13 Apr 2017

Powerful alternatives to that new Apple workstation

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A Lenovo Thinkstation: as the movie had it: "It's boxy, but it's good." A Lenovo Thinkstation: as the movie had it: "It's boxy, but it's good." Lenovo


Which is better for video?

The second consideration, which is rather more fundamental, is the argument that the current Mac Pro is not particularly well-configured for video editing tasks. This is something which we can hope will guide Apple's approach to designing new models. The CPU and RAM can be upgraded, sure, but there's a fundamental design issue with those dual GPUs. The configuration suggests that Apple were betting on a much greater takeup of GPU computing than has actually happened. That's not to say that there's any problem with the work which has been done. An angelic chorus still attends every deployment of Adobe's GPU acceleration in Premiere, and Resolve is legendary. Apple's apparent thinking was reasonable, and we all wish GPU computing had been more widely deployed, but it wasn't, at least not to the degree they seem to have been expecting.

So, the provision of two comparatively high-specification workstation GPUs with a comparatively limited amount of RAM each is possibly not what one would choose to do now. It's very likely those big GPUs which make the Mac Pro expensive, and in most circumstances one of them will be lounging under a street light, cleaning its fingernails with a flick-knife, while the other struggles for memory. A more effective, possibly cheaper solution is a fairly simple card to run the UI display, and a more powerful one, with more memory, for the actual computing.

As such, nobody should attempt to manufacture, or indeed to buy, a computer in the sort of configuration we've discussed unless they have a very specific need for a pair of very expensive workstation-class graphics cards. A more sensible setup, using the simpler Nvidia NVS or Quadro K series for display, would make even the 32GB version much cheaper than the Mac Pro, or open up options for more RAM or larger, faster flash storage, resulting in a system capable of stealing the current Mac Pro's lunch money while dating its sister.

Frankly, it's unlikely that Apple's new workstation will be in any sense priced to compete with Windows machines; some people will still be willing to pay for OSX, although with the core film and TV software offering now very similar on both platforms it's not necessarily that obvious why. Still, with Apple accepting quite happily that the trashcan design was not a triumph, we can probably expect something a bit more conventional in the near future. As Jobs himself once alluded, people still need pickup trucks.

Just please, Apple, whatever you do, make it a rectangular case less than nineteen inches on the larger dimension of its front panel.

A quick coda

Another option, and one which will have been shouted at the screen several times by the sort of people who build their own computers, is to use graphics cards from Nvidia's GTX range. Workstation manufacturers don't tend to ship them since they're built for video games, but they work fine and have a vastly, vastly better price-to-performance ratio than the Quadro or FirePro series. To illustrate the scale of the disparity, a relatively modest 6GB GTX 1060, currently costing around £150, generally benchmarks at about 20% faster than the Quadro K6000, which has double the memory but costs three-thousand-yes-seriously-pounds.

What's the difference? Well, the Quadros are picked more selectively for lowest power consumption and thus heat generation; they have lots of memory, and the drivers and firmware unlock certain specific requirements, such as anti-aliased lines, particular lighting effects, higher-precision floating point mathematics, and a few other esoteric differences which are mainly of use to CAD people in the engineering and scientific disciplines. You may be thinking that these improvements sound like a relatively slight return on a £2850 investment, and for our purposes, you'd be right. Few if any of them are used in any way by, let alone crucial to, things like Resolve, and it is entirely reasonable to buy a workstation with a basic display GPU and later throw a GTX-series card in it for more computing power.

Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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