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Review: Custom-built workstations from Mediaworkstations.net

By Brady Betzel

While workstations that optimize the tools you use in the media and entertainment industry are easily accessible, what if you wanted to drill down even deeper?

What if you wanted a workstation built specifically for Adobe Premiere Pro editing of 4K RAW Red R3D files? Or if you are working in Blackmagic’s Resolve, and want playback of 4K RAW Red R3D files? What if you also wanted to dabble in Adobe After Effects?

While the big workstation manufacturers allow customization, that can only go so far online. If you want more personal support and micro-customizations, you will need to find a smaller company that builds very niche computer systems. Mediaworkstations.net is one of those companies.

MediaWorkstations.net’s offerings are custom built computers focused on the media and entertainment professional working in high-end applications like Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe After Effects, Maxon Cinema 4D, Foundry Nuke and many more including realtime renderers like Octane. When you call MediaWorkstations.net you will talk to a real person, like founder Christopher Johnson, who has extensive knowledge about the media and entertainment industry as it relates to hardware configurations.

Customization
To get started, I had a phone call with Christopher to go over my needs in a system, how much of a budget I had to work with and what I thought I would want to be doing in the future. We talked about how I am currently an online editor who does some color correction and grading. For editing, I primarily use Avid Media Composer but I am using Adobe Premiere and Blackmagic’s Resolve more often these days. I also like to jump into After Effects and Cinema 4D to do some basic stuff but without a slowdown. And, finally, I wanted to stay under $10,000 in price.

Following along on the website, Christopher directed me to the i-X series workstation they configure. He ran through some of my CPU options and explained why I would need one processor versus another processor. He suggested putting 128GB of DDR4 2800 SDRAM, which I went with but I considered changing that to 64GB — I would save a little less than $1,000, and it’s something I could always install more down the road.

Christopher had me throw in a 512GB Samsung 960 Pro SSD for the OS drive, a RAID-0 asset drive and the cherry on top was the 800GB Kingston DCP1000 PCIe for another asset drive. The Kingston DCP 1000 is a beast of a drive that I was super excited to test. You can check the specs out here, but essentially Kingston says it can read up to 6,800MB/s and write up to 6,000MB/s (that is megabytes not bits!). Without giving away too much, this drive is the fastest drive I have ever tested. Unfortunately, at the moment you can’t include it in the online configuration to get a price, but it seems like it retails for anywhere from $1,100 to $1,900.

For GPU power Christopher suggested three Nvidia GeForce 1080 Ti 11GB cards, which seem to retail for $979.99 each, according to Amazon and NewEgg. On MediaWorkstations.net that upgrade will run you an extra $4,149 over the standard Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB. Quite the difference in price, but you are paying for full configuration and support.

Beyond the configuration, Christopher took time to explain why I could benefit from three 1080 Ti’s as opposed to only two — apps like After Effects would take more advantage of three or more GPUs where typically Premiere and Resolve don’t see an exponential increase in power. In the end, the configured system totalled $12,095, which is a full 20% higher than the $10,000 budget I had mentioned. To knock that down I would probably cut the memory from 128GB to 64GB, get rid of a GTX 1080 Ti and bump up the CPU to the Intel i9 7920X, which adds a few cores and cache. This gets me to a total of about $8,828 before adding the cost of the Kingston DCP1000, which I assume would get me around $10,000. However, for this review I was sent the original configuration.

After talking with Christopher for over 30 minutes, I got the feeling that he knew what each part of a computer does and how I could use each component to its full potential. We focused on trying to build as much of a future-proof system as we could for around $10,000. Christopher mentioned that these systems will play RAW 4K Red R3D files no problem, and possibly 6K and 8K. That immediately caught my attention, especially when conforming and coloring the R3D files with all of their added benefits.

You should try to build a system for yourself on the Mediaworkstations.net and check out their other offerings like their Enterprise offering called the i-XL which allows for components like dual Xeons or increased memory like 1TB of ECC RAM. They also offer an i-X2 model, which is more like the i-X but with added Xeon processors as well as the a-X which offers AMD Threadripper processors. You can even call them and dial in exactly what components you will need for your specific needs.

Testing the System
So the i-X from MediaWorkstations.net arrived and boy is it loaded with high-end components. Right off the bat, I opened the side panel and started fiddling with the internal components. One of the more impressive parts of the build is the Fractal Design Define XL R2 case. It is easy to open and even has a layer of dense audio dampening material on the inside, which seemed to significantly reduce noise on the outside. You can check out specs on the case at their website.

Also, the power supply is a beast — I immediately noticed the power cable supplied with the system. The power cable is so thick I thought they sent me the wrong one. It definitely makes you feel like you are plugging in a high-end system. You can check out the EVGA SuperNova 1600 T2 power supply here.

Here is a list of the rest of the components that make up the MediaWorkstation.net’s i-X system:

1. Fractal Design’s Define XL R2 Black Silent EATX Full Tower
2. Intel Core i9-7900X Skylake X 13.75M Cache 10-Core CPU
3. Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo CPU Cooler
4. MSI X299 XPower Gaming
5. Corsair Dominator Platinum 128GB (8x16GB) DDR4 2800
6. 512GB Samsung 960 Pro Internal SSD (OS drive)
7. Two 512GB Samsung 960 Pro Internal SSD (Asset drives – RAID 0)
8. 800GB Kingston DCP1000 PCIe asset drive
9. 3 – ASUS GeForce GTX 1080 ti 11GB Turbo Edition GPU
10. EVGA SuperNova 1600 T2, 80+ titanium 1600W power supply
11. Windows 10 Professional, 64-bit
12. Fractal Design FD-FAN-SSR2-140 2nd front internal fan
13. Two Prolimatech 140mm slim fans

That is a hefty build for any system.

MediaWorkstations.net sells this build at a retail price of $12,095. Besides opening the case right away and messing around with the internal components, I also needed to find out what the premium MediaWorkstations.net is charging on their systems.

I consider myself a pretty advanced user and can build my own computer systems, so what if I wanted to build this myself? Would it be worth it or should I just pay someone else to do it? A great place to build a custom PC from various websites and to find out the cheapest prices is www.pcpartpicker.com. If you want to follow along at home you can find the build I created with some prices here.

There are some caveats when using PC Part Picker: The prices can change, so it may not be 100% accurate, although it is typically pretty close and includes rebates. Also, you must add shipping and tax yourself. And, finally, I had to manually add some parts that I couldn’t find through PCPartPicker. I got my build to $9,387.68 without tax or shipping, this also included $60 in rebates. I would say that we could safely add about $250 in taxes and shipping.

So, if I assume the cost to be about $9,600 MediaWorkstations.net is adding about $2,500. In my opinion that isn’t a bad markup considering someone else is putting in the hours to build and test the system with the applications you use like Resolve, Premiere, Media Composer and many others. In addition to the standard one-, two- or three-year warranties, they offer a 24/7/365, as well next business day warranties available. You may have to add another $500 to $600 for a 24-hour-a-day-warranty, but it’s worth it.

Alright enough tech specs and pricing nerdiness and on to the testing. To be clear, I had a short amount of time to test the performance of the i-X, so I only dove into the basics. This system is very fast. However, I wasn’t able to playback Red RAW R3D files higher than 4K in realtime at full debayer quality in either Premiere or Resolve 14.3.

When I was first asked to review the i-X, I was told it should be able to playback Red RAW R3D files up to 8K in part because of the new Kingston DCP1000 SSD. While this drive was extremely fast, I wasn’t able to playback anything in realtime above 4K resolution. There are a few factors in this that could affect performance, such as whether they were 9:1 or 1:1, but I was told it would work and it didn’t.

On the bright side I was able to color and playback RAW Red R3D files in true 4K resolution. It was pretty amazing that I could add a few nodes and do live grading on 4K resolution Red R3D files without a dropped frame. I also tried exporting the same 18-second 4K Red R3D file in a few different scenarios.

In the first scenario I placed the RAW R3D file on the blazingly fast Kingston SSD and exported it back to itself. Initially, I exported the file with no effects on it other than a simple one-node color correction. I exported it as a 4K DPX sequence, and it took 30 seconds. When I added Temporal Noise Reduction it took 39 seconds. On top of that I then added a serial node with Gaussian Blur that took 40 seconds to export.

I quickly thought that these speeds were a little slow considering the power I had under the hood of this beast. I then exported the same file to the RAID-0 made up of the two Samsung 960 Pro 512GB SSDs, which confirmed my suspicion. With just a simple color correction, the 18-second  Red RAW R3D file took just 10.5 seconds, around 45-48fps to export. With Temporal Noise Reduction it took 38.5 seconds, but with Temporal Noise Reduction and a Gaussian Blur it took 39 seconds. In my testing, I turned off all caching and performance mode improvements.

While I didn’t have the system long enough to test as I would have liked, I was able to get a good taste at how fast the new Intel i9 processors run and how multiple 1080 ti GPUs can help with rendering resizes, noise reduction effects, or even blurring. In the first part of my review, I mentioned that I would likely have swapped out half the RAM and one of the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti’s for a higher-end processor, which would have kept the price down. I didn’t see any improvement in performance because of the the third GPU, but I also didn’t do any testing in After Effects or Cinema 4D, which may have harnessed that extra GPU energy.

Summing Up
Check out the Mediaworkstation site for yourself and maybe even compare those prices with a duplicate build on PCPartsPicker. If you are within a $1,000 or so, then going through MediaWorkstations.net is a great deal. If nothing else, having one single warranty through one company is worth hundreds of dollars in time, money and shipping costs instead of having to manage multiple warranties from dozens of companies.

For peace of mind, I would heavily consider the next–business-day or 24/7/365 warranty instead of the standard one-day warranty simply because waiting for your system to be fixed could leave you without a machine for days or even weeks.