Build a Workstation Designed to Edit Digital Video
A Radified Guide

Posted: 11jun00
Updated: 15sep00

Intro Part 1 Intro Part 2 Hardware 1 Hardware 2 Linkage

08sep2001 - Update: I plan to update this article soon. Things change fast in the world of non-linear editing. We've learned much since this was written last year. But this will still give you a good idea of what's involved in you want to build a workstation designed to edit digital video.

I'm happy to say that we've finally found NLE nirvana. The long & painful journey seems almost worth it now. One of the things that helped to make editing video an enjoyable experience is Windows 2000 Pro. This operating system is so much more stable that the Win9x variety. I should have the article revamped by January, 2002.

Editing can be a wonderful thing, or it can be a nightmare. Many factors contribute to creating an enjoyable editing experience. Key items that can help make editing a joy, instead of a nightmare are: 

update 17nov2001 - We just installed Avid Xpress DV v2.0. It's having a problem locating a compatible sound card (we have SB Live! Value), but otherwise, it seems to be running okay. Note that this is not a real-time editing solution, like the Matrox RT2500, but Avid is considered a professional editing solution. I guess you can't have everything.

Many people ask about Macs. We're currently using a Mac G4 with Final Cut Pro to edit Tania's project titled Seahorses. She has an external, 75GB Firewire hard drive for the 12-minute project, in addition to the internal drive (I don't know what's inside). The Firewire drive is basically an IDE hard drive (performance) with a Firewire controller strapped to it. It has already died once, and needed to be replaced.

As far as editing programs go, we prefer Final Cut Pro to Adobe Premiere. But Final Cut Pro doesn't support real-time editing (at not on Tania's G4). This wouldn't have been such a problem if we didn't first get used to editing in real-time, without having to wait for transitions. The G4-based FCP also doesn't use the blazing-fast SCSI drives in the RT2000-based real-time system. 

If we could edit with use the RT2000 with the SCSI drives with FCP, we'd be pretty dang happy. Not that Premiere sucks, it doesn't. We simply prefer FCP's editing interface. 

We have not edited enough with Avid Xpress DV v2.0 to comment on it. Avid is considered a *professional* editing solution, so we expect great things from it. But, like I said, we just installed it recently, and haven't had a chance to play with it. We also want to the official Avid keyboard.

Update 06june2002 - We have been using Avid XpressDV v3.0. This is a great product. Avid was feeling the heat from Apple's Final Cut Pro and included lots of features in v3.0. After using both FCP & Avid, we much prefer Avid. Check out the Avid forums here, at for help. You can get a student copy for $499

The best thing about learning Avid is that the skill will allow you can get an editing job, if you become proficient, cuz the interface is so similar to the full-blown Avid editing workstations. If you simply want to edit your home movies, and have no desire to 'go pro', Avid is probably not for you. It all depends on what you want to do. If you're serious about editing, Avid is the only way to go. Avid forums are here.

For using the Avid software, all you need is this Firewire card, which costs only $49. I use this card. Since Avid is software-based, CPU horsepower becomes more of an issue. They claim 'real-time', but you'll need a decent CPU. To see what I'm using, see here (P4-1.6A @2138MHz). See here for books on editing. We like the one by Tony Solomons.

A special keyboard, which contains keys identifying most of the common shortcuts, is also available for Avid XpressDV. We purchase it, but have found it to be of dubious value, since you can program your regular keyboard to use the Avid keyboard shortcuts. The KB plugs into a USB port, which is more problematic than the standard serial port. 

You can use both keyboards simultaneously. Sometimes the Avid USB keyboard will quit working for no apparent reason. A restart is required to make it work again. But you definitely want to get off the mouse and use the KB shortcuts. One good thing about the special Avid KB, other than how it allows you to learn the shortcuts quickly, is that it makes you *look* like more of an editor. In other words, if you're soliciting your work, and people see you with that special keyboard, you'll look more professional. But other than that, I wouldn't recommend it.

We have fallen in love with the following hard disk configuration: 18GB Seagate Cheetah X15-36LP as system/boot drive; 36GB Maxtor Atlas 10K III as dedicated capture drive (single large NTFS partition); two 120GB ATA/IDE drives for plenty of cheap storage. Any manufacturer will do: we use IBM 120GXP with no problems. Everybody loves the new drives from Western Digital. Can't go wrong with Seagate. This high-performance configuration is not necessary, but works wonderfully.


Intro Part 1

The following represents findings from building a PC designed to edit digital video (DV) on the Windows platform, at the prosumer level. Items originated from emails to friends wishing to do the same. Purpose is to share what I’ve learned & generate good karma in the eternal quest for NLE nirvana. 

Built the system January, '99 & tried numerous performance upgrades, culminating with the RT2000 (Matrox real-time editing card). Can say that editing video is now an enjoyable thing. Worked out all the kinks & have the system purring like a kitty. Note that I built the system before Win2K was out, which offers dual-CPU support, and is much easier to configure NT. 

So if you're building today, check out dual-CPU motherboards & see if that is something you want to pursue. I'm particularly interested in the Serverworks chipset offering dual socket 370 support with an AGP slot. I heard the AGP implementation of Serverworks chipsets is *not* very good. But, first on to the stuff I have actual experience with.

* Non-linear editing (NLE) is not easy for a PC. It’s probably the single most demanding workstation app, cuz it employs so many different technologies (at once). Consequently, editing video on a PC can be frustrating - especially if you want to do it on a serious level. Only in the last year or so has mainstream PC hardware become powerful enough to build yourself a decent video-editing system without it costing a small fortune. As little as two years ago, a system designed to edit video (seriously) would've put a (serious) hurtin’ on your wallet.

* You can still spend US$65K on a dedicated, turnkey, closed-architecture system from the folks at Avid or Media100. (the Avid Express DV, which comes with an IBM Intellistation, goes for ~US$8750, & is not too shabby, but is dedicated to editing). Avid is generally considered the best video-editing system you can get - if money is no object. 

But most of us don't have that kind of broccoli stashed in the sock drawer - nor can most of us afford to dedicate a system solely for editing video. Most home users still need their PCs for all the other functions required by the typical SOHO user - not to mention online gaming for the kids. So we try to select components that maximize performance within our own particular budgetary constraints.

* Inside any issue of DV magazine, you'll find several places advertising systems built to tailored specs. To make it worth their while, they'll charge you a premium on the parts you select & a fee to put it all together. I have no experience with any of these places, nor have I heard from anyone who has, but I’d expect them to do a good job, or they wouldn’t still be in business.

* Personally, I've never much enjoyed dealing with tech support folks. I can certainly empathize with having to deal with an endless stream of frustrated people & their (frustrating) problems, but I hate when some jerk, who may be having a bad hair day, treats me like an idiot. Some tech sppt people are worth their weight in microchips, but I seem to get the ones who are are downright inept. 

Deal with a few of these TS people, who's only solution seems to be, "Looks like you're going to have to reformat the hard drive .." and you'll soon see why I decided to bite the bullet & learn for myself how a computer works, & (more importantly) how to keep it running. Then I built one myself - from scratch. 

It's a sweet feeling, working on a PC you designed and built yourself. It's not as difficult as it might sound. After that, I researched & built one designed to edit video. My point is that, if you want to edit video seriously, you’re gonna have to learn your way around a PC - and learn it well - or your editing is likely to be filled with frustrating problems. Word to the wise.

* But chances are, if you’re even thinking about editing video, you already know your way around a PC pretty well. If not, there are many good books available. I read Peter Norton’s book Guide to Upgrading and Repairing PCs. Took it to Yosemite one summer, & read it for two week’s worth afternoons at the campsite. Provided me with a good technical foundation from which to pursue video-editing. Before the book, I was a clueless newbie about PCs.

* There are also many online PC hardware forums - also called bulletin board services (bbs) - where you can post detailed questions & get timely replies from a variety of users – 24/7. They might not all agree on the best solution (probably won't), but at least you're not left without (tech) support should you decide to build your own box. 

The level of specialized knowledge of the people who frequent these forums never ceases to amaze me - and they’ll never put you on hold. I’ll drop a few links at the end. If you build your own box, you’ll learn much in the process, which will put you in good stead to resolve the inevitable glitches that arise.

* Note that building your own box does not necessarily save you money, but rather allows you to select premium components at mainstream prices - typically better quality (& Performance) than those that come in Dell, Micron or Gateways machines (who buy in volume). One major advantage of building your won is that upgrading (your home-built beast) will be easier than upgrading your store-bought box, which are typically designed for an average 2-3 years of use, then they want you to buy a (whole) new one. 

I could get long-winded here, cuz I started with a Micron PC, and found upgrading it a bear. But I'll move on. You can get the best prices by using price-comparison services like Pricewatch or CNET’s Shopper.

Next -> [Build a Workstation Designed to Edit Digital Video - Intro Part 2]

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