Arraiy 4.11.19

Category Archives: Workstations

Review: CyberPower PC workstation with AMD Ryzen

By Brady Betzel

With the influx of end users searching for alternatives to Mac Pros, as well as new ways to purchase workstation-level computing solutions, there is no shortage of opinions on what brands to buy and who might build it. Everyone has a cousin or neighbor that builds systems, right?

I’ve often heard people say, “I’ve never built a system or used (insert brand name here), but I know they aren’t good.” We’ve all run into people who are dubious by nature. I’m not so cynical, and when it comes to operating and computer systems, I consider myself Switzerland.

When looking for the right computer system, the main question you should ask is, “What do you need to accomplish?” Followed by, “What might you want to accomplish in the future?” I’m a video editor and colorist, so I need the system I build to work fluidly with Avid Media Composer, Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve and Adobe’s Premiere and After Effects. I also want my system to work with Maxon Cinema 4D in case I want to go a little further than Video Copilot’s Element 3D and start modeling in Cinema 4D. My main focus is video editing and color correction but I also need flexibility for other tools.

Lately, I’ve been reaching out to companies in the hopes of testing as many custom-built Windows -based PCs as possible. There have been many Mac OS-to-Windows transplants over the past few years, so I know pros are eager for options. One of the latest seismic shifts have come from the guys over at Greyscalegorilla moving away from Mac to PCs. In particular, I saw that one of the main head honchos over there, Nick Campbell (@nickvegas), went for a build complete with the Ryzen Threadripper 32-core workhorse. You can see the lineup of systems here. This really made me reassess my thoughts on AMD being a workstation-level processor, and while not everyone can afford the latest Intel i9 or AMD Threadripper processors, there are lower-end processors that will do most people just fine. This is where the custom-built PC makers like CyberPower PC, who equip machines with AMD processors, come into play.

So why go with a company like CyberPowerPC? The prices for parts are usually competitive, and the entire build isn’t much more than if you purchased the parts by themselves. Also, you deal with CyberPower PC for Warranty issues and not individual companies for different parts.

My CustomBuild
In my testing of an AMD Ryzen 7 1700x-based system with a Samsung NVMe hard drive and 16GB of RAM, I was able to run all of the software I mentioned before. The best part was the price; the total was around, $1,000! Not bad for someone editing and color correcting. Typically those machines can run anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000. Although the parts in those more expensive systems are more complex and have double to triple the amount of cores, some of that is wasted. And when on a budget you will be hard-pressed to find a better deal than CyberPower PC. If you build a system yourself, you might get close but not far off.

While this particular build isn’t going to beat out the AMD Threadripper’s or Intel i9-based systems, the AMD Ryzen-based systems offer a decent bang for the buck. As I mentioned, I focus on video editing and color correcting so I tested a simple one-minute UHD (3840×2160) 23.98 H.264 export. Using Premiere along with Adobe’s Media Encoder, I used about :30 seconds of Red UHD footage as well as some UHD S-log3/s-gamut3 footage I shot on the Sony a7 III creating a one-minute long sequence.

I then exported it as an H.264 at a bitrate around 10Mb/s. With only a 1D LUT on the Sony a7iii footage, the one-minute sequence took one minute 13 seconds. With added 10% resizes and a “simple” Gaussian blur over all the clips, the sequence exported in one minute and four seconds. This is proof that the AMD GPU is working inside of Premiere and Media Encoder. Inside Premiere, I was able to playback the full-quality sequence on a second monitor without any discernible frames dropping.

So when people tell you AMD isn’t Intel, technically they are right, but overall the AMD systems are performing at a high enough level that for the money you are saving, it might be worth it. In the end, with the right expectations and dollars, an AMD-based system like this one is amazing.

Whether you like to build your own computer or just don’t want to buy a big-brand system, custom-built PCs are a definite way to go. I might be a little partial since I am comfortable opening up my system and changing parts around, but the newer cases allow for pretty easy adjustments. For instance, I installed a Blackmagic DeckLink and four SSD drives for a RAID-0 setup inside the box. Besides wishing for some more internal drive cages, I felt it was easy to find the cables and get into the wiring that CyberPowerPC had put together. And because CyberPowerPC is more in the market for gaming, there are plenty of RGB light options, including the memory!

I was kind of against the lighting since any color casts could throw off color correction, but it was actually kind of cool and made my setup look a little more modern. It actually kind of got my creativity going.

Check out the latest AMD Ryzen processors and exciting improvements to the Radeon line of graphics cards on www.cyberpowerpc.com and www.amd.com. And, hopefully, I can get my hands on a sweet AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2990WX with 32 cores and 64 threads to really burn a hole in my render power.


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.

Review: Razer Blade 15-inch mobile workstation

By Mike McCarthy

I am always looking for the most powerful tools in the smallest packages, so I decided to check out the Razer Blade 15-inch laptop with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q graphics card. The Max-Q variants are optimized for better thermals and power usage — at the potential expense of performance — in order to allow more powerful GPUs to be used in smaller laptops. The RTX 2080 is Nvidia’s top-end mobile GPU, with 2,944 CUDA cores and 8GB of DDR6 memory, running at 384GB/s with 13.6 billion transistors on the chip.

The new Razer Blade has a six-core Intel i7-8750H processor with 16GB RAM and a 512GB SSD. It has mDP 1.4, HDMI 2.0b, Thunderbolt 3 and three USB 3.1 ports. Its 15.6-inch screen can run at 144Hz refresh rate but only supports full HD 1920×1080, which is optimized for gaming, not content creation. The past four laptops I have used have all been UHD resolution at various sizes, which gives far more screen real estate for creative applications and better resolution to review your imagery.

I also prefer to have an Ethernet port, but I am beginning to accept that a dongle might be acceptable for that, especially since it opens up the possibility of using 10 Gigabit Ethernet. We aren’t going to see 10GigE on laptops anytime soon due to the excessive power consumption, but you only need 10GigE when at certain locations that support it, so a dongle or docking station is reasonable for those use cases.

Certain functionality on the system required a free account to be registered with Razer, which is annoying, but I’ve found this requirement is becoming the norm these days. That gives access to the Razer Synapse utility for customizing the system settings, setting fan speed and even remapping keyboard functionality. Any other Razer peripherals would be controlled here as well. As part of a top-end modern gaming system, the keyboard has fully controllable color back lighting. While I find most of the default “effects” to be distracting, the option to color code your shortcut keys is interesting. And if you really want to go to the next level, you can customize it further.

For example, when you press the FN key, by default the keys that have function behaviors connected with them light up white, which impressed me. The colors and dimming are generated by blinking the LEDs, but I was able to perceive the flicker when moving my eyes, so I stuck with colors that didn’t involve dimming channels. But that still gave me six options (RGB, CYM) plus white.

This is the color config I was running in the photos, but the camera does not reflect how it actually looks. In pictures, the keys look washed out, but in person they are almost too bright and vibrant. But we are here for more than looks, so it was time to put it through its paces and see what can happen under the hood.

Testing
I ran a number of benchmarks, starting with Adobe Premiere Pro. I now have a consistent set of tests to run on workstations in order to compare each system. The tests involve Red, Sony Venice and ARRI Alexa source files, with various GPU effects applied and exported to compressed formats. It handled the 4K and 8K renders quite well — pretty comparable to full desktop systems — showcasing the power of the RTX GPU. Under the sustained load of rendering for 30 minutes, it did get quite warm, so you will want adequate ventilation … and you won’t want it sitting on your lap.

My next test was RedCine-X Pro, with its new CUDA playback acceleration of files up to 8K. But what is the point of decoding 8K if you can’t see all the pixels you are processing? So for this test, I also connected my Dell UP3218K screen to the Razer Blade’s Mini DisplayPort 1.4 output. Outputting to the monitor does affect performance a bit, but that is a reasonable expectation. It doesn’t matter if you can decode 8K in real time if you can’t display it. Nvidia provides reviewers with links to some test footage, but I have 40TB to choose from, in addition to test clips from all different settings on the various cameras from my Large Format Camera test last year.

The 4K Red files worked great at full res to the external monitor — full screen or pixel for pixel — while the system barely kept up with the 6K and 8K anamorphic files. 8K full frame required half-res playback to view smoothly on the 8K display. Full-frame 8K was barely realtime with the external monitor disabled, but that is still very impressive for a laptop (I have yet to accomplish that on my desktop). The rest of the files played back solidly to the local display. Disabling the CUDA GPU acceleration requires playing back below 1/8th res to do anything on a laptop, so this is where having a powerful GPU makes a big difference.

Blackmagic Resolve is the other major video editing program to consider, and while I do not find it intuitive to use myself, I usually recommend it to others who are looking for a high level of functionality but aren’t ready to pay for Premiere. I downloaded and rendered a test project from Nvidia, which plays Blackmagic Raw files in real time with a variety of effects and renders to H.264 in 40 seconds, but it takes 10 times longer with CUDA disabled in Resolve.

Here, as with the other tests, the real-world significance isn’t how much faster it is with a GPU than without, but how much faster is it with this RTX GPU compared to with other options. Nvidia clams this render takes 2.5 times as long on a Radeon-based MacBook Pro, and 10% longer on a previous-generation GTX 1080 laptop, which seems consistent with my previous experience and tests.

The primary differentiation of Nvidia’s RTX line of GPUs is the inclusion of RT cores to accelerate raytracing and Tensor cores to accelerate AI inferencing, so I wanted to try tasks that used those accelerations. I started by testing Adobe’s AI-based image enhancement in Lightroom Classic CC. Nvidia claims that the AI image enhancement uses the RTX’s Tensor cores, and it is four times faster with the RTX card. The visual results of the process didn’t appear to be much better than I could have achieved with manual development in Photoshop, but it was a lot faster to let the computer figure out what to do to improve the images. I also ran into an issue where certain blocks of the image got corrupted in the process, but I am not sure if Adobe or Nvidia is at fault here.

Raytracing
While I could have used this review as an excuse to go play Battlefield V to experience raytracing in video games, I stuck with the content-creation focus. In looking for a way to test raytracing, Nvidia pointed me to OctaneRender. Otoy has created a utility called OctaneBench for measuring the performance of various hardware configurations with its render engine. It reported that the RTX’s raytracing acceleration was giving me a 3x increase in render performance.

I also tested ProRender in Maxon Cinema 4D, which is not a raytracing renderer but does use GPU acceleration through OpenCL. Apparently, there is a way to use the Arnold ray-tracing engine in Cinema 4D, but I was reaching the limits of my 3D animation expertise and resources, so I didn’t pursue that path, and I didn’t test Maya for the same reason.

With ProRender, I was able to render views of various demo scenes 10 to 20 times faster than I could with a CPU only. I will probably include this as a regular test in future reviews, allowing me to gauge render performance far better than I can with Cinebench (which returned a CPU score of 836). And compiling a list of comparison render times will add more context to raw data. But, for now, I was able to render the demo “Bamboo” scene in 39 seconds and the more complex “Coffee Bean” scene in 188 seconds, beating even the Nvidia marketing team’s expected results.

VR
No test of a top-end GPU would be complete without trying out its VR performance. I connected my Windows-based Lenovo Explorer Mixed Reality headset, installed SteamVR and tested both 360 video editing in Premiere Pro and the true 3D experiences available in Steam. As would be expected, the experience was smooth, making this one of the most portable solutions for full-performance VR.

The RTX 2080 is a great GPU, and I had no issues with it. Outside of true 3D work, the upgrade from the Pascal-based GTX 1080 is minor, but for anyone upgrading from systems older than that, or doing true raytracing or AI processing, you will see a noticeable improvement in performance.

The new Razer Blade is a powerful laptop for its size, and while I did like it, that doesn’t mean I didn’t run into a few issues along the way. Some of those, like the screen resolution, are due to its focus on gaming instead of content creation, but I also had an issue with the touch pad. Touch pad issues are common when switching between devices constantly, but in this case, right-clicking instead of left-clicking and not registering movement when the mouse button was pressed were major headaches. The problems were only alleviated by connecting a mouse and sticking with that, which I frequently do anyway. The power supply has a rather large connector on a cumbersome thick and stiff cord, but it isn’t going to be falling out once you get it inserted. Battery life will vary greatly depending on how much processing power you are using.

These RTX chips are the first mobile GPUs with dedicated RT cores and with Tensor cores, since Volta-based chips never came to laptops. So for anyone with processing needs that are accelerated by those developments, the new RTX chip is obviously worth the upgrade. If you want the fastest thing out there, this is it. (Or at least it was, until Razer added options for 9th Generation Intel processors this week and a 4K OLED screen (an upgrade I would highly recommend for content creators). The model I reviewed goes for $3,000. The new 9th Gen version with a 240Hz screen is the same price, while the 4K OLED Touch version costs an extra $300.

Summing Up
If you are looking for a more balanced solution or are on a more limited budget, you should definitely compare the new Razer Blade to the new Nvidia GTX 16 line of mobile products that was just announced. Then decide which option is a better fit for your particular needs and budget.

The development of eGPUs has definitely shifted this ideal target for my usage. While this system has a Thunderbolt 3 port, it is fast enough that you won’t see significant gains from an eGPU, but that advantage comes at the expense of battery life and price. I am drawn to eGPUs because I only need maximum performance at my desk, but if you need top-end graphics performance totally untethered, RTX Max-Q chips are the solution for you.


Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with over 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been involved in pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.

Arraiy 4.11.19

Dell intros two budget-friendly Precision mobile workstations

Dell is offering two new mobile workstations for designers and graphic artists who are looking for entry-level, workstation-class devices — Dell Precision 3540 and 3541. These budget-friendly machines offer a smaller footprint with high performance. Dell’s Precision line has traditionally been used for intensive workloads, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, and these entry-level versions are designed to allow artists with smaller budgets access to the Precision line’s capabilities.

The Precision 3540 comes with the latest 4-core Intel Core 8th generation processors, up to 32GB of DDR4 memory, AMD Radeon Pro graphics with 2GB of dedicated memory and 2TB of storage. The Precision 3541 will offer additional power, with 9th generation 8-core Intel Core and 6-core Intel Xeon processor options. It will be available with Nvidia Quadro professional graphics with 4GB of dedicated memory. It will also have extreme battery life for on-the-go productivity.

Both models come with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and optional features to enhance security, such as fingerprint and smartcard readers, an IR camera and a camera shutter. Both models also have a narrow-edge 15.6-inch display. The 3540 model weighs in at 4.04 pounds, and the 3541 model starts at 4.34 pounds.

The Dell Precision 3540 is available now on Dell.com starting at $799, while the Precision 3541 will be available in late May.


HP shows off new HP Z6 and Z8 G4 workstations at NAB

HP was at NAB demoing their new HP Z6 and Z8 G4 workstations, which feature Intel Xeon scalable processors and Intel Optane DC persistent memory technology to eliminate the barrier between memory and storage for compute-intensive workflows, including machine learning, multimedia and VFX. The new workstations offer accelerated performance with a processor-architecture that allows users to work faster and more efficiently.

Intel Optane DC allows users to improve system performance by moving large datasets closer to the CPU so it can be assessed, processed and analyzed in realtime and in a more affordable way. This will allow for no data loss after a power cycle or application closure. Once applications are written to take advantage of this new technology, users will benefit from accelerated workflows and little or no downtime.

Targeting 8K video editing in realtime and for rendering workflows, the HP Z6 G4 workstation is equipped with two next-generation Intel Xeon processors providing up to 48 total processor cores in one system, Nvidia and AMD graphics and 384GB of memory. Users can install professional-grade storage hardware without using standard PCIe slots, offering the ability to upgrade over time.

Powered by up to 56 processing cores and up to 3TB of high-speed memory, the HP Z8 G4 workstation can run complex 3D simulations, supporting VFX workflows and handling advanced machine learning algorithms. They are certified for some of the most-used software apps, including Autodesk Flame and DaVinci Resolve.

HP’s Remote Graphics Software (RGS), included with all HP Z workstations, enables remote workstation access from any Windows, Linux or Mac device.

Avid is collaborating with HP to test RGS with Media Composer|Cloud VM.

The HP Z6 G4 workstation with new Intel Xeon processors is available now for the base price of $2,372. The HP Z8 G4 workstation starts at $2,981.


Dell updates Precision 7000 Series workstation line

Dell has updated its Precision 7920 and 7820 towers and Precision 7920 rack workstations to target the media and entertainment industry. Enhancements include processing of large data workloads, AI capabilities, hot-swappable drives, a tool-less external power supply and a flexible 2U rack form factor that boosts cooling, noise reduction and space savings.

Both the Dell Precision 7920 and 7820 towers will be available with the new 2nd Gen Intel Xeon Scalable processors and Nvidia Quadro RTX graphic options to deliver enhanced performance for applications with large datasets, including enhancements for artificial intelligence and machine learning workloads. All Precision workstations come equipped with the Dell Precision Optimizer. The Dell Precision Optimizer Premium is available at an additional cost. This feature uses AI-based technology to tune the workstation based on how it is being used.

In addition, the Precision workstations now feature a multichannel thermal design for advanced cooling and acoustics. An externally accessible tool-less power supply and FlexBays for lockable, hot-swappable drives are also included.

For users needing high-security, remotely accessible 1:1 workstation performance, the updated Dell Precision 7920 rack workstation delivers the same performance and scalability of the Dell Precision 7920 tower in a 2U rack form factor. This rack workstation is targeted to OEMs and users who need to locate their compute resources and valuable data in central environments. This option can save space and help reduce noise and heat, while providing secure remote access to external employees and contractors.

Configuration options will include the recently announced 2nd Gen Intel Xeon Scalable processors, built for advanced workstation professionals, with up to 28 cores, 56 threads and 3TB DDR4 RDIMM per socket. The workstations will also support Intel Deep Learning Boost, a new set of Intel AVX-512 instructions.

The Precision 7000 Series workstations will be available in May with high-performance storage capacity options, including up to 120TB/96TB of Enterprise SATA HDD and up to 16TB of PCIe NVMe SSDs.


Review: HP’s double-hinged ZBook Studio x360 mobile workstation

By Mike McCarthy

I recently had the opportunity to test HP’s ZBook Studio x360 mobile workstation over the course of a few weeks. HP’s ZBook mobile workstation division has really been thinking outside the box lately, with the release of the ZBook X2 tablet, the HP Z-VR backpack-mounted system and now the ZBook Studio x360.

The ZBook Studio x360 is similar in design functionality to HP’s other x360 models — the Pavilion, Spectre, Envy, ProBook and Elitebook x360 — in that the display is double-hinged. The keyboard can be folded all the way behind the screen, allowing it to be used similarly to a tablet or placed in “tent” or “presentation” mode with the keyboard partially folded behind it. But the ZBook is clearly the top-end option of the systems available in that form factor. And it inherits all of the engineering from the rest of HP’s extensive product portfolio, in regards to security, serviceability, and interface.

Performance-wise, this Studio x360 model sits somewhere in the middle of HP’s extensive ZBook mobile workstation lineup. It is above the lightweight ZBook 14U and 15U and X2 tablet with their low-voltage U-Series CPUs and the value-oriented 15v. It is similar to the more traditional clamshell ultrabook ZBook Studio, and has less graphics power and RAM than the top-end ZBook 15 and 17.

It is distinguished from the ZBook Studio by its double-hinged 360 folding chassis, and its touch and pen inking capability. It is larger than the ZBook X2 with more powerful internal hardware. This model is packed with processing power in the form of a 6-core 8th generation Xeon processor, 32GB RAM and an Nvidia Quadro P1000 GPU. The 15-inch UHD screen boosts up to 400 nits at full brightness and, of course, supports touch and pen input.

Configuration Options
The unit has a number of interesting configuration options with two M.2 slots and a 2.5-inch bay allowing up to 6TB of internal storage, but most users will forgo the 2.5-inch SATA bay for an extended 96whr battery. There is the option of choosing between a 4G WWAN card or DreamColor display, giving users a wide selection of possible capabilities.

Because of the work I do, I am mostly interested in answering the question: “How small and light can I go, and still get my work done effectively?” In order to answer that question, I am reviewing a system with most of the top-end options. I started at a 17-inch Lenovo P71 last year, then tried a large 15-inch PNY PrevailPro and now am trying out this much lighter 15-inch book. There is no compromise with the 6-core CPU, as that is the same as in a 17-inch beast. So the biggest difference is in the GPU, with the mobile Quadro P1000 only having the 512 CUDA core, one third the power of the Quadro P4000 I last tested. So VR is not going to work, but besides heavy color grading, most video editing tasks should be supported. And 32GB of RAM should be enough for most users, but I installed a second NVMe drive, giving me a total of 2TB of storage.

Display
The 15.6-inch display is available in a number of different options, all supporting touch and digital pen input. The base-level full-HD screen can be upgraded to a Sure View screen, allowing the user to selectively narrow the viewing angle at the press of a key in order to increase their privacy. Next up is the beautiful 400-nit UHD screen that my unit came with. And the top option is a 600-nit DreamColor calibrated UHD panel. All of the options fully support touch and pen input.

Connectivity
The unit has dual-Thunderbolt 3 ports, supporting DisplayPort 1.3, as well as HDMI, dual-USB3.1 Type-A ports, an SDXC card slot and an audio jack. The main feature I am missing is an RJ-45 jack for Gigabit Ethernet. I get that there are trade-offs to be made in any configuration, but that is the item I am missing from this unit. On the flip side, with the release of affordable Thunderbolt-based 10GbE adapters, that is probably what I would pair with this unit if I was going to be using it to edit assets I have stored on my network. So that is a solvable problem.

Serviceability
Unlike the heavier ZBook 15 and 17 models, it does not have a tool-less chassis, but that is an understandable a compromise to reduce size and weight, and totally reasonable. I was able to remove the bottom cover with a single torx screwdriver, giving me access to the RAM, wireless cards, and M.2 slots I was populating with a second NVMe drive to test. The battery can also be replaced that way should the need arise, but the 96whr long-life battery is fully covered by the system warranty, be that three or five years depending on your service level.

Security
There are a number of unique features that this model shares with many others in HP’s lineup. The UEFI-based HP Sure Start BIOS and pre-boot environment provide a host of options for enterprise-level IT management, and make it less likely that the boot process will get corrupted. HP Sure Click is a security mechanism that isolates each Chromium browser tab in its own virtual machine, protecting the rest of your system from any malware that it might otherwise be exposed to. Sure Run and Sure Recover are designed to prevent and recover from security failures that render the system unusable.

The HP Client Security Manager brings the controls for all of this functionality into one place and uses the system’s integrated fingerprint reader. HP Workwise is a utility for integrating the laptop with one’s cell phone, allowing automatic system lock and unlock when the cell phone leaves or enters Bluetooth range and phone notifications from the other “Sure” security applications.

Thunderbolt Dock
HP also supplied me with their new Thunderbolt dock. The single most important feature on that unit from my perspective is the Gigabit Ethernet port, since there isn’t one built into the laptop. It also adds two DisplayPorts and one VGA output and includes five more USB ports. I was able to connect my 8K display to the DisplayPort output and it ran fine at 30Hz, as is to be expected from a single Thunderbolt connection. The dock should run anything smaller than that at 60Hz, including two 4K displays.

The dock also supports an optional audio module to facilitate better conference calls, with a built-in speaker, microphone and call buttons. It is a nice idea but a bit redundant since the laptop has a “world-facing” microphone for noise cancellation or group calling and even has “Collaboration Keys” for controlling calls built into the top of the keyboard. Apparently, HP sees this functionality totally replacing office phones.

I initially struggled to get the dock to work — besides the DisplayPorts — but this was because I connected it before boot-up. Unlike docking stations from back in the day, Thunderbolt is fully hot-swappable and actually needs to be powered on the first time it is connected in order to trigger the dialog box, which gives it low-level access to your computer for security reasons. Once I did that, it has worked seamlessly.

The two-part cable integrates a dedicated power port and Thunderbolt 3 connection, magnetically connected for simple usage while maintaining flexibility for future system compatibility. The system can receive power from the Thunderbolt port, but for maximum power and performance uses a 130W dedicated power plug as well, which appears to be standardized across much of HP’s line of business products.

Touchscreens and Pens
I had never seriously considered tablets or touchscreen solutions for my own work until one of HP’s reps showed me an early prototype of the ZBook X2 a few years ago. I initially dismissed it until he explained how much processing power they had packed into it. Only then did I recognize that HP had finally fulfilled two of my very different and long-standing requests in a way that I hadn’t envisioned. I had been asking the display team for a lightweight battery-powered DreamColor display, and I had been asking the mobile workstation team for a 12- or 14-inch Nvidia-powered model — this new device was both.

I didn’t end up reviewing the X2 during its initial release last year, although I plan to soon. But once the X2 shifted my thinking about tablet and touch-based tools, I saw this ZBook Studio x360 as an even more powerful implementation of that idea, in a slightly larger form factor. While I have used pens on other people’s systems in the past, usually when doing tech support for other editors, this is my first attempt to do real work with a pen instead of a mouse and keyboard.

One of the first obstacles I encountered was getting the pen to work at all. Unlike the EMR-based pens from Wacom tablets and the ZBook X2, the x360 uses an AES-based pen, which requires power and a Bluetooth connection to communicate with the system. I am not the only user to be confused by this solution, but I have been assured by HP that the lack of documentation and USB-C charging cable have been remedied in currently shipping systems.

It took me a while (and some online research) to figure out that there was a USB-C port hidden in the pen and that it needed to be charged and paired with the system. Once I did that, it has functioned fine for me. The pen itself works great, with high precision and 4K levels of pressure sensitivity and tilt support. I am not much of a sketcher or painter, but I do a lot of work in Photoshop, either cleaning images up or creating facial expressions for my Character Animator puppets. The pen is a huge step up from the mouse for creating smooth curves and natural lines. And the various buttons worked well for me once I got used to them. But I don’t do a lot of work that benefits from having the pen support, and trying to adapt other tasks to the pen-based input was more challenging than I anticipated.

The other challenge I encountered was with the pen holder, which fits into the SD card slot. The design is good and works better than I would have expected, but removing the original SD plug that protects the slot was far more difficult than it should be. I assume the plug is necessary for the system to pass the 13 MilSpec type tests that HP runs all of its ZBooks through, but I probably won’t be wedging it back in that slot as long as I have the system.

Inking
I am not much of a tablet user as of yet since this was my first foray into that form factor, but the system is a bit large and bulky when folded back into tablet mode. I have hit the power button by accident on multiple occasions, hibernating the system while I was trying to use it. This has primarily been an issue when I am using it in tablet mode and holding it with my left hand in that area by default. But the biggest limitation I encountered in tablet mode was recognizing just how frequently I use the keyboard during the course of my work. While Windows Inking does allow for an onscreen keyboard to be brought up for text entry, functions like holding Alt for anchor-based resizing are especially challenging. I am curious to see if some of these issues are alleviated on the X2 by the buttons they built into the edge of the display. As long as I have easy access to Shift, Ctrl, Alt, C, V and a couple others, I think I would be good to go, but it is one of those things that you can’t know for sure until you try it yourself. And different people with varying habits and preferences might prefer different solutions to the same tasks. In my case, I have not found the optimal touch and inking experience yet.

Performance
I was curious to see what level of performance I would get from the Quadro P1000, as I usually use systems with far more GPU power. But I was impressed with how well it was able to handle the animating and editing of the 5K assets for my Grounds of Freedom animated series. I was even able to dynamically link between the various Adobe apps with a reasonable degree of interactive feedback. That is where you start to see a difference between this mobile system and a massive desktop workstation.

eGPU
Always looking for more power, I hooked up Sonnet’s Breakaway Box 550 with a variety of different Nvidia GPUs to accelerate the graphics performance of the system. The Quadro P6000 was the best option, as it used the same Quadro driver and Pascal architecture as the integrated P1000 GPU but greatly increased performance.

It allowed me to use my Lenovo Explorer WMR headset to edit 360 video in VR with Premiere Pro, and I was able to playback 8K DNxHR files at full resolution in Premiere to my Dell 8K LCD display. I was also able to watch 8K HEVC files in Windows movie player smoothly. Pretty impressive for a 15-inch convertible laptop, but the 6-Core Xeon processor pairs well with the desktop GPU, making this an ideal system to harness the workflow possibilities offered by eGPU solutions.

Media Export Benchmarks
I did extensive benchmark testing, measuring the export times of various media at different settings with different internal and external GPU options. The basic conclusion was that currently simple transcodes and conversions are not much different with an eGPU, but that once color correction and other effects are brought into the equation, increasing GPU power makes processing two to five times faster.

I also tested DCP exports with Quvis’ Wraptor plugin for AME and found the laptop took less than twice as long as my top-end desktop to make DCPs, which I consider to be a good thing. You can kick out a 4K movie trailer in under 10 minutes. And if you want to export a full feature film, I would recommend a desktop, but this will do it in a couple of hours.

Final Observations
The ZBook Studio x360 is a powerful machine and an optimal host for eGPU workflows. While it exceeded my performance expectations, I did not find the touch and ink solution to be optimal for my needs as I am a heavy keyboard user, even when doing artistic tasks. (To be clear, I haven’t found a better solution. This just doesn’t suitably replace my traditional mouse and keyboard approach to work.) So if buying one for myself, I would personally opt for the non-touch ZBook Studio model. But for anyone to whom inking is a critical part of their artistic workflow, who needs a powerful system on the go, this is a very capable model that doesn’t appear to have too many similar alternatives. It blends the power of the ZBook Studio with the inking experience of HP’s other x360 products.


Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with over 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been involved in pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.


Sonnet intros four-port SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps PCI adapter cards

Sonnet is offering two new four-port, dual-controller SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps PCIe adapter cards: the Allegro Pro USB 3.1 PCIe and Allegro USB-C 4-Port PCIe. The Allegro cards add four powered USB-A or USB-C ports, respectively, to Mac, Windows or Linux computers with PCI Express (PCIe) slots, and to Mac and Windows computers with Thunderbolt ports when installed in a Thunderbolt-to-PCI Express card expansion chassis.

Both Sonnet adapter cards feature dual USB 3.1 Gen 2 controllers and support the fastest SSD-based USB drives available with file transfer speeds up to 800MB/s from a single drive, and up to 1,200MB/s aggregate from four drives. Both cards support USB bus-powered SSD, SSD RAID and hard drive devices with up to 7.5 watts of power per port, without the user having to connect auxiliary power to the card or AC power adapters to the devices. Hubs and other USB-IF-compliant devices are also supported.

“Although they feature modern CPUs, so many current desktop and workstation computers are equipped only with generations-old USB interfaces or, at best, a single modern USB port,” says Sonnet’s Greg LaPorte. “For broadcasters, post and AV professionals, the ability to move files quickly from and between multiple USB drives is critical; onboard I/O is too slow. Sonnet’s latest USB adapter cards make it easy for users to add four super-fast 10Gbps USB-A or USB-C ports to their setups and benefit from significantly faster data transfers.”

Sonnet designed the Allegro cards with a focus on intelligent power management and delivery for powering attached drives through its ports. Allegro incorporates advanced technologies, including independent power regulation that isolates each port to prevent cross-coupled power glitches — such as when a hard drive spins up after connection — that may cause accidental disconnects and resettable port power fuses. Additionally, the cards are optimized for Thunderbolt, offering full performance when installed in any of Sonnet’s Thunderbolt-to-PCIe card chassis.

The Allegro Pro USB 3.1 PCIe card is now available for $149. The Allegro USB-C 4-Port PCIe card is also now available for the same price.


Review: eGPUs and the Sonnet Breakaway Box

By Mike McCarthy

As a laptop user and fan of graphics performance, I have always had to weigh the balance between performance and portability when selecting a system. And this usually bounces back and forth, as neither option is totally satisfactory. Systems are always too heavy or not powerful enough.

My first laptop when I graduated high school was the 16-inch Sony Vaio GRX570, with the largest screen available at the time, running 1600×1200 pixels. After four years carrying that around, I was eager to move to the Dell XPS M1210, the smallest laptop with a discrete GPU. That was followed by a Quadro-based Dell Precision M4400 workstation, which was on the larger side. I then bounced to the lightweight Carbon Fiber 13-inch Sony Vaio Z1 in 2010, which my wife still uses. This was followed by my current Aorus X3 Plus, which has both power (GF870M) and a small form factor (13 inch), but at the expense of everything else.

Some More History
The Vaio Z1 was one of the first hybrid graphics solutions to allow users to switch between different GPUs. Its GeForce 330M was powerful enough to run Adobe’s Mercury CUDA Playback engine in CS5, but was at the limit of its performance. It didn’t support my 30-inch display, and while the SSD storage solution had the throughput for 2K DPX playback, the GPU processing couldn’t keep up.

Other users were upgrading the GPU with an ExpressCard-based ViDock external PCIe enclosure, but a single-lane of PCIe 1.0 bandwidth (2Gb/s) wasn’t enough to make is worth the effort for video editing. (3D gaming requires less source bandwidth than video processing.) Sony’s follow-on Z2 model offered the first commercial eGPU, connected via LightPeak, the forerunner to Thunderbolt. It allowed the ultra-light Z series laptop to use an AMD Radeon 6650M GPU and Blu-ray drive in the proprietary Media Dock, presumably over a PCIe x4 1.0 (8Gb/s) connection.

Thunderbolt 3
Alienware also has a propriety eGPU solution for their laptops, but Thunderbolt is really what makes eGPUs a marketable possibility, giving direct access to the PCIe bus at x4 speed, in a standardized connection. The first generation offered a dedicated 10Gb connection, while Thunderbolt 2 increased that to a 20Gb shared connection. The biggest thing holding back eGPUs at that point was lack of PC adoption of the Apple technology licensed from Intel, and OS X limitations on eGPUs.

Thunderbolt 3 changed all of that, increasing the total connection bandwidth to 40Gb, the same as first-generation PCIe x16 cards. And far more systems support Thunderbolt 3 than the previous iterations. Integrated OS support for GPU switching in Windows 10 and OS X (built on laptop GPU power saving technology) further paved the path to eGPU adoption.

Why eGPUs Now?
Even with all of this in my favor, I didn’t take the step into eGPU solutions until very recently. I bought my personal system in 2014. This was just before Thunderbolt 3 hit the mainstream. The last two systems I reviewed had Thunderbolt 3, but didn’t need eGPUs with their mobile Quadro P4000 and P5000 internal GPUs. So I hadn’t had the opportunity to give it a go until I received an HP Zbook Studio x360 to review. Now, its integrated Quadro P1000 is nothing to scoff at, but there was significantly more room for performance gains from an external GPU.

Sonnet Breakaway Box
I have had the opportunity to review the 550W version of Sonnet’s Breakaway Box PCIe enclosure over the course of a few weeks, allowing me to test out a number of different cards, including four different GPUs, as well as my Red-Rocket-X and 10GbE cards. Sonnet has three different eGPU enclosure options, depending on the power requirements of your GPU.

They sent me the mid-level 550 model, which should support every card on the market, aside from AMD’s power-guzzling Vega 64-based GPUs. The base 350 model should support GF1080 or 2080 cards, but not overclocked Titanium or Titan versions. The 550 model includes two PCIe power cables that can be used in 6- or 8-pin connectors. This should cover any existing GPU on the market, and I have cards requiring nearly every possible combo — 6-pin, 8-pin, both, and dual 8-pin. Sonnet has a very thorough compatibility list available, for more specific details.

Installation
I installed my Quadro P6000 into the enclosure, because it used the same drivers as my internal Quadro P1000 GPU and would give me the most significant performance boost. I plugged the Thunderbolt connector into the laptop while it was booted. It immediately recognized the device, but only saw it as a “Microsoft Basic Display Adapter” until I re-installed my existing 411.63 Quadro drivers and rebooted. After that, it worked great, I was able to run my benchmarks and renders without issue, and I could see which GPU was carrying the processing load just by looking in the task manager performance tab.

Once I had finished my initial tests, safely removed the hardware in the OS and disconnected the enclosure, I swapped the installed card with my Quadro P4000 and plugged it back into the system without rebooting. It immediately detected it, and after a few seconds the new P4000 was recognized and accelerating my next set of renders. When I attempted to do the same procedure with my GeForce 2080TI, it did make me install the GeForce driver (416.16) and reboot before it would function at full capacity (subsequent transitions between Nvidia cards were seamless).

The next step was to try an AMD GPU, since I have a new RadeonPro WX8200 to test, which is a Pro version of the Vega 56 architecture. I was a bit more apprehensive about this configuration due to the integrated Nvidia card, and having experienced those drivers not co-existing well in the distant past. But I figured: “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Initially, plugging it in gave me the same Microsoft Basic Display Adapter device until I installed the RadeonPro drivers. Installing those drivers caused the system to crash and refuse to boot. Startup repair, system restore and OS revert all failed to run, let alone fix the issue. I was about to wipe the entire OS and let it reinstall from the recovery partition when I came across one more idea online. I was able to get to a command line in the pre-boot environment and run a Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM) command to see which drivers were installed — DISM /image:D:\ /Get-Drivers|more.

This allowed me to see that the last three drivers — oem172.inf through oem174.inf —were the only AMD-related ones on the system. I was able to remove them via the same tool — DISM /Image:D:\ /Remove-Driver /Driver:oem172.inf”) — and when I restarted, the system booted up just fine.

I then pulled the card from the eGPU box, wiped all the AMD files from the system, and vowed never to do something like that again. Lesson of the day: Don’t mix AMD and Nvidia cards and drivers. To AMDs credit, the WX8200 does not officially support eGPU installations, but extraneous drivers shouldn’t cause that much problem.

Performance Results
I tested Adobe Media Encoder export times with a variety of different sources and settings. Certain tests were not dramatically accelerated by the eGPU, while other renders definitely were. The main place we see differences between the integrated P1000 and a more-powerful external GPU is when effects are applied to high-res footage. That is when the GPU is really put to work, so those are the tests that improve with more GPU power. I had a one-minute sequence of Red clips with lots of effects (Lumetri, selective blur and mosaic: all GPU FX) that took 14 minutes to render internally, but finished in under four minutes with the eGPU attached. Exporting the same sequence with the effects disabled took four minutes internally and three minutes with the GPU. So the effects cost 10 minutes of render time internally, but under one minute of render time (35 seconds to be precise) when a powerful GPU is attached.

So if you are trying to do basic cuts-only editorial, an eGPU may not improve your performance much, but if you are doing VFX or color work, it can make a noticeable difference.

VR Headset Support
The external cards, of course, do increase performance in a measurable way, especially since I am using such powerful cards. It’s not just a matter of increasing render speeds, but about enabling functionality that was previously unavailable on the system. I connected my Lenovo Explorer WMR headset to the RTX2080TI in the Breakaway Box and gave it a shot. I was able to edit 360 video in VR in Premiere Pro, which is not supported on the included Quadro P1000 card. I did experience some interesting ghosting on occasion, where if I didn’t move my head everything looked perfect, but movement caused a double image — as if one eye was a frame behind the other — but the double image was appearing in each eye, as if there was an excessive motion blur applied to the rendered frames.

I thought this might be a delay based on extra latency in the Thunderbolt bus, but other times the picture looked crisp regardless of how quickly I moved my head. So it can work great, but there may need to be a few adjustments made to smooth things out. Lots of other users online report it working just fine, so there is probably a solution available out there.

Full-Resolution 8K Tests
I was able to connect my 8K display to the card as well, and while the x360 happens to support that display already (DP1.3 over Thunderbolt), most notebooks do not — and it increased the refresh rate from 30Hz to the full 60Hz. I was able to watch HEVC videos smoothly at 8K in Windows, and was able to playback 8K DNxHR files in Premiere at full res, as long as there were no edits or effects.

Just playing back footage at full 8K taxed the 2080TI at 80% compute utilization. But this is 8K we are talking about, playing back on a laptop, at full resolution. 4K anamorphic and 6K Venice X-OCN footage played back smoothly at half res in Premiere, and 8K Red footage played back at quarter. This is not the optimal solution for editing 8K footage, but it should have no problem doing serious work at UHD and 4K.

Other Cards and Functionality
GPUs aren’t the only PCIe cards that can be installed in the Breakaway Box, so I can add a variety of other functionality to my laptop if desired. Thunderbolt array controllers minimize the need for SATA or SAS cards in enclosures, but that is a possibility. I installed an Intel X520-DA2 10GbE card into the box and was copying files from my network at 700MB/s within a minute, without even having to install any new drivers. But unless you need to have SFP ports, most people looking for 10GbE functionality would be better served to look into Sonnet’s Solo 10G for smaller form factor, lower power use, and cheaper price. There are a variety of other options for Thunderbolt 3 to 10GbE hitting the market as well.

The Red-Rocket-X card has been a popular option for external PCIe enclosures over the last few years, primarily for on-set media transcoding. I installed mine in the Breakaway Box to give that functionality a shot as well.

I ran into two issues, both of which I was able to overcome, but are worth noting. First, the 6-pin power connector is challenging to fit into the poorly designed Rocket power port, due to the retention mechanism being offset for 8-pin compatibility. But it can fit if you work at it a bit, although I prefer to keep a 6-pin extension cable plugged into my Rocket since I move it around so much. Once I had all of the hardware hooked up, it was recognized in the OS, but installing the drivers from Red resulted in a Code-52 error that is usually associated with USB devices. The recommended solution online was to disable Windows 10 driver signing, in the pre-boot environment, and that did the trick. (My theory is that my HP’s SureStart security functionality was hesitating to give direct memory access to an external device, as that is the level of access Thunderbolt devices get to your system, and the Red Rocket-X driver wasn’t signed for that level of security.)

Anyhow, the card worked fine after that, and I verified that it accelerated my renders in Premiere Pro and AME. I am looking forward to a day when CUDA acceleration allows me to get that functionality out of my underused GPU power instead of requiring a dedicated card.

I did experience an issue with the Quadro P4000, where the fans spun up to 100% when the laptop went to shut off, hibernated, or went to sleep. None of the other cards had that issue, instead they shut off when the host system did and turned back on automatically when I booted up the system. I have no idea why the P4000 acted differently than the architecturally very similar P6000. Manually turning off the Breakaway Box or disconnecting the Thunderbolt cable solves the problem with the P4000, but then you have to remember to reconnect again when you are booting up.

In the process of troubleshooting the fan issue, I did a few other driver installs and learned a few tricks. First off, I already knew Quadro drivers can’t run GeForce cards (otherwise why pay for a Quadro), but GeForce drivers can run on Quadro cards. So it makes sense you would want to install GeForce drivers when mixing both types of GOUs. But I didn’t realize that apparently GeForce drivers take preference when they are installed. So when I had an issue with the internal Quadro card, reinstalling the Quadro drivers had no effect, since the GeForce drivers were running the hardware. Removing them (with DDU just to be thorough) solved the issue, and got everything operating seamlessly again. Sonnet’s support people were able to send me the solution to the problem on the first try. That was a bit of a hiccup, but once it was solved I could again swap between different GPUs without even rebooting. And most users will always have the same card installed when they connect their eGPU, further simplifying the issue.

Do you need an eGPU?
I really like this unit, and I think that eGPU functionality in general will totally change the high-end laptop market for the better. For people who only need high performance at their desk, there will be a class of top-end laptop with high-end CPU, RAM and storage, but no GPU to save on space and weight (CPU can’t be improved by external box, and needs to keep up with GPU).

There will be another similar class with mid-level GPUs to support basic 3D work on the road, but massive increases at home. I fall in the second category, as I can’t forego all GPU acceleration when I am traveling or even walking around the office. But I don’t need to be carrying around an 8K rendering beast all the time either. I can limit my gaming, VR work and heavy renders to my desk. That is the configuration I have been able to use with this ZBook x360.: enough power to edit un-tethered, but combining the internal 6-core CPU with a top -end external GPU gives great performance when attached to the Breakaway Box. As always, I still want to go smaller, and plan to test with an even lighter weight laptop as soon as the opportunity arises.

Summing Up
The Breakaway Box is a simple solution to a significant issue. No bells and whistles, which I initially appreciated. But the eGPU box is inherently a docking station, so there is an argument to be made for adding other functionality. In my case, once I am setup at my next project, using a 10GbE adapter in the second TB3 port on my laptop will be a better solution for top performance and bandwidth anyway.

So I am excited about the possibilities that eGPUs bring to the table, now that they are fully supported by the OS and applications I use, and I don’t imagine buying a laptop setup without one anytime in the foreseeable future. The Sonnet Breakaway Box meets my needs and has performed very well for me over the last few weeks.


Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with over 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been involved in pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.


Boxx adds new Apexx S-class workstations with 9th-gen Intel processors

Boxx Technologies is offering a new line of Apexx S-class workstations featuring the company’s flagship Apexx S3. Purpose-built for 3D design, CAD and motion media workflows requiring CPU frequencies suitable for lightly threaded apps, the compact Apexx S3 now features a 9th-generation, eight-core Intel Core i7 or i9 processor (professionally overclocked to 5.1GHz) to support more heavily threaded applications as well.

Designed to optimize Autodesk tools, Adobe Creative Cloud, Maxon Cinema 4D and other applications, the overclocked and liquid-cooled Apexx S3 sustains its 5.1GHz frequency across all cores. With increased storage and upgradability, as well as multiple Nvidia Quadro or AMD Radeon Pro graphics cards, S3 is also ideal for light GPU compute or virtual reality.

New to the S-class line is Apexx Enigma S3. Built to accelerate professional 3D applications, Enigma S3 is also configurable with 9th-generation, eight-core Intel Core i7/i9 processors overclocked to 5.1GHz and up to three professional GPUs, making it suitable for workflows that include significant GPU rendering or GPU compute work.

The compact Apexx S3 and Enigma S3 are joined by the Apexx S1. The S1 also features an overclocked, eight-core Intel Core i7 for 3D content creation, CAD design and motion media. With its ultra-compact chassis, the S1 is a good solution for limited desktop space, an open environment or workflows where a graphics card is used primarily for display.

Rounding out the S-class family is the Apexx S4, a rack-mount system designed for heavy rendering or GPU compute.

You can now export ProRes on a PC with Adobe’s video apps

By Brady Betzel

Listen up post pros! You can now natively export ProRes from a Windows 10-based PC for $20.99 with the latest release of Adobe’s Premiere, After Effects and Media Encoder.

I can’t overstate how big of a deal this is. Previously, the only way to export ProRes from a PC was to use a knock-off reverse-engineered codec that would mimic the process — creating footage that would often fail QC checks at networks — or be in possession of a high-end app like Fusion, Nuke, Nucoda or Scratch. The only other way would be to have a Cinedeck in your hands and output your files in realtime through it. But, starting today, you can export native ProRes 4444 and ProRes 422 from your Adobe Creative Cloud Suite apps like Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Media Encoder. Have you wanted to use those two or three Nvidia GTX 1080ti graphics cards that you can’t stuff into a Mac Pro? Well, now you can. No more being tied to AMD for ProRes exports.

Apple seems to be leaving their creative clients in the dust. Unless you purchase an iMac Pro or MacBook Pro, you have been stuck using a 2013 Mac Pro to export or encode your files to ProRes specifications. A lot of customers, who had given Apple the benefit of the doubt and stuck around for a year or two longer than they probably should have waiting for a new Mac Pro — allegedly being released in 2019 — began to transition over to Windows-based platforms. All the while, most would keep that older Mac just to export ProRes files while using the more powerful and updated Windows PC to do their daily tasks.

Well, that day is now over and, in my opinion, leads me to believe that Apple is less concerned with keeping their professional clients than ever before. That being said, I love that Apple has finally opened their ProRes codecs up to the Adobe Creative Cloud.

Let’s hope it can become a system-wide feature, or at least added to Blackmagic’s Resolve and Avid’s Media Composer. You can individually rent Adobe Premiere Pro or After Effects for $20.99 month, rent the entire Adobe Creative Cloud library for $52.99 a month or, if you are a student or teacher, you can take advantage of the best deal around for $19.99 a month, which gives you ALL the Creative Cloud apps.

Check out Adobe’s blog about the latest Windows ProRes export features.


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.