate certain video-based functions as well. This version of the 8600 is DX10 capable, has 256mb of GDDR3 video RAM, and is passively cooled, like the motherboard. Unlike many large next-gen video cards, it only takes up one expansion slot.
Case: Rosewill – $55
We selected the R6AR6-BK Rosewill case for its simple black style and the large number of drive bays. With 8 SATA channels on the motherboard, we needed a case that would let us install up to ten drives. We also bought an extra 120mm fan ($10) to install in the front of the case by the drives.
Power Supply: Fortron 400W – $40
Eight hard drives use a lot of power, so at least a 400 watt power supply will be needed. Lower quality PSUs tend to output less power than advertised, so stick to quality brands like Sparkle or Fortron.
DVD Burner: Liteon LH-20A1P-185 – $30
With Blu-Ray drives still running at about $600, we went with this simple 20X Dual Layer DVD+/-RW drive for a mere 1/20th of that. It will burn just about any type of DVD at 20x speed, and Liteon has an excellent track record.
A copy of Windows XP Professional brings the total of our PC to only $950 at the time of this writing (if you already have a license of your OS of choice, you can take off $130 for a grand total of $820). That’s not bad for a very serious Quad-core workstation with 2gb RAM and nVidia’s second-to-best SLI gaming card that in many ways outperforms expensive pre-built workstations. It also leaves us plenty of room to upgrade and expand, and the motherboard has untapped options too, like that built-in RAID controller. Which brings us to hard drives.
Hard drive prices are going down, and capacities are going up. I haven’t included hard drives in the price of the workstation, because in our case hard drives are acquired as part of the project budget and not a hardware budget, and also because everyone’s storage needs are different. At the moment, I suggest you just purchase as many 400GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 drives as you need. It’s a fast SATA hard drive with a 16MB buffer for only $100, and as they offer the best price-per-gigabyte at the moment (until their terabyte drives get cheap), we have a number of them.
I’ve used Seagate’s Barracuda drives for video storage since 1995, with only one minor drive failure, and they are marginally faster than most of their competitors. Almost all of our internal drives are Seagates. For external drives we tend to get Samsungs, which are a bit slower but run cooler and quieter – better for external enclosures. Maxtors or products that use Maxtor drives are not such a good buy; almost single every one I’ve ever used has had incessant and eventually fatal problems.
Last week Costco had Samsung’s 20″ 1680×1050 widescreen LCDs on sale for $200, and it has turned out to be an excellent performer (and with their 90-day return policy, buying from Costco is very safe). The nVidia powers two hi-res monitors with ease, and we have yet to see any slowdowns. Admittedly, we’ve only installed about 1.4 terabytes worth of drives at this point, but everything is very snappy and we’ll be pushing the new machine into full-time production work this week.