Workstation on a Budget

As part of my Tickle King documentary project it became necessary for me to put together a better home edit suite than my laptop. It’s been a long time since I actually needed anything with any real power at home, so I needed to start from scratch.

I’ve built plenty of computers in the past, and postulated about building others, but this is the first one I’ve actually put together for the purposes of editing in quite a long time. I figured I’d detail exactly what I built and share the outcome.

Starting Point

Once you’ve stopped paying attention to the industry specifics of CPUs and motherboards for a few months or more it can become very hard to gauge value and performance across the wide range of hardware available.

While there are plenty of websites detailing benchmarks and so much more it’s ultimately a little futile trying to really understand it all – in the end different applications are going to utilise hardware differently.

Knowing that I’d never really make the objectively ideal choice I just picked a couple of very simple targets: An Intel processor and an NVidia graphics card.

That’s it.

I know that Avid performs best on Intel and NVidia hardware, and the Adobe suite also does well with that combo. I’m know there are fantastic offerings from AMD also, but I’m less confident in their support within the tools I need.

The Processor

Intel makes a lot of processors. In high-end workstations you’ll see their Xeon range, but for a more budget friendly approach the Intel Core range (i3, i5 and i7) processors are the best option.

In broad terms the performance for that range gets bigger as the number increases, so an i7 is the top of the line, while an i3 is at the bottom. Within the specific family there are multiple models, broadly the faster clock-speed (GHz) and higher processor model number is better, but there are other factors – this is where all the many CPU benchmark sites could be helpful, but are also likely to confuse.

In the end I opted for the Core i7-4790 3.6GHz processor which is close to the top of the i7 range. Another very popular option is the i7-4770K – the K designates that it is ‘unlocked’ and can be overclocked to run faster (with more cooling) – there is also the i7-4790K.

The Graphics Card

Basically any NVidia gaming card should deliver a reasonable amount of power for editing applications (Adobe’s tools will use it best).

I went for a GTX 760 with 2GB of RAM. It’s a mid-range gaming card that offers great CUDA performance.

The RAM

More RAM is better. I opted for 16GB, although was seriously considering 32GB (the maximum for the motherboard and CPU). I decided that 16GB was likely to be sufficient for the moment.

The RAM is four 4GB DDR3 1600MHz modules.

I ended up with G.SKILL Ares modules, but any suitable modules from a decent brand should be fine (search reviews online if you’re unsure).

You could equally choose to have just two 8GB modules, making a future upgrade to 32GB simpler, however I prefer to have identical modules so it’s usually easier to completely replace the existing modules when upgrading rather than trying to find exactly matched ones to add.

The SSD

And here’s where I went wrong.

Possibly twice.

Initially I figured I’d be okay with a spinning drive for the system disc and opted for just a simple 1TB 7,200RPM harddrive, the computer had plenty of RAM and processor power after all. I was wrong.

An SSD, even in a brand new computer, makes a huge difference. So I headed back to the store and picked up a 120GB Samsung 840 EVO SSD (the same model I have in my laptop, so I trust it).

Using the provided Samsung Migration tool I was easily able to move the Windows installation from the spinning drive to the SSD. Performance was immediately improved!

But I should have got a bigger one! With only Windows 7 SP1, Avid Media Composer, and a handful of Adobe products installed I’ve already used about 80GB, leaving only about 30GB extra space (the 120GB is more like 110GB when using real Gigabytes).

That’s a problem I can easily solve later, of course.

The Motherboard

To tie it all together I need a motherboard. There’s so so many to choose from – I honestly don’t even know where to start.

While I’m sure there are many factors that could be considered, I decided that I was most interested in SATA capacity and having at least a little expansion ability.

I ended up with the Gigabyte GA-B85M-D3H – A B85-chipset motherboard that offers me 6x SATA ports (Four are SATA3, and two are SATA2) and four PCIe slots (two are x16 slots required by graphics cards). It also features a couple of USB3 ports.

The Rest

Beyond those things the rest is a little inconsequential.

I also added a pair of 2TB 7200RPM drives for various media and data storage internally and the entire thing is built into a mid-sized Cooler Master case with a 600W power supply (I have a Zalman ZM600-GV, but that’s similar).

Because I like to be a little bit retro I also have a DVD drive.

To be able to see everything I also picked up a pair of 22″ LG monitors. In the end you can spend a LOT more money on monitors, but I’m not planning to do much colour critical work so my requirements were simple (in this case basically the cheapest 22″ 1920×1080 monitor I could get in the store). I also like to make sure monitors are compatible with VESA mounting so that I can use something like a dual monitor support later if I choose.

I also picked up a simple Logitech wireless mouse/keyboard combo – I have yet to decide if I want to add an application-specific keyboard. And a very cheap pair of speakers so I could hear what I was editing – I have no need for critical audio monitor at this stage, so simple is fine.

The Cost

I sourced everything for my system from local supplier PB Technology and paid around NZ$2,200 for everything (US$1,915) but I’ve linked to products on Amazon here – from there the total is under US$1,650 for the items I’ve mentioned. I already had a copy of Windows 7 Professional for it, but you’d need to buy that or Windows 8.1 

The Performance

So does it work? Well, I’ve yet to really use it “in anger” but from the first few hours of use the answer is “yes” – it’s fast and runs smoothly.

Media Composer 7, Adobe’s Premiere, Photoshop and After Effects products all work well and don’t throw up any errors or disable any features.

Using the NovaBench software the system scores 2071 across all measurements, and gets a 7.8 (from a maximum 7.9) on Windows’ built-in benchmarking tool. For comparison the Dual-Xeon Z800 I use on a daily basis at work scores 1372 on NovaBench and 5.9 on the Windows benchmark.

Ultimately benchmark tests like this aren’t necessarily applicable to everyday use of specific application, but they do provide a decent insight to overall performance.

In this case it seems safe to say that a fairly minimal expenditure has created a solid workstation.

What’s Missing

The work I’m doing on this system at home doesn’t require any tape-based I/O or broadcast colour monitoring so I currently have no video monitoring or output setup. However I could easily add a PCIe card from Blackmagic, AJA or Matrox. There’s also the option to use USB3.

This system doesn’t have Thunderbolt. Most Windows workstations don’t. It’s probably possible to find a suitable motherboard that does offer it, but I have no Thunderbolt hardware, and I’m not expecting any, so it wasn’t a concern for me.

I haven’t tried DaVinci Resolve on the machine, but in the event that I wanted to go that way I could add a second GPU for additional processing power (although it may be necessary to upgrade the power supply).

Support

This computer does not qualify as a supported system for Avid Media Composer. So far as I’ve been able to tell so far it works just fine for Media Composer, but if you have a support contract with Avid then this could be an issue.

As you’re putting it together yourself you have no one to call for support. If the computer breaks you’ll have to fix it.

While the parts all come with their own warranties, it’s still up to you to find the problem and go through the warranty process.

It’s Not a Mac

Nope. It’s not.

I haven’t tested, but from a cursory look at some of the various Hackintosh resources it seems that this build should be a candidate for Hackintosh conversion, but then again I could have overlooked something.

Overall

In the end I’m delighted with what I’ve managed to put together with a modest budget. It will easily perform the tasks I need it to, and has scope to do even more with only minor upgrades.

Compared to the last time I built a machine specifically for this purpose it was a breeze getting this one together.

If you want a more detailed guide and some well tested video workstation builds then I always recommend the VideoGuys DIY builds – they really spend the time to research those and they know the market when it comes to video post-production.

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  • philipnewmannz

    I have 6 SSD’s in a raid configuration so if one of the SSD’s die you can swap it without losing anything significant. I only use spinning drives for longer term storage as I still don’t fully trust SSD’s.

    • http://dylanreeve.com/ Dylan Reeve

      I’d love to have the budget for something like that. As it is I cheaped out on the SSD and probably got one that was too small.

      Also that motherboard doesn’t really have the SATA capacity for an array like that, and has no hardware RAID support. Although a simple mirrored set would also offer decent redundancy.