Computers, Control Surfaces & Additional Accessories
In this Insight, I’d like to conclude the series discussing some additional technical setup considerations – specifically, some things to consider regarding computers, GPUs, control surfaces and other accessories that I’ve found helpful over the years.
Remember, this series is not meant to be the ‘end-all-be-all’ of suite design, but it should give you lots to think about and what’s more, suite design and ultimately how you build your suite, is a personal preference and a function of how much you’re willing to spend.
In other words, and in my opinion, there isn’t a wrong way or a right way to do things – sure there are some preferred ways, but if you’re getting the job done in a room with a setup that works for you and your clients then that’s all that matters.
Choosing A Computer – What Kind of System?
Let me clarify what I mean by ‘kind of system’.
It used to be if you were talking about doing any sort of serious color work you had to use a beefy workstation class computer.
When I was originally trained, the SGI box my system ran on was the size of a household refrigerator!
While for the utmost in performance a well-equipped workstation is still (in my opinion) the way to go for serious color work, the fact is that tablets, laptops are powerful enough these days to certainly handle basic color work, and in many cases some heavy-duty lifting that used to be only the domain of a much more expensive workstation.
I own an example of all the systems I’m about to describe and would like to share what I use them for, and my experience with each for color work.
- Tablets – Huh? My iPad can do color work? Sure it can. You’ve probably used a phone or a device like an iPad to do photo retouching, so why not video color work? There are plenty of video apps that will work on the common tablet systems out there. With that said, in my professional work, a tablet for me is a consumption device that I use to watch my work, client cuts, and provide feedback.
- Tablet Hybrid – I’m writing this Insight from Microsoft Surface Pro 3. I’m planning on selling this unit when I get everything fully installed on my new Surface Book. The point is devices like a Surface and other products out there are hybrids of a laptop/tablet. It might surprise you, but with Windows 10 I can run Resolve 12 – just fine on my Surface! Of course I’m not doing any heavy lifting, but doing a quick conform while I’m hooked into my remote database while also sitting on the couch watching my son pour more Cheerios on the carpet – that’s pretty cool!
- Traditional Laptop/Mobile Workstation – 10 years ago there was no way a mobile system like a MacBook Pro or similarly equipped system could keep up with the needs of professional color work. These days, Thunderbolt, USB 3, fast power efficient CPUs and fast mobile GPUs make these setups great for a lot of people. Even better? Mobile systems that are on steroids. I have an HP 15” Z Book and this thing is a beast! Fast i7 processor, 32GB Ram, 4GB Video card, Thunderbolt 2, USB 3, Dreamcolor display – it’s great. With a laptop or mobile workstation just consider form factor and portability all effect power. Want the lightest, thinnest unit around? Well, you’re probably not going to get the most powerful setup too.
- All In One – What Apple pioneered with the iMac years ago obviously continues with that revered line, but many manufacturers have followed suite – HP for example and some other PC variants also have neat touch screen features and other goodies not seen on an iMac. I love iMacs. I have a 5k one in my home studio, my wife has one on her desk and I have one in the studio as an assist station. All in one type setups like an iMac offer a lot of bang for the buck and strike a good balance with power and price. Obviously, the real downside of an all in one is expandability – you have to look to external expandability for everything.
- Desktop/Workstation – When you need the most power and system expansion flexibility look no further than a powerful desktop or workstation. I classify the difference as a desktop using consumer/enthusiast CPUs and parts whereas a workstation, well, has workstation parts. It is this ability to put top end components, and expand/trade up as new ones are available that really make these setups great for high-end color work.
Which type of setup you choose is a personal preference, based on the type of work you’re doing (do you need mobility?) and what your performance needs are.
Keep in mind a single one-system-fits-all approach might not be the best way to handle things.
For example, if you travel a lot or are on-set often, but also do quite a bit of finishing work back in your office, why put all your resources into a mobile solution OR a workstation solution?
You might be best served getting a pretty powerful laptop and an all in one for your office instead of spending your entire budget on the best solution for either situation.
Choosing A Computer – The Guts
I mentioned in a previous installment of this series that a reference monitor is probably your largest and most important investment.
Well, that might be true, but an investment that’s on equal footing or sometimes (based you needs) might go well beyond the cost of a reference monitor is the computer you’re using.
I think we’d all love the ability to not have money as a barrier when it comes to purchasing a computer, but the fact is, cost is a limiting factor. If it wasn’t, we’d all have the top score on performance tests like Geekbench (note: I don’t have the top score – not even close!)
I’ll talk more about OS choice and some other particulars a bit later, but for now I would like to to discuss what I call the ‘guts’ of a machine.
DIY or TurnKey
The first real choice you have to make when it comes to a computer choice: is this system going to be something you’re going to build from scratch piecing together all the parts? Or are you going to purchase a ‘turnkey system’ that is assembled, tested and made to your specifications?
When it comes to a turnkey system, your choices of how to configure a system are dramatically simplified – even for the needs of a powerful color grading system.
Apple, HP, Dell, Origin, etc., all make powerful yet configurable systems. You can simply check the boxes for options you want and voila you have a complete system.
For most people, I would recommended this approach. After all, you do get to configure things A LOT with most manufacturers and system builders so you don’t have to settle for just a stock configuration.
If you are going to build your own system from scratch putting together a complete build, here some things to think about. Just note, for the moment I’m assuming a traditional workstation type computer – we’ll talk about mobile solutions a bit later on in this Insight and you’re way more likely to build a desktop workstation that a laptop anyway!
- Case Size & Layout – With the DIY approach, the first thing you’ll have to do is decided on a case design. This sounds like an easy choice but there are decisions to be made – what kind/size of mother board can fit? Does it have built in cooling or do you need to install cooling? What’s the overall thermal design? What are the physical dimensions? Will it fit in your rack or underneath your desk?
- Cooling – I hinted at this above, but what kind of cooling will you be using? Traditional fans come in all shapes and sizes (and loudness). Can the case accommodate liquid cooling?
- Motherboard – this is a huge decision when it comes to a DIY build. Not only are you looking for a mother board that will marry to your case, you have to choose based on a myriad of technical factors – how many processor sockets does the motherboard have? Will it support only consumer level CPUs or can it support workstation class chips like Xeon’s? What is the memory configuration it supports (speed and type)? What other built-in controllers does it have – USB 3, Thunderbolt, SAS etc? How many PCI slots and at what bandwidth/type?
- Power – another big choice is the power supply for your system. Will it fit the case? What is the overall wattage? Is it enough to support the GPUs/cards you have planned? Motherboard manufacturers will often have recommendations for power supplies.
- Drivers/Software – While it might seem exciting to build your own system, you need to also consider the drivers for devices and other software for those devices and items. For example, does the Ethernet controller on the motherboard play well with your OS? This can be daunting as there are literally hundreds of combinations of hardware/software – go slowly and research before you buy.
- Other Considerations- In addition to the above items and things like PCI cards/GPUs etc. that should be pretty obvious, what else does the machine need? How will audio be handled? Do you need a soundcard? Is an optical drive or memory card reader needed?
I’ve just scratched the surface with some things to consider on a DIY build if ANY of the items or questions that I’ve asked seem the least bit intimidating, please put your faith and your money in the hands of professionals and order a turn key system to your specifications.
Your time & not going crazy trying to configure a system are important considerations!
No matter if you’re going to build a DIY system or just configure one from a reputable system builder or computer maker, there is still a lot to think about and the first stop after you choose a basic system is most likely going to be the processors that the system uses.
Most often this choice comes down to choosing a consumer/prosumer level processor like an Intel Core i5/i7 or a workstation class processor like an Intel Xeon.
With mobile solutions and all in one’s, most likely that choice is already made for you – consumer level processor. While there are some new mobile solutions like the new HP ZBooks that feature Xeons in a mobile solution that’s the exception not the rule.
Here are some things to think about when it comes to choosing a processor:
- Cores – Generally speaking, the more cores the better! Consumer level processors are usually going to be dual or quad core while workstation processors can be 12, 14 or even 18+ cores. In addition, technologies like Intel’s hyper threading increase the amount of cores by virtualization so a 12 core processor can act like a 24 core processor.
- Clock Speed – Measured in GHz, you’ll generally see consumer class processors running at pretty high clock speeds of 3-4GHz+ and quite often these processors are overclocked for even more speed! Workstation level processors are generally a bit slower, but that is more a function of the number of cores that they support. The more cores a processor has, generally the slower the clock speed.
- Single or Dual Processor – While there are some motherboards that support dual consumer level processors (i5/i7) they’re pretty rare. You’ll most often find consumer level processors in a single chip configuration, while workstation class chips (Xeons) can be run in dual processor configuration. Obviously, having two processors increases overall performance.
- Memory Addressing – We’ll discuss RAM in a bit more detail in a moment, but another thing to consider with processor choice is how much memory can be addressed. While the details are a little mind numbing, with consumer level chips you’re not going to be able to address as much memory as you would with a workstation-class chip especially in a dual processor configuration.
Obviously, like most computer decisions, you have to balance cost vs. performance.
In my opinion, a super fast i7 processor is going to be a perfect match for a lot of systems and be very cost effective.
But, if you need the utmost in performance then a workstation class processor is really the smart choice – but more expensive – especially in a dual chip configuration.
Additionally, there is a balance between clock speed and number of cores.
As I mentioned, as you increase the number of cores (more expensive) clock speed usually goes down. So you have to find the right balance.
In my main rig, I’m currently running 2x 2690 v3 12 Core Xeons @ 2.6Ghz. The chips are amazing – fast and a ton of cores, but the configuration was also very expensive. With my assist station, and my home setup I have iMacs that run fast i7s (4Ghz) and those perform well but obviously not as well as their beefier cousins.