Build a Workstation Designed to Edit Digital Video

Intro Part 1 Intro Part 2 Hardware 1 Hardware 2 Linkage

Hardware Part 1

* CPU: See my article on the Intel Northwood Pentium 4 CPU for my latest thought on this topic (17nov2001). 

Can never have too much CPU horsepower – at least not when it comes to editing video. No matter how fast your processor is, you can always use more. High-end video-editing systems typically use a dual-CPU set-up, on Windows NT. Windows 2000 is based on the same NT design (kernel), but is easier to configure (than NT).

This should make it the ideal platform for the home enthusiast to edit video. We currently dual-boot W98/SE & Win2000, but Matrox has not yet released RT2000 drivers for Win2000. Rumor has it this should arrive by end of year. Matrox is notorious for letting release dates slip. We have our fingers crossed.

* We currently use the P3-700 over-clocked to 938MHz. The money we saved on the CPU went into an upgrade for a 10Krpm SCSI-based system, which made editing life much more enjoyable. Upgrading from a 7200rpm IDE/ATA boot drive to a 10Krpm LVD SCSI boot drive was a much more dramatic upgrade than when we upgraded the CPU from C300a @ 464MHz (to P3-700 @ 938MHz).  

* The latest Intel ‘stepping’ of the P3 is cB0. Steppings are updates to CPUs that correct what is called errata (what we commonly known as ‘bugs’). If you purchase your own CPU(s), get the latest stepping. The next P3 stepping after cB0 is scheduled to be released mid November, and will be cC0. It might take a month or two for these to actually hit the store shelves. So if you’re building a system in November or later, ask around and see if for CPUs with cC0 stepping.

* Motherboard: If you choose a dual-CPU set-up, I heard that Tyan makes the best dual-CPU mobo’s, altho I have heard some complaints about Tyan quality. Supermicro and Asus also make quality dual-CPU mobo’s. Asus is the largest manufacturer of motherboards in the world.

* We currently use the Asus CUSL2, based on the, Intel 815e chipset. If you read my ditty on the Intel Northwood Pentium 4 CPU, you know I like the Asus P4T-E right now (18 nov2001). Make sure the board you get is approved by your editing card manufacturer. [I have begun updating small parts of this guide.]

* Ever since Win2000 arrived (with SMP support), we’ve been looking at a dual-CPU solution. As the time of this writing (June, 2000), the Tyan Tiger 100 (rev ‘F’, ~$160) mobo looks to be the best dual-CPU solution available. Most of the high-end video- and audio-editing apps made by companies like Adobe and Sonic Foundry are already coded for SMP (Symmetric Multi-Processing), which means they take advantage of a dual-CPU system. 

At this time, selecting a dual-CPU motherboard is not easy.

* A dual-CPU set-up is not quite as cool as it sounds. It's not like, you drop in another CPU, and your performance instantly doubles. But those who have dual-CPU systems say you definitely notice the improvement, especially in CPU-intensive apps like Adobe After Effects. But even if you see (only) a 50% increase in certain functions, that can certainly make editing life much more enjoyable. 

* RAM: We noticed a large performance increase after upgrading from 128 to 256MB. I heartily recommend 256. 128 will work, but 256 will work much better. I'd dare say that 384 would be even better, but have no experience with more than 256. Editing video will use pretty-much whatever you have - especially as the timelines grows.

* All our RAM is from Mushkin. They have the best service of any online company I've ever dealt with, and they offer products at many different price/performance points. Mushkin doesn't make the RAM chips themselves; rather, they design & put the chips (that they buy from a variety of RAM-chip manufacturers) on the boards that become RAM modules (or 'sticks'). I like Mushkin sticks with Samsung chips, cuz Samsung invented DRAM - they must know a little something about it.  

* Although not necessary, it's best to get identical RAM sticks, if you need more than one. I heard it’s better to get two 128MB sticks, rather than a single 256MB stick. 

* The problem with ‘bargain basement’ RAM is that, if you have a problem with it, you don't always know it, and RAM probs can manifest themselves in many spurious/random/weird ways. This might be fine for the typical user, but if you wanna edit video, you’ll have enough chances to run into problems without defective RAM. 

Typically, you need to bring your RAM to a place that has the equipment necessary to test it – to see if it’s defective. So we suggest you spend a little extra & get quality RAM. But you don't need the 'ECC' stuff (error-correcting). I recommend nothing less than PC133-spec, especially since it doesn’t cost much more expensive than PC100 RAM. 

Some PC100 RAM is rejected PC133 RAM. Of course, don’t interpret this to mean that you can’t have any probs with quality RAM – only that you’ll have less chance of probs. If can afford to edit video, you can afford the extra $10 or $15 to buy brand-name RAM modules, and you don’t need the top-of-the-line stuff, either.

*Rambus RAM is the new stuff everyone’s talking about. It’s still too expensive to even talk about – despite recent price drops. Rambus, the company, doesn’t actually manufacture any RAM; they merely license the technology for (other) RAM manufacturers to use. Prices of 128MB Rambus sticks (RIMMs) from Mushkin, with Samsung chips, are still ~$600 – about half of what they used to be – but still about four or five times the prices of PC133. The performance of Rambus DRAM is not significantly faster than regular DRAM.

* Hard drives: A separate hard drive, dedicated solely for video/AVI files, as a capture drive, is almost a necessity. I don't know anyone who uses the same hard drive to run both their OS *and* capture video. That's asking a bit much of a hard drive.

* Speaking of hard drives, we noticed a wonderful performance improvement after upgrading the system/boot (not capture) drive from IDE to 10Krpm LVD SCSI. Unfortunately, this is not a cheap upgrade, but if u can swing the price to set-up your system to boot from a 10Krpm LVD SCSI hard drive, editing video suddenly becomes much more enjoyable. If not the latest 7200rpm IDE drives still get the job done, though not quite as vigorously.

* SCSI vs IDE is a subject of heated debate. I think that part of the problem stems from the fact that people tend to hear what they want to hear - & when they hear that current generation IDE drives are capable of sustaining data x-fer rates greater than the 3.6MB/s required to capture/output DV, (b-cuz IDE drives are less expensive) they interpret that to mean “you won’t have any problems capturing video with an IDE drive”. 

This is not necessarily so - which is why most capture card manufacturers recommend a dedicated (A/V-rated) SCSI capture drive -> cuz they know you’ll have less problems with one. Less probs for you means less probs for them. On the other hand, don’t interpret this to mean that you won’t have any problems capturing to a SCSI hard drive either - you simply have less chance of problems capturing to a SCSI hard drive.

* We use a separate 10Krpm (9-gig) LVD SCSI drive to run the operating system (Win98/SE & Win2K), applications (including Adobe Premiere), the swap file (part of the OS that uses hard disk space as RAM), and scratch disc functions (kinda like a swap file for the editing app). We use a 2nd, separate hard drive dedicated for the actual, captured, video/AVI files themselves (which, naturally, go on the capture drive). 

We use a third, separate hard drive for all associated audio/sound files and graphics. So yes, we use three separate 10Krpm LVS SCSI beasts to edit real-time. It works and it works well. Do you need this? No. Is it nice? Yes. 

* Whenever you can get two or more (physical) hard drives to do the work normally done by one, you’ll notice a performance increase. 

* Regarding the capture drive (not system/boot drive), the performance of (less expensive) IDE/ATA drives has significantly improved over the past few years. These drives are well-capable to serve as a capture drive. Yet we still chose a SCSI drive as a dedicated capture drive. The advantages of a SCSI drive is related more to the bus or the interface than the drive itself. 

The non-multitasking IDE interface has a greater chance to be interrupted during the capture process, which can result in dropped frames and other problems. This is why some of my friends who have IDE drives as their capture drives still have an occasional problem with dropped frames, even though their drives are (physically) more-than-capable of writing the 3.6MB/s that DV requires. Because it's not the maximum data x-fer rate that counts - it's the minimum

If today's IDE/ATA drives can x-fer at 30MB/s, and DV only requires 3.6MB/s, why do they still (sometimes) have trouble dropping frames? Because IDE/ATA drives are not capable of multitasking/multithreaded. And if another function wants to use/access the drive while you're capturing or outputting video -> glitch, click, pop, dropped frames. 

So, as far as capability is concerned, IDE drives are more than adequate, but the IDE interface can be more problematic than the multitasking-capable SCSI. In other words, if low on cash, get an IDE drive, but if you can afford it, a SCSI drive will have a better chance of worry-free capture. Again, this is a topic of often-heated debate. Your mileage may vary.

* A SCSI interface allows you to connect up to 15 devices, whereas, with IDE/ATA, you're typically limited to 4. For a SCSI adapter, we use the Tekram DC390-U2W (not the U2B). It installs surprisingly easy, comes with all the cables and terminators you'll ever need, and is significantly less expensive that the Adaptec counterpart. 

It's performance has been benchmarked equal to or better than the Adaptec counterpart. The only thing bad about Tekram is that their sppt blows chunks, but you can get better sppt at hardware forums online. If you gotta have the sppt, go with Adaptec. Another unexpected benefit of an LVD SCSI adapter is that it lets you use much longer lengths of cabling. 

IDE devices are typically limited to 18- or 24-inch cables. Whereas LVD cables can be up to 12 meters in long. You won't need 12 meters, but if you like to edit video, you're going to want/need lots of hard drive space - which means lots of hard drives. The longer LVD cables give you more room to work with when adding additional hard drives.

* VideoGuys has a nice piece about various storage solutions for various needs. See here.

* Can't recommend anything smaller than a 9-gigger as a capture drive. Since DV takes about 4 1/2 minutes per gig, 9 gigs will buy you enough space for about 40 minutes of video storage. We use an 18-gigger, which holds double than much. But if there's one thing for certain, it's that you'll always want more. 

It can be agonizing to have to delete all the files associated with a certain project, in order to make room for the next. 36 gigs dedicated solely for video/AVI files would not be hard to fill.

* We have two (relatively cheap) IDE/ATA drives that we use for basic storage needs - like games, MP3s, back-up files, encoded MPEGs, graphics, etc. That makes two IDE drives (for general/cheap storage), and two SCSI drives (to do the real editing work) .. for a total of ~100 gigs, and we're full to the brim. The message is that you can never have too much disk space. That's the #1 rule of editing video.

* IDE and SCSI drives will peacefully co-exist in the same system. When setting up a multi-interface system, although not absolutely necessary, it wouldn't be a bad idea to use hard drives from a single manufacturer. I like hard drives manufactured by IBM (they invented the hard disk drive), but this is merely personal preference. Seagate also makes great drives, and is currently the biggest supplier of hard drives in the world. That’s saying something. 

Their Cheetah line has been a perennial favorite of the performance crowd. Using drives from the same manufacturer minimizes the chance of compatibility conflicts. Building an NLE system will present you with plenty of chances for conflicts .. you won't need any extras. Most feel that IBM makes the best IDE drives, while Seagate makes the best SCSI drives.

* Hard drive coolers: Are like insurance: hopefully you never have to use, but they’re too cheap to live without the protection they offer. All 10Krpm drives should be cooled. They cost too much to risk burning up. I use the twin-fan Bay Cooler from PC Power & Cooling, which fits into a 5.25-inch drive bay. It’s one of the more expensive models, selling for ~$35. Chose it cuz it was rated ‘quietest of the group’. Having a bunch of ‘em, (multiple hard drives) means noise becomes an issue. 

I'm of the opinion that your boot drive should be cooled no matter what interface or speed it is, cuz that’s the drive that does most of the work, and therefore, generates the most heat. Heat is what kills a hard drive, & a boot drive hurts too much to lose. Only had this happen once, but it was enough to make a believer out of me. 

Overnight, I became Capt. Backup, but I was never satisfied until I found Ghost (thx to Ducky). Drives that sit higher in your case will get hotter, cuz heat rises, & the top of the case will be warmer/hotter than the bottom. Therefore, drives that will be mounted higher in the case deserve a cooler b4 those that living below. 

* Good place to discuss Ghost. If there’s one secret I learned to making desktop video-editing work, it's Symantec’s Norton Ghost - a nifty little program that runs out of true DOS (Start | Shutdown | Restart in MS-DOS mode, or boot from DOS floppy). Ghost creates an image of your boot drive/partition you can use to restore your system, should you ever have a problem you can’t fix (you will). 

Ghost uses this stored image of your system to restores your computer to the exact state it was in when you created the image (I image ~every 2 weeks). Without Ghost, you might have to reformat and go back to square one -> reinstalling OS & apps. Do this a few times after working your ass off to get everything running, & you’ll soon lose the desire to edit anything. I wrote up a nifty little guide for computer-illiterate friends & posted it here -> Radified Guide to Norton Ghost. 

* Case: If you want to edit video, you'll need lots of hard drive space. Video files eat hard drive for lunch. If you run many hard drives, you'll want/need a nice, big, roomy, full-tower, ATX case. If your video files are important to you, you'll want to cool the drives containing your video files. If you cool many drives, then you'll need a case with plenty of 5.25-inch drive bays. 

See the Radified recording & editing workstation for one with eight 5.25-inch drive bays.  If you run many hard drives, you'll want a power supply unit w/ at least 300 watts. We use a 350w ATX TurboCool made by the folks at PC Power & Cooling. My electrician friend said they have the best specs. Also heard good things about power supplies by Sparkle, and cases by CalPC. A 400w PSU would not be extravagant. Most video-editing rigs are chocked full of hard drives w/ all PCI slots full - all sucking power. 

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

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