Replay: Can you buy a complete computer system off-the-shelf (or online) that keeps up with modern 4K video editing requirements? H. Paul Moon reckons you can.
This is a republished version of H. Paul Moon's original piece which you can read, along with many other excellent articles, here.
Filmmakers are a niche market to computer manufacturers, even where there’s crossover with gamers. So, they don’t design systems that target the unique demands of video editors. What are these demands, and for each, what is the current state-of-the-art?
1 Fast central processing unit (CPU) with overclocking: Intel Skylake
2 Fast storage drives: Solid State Disk (SSD)
3 Dedicated graphics processing unit (GPU) card: Nvidia GTX 900-series
4 Large, fast DRAM memory: DDR4
5 Expansible operating system (OS): Windows 10
That last item on the list is ammunition for warfare, pitting nerds against hipsters, so if you’re in the Church of Jobs anyway, read no further. This case study simply focuses upon building a Windows system, and my choice isn’t about loyalty or style: just getting maximum power. Laptops are totally out of the game: their portability isn’t worth it.
But setting aside an OS war, our first fork in the road is choosing the CPU, and there are basically two kinds, in the whole world of computers we’d use: AMD and Intel. For reasons and arguments not worth fleshing out, it’s best just to say that they are always neck-and-neck, but Intel always edges out AMD. Famously upgrading their CPUs within a “tick-tock” time frame, Intel recently launched their Skylake CPUs (the “tock” of a bigger boost in their product line), numbered in the 6000s. I went with the Core i7-6700K, which is a middle ground between their current fastest and slowest CPUs, while that “K” suffix means the chip is unlocked, allowing “overclocking” which we’ll get to soon.
Above is a picture of the motherboard I stripped clean, before upgrading. One of the great things about building your own system is, you don’t need to throw everything away. Blu-ray drives and hard disks and fans and cases remain as compatible as ever. Re-using them is frugal and environmentally friendly!
From Ivy Bridge to Skylake
With my system, I had skipped a tick and tock, upgrading the last time to Intel Ivy Bridge with a Core i7-3770K, using that Gigabyte Z77-series motherboard you see above. After Haswell and Broadwell, now Intel’s Skylake architecture uses the Z170 motherboard line, and sticking with Gigabyte (who served me well, and who feature so-called “Ultra-Durable” components), I went with their GA-Z170X-GAMING7 motherboard. That “Gaming” suffix points to a theme: it’s because of gamers, who have little to do with creating cinematic arts, that technology has advanced so rapidly (sort of like lascivious content thrusting forward, ahem, home videotape technology last century). Even if you hate video games (like me), you’ll often be overlapping with that industry when you get good tech. The best example of that is “video cards,” or GPUs, that were designed mainly for 3D object rendering in virtual animations. Ironically, even though you won’t use that as a realist filmmaker, the computing power of GPUs is essential to keeping your video editing work moving along quickly. (This belongs in another article, but basically when you’re using software that leverages GPU power, like Adobe Premiere’s Mercury Playback Engine, things like color correction and even transitions get off-loaded from CPU number-crunching onto the GPU, to spread out resources and speed things up.)
Just like the battle between AMD and Intel, there are GPU wars between AMD (again) and Nvidia: simply put, the latter wins. Adobe (for example) deploys Nvidia’s CUDA acceleration to a much more impactful extent than AMD’s use of OpenGL. The current state-of-the-art by Nvidia is their GeForce 900-series, and a reasonable compromise is to buy any manufacturer’s use of their GTX 960 chipset. Available in 2GB or 4GB of VRAM, 2GB is generally enough, but if you’re pushing the limits, 4GB may be worth it. There are GTX 970s, 980s and Titans too, but those performance gains diminish rapidly the higher you go. There’s only so much of that power (designed really for gaming vectors) that you can use as a video editor.
One last core ingredient to building your system is DRAM, which is the kind of memory that disappears when you turn the computer off (compared to a storage drive). Intel Skylake now requires a new type of DRAM, rated DDR4. Inherently fast to begin with, it’s not critical to get the best DDR4 you can; and my choice shown here is somewhere in the middle but totally sufficient (i.e., it never gets saturated). If you want a simple one-shot bundle of what’s currently available in this general combination, click here.
But let’s pause for a second and consider whether it’s worth it. If you lack the patience of a saint, and you feel tech-averse, that’s nothing to do with being a good filmmaker, and you’re better off buying something off-the-shelf that approximates these specs. Yet if you do want to build your own system, you should be prepared for the risk that it won’t work at first because of one component or another that you hooked up wrong: diagnosis isn’t easy. But if you feel comfortable with this stuff, and enjoy kit-building as a hobby (LEGOs?), then the benefits of building your own system are pretty huge. Mainly, it saves you a ton of money that you can spend on making real art.
(Meanwhile, specialists who build dedicated video editing workstations notoriously price-gouge, as if it’s any trick to buy these common parts from mass retailers.) And again, every time you upgrade, you conserve. Most of all, you get a way more powerful system than you can buy from a store. Put another way, Best Buy doesn’t sell anything this fast. Not even close.
So what are we looking at above? That’s the motherboard ready to get stacked. The square that will hold your Skylake CPU is capped at first, but the metal latch swings open as you can see to the right. To get full speed out of your DDR4 DRAM memory, you have to install them in pairs (between those black-to-black, or red-to-red, or both, pairs of slots), and the DRAM sticks must have the exact same specs. I installed two pairs of 8gb sticks, totaling 32gb of DRAM, but you could install one pair for 16gb (still enough for a speedy system), or four pairs of 4gb each for 16gb.
Before we get to that goo you see on the seated Skylake CPU above, look just to the right of it for that spot on the board (upside-down) that says M.2. That’s the newest and fastest possible way to run a boot drive (commonly called your “C:” drive). Even newer than mSATA (which was a notebook computer form factor for small SSDs), M.2 can tap into the motherboard’s PCIe x16 bus — those expansion slots with metal trim and clips on the end — for the fastest possible disk speeds you can achieve today (theoretically, 2GB/s). I installed an M.2 boot drive there that’s not quite the fastest, but this technology is growing fast, and soon we’ll see terabytes squeezed down to that tiny size. It’s the holy grail of fast, reliable media, as traditional magnetic hard drives become more and more antiquated. We’ll laugh someday about how our data got stored on spinning wheels with styluses bouncing back and forth to scribble data in and out. Can’t wait!
But back to the goo: that’s called thermal paste, and you need it to transfer heat from the burning hot metal surface of the CPU to a fan that bolts down on top of it, seen at left, blowing away the heat. You might have heard about “liquid cooling,” with futuristic tubes delivering refrigerant, but it’s really unnecessary. You’re not going to be overclocking into danger zones if you want a reliable creative platform. I just kept my old fan, and moved it onto this new CPU.