This industry relies on computer workstations day in and day out. So when pros embark on the journey to buy a new one, it’s not something they take lightly. Whether they work in films, TV, spots or VR, or are editors, colorists or visual effects artists, their journey to the right tool is the same. Making sure their workstation enhances their creativity rather than stalls it is paramount. Surrounding themselves with accessories that help speed up their process or just keep their hands from aching is important as well.
We reached out to a number of pros to talk about the journey to their workstation of choice —what do they look for, what questions do they ask, what’s important. Here you go…
AlphaDogs – Owner/Colorist Terry Curren
I currently go mostly with HP as they build for our industry, and have great support. Apple has been out of the workstation business since 2012, so that is a non-starter. Apple did come out and say they are working on a new workstation for pros that should come out next year. The biggest take-away from this is that Apple, a company famous for never talking about what they are working on, spilled the beans publicly. They must be worried about the shift away from their products in our market.
A workstation is a major investment. Most of it is infrastructure that doesn’t need to be replaced that often, like the motherboard and peripheral connections. The easy upgradeability of the CPU along with the flexibility of PCI slots is very important. I have many long-in-the-tooth workstations with newer GPUs, CPUs and I/O cards that work just fine for modern demanding workflows.
Many facilities are built around various PCI cards like fiber channel for storage, SDI and HDMI I/O for external monitoring of video and audio, etc. For example, over the life of AlphaDogs, I have been through 1Gb, 2Gb, 4Gb and am currently on 8Gb fiber. All I had to replace was the relatively inexpensive PCI cards to handle the increasing throughput demands, not the entire computer. With Thunderbolt, you need a new computer with each new iteration.
Heavier processing demand with applications like Blackmagic Resolve, which likes lots of additional GPUs, requires flexibility. To get that, you need PCI slots with their higher number of “lanes” of throughput. It is easy to add more GPUs to a workstation or even a breakout box if even more PCI slots are desired.
The bottom line is Apple is primarily a consumer product company. If you can get by with an iMac then go for it, but be aware you may be replacing it in a few years. If you need more options, and want to maximize your long-term investment, you have to bump up to a workstation.
The Foundation — Director of Engineering John Stevens
When choosing a workstation, I first look at the specifications of the application the system is being purchased for. Is it CPU-intensive? Is it GPU-intensive? Does the software vendor have any recommended configurations? Which CPU or GPU configurations have been tested by the software vendor? Where will the machine be used? On set? If so, then system noise becomes an important consideration. Can the system be rackmounted or will it be in tower configuration? If the system needs to be rackmounted are rackmount kits available?
Then I determine how much “horsepower” is needed to meet the expected performance level. Items that affect a decision are where is the sweet spot on CPU vs. price performance. I always like to purchase the fastest CPUs that I can afford.
Next, how much RAM is needed for the application, what is the optimum RAM configuration for the hardware? What type and number of GPUs does the application support? Can the power supplies support the number of GPUs? How many slots does the system have and what bandwidth are they? What type of support is available? What does the system cost?
I then think about the lifetime of the system. What is the possibility that the system will be re-tasked? Will the configuration I am looking at work in its second life? Then I purchase!
Writer/Producer/Director/VFX Supervisor —Hasraf Dulull
When getting a workstation, I want something that is easy to move around (like the iMac) and must have a lot of RAM and high-end graphics card for GPU. I use G-Tech G-Drives 8TB hooked up via Thunderbolt to access the footage, and if my SSD drive in the iMac is big enough then I use that for caching as its faster. I am currently using Mac because of the ProRes codec workflow. I’m also not too fussed about the graphics card brand as long as it’s a good spec.
HBO — Workflow Specialist John “Pliny” Eremic
The GPU matters more and more. Today, even Web browsers like Chrome offload compute to your graphics card in order to render their pages.
I almost always work remotely, so my laptop is my workstation. And while portability and battery life are important, with a “desktop replacement” it’s still all about horsepower. No, I don’t want to lug around a 19lb gaming laptop, but I will gladly accept larger form factors in exchange for better performance.
What we’re seeing is that laptops today can essentially have the same GPU power as their desktop counterparts. For example, the latest Nvidia 10 Series desktop GPUs only have a 10-15% benchmark advantage over their mobile counterparts. That’s huge. In the last generation, that delta was between 50% and 100%. So getting mobile GPUs on par with the desktop models is a game changer.
But it’s the best and the worst of times. Just when I want to upgrade my MacBook Pro, Apple has doubled down on emphasizing “lighter, thinner” over raw power in their “Pro” models. The latest MacBook Pro — including the new rev announced recently — can’t do VR and is underpowered for tasks like 3D or gaming. It’s hard to justify the sticker price for a machine that is partially obsolete right out of the box.
I see virtual content creation as integral to the future of filmmaking, including, and especially, Indie filmmaking. So this puts me in a tough bind: switch to Windows? I might have to.
Because I work on a variety of technical and creative projects, my needs are pretty demanding. I look for workstations that allow me to customize and upgrade CPU and GPU and have robust I/O.
We are mostly an Nvidia-based studio, so all of our systems run the most recent Pascal cards. For our CPUs, its Intel Xeon and Kaby Lake processors. We look for vendors we have trusted over the years for I/O. The diverse projects and technology we use and develop at times use different technology per project — including that from AJA, Blackmagic, Atto, G-Technologies, Apple, HP and Dell.
Accessories vary, but typically it’s Wacom tablets and grading panels from Tangent and Blackmagic. Peripherals are also key to a workstation. We use Flanders Scientific for color-accurate work and a mix of NEC and Dell for HDR and 8K work. All the workstations in the studio are hooked up to a central SAN system.
The Molecule — CEO / CTO / VFX Supervisor Chris Healer
“We usually buy our systems from ICC because they deliver very quickly, usually in less than two weeks, and built to our specs for a good price. Ideally, the selection process wouldn’t be based on speed, but historically we never have enough future-outlook to know when we will need new machines, and end up buying them in batches of five or 10 at a time to satisfy new work that’s coming in.”
The Vanity — VFX Artist Naveen Srivastava
I don’t have a specific spec in mind; I’m almost always just looking for the fastest thing I can find. Our schedules get tighter and tighter every day, so if better hardware can buy me even a couple of minutes by rendering faster, it’s worth it. We’re constantly putting more and more weight on the shoulders of our workstations, so we’re looking for strength, speed and reliability. I use the Lenovo P910 and we also have some HP z840s.
As far as accessories go, we run an internal SSD RAID to get very fast access to our footage. We typically buy the fastest pro video card we can. We work with Eizo monitors exclusively for all of our Flame work.
Boxx’s new Apexx 4 6201 workstation features the new 10-core Intel Core i9 X-Series processor. Intel’s most scalable desktop platform ever, X-Series processors offer significant performance increases over previous Intel technology.
“The Intel Core X-Series is the ultimate workstation platform,” reports Boxx VP of engineering Tim Lawrence. “The advantages of the new Intel Core i9, combined with Boxx innovation, will provide architects, engineers and motion media creators with an unprecedented level of performance.”
One of those key Intel X-Series advantages is Intel Turbo Boost 3.0. This technology identifies the two best cores to boost, making the new CPUs ideal for multitasking and virtual reality, as well as editing and rendering high-res 4K/VR video and effects with fast video transcode, image stabilization, 3D effects rendering and animation.
When comparing previous-generation Intel processors to X-Series processors (10-core vs.10-core), the X-Series is up to 14% faster in multi-threaded performance and up to 15% faster in single-threaded performance.
The first in a series of Boxx workstations featuring the new Intel X-Series processors, Apexx 4 6201 also includes up to three professional-grade Nvidia or AMD Radeon Pro graphics cards, and up to 128GB of system memory. The highly configurable Apexx 4 series workstations provide support for single-threaded applications, as well as multi-threaded tasks in applications like 3ds Max, Maya and Adobe CC.
“Professionals choose Boxx because they want to spend more time creating and less time waiting on their compute-intensive workloads,” says Lawrence. “Boxx Apexx workstations featuring new Intel X-Series processors will enable them to create without compromise, to megatask, support a bank of 4K monitors and immerse themselves in VR — all faster than before.”
Sony Pictures Imageworks used Dell technology during the creation of the Spider-Man: Homecoming. To celebrate, Dell and Sony held a press junket in New York City that included tech demos and details on the film, as well as the Spider-Man: Homecoming Virtual Reality Experience. While I’m a huge Spider-Man fan, I am not biased in saying it was spectacular.
To begin the VR demo, users are given the same suit Tony Stark designs for Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. The first action you perform is grabbing the mask and putting on the costume. You then jump into a tutorial that teaches you how to use your web-shooter mechanics (which implement intuitively with your VR controllers).
Users are then tasked with thwarting the villainous Vulture from attacking you and the city of New York. Admittedly, I didn’t get too far into the demo. I was a bit confused as to where to progress, but also absolutely stunned by the mechanics and details. Along with pulling triggers to fire webs, each button accessed a different type of web cartridge in your web shooter. So, like Spidey, I had to be both strategic and adaptive to each changing scenario. I actually felt like I was shooting webs and pulling large crates around… I honestly spent most of my time seeing how far the webs could go and what they could stick to — it was amazing!
With the power of thousands of workstations, servers and over a petabyte of storage from Dell, Sony Pictures Imageworks and other studios, such as MPC and Method, were able to create the visual effects for the Spider-Man: Homecoming film. The Virtual Reality Experience actually pulled the same models, assets and details used in the film, giving users a truly awesome and immersive experience.
When I asked what this particular VR experience would cost your typical consumer, I was told that when developing the game, Dell researched major VR consoles and workstations and set a benchmark to strive for so most consumers should be able to experience the game without too much of a difference.
Along with the VR game, Dell also showcased its new gaming laptop: the Inspiron 15 7000. With a quad-core H-Class 7th-Gen Intel Core and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050/1050 Ti, the laptop is marketed for hardcore gaming. It has a tough-yet-sleek design that’s appealing to the eye. However, I was more impressed with its power and potential. The junket had one of these new Inspiron laptops running the recently rebooted Killer Instinct fighting game (which ironically was my very first video game on the Super Nintendo… I guess violent video games did an okay job raising me). As a fighting game fanatic and occasional competitor, I have to say the game ran very smoothly. I couldn’t spot latency between inputs from the USB-connected X-Box One controllers or any frame skipping. It does what it says it can do!
The Inspiron 15 7000 was also featured in the Spider-Man: Homecoming film and was used by Jacob Batalon’s character, Ned, to help aid Peter Parker in his web-tastic mission.
I was also lucky enough to try out Sony Future Lab Program’s projector-based interactive Find Spider-Man game, where the game’s “screen” is projected on a table from a depth-perceiving projector lamp. A blank board was used as a scroll to maneuver a map of New York City, while piles of movable blocks were used to recognize buildings and individual floors. Sometimes Spidey was found sitting on the roof, while other times he was hiding inside on one of the floors.
All in all, Dell and Sony Pictures Imageworks’ partnership provided some sensational insight to what being Spider-Man is like with their technology and innovation, and I hope to see it evolve even further along side more Spider-Man: Homecoming films.
The Spider-Man: Homecoming Virtual Reality Experience arrives on June 30th for all major VR platforms. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming releases in theaters on July 7th.
Jay Choi is a Korean-American screenwriter, who has an odd fascination with Lego minifigures, a big heart for his cat Sula, and an obsession with all things Spider-Man. He is currently developing an animated television pitch he sold to Nickelodeon and resides in Brooklyn.
Last week I had the opportunity to attend Lenovo’s “Transform” event, in which the company unveiled its newest releases as well as its plans for the near future. I must say they had quite the lineup ready.
The whole event was divided into two tracks “Datacenters” and “PC and Smart Devices.” Each focused on its own products and markets, but a single idea permeated all announcements in the day. It’s what Lenovo calls the “Fourth Revolution.” That’s what the company calls the next step in integration between devices and the cloud. Their vision is that soon 5G mobile Internet will be available, allowing for devices to seamlessly connect to the cloud on the go and more importantly, always stay connected.
While there were many interesting announcements throughout the day, I will focus on two that seem more closely relatable to most post facilities.
The first is what Lenovo is calling “PC as a service.” They want to sell the bulk of the IT hardware and support needs for companies as subscription-based deals, and that would be awesome! Why? Well, it’s simply a fact of life now that post production happens almost exclusively with the aid of computer software (sorry, if you’re still one of the few cutting film by hand, this article won’t be that interesting for you).
Having to choose, buy and maintain computers for our daily work takes a lot of research and, most notably, time. Between software updates, managing different licenses, subscriptions and hunting down weird quirks of the system, a lot of time is taken away from more important tasks such as editing or client relationship. When you throw a server and a local network in the mix it becomes a hefty job that takes a lot of maintenance.
That’s why bigger facilities employ IT specialists to deal with all that. But many post facilities aren’t big enough to employ a full-time IT person, nor are their needs complex enough to warrant the investment.
Lenovo sees this as an opportunity to simplify the role of the IT department by selling subscriptions that include the hardware, the software and all the necessary support (including a help desk) to keep the systems running without having to invest in a large IT department. More importantly, the subscription would be flexible. So, during periods in which you have need for more stations/support you can increase the scope of the subscription and then shrink it once again when the demands lower, freeing you from absorbing the cost of unused machines/software that would just sit around unused.
I see one big problem in this vision: Lenovo plans to start the service with a minimum of 1,000 seats for a deal. That is far, far more staff than most post facilities have, and at that point it would probably just be worth hiring a specialist that can also help you automate your workflow and develop customized tools for your projects. It is nonetheless an interesting approach, and I hope to see it trickle down to smaller clients as it solidifies as a feasible model.
The other announcement that should interest post facilities is Lenovo’s interest in the AR market. As many of you might know, augmented reality is projected to be an even bigger market than it’s more popular cousin virtual reality, largely due to its more professional application possibilities.
Lenovo has been investing in AR and has partnered up with Metavision to experiment and start working towards real work-environment offerings of the technology. Besides the hand gestures that are always emphasized in AR promo videos, one very simple use-case seems to be in Lenovo’s sights, and that’s one I hope to see being marketable very soon: workspace expansion. Instead of needing three or four different monitors to accommodate our ever-growing number of windows and displays while working, with AR we will be able to place windows anywhere around us, essentially giving us a giant spherical display. A very simple problem with a very simple solution, but one that I believe would increase the productivity of editors by a considerable amount.
We should definitely keep an eye on Lenovo as they embark one this new quest for high-efficiency solutions for businesses, because that’s exactly what the post production industry finds itself in need of right now.
Claudio Santos is a sound editor and spatial audio mixer at Silver Sound. Slightly too interested in technology and workflow hacks, he spends most of his waking hours tweaking, fiddling and tinkering away on his computer.
I have to admit, even though I consider myself to be a very outdoorsy person, I have a very soft spot for technology. How could I not? Working in post means I often spend more time staring at a computer screen than I do sleeping. Since I don’t plan on changing careers the least I can do is indulge myself and stare at a good computer screen.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with the team at HP for an early look at the new products they have brought to market: the ZBook mobile workstation series and two new DreamColor monitors.
While I spent most of my time working in audio post, I don’t really have a reasonable excuse to be so excited about these monitors, but they seem to have been made with such care that it is hard not to get excited. They DreamColor z24x G2 and the DreamColor Z31x Studio are two new entries in the already well-reputed series of displays that is aimed at color professionals and post houses.
They are both 10-bit displays with accessible options for color calibrations and great color accuracy. The build of both monitors doesn’t leave anything to desire, and they should be able to perform for years before being replaced. The Z24x G2 is a 24-inch monitor with aspect ratio of 16:10 and native resolution of 1920×1200. The Z31x Studio on the other hand is 31.1-inch and has a native resolution of 4096×2160 (cinema 4K).
While the specs alone seem great, it is the workflow enhancements where the HP displays really shine. The Z31x Studio is aimed at post facilities, which often have an IT department responsible for maintaining and managing the hardware. The display makes this usually boring task a breeze by allowing easy remote management over the network, scripting for profiles and user hotkeys and an API that allows facilities to fully integrate them into their system. It also boasts an integrated colorimeter that is embedded into the frame of the monitor and can be scheduled to automatically calibrate the display during off-hours. In order to tackle the common nuisance of having to manage two different machines from the same desk, the monitor has a built-in KVM switch that make the task of sharing a keyboard and mouse with two different systems absolutely painless.
ZBook Mobile Workstation Series
The ZBook workstations cover a range of sizes, starting at ultra-portable 14-inch all the way up to 17.3-inch machines. They are all very powerful machines that compete with all the best high-spec machines in the market. Once again, what sets these apart is the attention to detail HP put into designing them.
The whole series supports biometric authentication, with the added safety that the biometric authentication offers security at the BIOS level. This means that even if someone tries to tamper with the OS before it loads they will still have to bypass the biometric system before having access to any of the hardware.
They also offer comforts such as tool less access to the battery and hard drive, and easily expandable RAM, so upgrading/swapping parts shouldn’t be a whole-day ordeal. While I was demoing the laptops, I had the chance to try a VR experience that was being completely powered and rendered in realtime by one of the ZBooks on a HTC Vive. The experience was flawless and there were no obvious corners cut in the geometry or lighting to make a “pretend” demo. I had the impression I could confidently rely on one of the machines to work on VR projects.
Claudio Santos is a sound editor and spatial audio mixer at Silver Sound. Slightly too interested in technology and workflow hacks, he spends most of his waking ours tweaking, fiddling and tinkering away on his computer.
AMD was at NAB this year with its dual-GPU graphics card designed for pros — the Polaris-architecture-based Radeon Pro Duo. Built on the capabilities of the Radeon Pro WX 7100, the Radeon Pro Duo graphics card is designed for media and entertainment, broadcast and design workflows.
The Radeon Pro Duo is equipped with 32GB of ultra-fast GDDR5 memory to handle larger data sets, more intricate 3D models, higher-resolution videos and complex assemblies. Operating at a max power of 250W, the Radeon Pro Duo uses a total of 72 compute units (4,608 stream processors) for a combined performance of up to 11.45 TFLOPS of single-precision compute performance on one board, and twice the geometry throughput of the Radeon Pro WX 7100.
The Radeon Pro Duo enables pros to work on up to four 4K monitors at 60Hz, drive the latest 8K single monitor display at 30Hz using a single cable or drive an 8K display at 60Hz using a dual cable solution.
The Radeon Pro Duo’s distinct dual-GPU design allows pros the flexibility to divide their workloads, enabling smooth multi-tasking between applications by committing GPU resources to each. This will allow users to focus on their creativity and get more done faster, allowing for a greater number of design iterations in the same time.
On select pro apps (including DaVinci Resolve, Nuke/Care VR, Blender Cycles and VRed), the Radeon Pro Duo offers up to two times faster performance compared with the Radeon Pro WX 7100.
For those working in VR, the Radeon Pro Duo graphics card uses the power of two GPUs to render out separate images for each eye, increasing VR performance over single GPU solutions by up to 50% in the SteamVR test. AMD’s LiquidVR technologies are also supported by the industry’s leading realtime engines, including Unity and Unreal, to help ensure smooth, comfortable and responsive VR experiences on Radeon Pro Duo.
The Radeon Pro Duo’s planned availability is the end of May at an expected price of US $999.
Lenovo launched its VR-ready ThinkStation P320 at Develop3D Live, a UK-based conference that puts special focus on virtual reality as a productivity tool in design workflows. The ThinkStation P320 is the latest addition to the Lenovo portfolio of VR-ready certified workstations and is designed for power users looking to balance both performance and their budgets.
The workstation’s pro VR certification allows ThinkStation P320 users an to more easily add virtual reality into their workflow without requiring an initial high-end hardware and software investment.
The refreshed workstation will be available in both full-size tower and small form factor (SFF) and comes equipped with Intel’s newest Xeon processors and Core i7 processors — offering speeds of up to 4.5GHz with Turbo Boost (on the tower). Both form factors will also support the latest Nvidia Quadro graphics cards, including support for dual Nvidia Quadro P1000 GPUs in the small form factor.
The ISV-certified ThinkStation P320 supports up to 64GB of DDR4 memory and customization via the Flex Module. In terms of environmental sustainability, the P320 is Energy Star-qualified, as well as EPEAT Gold and Greenguard-certified.
The Lenovo ThinkStation P320 full-size tower and SFF will be available at the end of April.
While I started my career on Dell Precision workstations, I have spent the last 10 years with HP workstations under my desk. They have served me well, which is why I used them for five generations. At the beginning of 2016, I was given the opportunity to do a complete hardware refresh for director Scott Waugh’s post house, Vasquez Saloon, to gear up our capabilities to edit the first film shot for Barco Escape and edited fully in 6K. This time we ended up with Dell Precision 7910 workstations under our desks. After having a chance to use them for a year, I decided it was time to share some of my experiences with the top-end Precision workstation.
My 7910 has two Xeon E5-2687W V3 processors, each with 10 cores running at 3.1Ghz. Regardless of which CPU speed you select, always fill both sockets of a high-end workstation, as that doubles your memory bandwidth and enables the last two PCIe slots. Therefore, choose dual 4-core CPUs instead of a single 8-core CPU, if that is the performance level you are after. It has 128GB of DDR4 memory, divided across eight sticks that are 16GB each. Regardless of size, maximum performance is achieved with at least as many sticks of RAM since there are memory channels. This system has four memory channels per CPU, for a total of eight channels. I would recommend at least 64GB of RAM for most editing systems, with more for larger projects. Since we were cutting an entire feature with 6K source files, 128GB was a reasonable choice that served us well.
Both our systems are usually pretty quiet, which is impressive considering how powerful they are. They do generate heat, and I don’t recommend running them in a room without AC, but that was outside of our control. Air-cooled systems are only as effective as the environment they are in, and our situation wasn’t always optimal.
PCIe SSDs are a huge leap forward for storage throughput. This workstation came with a PCIe x16 Gen3 card that supports up to four M.2 NVMe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NVM_Express SSDs at full speed. This allows up to 2500MB/s from each of the four ports, which is enough bandwidth to play back 6K DPXs at 24p in Premiere without dropping frames.
Now capacity is limited with this new expensive technology, topping out at 1TB per $700 card. My 512GB card can only store seven minutes of data at maximum throughput, but for smaller data sets, like VFX shots, this allows a system to cache meaningful quantities of data at very high speed without needing a large array of disks to sustain the required I/Os.
Once we open the tool-less case, one of the obvious visual differences between the Dell and HP solutions is that the Precision 7910 splits the PCIe slots, with two above the CPUs and five below. I assume the benefits to this are shorter circuit paths to the CPUs, and better cooling for hot cards. It hasn’t made a big difference to me, but it is worth noting. Like other dual-socket systems, two of the slots are disabled if the second CPU is not installed.
In my case, I have the SSD card in the top slot, and a Red Rocket-X in the next one down. The Thunderbolt 2 card has to be installed in the slot directly below the CPUs. Then I installed my SAS RAID card and the Intel X540 10GbE NIC, leaving space at the bottom for my Quadro GPU.
Another unique feature of the case layout is that the power supply is located behind the motherboard, instead of at the top or bottom of the system. This places the motherboard at the center of the chassis, with components and cards on one side, and power and storage bays on the other. There are a variety of integrated ports, with dual-Gigabit NICs, PS/2, audio, serial, and six USB ports. The only aspect I found limiting was the total of four USB 3.0 ports, one in front and three in back. I have on occasion been using all of them at once for my external drive transfers, but having a USB 3.0 hub in most of Dell’s monitors can help with this issue. Hopefully, we will see USB-C ports with double that bandwidth in the next generation, as well as integrated Thunderbolt 3 support to free up another PCIe slot.
Besides the slim DVD drive, there are four 3.5-inch hard drive bays with tool-less cages, and a 5.25-inch bay, which can be optionally reconfigured to hold four more 2.5-inch drives. The next model down, the Precision 7810, is similar, but without the top two PCIe slots and only two 3.5-inch drive bays. My drive bays are all empty because the PCIe SSD is my only internal storage, but that means that I could easily add four 8TB SAS drives for 32TB of internal storage with no other accessories required. And I may use the 5.25-inch bay for an LTO drive someday, if I don’t end up getting an external one.
If I do get an external SAS drive, it could be connected to one of the two SFF 8643 connectors on the motherboard. These new connectors each support four channels of 12Gb SAS, with one of them hooked to the 3.5-inch drive back plane by default. The integrated SAS controller supports up to eight channels of SAS or SATA data, capable of RAID-0 or -1. Using RAID-5 or -6 requires a separate dedicated card, in my case the Areca 1883x. At least one integrated M.2 slot would be great to see in the next refresh, as those SSDs become more affordable.
Dell also includes their system management software Dell Precision Optimizer to help you get the maximum performance from the system. It allows users to monitor and chart CPU and GPU use as well as memory and disk usage. It can configure system settings like Hyperthreading, Power Usage and V-Sync, using pre-built profiles for various industry applications. It won’t tune your system for video editing as well as an expert who knows what they are doing, but it is better than doing nothing right out of the box.
Over the last year, we have run two of these workstations on a 6K feature film, taking them right to the limit on a regular basis. It was not uncommon to be encoding R3D dailies to H264 in AME, while rendering a VFX shot in AE, and playing back in Premiere, on both systems simultaneously, pulling data from each other’s local storage arrays over the network. And while I won’t say that they never crashed, stability was not an issue that seriously impacted our workflow or schedule. I have been quite impressed by what we were able to accomplish with them, with very little other infrastructure. The unique split chassis design makes room for a lot of internal storage, and they run reliably and quietly, even when chock full of powerful cards. I am looking forward to getting a couple more solid years of use out of them.
Mike McCarthy is an online editor and workflow consultant with 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been on the forefront of pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and now multi-screen and surround video experiences. If you want to see more specific technical details about these topics, check out techwithmikefirst.com.
Lenovo Workstations launched three new mobile workstations at Solidworks World 2017 — the LenovoThinkPad P51s and P51, as well as its VR-ready ThinkPad P71.
The ThinkPad P51s features a new chassis, Intel’s seventh-generation Core i7 processors and the latest Nvidia Quadro workstation graphics, as well as a 4K UHD IPS display with optional IR camera. With all its new features, the ThinkPad P51s still boasts a lightweight, Ultrabook build, shaving off over half a pound from the previous generation. In fact, the P51s is the lightest and thinnest mobile ThinkPad. It also offers Intel Thunderbolt 3 technology with a docking solution, providing users ultra-fast connectivity and the ability to move massive files quickly.
Also new are the ThinkPad P51 — including 4K IPS display with 100 percent color gamut and X-Rite Pantone color calibrator — and the VR-ready ThinkPad P71. These mobile workstations are MIL-SPEC tested and offer a dual-fan cooling system to allow users to push their system harder for use in the field. These two new offerings feature 2400MHz DDR4 memory, along with massive storage. The ThinkPad P71 handles up to four storage devices. These two workstations also feature the latest Intel Xeon processors for mobile workstations and are ISV.
Taking on VR
The VR-ready ThinkPad P71 (our main image) features Nvidia Pascal-based Quadro GPUs and comes equipped with full Oculus and HTC certifications, along with Nvidia’s VR-ready certification.
SuperSphere, a creative VR company is using the P71. “To create high-quality work on the go, our company requires Lenovo’s industry-leading mobile workstations that allow us to put the performance of a tower in our backpacks,” says SuperSphere partner/director Jason Diamond. “Our company’s focus on VR requires us to travel to a number of locations, and the ThinkPad P71 lets us achieve the same level of work on location as we can in the office, with the same functionality.”
The Lenovo P51s will be available in March, starting at $1,049, while the P51 and P71 will be available in April, starting at $1,399 and $1,849, respectively. .
What do you need to know about the latest pro laptop from Apple? Well, the MacBook Pro is fast and light; the new Touch Bar is handy and sharp but not fully realized; the updated keys on the keyboard are surprisingly great; and working with ProRes QuickTime files in resolutions higher than 1920×1080 inside of FCP X, or any NLE for that matter, is blazing fast.
When I was tasked with reviewing the new MacBook Pro, I came into it with an open mind. After all, I did read a few other reviews that weren’t exactly glowing, but I love speed and innovation among professional workstation computers, so I was eager to test it myself.
I am pretty open-minded when it comes to operating systems and hardware. I love Apple products and I love Windows-based PCs. I think both have their place in our industry, and to be quite honest it’s really a bonus for me that I don’t rely heavily on one OS or get too tricked by the Command Key vs. Windows/Alt Key.
Let’s start with the call I had with the Apple folks as they gave me the lowdown on the new MacBook Pro. The Apple reps were nice, energetic, knowledgeable and extremely helpful. While I love Apple products, including this laptop, it’s not the be-all-end-all.
The Touch Bar is nice, but not a revolution. It feels like the first step in an evolution, a version 1 of an innovation that I am excited to see more of in later iterations. When I talked with the Apple folks they briefed me on what Tim Cook showed off in the reveal: emoji buttons, wide gamut display, new speakers and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 connectivity.
They had an FCPX expert on the call, which was nice considering I planned on reviewing the MacBook Pro with a focus on the use of nonlinear editing apps, such as Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer and Blackmagic’s Resolve. Don’t get me wrong, FCPX is growing on me — it’s snappy jumping around the timeline with ProRes 5K footage; assigning roles are something I wish every other app would pick up on; and the timeline is more of a breeze to use with the latest update.
The other side to this is that in my 13 years of working in television post I have never worked on a show that primarily used FCP or FCPX to edit or finish on. This doesn’t mean I don’t like the NLE, it simply means I haven’t relied on it in a professional working environment. Like I said, I really like the road it’s heading down, and if they work their way into mainstream broadcast or streaming platforms a little more I am sure I will see it more frequently.
Furthermore, with the ever-growing reduction in reliance on groups of editors and finishing artists apps like FCPX are poised to shine with their innovation. After all that blabbering, in this review I will touch on FCPX, but I really wanted to see how the MacBook Pro performed with the pro NLEs I encounter the most.
Let’s jump into the specs. I was sent a top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, which costs $3,499 if configured online. It comes with a quad/-core Intel Core i7 2.9GHz (up to 3.8 GHz using Turbo Boost) processor, 16GB of 2133MHz memory, 1TB PCI-e SSD hard drive and Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB of memory. It’s loaded. I think the only thing that can actually be upgraded beyond this configuration would be to include a 2TB hard drive, which would add another $800 to the price tag.
Physically, the MacBook Pro is awesome — very sturdy, very thin and very light. It feels great when holding it and carrying it around. Apple even sent along a Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 adapter, which costs an extra $29 and a USB-C to Lightning Cable that costs an extra $29.
So yes, it feels great. Apple has made a great new MacBook Pro. Is it worth upgrading if you have a new-ish MacBook Pro at home already? Probably not, unless the Touch Bar really gets you going. The speed is not too far off from the previous version. However, if you have a lot of Thunderbolt 3/USB-C-connected peripherals, or plan on moving to them, then it is a good upgrade.
I ran some processor/graphics card intensive tests while I had the new MacBook Pro and came to the conclusion that FCPX is not that much faster than Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2017 when working with non-ProRes-based media. Yes, FCPX tears through ProRes QuickTimes if you already have your media in that format. What about if you shoot on a camera like the Red and don’t want to transcode to a more edit-friendly codec? Well, that is another story. To test out my NLEs, I grabbed a sample Red 6K 6144×3160 23.98fps clip from the Red sample footage page, strung out a 10-minute-long sequence in all the NLEs and exported both a color-graded version and a non-color-graded version as ProRes HQ QuickTimes files matching the source file’s specs.
In order to work with Red media in some of the NLEs, you must download a few patches: for FCPX you must install the Red Apple workflow installer and for Media Composer you must install the Red AMA plug-in. Premiere doesn’t need anything extra.
Test 1: Red 6K 6144×3160 23.98fps R3D — 10-minute sequence (no color grade or FX) exported as ProRes HQ matching the source file’s specs. Premiere > Media Encoder = 1 hour, 55 minutes. FCPX = 1 hour, 57 minutes. Media Composer = two hours, 42 minutes (Good news, Media Composer’s interface and fonts display correctly on the new display).
You’ll notice that Resolve is missing from this list and that is because I installed Resolve 12.5.4 Studio but then realized my USB dongle won’t fit into the USB-C port — and I am not buying an adapter for a laptop I do not get to keep. So, unfortunately, I didn’t test a true 6K ProRes HQ export from Resolve but in the last test you will see some Resolve results.
Overall, there was not much difference in speeds. In fact, I felt that Premiere Pro CC 2017 played the Red file a little smoother and at a higher frames-per-second count. FCPX struggled a little. Granted a 6K Red file is one of the harder files for a CPU to process with no debayer settings enabled, but Apple touts this as a MacPro semi-replacement for the time being and I am holding them to their word.
Test 2: Red 6K 6144×3160 23.98fps R3D — 10-minute color-graded sequence exported as ProRes HQ matching the source files specs. Premiere > Media Encoder = one hour, 55 minutes. FCPX = one hour, 58 minutes. Media Composer = two hours, 34 minutes.
It’s important to note that the GPU definitely helped out in both Adobe Premiere and FCPX. Little to no extra time was added on the ProRes HQ export. I was really excited to see this as sometimes without a good GPU — resizing, GPU-accelerated effects like color correction and other effects will slow your system to a snail’s pace if it doesn’t fully crash. Media Composer surprisingly speed up its export when I added the color grade as a new color layer in the timeline. By adding the color correction layer to another layer Avid might have forced the Radeon to kick in and help push the file out. Not really sure what that is about to be honest.
Test 3: Red 6K 6144×3160 23.98fps R3D — 10-minute color-graded sequence resized to 1920×1080 on export as ProRes HQ. Premiere > Media Encoder = one hour, 16 minutes. FCPX = one hour, 14 minutes. Media Composer = one hour, 48 minutes. Resolve = one hour, 16 minutes
So after these tests, it seems that exporting and transcoding are all about the same. It doesn’t really come as too big of a surprise that all the NLEs, except for Media Composer, processed the Red file in the same amount of time. Regardless of the NLE, you would need to knock the debayering down to a half or more to start playing these clips at realtime in a timeline. If you have the time to transcode to ProRes you will get much better playback and rendering speed results. Obviously, transcoding all of your files to a codec, like ProRes or Avid DNX, takes way more time up front but could be worth it if you crunched for time on the back end.
In addition to Red 6K files, I also tested ProRes HQ 4K files inside of Premiere and FCPX, and both played them extremely smoothly without hiccups, which is pretty amazing. Just a few years ago I was having trouble playing down 10:1 compressed files in Media Composer and now I can playback superb-quality 4K files without a problem, a tremendous tip of the hat to technology and, specifically, Apple for putting so much power in a thin and light package.
While I was in the mood to test speeds, I hooked up a Thunderbolt 2 SSD RAID (OWC Thunderbay 4 mini) configured in RAID-0 to see what kind of read/write bandwidth I would get running through the Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter. I used both AJA System Test as well as the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. The AJA test reported a write speed of 929MB/sec. and read speed of 1120MB/sec. The Blackmagic test reported a write speed of 683.1MB/sec. and 704.7MB/sec. from different tests and a read speed of 1023.3MB/sec. I set the test file for both at 4GB. These speeds are faster than what I have previously found when testing this same Thunderbolt 2 SSD RAID on other systems.
For comparison, the AJA test reported a write speed of 1921MB/sec. and read speed of 2134MB/sec. when running on the system drive. The Blackmagic test doesn’t allow for testing on the system drive.
What Else You Need to Know
So what about the other upgrades and improvements? When exporting these R3D files I noticed the fan kicked on when resizing or adding color grading to the files. Seems like the GPU kicked on and heated up which is to be expected. The fan is not the loudest, but it is noticeable.
The battery life on the new MacBook Pro is great when just playing music, surfing the web or writing product reviews. I found that the battery lasted about two days without having to plug in the power adapter. However, when exporting QuickTimes from either Premiere or FCPX the battery life dropped — a lot. I was getting a battery life of one hour and six minutes, which is not good when your export will take two hours. Obviously, you need to plug in when doing heavy work; you don’t really have an option.
This leads me to the new USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports — and, yes, you still have a headphone jack (thank goodness they didn’t talk with the iPhone developers). First off, I thought the MagSafe power adapter should have won a Nobel Peace Prize. I love it. It must be responsible for saving millions of dollars in equipment when people trip over a power cord — gracefully disconnecting without breaking or pulling your laptop off the table. However, I am disappointed Apple didn’t create a new type of MagSafe cable with the USB-C port. I will miss it a lot. The good news is you can now plug in your power adapter to either side of the MacBook Pro.
Adapters and dongles will have to be purchased if you pick up a new MacBook Pro. Each time I used an external peripheral or memory card like an SD card, Tangent Ripple Color Correction panel or external hard drive, I was disappointed that I couldn’t plug them in. Nonetheless, a good Thunderbolt 3 dock is a necessity in my opinion. You could survive with dongles but my OCD starts flaring up when I have to dig around my backpack for adapters. I’m just not a fan. I love how Apple dedicated themselves to a fast I/O like USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, but I really wish they gave it another year. Just one old-school USB port would have been nice. I might have even gotten over no SD card reader.
The Touch Bar
I like it. I would even say that I love it — in the apps that are compatible. Right now there aren’t many. Adobe released an update to Adobe Photoshop that added compatibility with the Touch Bar, and it is really handy especially when you don’t have your Wacom tablet available (or a USB dongle to attach it). I love how it gives access to so many levels of functionality to your tools within your immediate reach.
It has super-fast feedback. When I adjusted the contrast on the Touch Bar I found that the MacBook Pro was responding immediately. This becomes even more evident in FCPX and the latest Resolve 12.5.4 update. It’s clear Apple did their homework and made their apps like Mail and Messages work with the Touch Bar (hence emojis on the Touch Bar). FCPX has a sweet ability to scrub the timeline, zoom in to the timeline, adjust text and more from just the Touch Bar — it’s very handy, and after a while I began missing it when using other computers.
In Blackmagic’s latest DaVinci Resolve release, 12.5.4, they have added Touch Bar compatibility. If you can’t plug in your color correction panels, the Touch Bar does a nice job of easing the pain. You can do anything from contrast work to saturation, even adjust the midtones and printer lights, all from the Touch Bar. If you use external input devices a lot, like Wacom tablets or color correction panels, the Touch Bar will be right up your alley.
One thing I found missing was a simple application launcher on the Touch Bar. If you do pick up the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, you might want to download Touch Switcher, a free app I found via 9to5mac.com that allows you to have an app launcher on your Touch Bar. You can hide the dock, allowing you more screen real estate and the efficient use of the Touch Bar to launch apps. I am kind of surprised Apple didn’t make something like this standard.
From a purely superficial and non-scientific point of view, the newly updated P3-compatible wide-gamut display looks great… really great, actually. The colors are rich and vibrant. I did a little digging under the hood and noticed that it is an 8-bit display (data that you can find by locating the pixel depth in the System Information > Graphics/Display), which might limit the color gradations when working in a color space like P3 as opposed to a 10-bit display displaying in a P3 color space. Simply, you have a wider array of colors in P3 but a small amount of color shades to fill it up.
The MacBook Pro display is labeled as 32-bit color meaning the RGB and Alpha channels each have 8 bits, giving a total of 32 bits. Eight-bit color gives 256 shades per color channel while 10-bit gives 1,024 shades per channel, allowing for much smoother transitions between colors and luminance values (imagine a sky at dusk going smoothly from an orange to light blue to dark blue — the more colors per channel allows for a smoother gradient between lights and darks). A 10-bit display would have 30-bit color with each channel having 10 bits.
I tried to hook up a 10-bit display, but the supplied Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 dongle Apple sent me did not work with the mini display port. I did a little digging and it seems people are generally not happy that Apple doesn’t allow this to work, especially since Thunderbolt 2 and mini DisplayPort are the same connection. Some people have been able to get around this by hooking up their display through daisy chaining something like a Thunderbolt 2 RAID.
While I couldn’t directly test an external display when I had the MacBook Pro, I’ve read that people have been able to push 10-bit color out of the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports to an external monitor. So as long as you are at a desk with a monitor you can most likely have 10-bit color output from this system.
I reached out to Apple on the types of adapters they recommend for an external display and they suggest a USB-C to DisplayPort adapter made by Aukey. It retails for $9.99. They also recommend the USB-C to DisplayPort cable from StarTech, which retails for $39.99. Make sure you read the reviews on Amazon because the experience people have with this varies wildly. I was not able to test either of these so I cannot give my personal opinion.
In the end, the new MacBook Pro is awesome. If you own a recent release of the MacBook Pro and don’t have $3,500 to spare, I don’t know if this is the update you will be looking for. If you are trying to find your way around going to a Windows-based PC because of the lack of Mac Pro updates, this may ease the pain slightly. Without more than 16GB of memory and an Intel Xeon or two, however, it might actually slow you down.
The battery life is great when doing light work, one of the longest batteries I’ve used on a laptop. But when doing the heavy work, you need to be near an outlet. When plugged into that outlet be careful no one yanks out your USB-C power adapter as it might throw your MacBook Pro to the ground or break off inside.
I really do love Apple products. They typically just work. I didn’t even touch on the new Touch ID Sensor that can immediately switch you to a different profile or log you in after waking up the MacBook Pro from sleep. I love that you can turn the new MacBook Pro on and it simply works, and works fast.
The latest iteration of FCPX is awesome as well, and just because I don’t see it being used a lot professionally doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. It’s a well-built NLE that should be given a fairer shake than it has been given. If you are itching for an update to an old MacBook Pro, don’t mind having a dock or carrying around a bunch of dongles, then the 2016 MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar is for you.
The new MacBook Pro chews through ProRes-based media from 1920×1080 to 4K, 6K and higher will play but might slow down. If you are a Red footage user this new MacBook Pro works great, but you still might have to knock the debayering down a couple notches.
Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.