Armed with the data from Part 1, it’s time to shop, right? Or is it? Actually, one key decision before shopping is still required – the choice of form factor. Should you get a tower of power like the Dell T7500? A sexy M6500 mobile workstation loaded to the gills? Or really push the envelope and build something DIY with flames painted on the side?
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DIY – “Do It Yourself”
I’m a DIY fan myself, having built many machines, but this is an easy one to cross off for most users. Unless you are looking for a hobby, just remember “DIY” is really “doing every single thing yourself”. Configuring, assembling, testing, tweaking and especially service & support…it is you alone. For a small minority, DIY is a fun and educational. For most pros, it’s a time waster.
Let’s face it, mobile is sexy, the “desktop is dead” and cool people work on laptops, tablets and smartphones. However, when it comes to price vs. performance, mobile can have some challenges. Mobile has its role (I’m typing this on a Dell Mobile Workstation), but the physics of thermal conductivity and transistor density mean that smaller = hotter, more expensive, slower, and less reliable.
Choosing a mobile workstation as primary computer requires careful cost/benefit analysis.
For a primary workstation, unless you plan on running older apps (e.g. CS4 not CS5) and/or simpler projects (SD short form projects vs. HD or 4k long-form) for shorter durations (4 hour workday vs. 12 hours), a mobile workstation may be a problematic choice. It will cost more, run hotter, slower and have a shorter lifespan than the same dollars in a desktop.
That said, a desktop is awfully cumbersome to carry from one location to another… and the batteries are expensive!
For most of us, desktop is the way to go for maximum price-performance. But if you start pricing hardware, you will notice that there are inexpensive desktops or higher priced “certified workstations” like the Dell Precision platform. You might think it’s smart to save the money and just get similar parts in a consumer box. But certification means the workstation hardware is designed for heavy workloads on specific applications – software companies like Adobe, Autodesk, etc. have tested their applications to verify performance and compatibility.
Additionally, the cost premium is offset by better warranties, specialized professional tech support and components rated for higher workloads. In addition, certified workstations typically can be configured with a larger range of options, lack the bloatware of consumer desktops, and can be delivered pre-loaded with leading creative applications. All of which will save far more time and money over the system life than getting a cheap consumer system upfront.
But we’re still not quite ready to shop. There is one final factor to consider – big iron or team spirit?
MORE CAN MEAN MOREPICKING THE PARTS
Because you’ve done your homework, the actual configuring is much easier than if you had just started shopping. From your data in Part 1, you know exactly what components are important in each computer, so simply configure what works in your budget. Here’s a sample config for a Premiere editor who does some motion graphics and who also works 25% offsite.
MACHINE 1 (Primary box, NLE)
Dell Precision T3500, 24 GB RAM, Single 6-Core Xeon, boot drive plus second drive plus 4-drive RAID 0, High-end nVidia Quadro GPU
MACHINE 2 (Secondary box, Motion Graphics)
Dell Precision T3500, 24 GB RAM, Single 4-Core Xeon, boot drive, media drive, basic GPU
MACHINE 3 (Mobile)
Mid-range Dell M6500, 8 GB RAM, Mid-range CPU, two internal drives, one boot, one media.
If you find your budget pressed, first make modest cuts in RAM, drives or peripherals as they are easy to add later. Avoid getting lesser components that will reduce performance and have to be replaced outright to boost performance like a monitor or CPU.
And now, you’ve got your perfect workstation, right? Well, it’s not quite perfect yet.
THE PERFECT SETUP
Although I can’t go into depth here, a workstation simply unpacked and started is poorly optimized for your workflow and applications. Here are best practices to setting up your workstation right.
- Make a disk image as soon as you boot it. Label it “factory”.
- Do a clean install of OS & hardware drivers with latest drivers from online if possible. Disk image and label “clean OS”.
- Install applications and peripherals. Activate/register as needed. Disk image and label “OS-Apps, Activated”.
- Transfer your data files onto your machine(s). Disk image and label “Master image”. This disk image should be the base for incremental, preferably nightly disk images making it simple to restore a fully working machine no matter what occurs.
- Keep periodic copies of disk images and other critical backups offsite. In addition to disk image backups, insure you have a complete backup strategy for your data.
- Don’t start tweaking or optimizing at first unless a problem is affects system stability. Use this default configuration for 2 to 4 weeks, keeping a log of any issues and recommended solutions.
- Then, make another full disk image labeled “Stable Master”.
- Begin optimizing your OS and application configuration. I recommend TuneUp Utilities 2011 and the Black Viper’s OS tweaks. Also, Adobe, Sony etc. publish tech info with recommended OS and app tweaks to improve performance and stability.
- Restore to an earlier image as needed.
By following a clear, detailed, focused plan, you can actually build the perfect workstation. Of course, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. But if it’s fast, stable and reliable, that’s perfect in my book.
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