Tag Archives: workstation

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.

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 or four 1080 Ti’s as opposed to only two — apps like After Effects would only take advantage of 1 GPU where typically Premiere can harness the power of 2 GPUs and Resolve can handle 10 or more but for my case I wouldn’t see an exponential increase in power if I went above 3 or 4. 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.

Review: HP’s ZBook Studio G4 mobile workstation

By Brady Betzel

It seems like each year around this time, I offer my thoughts on an HP mobile workstation and how it serves multimedia professionals. This time I am putting the HP ZBook Studio G4 through its paces. The ZBook Studio line of HP’s mobile workstations seems to fit right in the middle between ease of mobility, durability and power. The ZBook 14u and 15u are the budget series mobile workstations that run Intel i5/i7 processors with AMD FirePro graphics and top out at around $1,600. The ZBook 15 and 17 are the more powerful mobile workstations in the line with the added ability to include Intel Xeon processors, ECC memory, higher-end Nvidia Quadro graphics cards and more. But in the this review we will take the best of all models and jam them into the light and polished ZBook Studio G4.

The HP ZBook Studio G4 I was sent to test out had the following components:
– Windows 10 64 bit
– Intel Xeon 1535M (7th gen) quad-core processor – 3.10GHz with 4.2 Turbo Boost
– 4K UHD DreamColor/15.6-inch IPS screen
– 32GB ECC (2x16GB)
– Nvidia Quadro M1200 (4GB)
– 512GB HP Z Turbo Drive PCIe (MLC)
– 92Whr fast charging battery
– Intel vPro WLAN
– Backlit keyboard
– Fingerprint reader

According to the info I was sent directly from HP, the retail price is $3,510 on hp.com (US webstore). I built a very similar workstation on http://store.hp.com and was able to get the price at $3,301.65 before shipping and taxes, and $3,541.02 with taxes and free shipping. So actually pretty close.

So, besides the natural processor, memory and hard drive upgrades from previous generations, the ZBook Studio G4 has a few interesting updates, including the higher-wattage batteries with fast charge and the HP Sure Start Gen3 technology. The new fast charge is similar to the feature that some products like the GoPro Hero 5/6 cameras and Samsung Galaxy phones have, where they charge quicker than “normal.” The ZBook Studio, as well as the rest of the ZBook line, will charge 50% of your battery in around 30 minutes when in standby mode. Even when using the computer, I was able to charge the first 50% in around 30 minutes, a feature I love. After the initial 50% charge is complete, the charging will be at a normal rate, which wasn’t half bad and only took a few hours to get it to about 100%.

The battery I was sent was the larger of the two options and provided me with an eight-hour day with decent usage. When pushed using an app like Resolve I would say it lasted more like four hours. Nonetheless it lasted a while and I was happy with the result. Keep in mind the batteries are not removable, but they do have a three-year warranty, just like the rest of the mobile workstation.

When HP first told me about its Sure Start Gen 3, I thought maybe it was just a marketing gimmick, but then I experienced its power — and it’s amazing. Essentially, it is a hardware function available on only 7th generation Intel processors that allows the BIOS to repair itself upon identification of malware or corruption. While using the ZBook Studio G4, I was installing some software and had a hard crash (blue screen). I noticed when it restarted the BIOS was running through the Sure Start protocol, and within minutes I was back up and running. It was reassuring and would really set my mind at ease if deciding between a workstation-level solution or retail store computing solution.

You might be asking yourself why you should buy an enterprise-level mobile workstation when you could go buy a laptop for cheaper and almost as powerful at Best Buy or on Amazon? Technically, what really sets apart workstation components is their ability to run 24/7 and 365 days a year without downtime. This is helped by Intel Xeon processors that allow for ECC (Error Correcting Code memory), essentially bits don’t get flipped as they can with non-ECC memory. Or for laymen, like me, ECC memory prevents crashing by fixing errors itself before we see any repercussions.

Another workstation-level benefit is the environmental testing that HP runs the ZBooks through to certify their equipment as military grade, also known as MIL-810G testing. Essentially, they run multiple extreme condition tests such as high and low temperatures, salt, fog and even high-vibration testing like gunfire. Check out a more in-depth description on Wikipedia. Finally, HP prides itself on its ISV (Independent Software Vendors) verification. ISV certification means that HP spends a lot of time working with software vendors like Adobe, Avid, Autodesk and others to ensure compatibility with their products and HP’s hardware so you don’t have to. They even release certified drivers that help to ensure compatibility regularly.

In terms of warranty, HP gives you a three-year limited warranty. This includes on-site service within the Americas, and as mentioned earlier it covers the battery, which is a nice bonus. Much like other warranties it covers problems arising from faulty manufacturing, but not intentional or accidental damage. Luckily for anyone who purchases a Zbook, these systems can take a beating. Physically, the computer weighs in around 4.6lbs and is 18mm thin. It is machined aluminum that isn’t sharp, but it can start to dig into your wrists when typing for long periods. Around the exterior you get two Thunderbolt 3 ports, an HDMI port, three USB 3.1 ports (one on left and two on the right), an Ethernet port and Kensington Lock port. On the right side, you also get a power port — I would love for HP to design some sort of break-away cable like the old Magsafe cables on the MacBook Pros — and there is also a headphone/mic input.

DreamColor Display
Alright, so now I’ll go through some of the post-nerd specs that you might be looking for. Up first is the HP DreamColor display, which is a color-critical viewing solution. With a couple clicks in the Windows toolbar on the lower right you will find a colored flower — click on that and you can immediately adjust the color space you want to view your work in: AdobeRGB, sRGB, BT.709, DCI-P3 or Native. You can even calibrate or backup your own calibration for later use. While most colorists or editors use an external calibrated monitoring solution and don’t strictly rely on your viewing monitor as the color-critical source, using the DreamColor display will get you close to a color critical display without purchasing additional hardware.

In addition, DreamColor displays can play back true 24fps without frame rate conversion. One of my favorite parts of DreamColor is that if you use an external DreamColor monitor through Thunderbolt 3 (not using an SDI card), you can load your color profile onto the second or third monitor and in theory they should match. The ZBook Studio G4 seems to have been built as a perfect DIT (digital imaging technician) solution for color critical work in any weather-challenged or demanding environment without you having to worry about failure.

Speed & Testing
Now let’s talk about speed and how the system did with speed tests. When running a 24TB (6TB-4TB drives) G-Speed ShuttleXL with Thunderbolt 3 from G-Technology, I was able to get write speeds of around 1450MB/s and read speeds of 960MB/s when running the AJA System Test using a 4GB test file running RAID-0. For comparison, I ran the same test on the internal 512GB HP Z Turbo Drive, which had a write speed of 1310MB/s and read speed 1524MB/s. Of course, you need to keep in mind that the internal drive is a PCIe SSD whereas the RAID is 7200RPM drives. Finally, I ran the standard benchmarking app Cinebench R15 that comes from the makers of Maxon Cinema 4D, a 3D modeling app. For those interested, the OpenGL test ran at 138.85fps with a Ref. Match of 99.6%, CPU 470cb and CPU (Single Core) 177cb with an MP Ratio of 2.65x.

I also wanted to run the ZBook through some practical and real-world tests, and I wanted to test the rendering and exporting speeds. I chose to use Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 14.2 software because it is widely used and an easily accessible app for many of today’s multimedia pros. For a non-scientific yet important benchmark, I needed to see how well the ZBook G4 played back R3D files (Red camera files), as well as QuickTimes with typical codecs you would find in a professional environment, such as ProRes and DNxHD. You can find a bunch of great sample R3D files on Red’s website. The R3D I chose was 16 seconds in length, shot on a Red Epic Dragon at 120fps and UHD resolution (3840×2160). To make sure I didn’t have anything skewing the results, I decided to clear all optimized media, if there was any, delete any render cache, uncheck “Use Optimized Media If Available” and uncheck “Performance Mode” just in case that did any voodoo I wasn’t aware of.

First was a playback test where I wanted to see at what decode quality I could playback in at realtime without dropping frames when I performed a slight color correction and added a power window. For this clip, I was able to get it to playback in a 23.98/1080p timeline in realtime when it was set to Half Resolution Good. At Half Resolution Premium I was dropping one or two frames. While playing back and at Full Resolution Premium, I was dropping five or six frames —playing back at around 17 or 18fps. Playing back at Half Resolution Good is actually great playback quality for such a high-quality R3D with all the head room you get when coloring a raw camera file and not a transcode. This is also when the fans inside the ZBook really kicked in. I then exported a ProRes4444 version of the same R3D clip from RedCine-X Pro with the LUT info from the camera baked in. I played the clip back in Resolve with a light color treatment and one power window with no frames dropped. When playing back the ProRes4444 file the fans stayed at a low pitch.

The second test was a simple DNxHD 10-bit export from the raw R3D. I used the DNxHD 175x codec — it took about 29 seconds, which was a little less than double realtime. I then added spatial noise reduction on my first node using the following settings: Mode: Better, Radius: Medium, Spatial Threshold (luma/chroma locked): 25. I was able to playback the timeline at around 5fps and exported the same DNxHD 175x file, but it took about 1 minute 27 seconds, about six times realtime. Doing the same DNxHD 175x export test with the ProRes4444 file, it took about 12 seconds without noise reduction and with the noise reduction about 1 minute and 16 seconds — about 4.5 times realtime. In both cases when using Noise Reduction, the fans kicked on.

Lastly, I wanted to see how Resolve would handle a simple one minute, 1080p, ProRes QuickTime in various tests. I don’t think it’s a big surprise but it played back without dropping any frames with one node of color correction, one power window and as a parallel node with a qualifier. When adding spatial noise reduction I started to get bogged down to about 6fps. The same DNxHD 175x export took about 27 seconds or a little less than half realtime. With the same spatial noise reduction as above it took about 4 minutes and 21 seconds, about 4.3 times realtime.

Summing Up
The HP ZBook Studio G4 is a lightweight and durable enterprise-level mobile workstation that packs the punch of a color-critical 4K (UHD — 3840×2160) DreamColor display, powered by an Nvidia Quadro M1200, and brought together by an Intel Xeon processor that will easily power many color, editing or other multimedia jobs. With HP’s MIL-810G certification, you have peace of mind that even with some bumps, bruises and extreme weather your workstation will work. At under 5lbs and 18mm thin with a battery that will charge 50% in 30 minutes, you can bring your professional apps like DaVinci Resolve, Adobe Premiere and Avid Media Composer anywhere and be working.

I was able to use the ZBook along with some of my Tangent Element color correction panels in a backpack and have an instant color critical DIT solution without the need for a huge cart — all capable of color correction and transcoding. The structural design of the ZBook is an incredibly sturdy, machined aluminum chassis that is lightweight enough to easily go anywhere quickly. The only criticisms are I would often miss the left click of the trackpad leaving me in a right-click scenario, the Bang & Olufsen speakers sound a little tin-like to me and, finally, it doesn’t have a touch bar… just kidding.

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 bradybetzel@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.

Appex 1

Boxx offers two new workstations with Kaby Lake Intel processors

Boxx Technologies has introduced Apexx workstations featuring the new seventh-generation Kaby Lake Intel Core i7 processors. The integration of these processors provides the Apexx 1 1202 a base clock speed of 4.2GHz with a turbo boost of 4.5GHz. The ultra-compact Apexx 1 also features advanced liquid cooling and professional graphics. Apexx 1 (pictured in our main image) is designed for users working in visualization, 3D animation, modeling and motion media.

Apexx 2

The latest Intel Core i7 processor is also included in the new, compact, liquid-cooled Apexx 2 2203 workstation. Featuring the same base clock speed of 4.2GHz (and 4.5GHz turbo boost), Apexx 2 2203 is configurable with up to two full-size, pro GPUs and is optimized for software such as Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya and Maxon’s Cinema 4D, as well as other CAD and 3D design applications.

“Because Boxx specializes in high-performance workstations, we know that for greater efficiency and productivity, organizations require the latest technology and innovation,” says VP of marketing and business development Shoaib Mohammad. “The integration of new Intel Kaby Lake processors coupled with our space-saving chassis, liquid cooling, professional GPUs and other features, provides architects, engineers and motion media pros with maximum performance.”

Pricing for these new models is not yet available. The company says both these units have non-overclocked processors and would typically be priced lower than models with overclocked processors.