Is your workstation just not fast enough to do what you want? Perhaps it is time for a new computer or maybe just an upgrade.
Mac or PC?
The first question you should ask yourself is if you are a Mac or a PC user. For those on the fence, here's a brief overview. In recent years, the distinction between a Mac and a PC has blurred. Both a Mac and a PC use the same hardware with the distinction of a chip on the motherboard that allows Mac software to run. The Mac and Windows OS were both unstable in the past, but are now reliable. Mac will run Windows with its unique Bootcamp software, increasing the available software a Mac can use. Both Windows and Mac have copied popular program features from each other. You can even modify your Windows layout to look like a Mac. Essentially, if you can do it on a PC, you can do it on a Mac and vice versa. There are, of course, some exceptions, where programs like Adobe CS4 may be more stable on a Mac. There is also the popular Final Cut Pro, which is available only on a Mac. The big difference between the two, however, is the price tag. A Mac, with the same hardware as a PC, can cost up to double. If you're on a tight budget, a Mac may not be right for you. If you've got money to spend and like the Mac design, then it may be worth a shot.
Desktop or Notebook
As technology has been progressing, the performance difference between a notebook and desktop has narrowed. Workstation graphics cards are now available in notebooks, along with some of the fastest quad core processors. The main bottleneck with a notebook is the hard drive. The obvious distinction is that a desktop hard drive can hold more data. The not-so-obvious difference is the read speed. A standard 5400rpm notebook drive can transfer 60MB/s. More expensive 7200rpm notebook drives can get up to 90MB/s. A standard desktop drive, however, can get over 100MB/s. This will affect how long it takes Windows to boot and programs to load. An otherwise fast notebook may appear slow just because of these load times. The final difference, and sometimes the most important, is that hard drives are not meant to be moved around. Dropping a notebook or carrying it around can cause damage to the hard drive that can result in loss of your data. If you do video editing, you will most likely need an external hard drive to back up all of your data. Desktops are faster, cheaper and more stable than laptops. However, laptops can still get the job done.
To Build or Not to Build?
There are a lot of great companies out there that will build a PC for you. Some specialize in making custom gaming and video editing PCs, like iBuypower and Polywell. Other companies, like Dell, HP and Sony, have less specialization but will still get the job done. All of these companies are out to make money, so it will cost more than building it from pieces. It is a lot easier, though, to have a computer assembled and delivered to your front door. If you are on a budget, there are great sites like www.newegg.com and www.pricewatch.com that will help you find the parts you need to build your computer. All new parts and PCs are covered under warranty, so if it breaks, you can always return it. Building a PC is not hard, but if you have never done it before read some tutorials first.
The Blue Screen of Death
In the past, Windows has had a few blunders in its operating system releases. Windows 7 is the OS that fixes a lot problems of the past. There is a lot that can be said about it, but if you are getting a new PC, all you really need to know is to get it. Both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 are available. 32-bit Windows 7 is faster but only supports up to 4GB of RAM. 4GB may currently be acceptable, but future programs will use more and more memory; for this reason, 64-bit Windows is the best choice for a workstation computer. If you have an older PC and want to upgrade to Windows 7, make sure to have over 1GB of memory. The biggest drawback to Windows 7 is it forces users to use the Vista style layout. Everything from Windows XP is still there, but it may take some digging to find it.
Central Processing Unit
Everybody enjoys bragging rights about having the newest and greatest computer. Those bragging rights come with a hefty price tag, and the performance-to-price ratio may not always provide the best value. A cheap $400 quad core computer with onboard video is all a person really needs in order to edit video. For those who want bragging rights about how fast their editing computer is, there are a few things to know.
First off, a lot of people seem to think that the most expensive processor must be the best. The most expensive processor that Intel makes is its server grade Xeon processor. Keep in mind that Xeons were designed for servers, not for an editing computer. In video editing and gaming benchmarks we have performed, an Intel Core i7 is not only faster but also cheaper than a comparable Xeon processor. In short, if you want a fast computer, buy an Intel Core i7. If you want a cheaper fast computer, buy an Intel Core 2 Quad or an AMD Phenom quad core.
RAM or Random Access Memory has been exponentially increasing in size. Samsung currently makes a 16GB DDR3 memory stick but just because the grass looks greener on the other side doesn't mean it is better. To quickly check how much RAM you really need, load up all the programs normally used in Windows. Press Ctrl-Alt-Delete and start the Windows Task Manager. Once inside, go to the Performance tab. You will be able to see the total Physical Memory and how much is free. If you have free memory, then there's not much need to upgrade. If most of your memory is being used, upgrading to more memory may be beneficial. Having a lot of unused memory doesn't benefit system performance at all. A typical video-editing computer shouldn't need over 8GB of RAM with 4GB being acceptable.
The type of video card you put in your computer is dependent on what type of work is done with the workstation. For pure video editing with programs like Adobe CS4, a nice video card is not required. When using programs like Maya, Lightwave and 3d Studio Max, an editing video card like the ATI FirePro or NVIDIA Quadro will greatly improve performance. For an in-depth look at how video cards affect workstation performance, take a look at the ATI Video Card Comparison article.
External backup hard drives have become increasingly popular over the years. The most important thing to remember is that these are backups. External hard drives are sensitive - one drop and the drive may never turn on again. If you don't have room on your computer's hard drive to store everything, an extra DVD or Blu-ray Disc backup may be a good idea. For those who are more advanced, setting up a RAID 1 or 5 can be a faster, more reliable decision. The RAID ensures that, if one of the hard drives fail, there will be a backup drive with all the data on it. This gets rid of all the headaches of having to back up your data, but it limits how much data you can have by how big your hard drives are.
The Bottom Line
A good editing computer should be running a quad core processor, not a Xeon, with 4GB to 8GB of RAM. The operating system should be either Windows 7 64-bit or Mac OSX. It should have 1TB or more of hard drive space for storing video and an equally-sized backup drive. An expensive video card is not needed for editing, but it does boost performance in 3D modeling programs like Maya. Desktops are preferable to notebooks for editing computers, due to decreased cost and increased performance. Notebooks can still make good editing computers if you are willing to pay extra.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Workstation Manufacturer's list.
Lance Olinger is Videomaker's IT Assistant.