By Brady Betzel
With so many options out there for building and/or buying a workstation, how do you confidently choose where to spend thousands of dollars? From the big-named computer companies to the DIY build-your-own systems, there are dozens of subset options to take your multimedia work to the next level. While not yet as common in the M&E workplace as an HP, Dell or Apple, Lenovo has some serious workstation offerings at great prices, with all of the same guarantees that the big dogs offer.
I was sent the ThinkStation P910 workstation — the top-of-the-line Lenovo desktop — but as I was finishing up this review they released the P920 version. For this review, I will keep my focus on the P910 as there are only a few differences in the products, which are faster memory speed, increased memory capacity and an overall upgrade in hardware, such as CPU cores and speeds.
Keep in mind the critical difference between workstations and standard desktop computers: workstations are meant to be consistently run over a long period of time without breaking down or failing. Your run-of-the-mill desktop system purchased from Best Buy, or the like, is not guaranteed to run 365 days a year and 24 hours a day in a critical environment.
Under the hood of the P910 are dual-Intel Xeon E5-2620 v4 processors equaling 16 cores at 2.1GHz; Windows 10; an Nvidia Quadro P6000; a 24GB, 1TB SSD M.2 PCIe NVMe Opal boot drive; 2x16GB DDR4-2400 ECC totaling 32GB; four USB 3.0 ports; four USB 2.0 ports; and and other features like the standard audio and networking ports.
In addition to the specific components, the Lenovo ThinkStation workstations have a few unique or interesting features: the patent pending tri-channel cooling, which pushes fresh air to both the processors and memory compartments; the chassis are designed to be as tool-less as possible when replacing or upgrading parts with only the CPU heatsink needing a screwdriver; and, finally, a front-facing Flex connector that can be swapped for different connections such as an external PCI x4 connection.
With workstations, you typically get certifications that the system will perform with certain professional software efficiently. These ISV certifications (certifications from independent software vendors) include Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premiere Pro. There are many other software vendors that are compatible, but Adobe and Avid are the ones that I personally encounter the most frequently. You can check out a list of these ISVs for the P910 or any other model on Lenovo’s website.
Workstations also typically come with in-depth warranties, and because these systems are not meant to fail, the warranties are made to be executed quickly with little downtime. Lenovo supplies a three-year On-Site Warranty, which is surprisingly hard to find specifics on. After about 20 minutes of searching the Internet and Lenovo’s website I decided to stop searching. Other than that I can’t provide too many details, unfortunately.
Working primarily with multimedia applications, I typically need a workstation that not only works all the time but also one that will chew threw high-resolution 4K, 6K or even 8K video files while editing and color correcting. To really push the boundaries, I like to use the Blackmagic Resolve color correction app to color and add noise reduction to high-resolution Red camera files. When working with these Red files you need a lot of muscle, especially when adding post production effects like noise reduction and blurring, and when you are finished, exporting.
Unfortunately, Lenovo doesn’t have Resolve listed under the ISV certifications, but maybe they could add it in the future with Resolve’s heavy presence in M&E projects. One big leg up that the P910 has in the multimedia world is the Nvidia Quadro P6000 with 24GB of RAM, and the crazy expandability from 32GB of ECC RAM to up to 512GB with the 16 DIMM slots when filled with 32GB sticks.
To test the P910, I ran a few benchmarking apps as well as some of my own tests in Resolve Studio 14.3. First I ran the AJA System Test a few times. I set the resolution to 3840×2160 4K Red HD, 16GB file size, the codec type as 12-bit RGBA and Target Disk being the system drive — it gave a read speed of 2871MB/s and write speed of 1742MB/s, which is pretty good and one I was expecting with the speedy NVMe system drive.
Next, I ran Maxon’s Cinebench, which is a benchmark that is designed to test real-world 3D scenarios against your systems hardware. It tests CPU and GPU abilities, and the higher the resulting numbers the better. The Thinkstation P910 scored very high on multiple CPU testing and the Open GL GPU testing. However, in the single CPU testing it fell the fourth place behind systems that had much higher single-core clock speeds. I noticed the rendering on the multiple CPU tests was very fast. It was faster than most of the other systems I ran this test on, not to mention the Nvidia Quadro P6000 really earning its place at the number one position — it chewed through the test.
Finally, I wanted to test the rendering speed on some high-resolution Red files in Resolve 14.3. There were a couple of tests I wanted to run, so I downloaded one of the many sample R3D files that Red offers: http://www.red.com/sample-r3d-files. I downloaded an 11-second, 6K, 23.98fps R3D file, imported it into Resolve 14.3, added two serial nodes (color correct node and color grade node) and rendered it to a DNxHR HQX file.
For those counting at home, I disabled any caching, and unchecked Performance Mode. Second, I wanted to add a third serial node of Temporal Noise Reduction. I initially wanted to simply play down the clip at full debayer quality but it stuttered and played at about 5fps, unfortunately not a full 23.98 fps. I was only able to get the playback to 17fps using 1/16 debayer quality. With just two color correction nodes I exported the 11-second clip as a DNxHR 444 12-bit QuickTime. It took 52 seconds. When I added the third node with Temporal Noise Reduction set to three frames, Motion Estimate set to Better and Luma and Chroma Thresholds set to 25, it took one minute and 42 seconds to render the same QuickTime. I then duplicated the clip in a sequence to make a one-minute long sequence; without noise reduction it took 10 minutes and 30 seconds to export, and when I added the Temporal Noise Reduction it took 11 minutes and 30 seconds. Overall, it really didn’t add too much time with the noise reduction, which was a nice surprise. I want to give some heavy credit to the Quadro P6000.
The Lenovo Thinkstation P910 is a phenomenal machine with the guts to chew through all of the bandwidth-hogging media we use today. When building the system out, I wasn’t able to price the P910, however I built a similar P920, which came out to $8,278. You are getting a few higher-end features, but essentially it is the same computer. That price is high, but the Nvidia Quadro P6000 is a top-of-the-line GPU and that is adding an additional $4,150 to the system’s total.
While the P6000 is incredible, you may want to consider something a little less beefy like the P4000, which adds a mere $580 and gives you a much more reasonable total of $4,128. Either way, you are getting a great workstation that is as easy to repair and replace parts as it is to boot up. I opened the side door and was able to easily pull out and replace almost every internal part with ease, and the best part was the system booted up on first try!
Check out Lenovo’s top-of the-line workstations at their website.
Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.