There are going to be, roughly, two types of people reading this: pros and builders. As detailed in my colleague Damian’s article, the Pros are people who just want a fast rig that’s reliable but perhaps have no idea what goes into a computer or who simply don’t have the time to do the research. The builders are the ones who have been building PCs for a minute now and want to know the best combo of hardware for their use. This article will hopefully cover enough bases for both, by way of a review. In this case, a review of a rig Puget Systems built for me to see what the “fast lane” really feels like.
Puget Systems is a computer research company in Washington aimed at creative professionals with their main goal being a proxy-less workflow. They spend all their time min/maxing hardware against various programs, testing them extensively and posting their results up on their blog. It’s companies like Puget that make building a new rig infinitely simpler as you don’t have to do the tests, research, and hard labor at all. In some ways, you can just look up the Puget hardware guides and pick the top performing hardware in each category for your budget and build a rig that way. Doing that, however, means you’re your own support and IT. For some that’s fine, but for the aforementioned pros who want to worry about the work while someone else handles the hardware, you’ll be happy to know that Puget Systems does just that, literally putting their money where their mouths are.
Before we get to their rig, let’s talk about mine for comparison.
I’ve built my own computers (and built ones for others) for the past 13 years now and while I don’t know the model number of every ATI and NVIDIA card on the market anymore (I guess ATI is AMD now) I’m still relatively knowledgeable on the subject, at least practically speaking. My current computer was built at the beginning of 2017 and is comprised of a 4.2Ghz water-cooled Intel i7 7700K and NVIDIA GTX1070 sitting on a Gigabyte X27P-D3 motherboard with 64GB of G.SKILL Ripjaws V DDR4 2400 RAM. This handles most everything I throw at it in the 1080p-range rather well, adding tons of effects and whatnot aside.
For hard drives, I’ve got a 1TB BP5e MyDigitalSSD, a 1 TB Samsung 860 EVO M.2, and a 5TB Toshiba something or another. I’ve got a 12TB DAS as well. There’s a couple externals thrown around, but we’re getting into the weeds here. The drive thing will come into play later though.
I was mistaken in thinking I would receive “a” computer from Puget. Up until the announcement of the Mac Pro, if someone like Apple or Dell asked me to do this they’d send me “the new one”. Instead, Puget arranged a call in which they asked for the details of my work, what programs I used primarily, what formats I’d be editing, and so on. I told them I primarily shoot & edit 1080p AVCHD in Premiere, but had recently been editing more 4K Canon and Arri footage. From there I color and render in Resolve, usually. With that info, they decided the best computer for me would contain the following hardware:
– Fractal Design Define R6 Case
– Gigabyte X299 Designare EX
– Intel Core i9 9940X 3.3GHz Fourteen Core
– Crucial 128GB DDR4-2666 (8x16GB)
– PNY Quadro P5000 PCI-E 16GB
That’s a serious system. The computer I currently use as listed at the top of this article cost me around $1500 in 2017, a bit more with the later addition of more RAM and the water cooling. Puget’s rig came in at a casual $7,329.28 (with free shipping). So what does all that extra cheddar get you?
Before we even get into the reasoning behind the specs, you’re definitely paying for the expertise. The gang at Puget didn’t come up with the build out of thin air or by a council of forum posts, they meticulously test every piece of hardware that comes out with each program they focus on to see precisely which piece will outperform in any given build. They write about this extensively on their blog, if you’d like to see the proverbial Proof Pudding.
The reason I built my computer the way I did was that I simply wanted to get the best hardware I could find for the money I had, but to be honest, my research primarily came from the gaming side of things and I’m not optimized for any one particular program, game, or otherwise. I got the GTX1070 because nVidia and Adobe have some torrid love affair going on and it was “VR Ready” (which I took as a benchmark moreso than a possible feature I’d be using) and it was also dramatically cheaper than the then-new GTX1080 but close enough in spec by my estimation. I got the 7700K because -I believe- PC Part Picker told me to. Something about overclocking. Had I ran into Puget’s blog sooner, I may have picked something else.
My hard drives are set up in a configuration as dictated by a Puget article I had read later on. If you’re not yet down with the multi-drive system, here’s the part of the article you get to take home with you: If there’s any one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it is that a proper Hard Drive setup is the absolute first thing you should attend to if you’re looking to boost performance, and likely will give you the best upgrade price/performance ratio, all things considered.
Puget goes into incredible detail in the article, but the meat of the idea for an optimum setup is thus:
– Your main drive should be an SSD, where you’ll have your OS and Programs installed.
– Your second drive should be an NVMe drive, where you’ll have your active media.
– You should have another SSD with your Cache & Scratch, and a RAID or External Drive as your Storage and Archive.
Per the article, even just “[moving] the media cache drive off the OS drive averages more than a 6x increase in performance, [and] in some instances can be 20-30x faster!”
That’s no joke. If your programs, media, temp files, and OS are all on the same drive your computer can be the fastest thing on the block and it won’t matter because you’ve clogged up a pretty serious bottleneck. To that end, you want your media on the faster NVMe drive instead of your OS/Programs because that software won’t need the high read/write speed like your media does. Kind of a no-duh statement, but I did it backward the first time.
So, with all that out of the way, how’s the rig I was sent?
The first thing I noticed was the size and the packaging of the rig. The computer was placed back into the box the tower case came in, foam inserts and all, and then that box was put into a larger Puget Systems-branded box with extra large foam spacers for safe transport. In the box was an amazingly detailed and personalized user manual that went through exactly what each port was, what hardware was in the computer, all the tests they ran, who ran them, when they were running, instructions and FAQs, troubleshooting… it even had all the install files on a flash drive. It was shockingly comprehensive and tailored exactly to my system. The computer itself was only slightly larger (18”x9”x21”) than my current tower and slid easily under my desk where I swapped out all my connections and flipped the power switch.
Setup took no time at all. One nice thing about having a computer custom built for you by professionals is that you just have to create a Windows account and you’re done. No drivers, no long-winded setup… I was probably in menus for 5 minutes tops. Various instances of “the cloud” being useful came up like my Chrome bookmarks/accounts, my Thunderbird stuff, and they had pre-installed Creative Cloud so I simply logged in to that and installed all my programs from there. For some more common programs, I used Ninite.
A note about swapping systems and Resolve: definitely get the dongle if you’re not meticulous about your keycodes. There’s no way to see what your Resolve Studio key is anywhere. There’s no central database, there’s no “About” section for it, you either have it on a piece of paper or you don’t have it. Luckily I bought my copy online and had an email from the store with the code on my old machine, but had I not I’d be up a certain creek. Just figured it was worth mentioning.
Once I got the computer, I finished editing what I currently had on my plate and started looking for some gigs for which to test it out. I set up a few music videos (as well as some educational content) and shot them at 4K, wrapping them up pretty quick. No fuss. In Premiere at 4K, I had real-time playback at ½ resolution, without proxies, and in Resolve I was getting about 10fps with all my grades and OFX laid in. The rig was designed more for my 1080p work anyway, and even with effects, I was getting full-res playback in those instances.
In terms of performance, I was essentially able to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. By that, I mean I didn’t have to think “Oh I’ll have to denoise at the end so I can still preview at a reasonable speed” or anything like that. I just did what I thought I should do when it came to me, which was a surprising breath of fresh air. I could jump around and work on what caught my attention in that moment and keep moving at the speed of inspiration without any interruptions, which is something I quickly got used to and miss sorely now. In Resolve alone, things like Scene Cut Detect, Window Tracking/Stabilization, and Encoding were all happening at shocking speeds. Encoding was near-real-time in some cases*. Premiere let me front-load all the audio effects and lumetri stuff in that I wanted without slowing down, and the computer itself was absolutely silent which is huge. That fan hum can get incredibly grating if you hear it all the time, which is why I went water cooled myself. The Puget rig is air-cooled, as is traditional, but you wouldn’t know it.
I told basically everyone I knew that I had this thing and was looking for a challenge, so a few came to me asking for help with their projects, including one instance where I essentially had to rescue an entire project to make a festival deadline with a day to spare. There was a lot of rendering out versions of the 20ish minute 4K short film for the Director to look at and give any notes from a remote location, but each render only took a little longer than the film, maybe 30 minutes. If we were on my current rig it would absolutely have been in the “hours” category. Instead, we took care of that essentially overnight, and I was back to looking for more stuff to do.
This is when it had occurred to me that the thought of “oh I don’t want to work on XYZ, that’ll take forever and the return isn’t great” had completely left my mind. I had this rig for about two months, and I felt like I spent way more time either editing or working, but not a ton of time “waiting”. It felt more like sitting down and simply writing a letter than “booting everything up and launching a program and waiting for Peak Files to load and making a pot of coffee…” etc etc. Suddenly my computer was a workbench instead of a thing to be wrestled with. Again, it may sound stupid, but when your tools get out of your way, the work becomes far more enjoyable and much less daunting. I found myself wanting to edit because I was able to work at my speed instead of the speed of the slowest piece of hardware. I would argue that, for a certain level of work, the perceived cost of a computer drops dramatically when you’re able to get more done in the same amount of time with it.
As I mentioned before, Apple kind of just makes “one” computer that you can beef up, which costs an elbow and knee, but are ubiquitous in the creative space largely due to their support.
There aren’t a ton of companies building PCs specifically for filmmaker-types out there, HP probably being the main one, but if you build your own computer you’re your own support. Now, for me, that’s fine; I’ve been doing this for a while. If you’re not a complete nerd like me or don’t have the time and you just need it to be fixed, a Support team is vital. Puget has a lifetime labor and technical support, which also covers the installation of upgrades purchased through them. They’re also just up in Washington, so you’re not talking to someone reading off of a screen in the middle of nowhere you’re getting the people who actually built and tested your PC.
Moving along, how about rubber/road times?
As a test, I rendered out the timeline for Red Light by Tiffany Dunn, which I shot in 4K RawLite on the C200 for my review, on both my current rig and the Puget system. The Premiere timeline has a blanket Lumetri effect and some stabilization, to test a real-use scenario, and the DaVinci timeline is fully colored as seen in the YouTube video. The total runtime of the video is 3:06.
Using the YouTube 4K preset in Premiere–
Using the QT422 preset in Premiere–
Using the YouTube 4K QT preset in Resolve–
Using the YouTube 4K MP4 preset in Resolve–
So something to note here, at least for my computer, Resolve consistently renders faster. My guess is because Resolve uses my GPU, whereas Premiere relies mostly on the CPU. How my GTX1070 outperformed the P5000 in DaVinci was intriguing, and when I asked Puget about it they told me that, in reality, most consumer cards can, in fact, out-perform their workstation counterparts, it’s just that cards like the P5000 have more VRAM, can output 10bit signals, and are -in general- more reliable. In any case, since figuring this out I’ve kicked all of my timelines out of Premiere and in to Resolve to render, even if I wasn’t going to do much coloring. Really surprising considering all of the “nVidia + Adobe = Love” talk I see everywhere, but Premiere tends to ignore GPUs whereas Resolve will eat up every last inch of them so the performance difference makes sense.
Render times aside, working within each program was flawless, and I never once crashed or got hung up. While I don’t often crash on my personal rig, it does happen from time to time and will freeze up for a few seconds while it thinks about what it wants to do, which I didn’t experience using the Puget computer. It’s actually kind of interesting at how low-stress the two months with the Puget rig were, looking back on it.
I’d be lying if I said that small things don’t sometimes get under my skin (slow walkers!?), so having the thing that I sit in front of for hours on end on a daily basis become transparent was perhaps the most interesting if not the most relevant and important thing I noticed. Filmmaking can be a high-stress gig, and having things outside your control affecting your performance can be infuriating and can kick you out of your flow. You just kind of get used to computers being slow because, well, they always are. I didn’t have a frame of reference to what “actually fast” was because even my “very fast” current computer isn’t engineered to be the best, it was made to be affordable. Now that I’ve seen the other side, I get it. A fast computer doesn’t make you faster, but it does allow you to be.
That being said, if you’re just a solo producer of content and you’re not juggling clients or working with huge files, maybe building your own after a trip through Puget’s blog would suffice. Or, if you’re a production company or individual that primarily does web content or less-demanding editing, Puget also makes more modest PCs that would fit the budget you were thinking of spending on those Apple Trashcans.
For those who need to work at the speed of opportunity, inspiration, and crunch times, I can say with assurance that there’s a considerable tradeoff when it comes to saving money vs stressful man hours. Simply put, if time is a factor, get the faster machine. You don’t want to be in the 11th hour waiting 30 minutes for a 3-minute video to render just to watch it back for QC because you couldn’t view it at a reasonable quality level in the timeline. Nothing kills the spirit more than seeing a bad matte or something within 14 seconds of starting a video you just rendered, knowing that if it’s JUST that, you’ve wasted so much time on such a simple glitch. It’s much nicer to just go “oh, whoops” and have that thing fixed before you even get close to that point.
Momentum is huge in the creative world. For the two months I had this PC I was allowed to build up a lot of it, and I did. My turnover rate went up and I was more confident in my ability to hit deadlines that I set well ahead of time. Now that I’m back on my “old” computer, I do notice that difference in “flow”. It’s not earth-shattering, but it is something.
I will miss you, ridiculously overpowered computer.
If you are looking to build your own rig, check out the hardware guides from Puget below to get an idea of what gear will fit your needs:
Premiere Pro Hardware /// DaVinci Resolve Hardware /// All Hardware Guides
– In general, I was informed that for Adobe, mid-range nVidia hardware is actually pretty good. AMD has released some really compelling cards, especially for Resolve, but overall nVidia will still outperform them.
– If you’re working with RED footage upgrade your GPU, for ARRI or H264 beef up your CPU, and for CDNG/After-Effects work, you’ll want high single-core performance but you don’t need the newest screaming-hot chip on the market.
– To find how fast your drives should be based on what footage you’re using, take the bitrate of said footage and add 50%. That number is the minimum speed your drives should be. With NVMe drives these days that number shouldn’t be an issue.
– For RAM, 32GB will suffice for 1080p footage, with 64GB being enough for 4K. Ballpark. Obviously, more is better, but not always necessary. RAM is like garlic: you definitely want some, but you’d always like a little more.
*I wasn’t able to test it on my personal PC because I forgot to save the DaVinci Database file (so frustrating, by the way, Resolve not having regular old project files) but my 2:23 Reel took 2:34 seconds to render on the Puget rig. Outstanding.