Pro Video Workstations Buyers Guide

Choosing a system that best meets the requirements of your workflow can seem daunting at first, but by understanding what the software will benefit from can take all of the guesswork out of the process. Each NLE and grading application vendor provides a list of minimum system requirements which are generally considered the bare minimum to run the software and if your computer just meets these requirements it does not guarantee the best possible performance.

Modern video applications can perform large amounts of processing on each frame. With over 8 million pixels in an 4K frame and over 1 billion colours when working with 10 bit colour precision, computers can quickly run out of processing power. Looking at these numbers, it’s easy to understand how increasing resolution, bit depth or adding effects can raise the hardware requirements of your workflow.

With all of this in mind Scan have designed the 3XS Evolve NLE series which are aimed at giving you the best performance possible. The 3XS Evolve NLE range takes all the stress out of building your own system, finding components that are compatible and getting the most out of the system. You can have peace of mind in knowing that our award winning 3XS engineers have built a range of reliable workstations that let you focus on your edit or grade without fear of dropped frames or slow playback. With our 3XS series you also get a premium 3 year warranty and over the phone assistance when setting up your system from our engineers.

Choosing the right workstation components

CPU

The CPU or “Central Processing Unit” is the core of any computer. When working in an NLE CPUs are not only running the application but are also used when encoding or decoding your files.

Video frames are encoded into a “codec” when they are created. Different codecs use different methods of compression which aim to keep as much quality as possible within the image whilst reducing the file size. For reference a single second of an HD clip, shot at 24fps, the industry standard for cinema, can leave you with a file whopping 1.49GB if left uncompressed. Considering most films are several hours long these days and not everything shot makes the final edit, we can understand why compression is necessary. The compression applied to videos involves complicated maths to reduce the file sizes, which means we need powerful processors that can decode each frame if we want to be able to view our files in real time. When it comes to rendering we then have to do the inverse and take the clips on our timeline and compress them back into whatever format is needed for your final delivery.

Which is better more cores or a higher clock speed? This is a question that is often asked and in truth the best of both worlds is always recommended. Some decoding processes can be split across multiple cores to speed up the workflow however not all codecs can scale like this so in these cases we need the cores that are being used to be as fast as possible.

Both AMD and Intel have fantastic offerings for the world of professional video with Intel’s i9 series and AMD’s Threadripper line featuring multiple cores and high clock speeds.

GPU

The GPU or Graphics Processing Unit is the component which does the majority of the work when it comes to how we process images. From driving the GUI and displaying video previews to GPU accelerated effects, the GPU is where the most intensive compute tasks take place.

Temporal processing, whereby frames either side of the one that you are currently viewing, often yields the best results. This quality increase however does require more memory as the GPU must process multiple frames rather than the single frame currently being viewed.

With the professional video world moving towards higher resolutions with the advent of 4K and now 8K, the size of the GPU becomes more important. Commonly 4GB of GPU memory is recommended for HD/2K, 8GB when working with UHD/4K and 11GB+ for 8K.

Multi GPU

Most NLEs can take advantage of multiple GPUs helping spread the processing across each card. This can be a great way of speeding up your workflow without taxing a single component and creating a bottleneck. It is worth noting however that adding more GPUs does not result in linear scaling with the law of diminishing returns ever present.

If multiple GPUs are used then it’s important not to mix and match. Mismatched GPUs can result in the most powerful GPU in the system being limited to the speed and memory of the slowest or smallest card.

OpenGL and CUDA

Both AMD and Nvidia have use specialised processing to accelerate workloads on the GPU. CUDA acceleration is being adopted widely by NLEs to speed up everything from GPU accelerated effects to AI integration for smart tools like DaVinci Resolve’s facial recognition tool which allows users to quickly tag and sort clips based on the people that appear in each scene.

Recent updates from both the GPU manufacturers and the software vendors have also lead to the inclusion of accelerated encoding and decoding H.264 and H.265 codecs.

Memory

RAM or Random Access Memory is a very fast storage component designed for quickly accessing data or files used by the system. NLEs tend to buffer data in the memory to allow for smooth playback, interactive scrubbing and overall performance benefits.

Most NLEs will benefit from 32GB of memory with higher resolutions and more complex projects needing more. A good rule of thumb is 32GB for HD/2K, 64GB for 4K and 128GB for 8K. However memory becomes more important for caching in VFX applications like After Effects or Blackmagic Fusion. These applications cache each frame into memory to allow you fast playback of your effects and compositions.

While there are various types of memory available, the vast majority of PCs sold in the last few years support only one type of memory – DDR4. This stands for Double Data Rate, with the ‘4’ meaning this is the fourth generation of DDR memory. Don’t panic though, if you have an older system that isn’t compatible with DDR4, Scan still stocks a wide range of DDR, DDR2 and DDR3 memory.

For more information on memory see our memory buyers guide.

Storage

Why is storage important?

Modern professional cinema cameras capture video with very little compression applied. Less compression means larger files to manage throughout the workflow. As an example, ProRes 422 HQ when shooting at 1080p25 10 bit creates a massive 83GB/hr. If you are at a multi camera shoot with 4 hours of content from 4 cameras = 1.32TB.

If your storage is too slow to provide the application with each frame of the video then there will be dropped frames. This can show as stuttering or flashes, which is not what you want to focus on whilst trying to be creative.

HDD, SSD or RAID

In general spinning platter HDDs are too slow for modern video workflows. SSDs offer great speed but can limit size of storage due to their price per GB. SSD however are much more reliable as there are no moving parts. Nobody wants to spend hours working on a project just for a drive to fail and to spend the next few days fretting over whether you can recover your data!

RAID arrays can use a collection of HDDs or SSDs to increase both speed and storage size. By striping data across multiple drives you can increase speed by accessing different data on each drive simultaneously. You can also choose a RAID level that includes redundancy, meaning that in the unfortunate event of a drive failure, you can quickly replace the drive and rebuild your data allowing you to have the confidence that you can get back up and running quickly

Internal VS External

Internal connections are generally the fastest way to store your data however there isn’t an unlimited number of connections on your motherboard. In cases where you need additional storage or you need mobility, external solutions are available. Connecting a Thunderbolt drive array means that you can have the speed and reliability of a RAID whilst in the field or on set.

Shared storage

Storage can be shared through the use of a NAS/SAN or by connecting a storage array to a server. This allows users to collaborate easily without the need for multiple copies of the same media. As we all know post production can be very time sensitive and having your assistants, editors and colourists all working from the same media simultaneously is one of the best ways to increase productivity.

Archiving

LTO (Linear Tape Open) tapes are an industry standard for archiving content. These are magnetic tapes used for long term storage and archiving. Whilst normal hard drives are reasonably expect to last you 3-5 years LTO drives are rated for up to 30 years!

Although LTO tapes are not designed to be a fast solution, the tapes themselves are extremely large with some even giving you up to 30TB, making archiving whole projects as easy as possible.

Video I/O

What is a video I/O device and why would I need one?

Video I/O (Input/Output) devices are hardware that are specifically designed for getting video in and out of your computer. These devices are common across every post production workflow and are what allow you to confidently monitor your timeline as you edit and grade. Connecting an I/O device to a calibrated colour critical monitor gives you the assurance that what you are seeing is the most accurate representation of your deliverables.

Not all devices support every possible frame rate and resolution, picking a device that supports what you want to achieve is important. Manufacturers like AJA, Blackmagic Design and Matrox all product a variety of I/O’s that support different connections and formats. HDMI and SDI are two of the most common connections found on I/O’s, but some also support legacy analogue connections which can allow you to ingest and archive old VHS and lay back to tape. It’s also worth noting that HDR workflows will require an HDR capable I/O.

SDI

SDI or Serial Digital Interface is the most common format in professional video. A locking BNC connector used to transmit a digital signal.

HDMI

HDMI is more common in consumer and prosumer products as it does not feature a locking connector. HDMI can however transmit a large amount of data and can even send power for certain devices.

ANALOGUE

Whilst we often think of the older RCA connections as used on older video equipment, professional equipment tends to use the same BNC connector as SDI transmission. As such it’s very important to know whether your device is outputting an analogue or digital signal from its BNCs!

FIBRE

Fibre connections can use a variety of different connectors. Often you can purchase your own SFP (Small Form-factor pluggable transceiver) which will come with a choice of connector. The important part of fibre transmission is not the connector necessarily but ensuring that the device supports the wavelength of fibre signal you are transmitting. The most common wavelength in professional video is 1310nm (nanometers).

I/O’s come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be connected to your system in nearly every way. PCIe is most common for way to add an I/O to your system desktop however if you need to be mobile, say in an on set situation, there is the possibility of USB and Thunderbolt models. Industry standard rack mount units can even be added to your DIT cart.

How is the interface being connected to the computer?

 

THUNDERBOLT

This high-bandwidth Intel technology is currently installed on the newest Mac computers. It’s also found on PCs equipped with Thunderbolt add-on cards. It offers excellent data transfer rates and very low latency performance for the most demanding computer-based recording.

USB

USB2 ports are present on most computers and offer the slowest of all the connections. USB3 offers much faster data transfer speeds and is becoming the standard on most modern computers as well as on many newer interfaces. Many USB interfaces draw their power directly from the computer, requiring no external power supply.

PCI Express (PCIE)

This is an internal card-based computer connection platform that’s found in desktop computers. As PCIe connections provide high data bandwidth and low latency, PCIE-E interfaces are capable of handling many simultaneous inputs and outputs.

Whatever your workflow, from ingest to export, there is an I/O device that suits your needs.

Monitoring

Your choice of monitor is important depending on your workflow. Many editors simply require a confidence monitor to check for obvious visual errors however colour critical workflows rely on a high quality calibrated/calibratable monitor to ensure accuracy in delivery. In either situation being able to view your content is key.

Using a video I/O allows you to output an image from your NLE to your monitor but if you have are working on high resolution content then you want to be able to see the whole image without scaling it down to fit your display. There are a range of high-end GUI and colour critical displays available so how do you know which one suits your needs?

Colour critical monitors should cover the full or nearly all of the colour space you are working in and delivering to. If you are looking to deliver for cinema then your display should be capable of displaying the P3 colour space whereas broadcast deliveries are almost always Rec. 709. It’s important to see your colours accurately otherwise your delivered product may not look like you expect it to. Colour critical displays all have the ability to be calibrated either manually or through the use of lookup tables (LUTs).

Probes and calibration software can be used to ensure your monitor is within specification. Calibration software will output coloured patches to your monitor which the probe will then monitor and examine to determine and calculate what adjustments need to be made to represent colours accurately.

If you are planning to deliver High Dynamic Range or HDR content then an HDR capable monitor, after all, how can you deliver if you don’t know what your image will look like? HDR monitors are an exception to the requirement to support the full delivery colour space as there is no monitor currently capable of displaying the full Rec. 2020 space.