RAM, CPU, PCI-E, Gigabit vs. Gigabyte. Eesh! Any of these terms sound confusing and intimidating? You’re not alone. But don’t worry, you don’t need to be an electronic engineer to build your own PC. You only need to know about a few key components, and what to look for.
What’s so special about video editing computers anyway?
Multimedia pushes a computer right to the edge of what current technology can handle. As the tech gets better, people who create the software make it push the hardware just that much further. The original DVDs had everyone going “ooh.” Now, when you put it next to a Blu-ray, you go “ew.” Why? Because the Blu-ray pushes much more information through. By the time you get to the screen, you have more dots, more color space, and more efficient compression than before. More data equals better picture. More data also equals more computing power required.
PC Building 101
Every PC, Mac, Linux machine, or even netbook, is made up of the same types of components. Putting these together in different combinations results in the specific flavor and purpose of the machine later. Just like every car has an engine, wheels, transmission, etc., but different variations for a race car vs. a tractor-trailer.
What To Look For, and Recommendations
Case: Since you’re pushing the technology to its limit, go big. Bigger cases offer more cooling. A hot computer runs slow, can crash, and/or lose data. The actual design is largely personal preference, but NZXT cases have a clean look, and the Phantom line starts around $100.
Power Supply: When looking for parts, you should use the old rule “It’s better to have brought a camera and not need it, than to need a camera and not have it.” Just substitute the word “camera” for whatever you’re talking about … in this case, watts. Get the most watts you can afford. As you add hard drives, USB peripherals, etc., something needs to power all of that. You don’t want your computer having a mini brown-out. Stay north of 500 watts and use a reputable brand. The Seasonic X650 Gold (at 650 watts, and $180) should fit the bill nicely.
Make sure you check the power type along with the case and motherboard type. In this example, all of the parts listed as recommendations are for Advanced Technology Extended (ATX) form factors.
CPU: There is one rule above all others when creating a professional media system – always use Intel CPUs. Without going into a deluge of nerd-speak, let’s just leave it at this: The difference between Intel and other manufacturers is command sets. Avid, Adobe, and other editing software developers are optimizing programs for the Intel/NVIDIA command sets. If we were talking gaming systems, there may be a different verdict. But when it comes to professional media creation, use Intel.
We could write a whole article on CPUs. Let’s just say the rule of erring on the side of having extra capability applies to the frequency of cycles (Hz), cores and pins. Think of this as a highway for your information. Cycles are the speed limit, pins are the lanes and cores are the number of freeways in your system. If cars are chunks of information … you can fit a lot more through multiple freeways with a lot of lanes each and a ginormous speed limit. Recommendation: Intel Core i7-3820 3.6GHz Quad Core (LGA 2011): $300; or if you really want oomph: Intel Core i7-3930 3.2 GHz Six-Core (LGA 2011): $570.
Don’t forget the cooling fan for the CPU. The Noctua NH-D14 SE2011 ($90) is a cooling beast.
The Motherboard (MoBo): Everything plugs into the motherboard, so choose wisely! Consider slots, memory, PCI-E (3x), SATA (hard drive connections) and USB. Remember, most of your peripherals for video editing require high bandwidth, so bulk up on the PCI-E 3x slots. The more memory you have, the less your software will have to hit your hard drive, and thus the faster you’ll be moving. Note that you MUST match your power supply type (ATX), and CPU pin configuration (in this case LGA 2011), to your motherboard. Recommendation: Intel BOXDX79SR, about $300, is a monster with far more than enough slots.
Memory (RAM): You may have noticed that our MoBo can handle up to 64GB of RAM. That being said, this is a really obvious rule. Spend as much as you can afford on RAM. RAM is not just rated in size; it’s also about the speed. The connection type for our MoBo (DDR3) can handle several different speeds. The maximum speed for our MoBo’s RAM is 2400, so that’s what we’ll look at. Also note that RAM must match. Don’t try to chunk in a single 1GB chip with a 2GB. You must stay consistent and it must be placed in pairs. We’re going to go with 16GB of memory for the recommended build (a group of four chips with 4GB each leaves us with four slots for expansion). Recommendation: Team 16GB 240-Pin DDR3 2400 (TXD316G2400HC9NQC-L).
UPDATE: As a reader recently pointed out, not all operating systems support high levels of RAM. For example, Windows Home Basic only supports up to 8GB. Before purchasing RAM, double check to see what your operating system can support.
Video Card: There is one prominent chipset for a video editing computer: NVIDIA. Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 and Sony Creative Software’s Vegas Pro 12 both work in tandem with the GPUs (Graphics Processing Unit) created by NVIDIA. Avid recommends a minimum of a Quadro 2000 for Media Composer 6. Recommendation: PNY VCQ2000-PB 1GB 128-bit GDDR5.
Hard Drive(s): Rule: speed and size. You should NEVER put your media on the same drive as your boot drive (where all your programs and operating system reside). So, let’s get a small, but rip-roaring fast boot drive …
SSD (solid state drives) are the fastest things around. Why? Because there is no spinning disk to search for information. SATA drive speed is 6Gb/s which really means that it’s possible, under the best circumstances, to get six gigabits of information down the pipeline per second. But in reality, the inside of a hard drive is like a record player. It grabs a tiny bit of information off the disk and then has to wait for it to spin around and reposition the head to get the next bit (called seek time). You’re lucky to sustain 200MB/s. Let’s go with a single SSD for the boot drive: Samsung MZ-7PC256B 256GB.
RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) has many variations. For our purposes, we’ll talk RAID 0 and RAID 5. Remember seek time? RAID 0 bypasses this by splattering information across multiple drives, and then as one drive is pulling information, the others are seeking and loading information into temporary memory (cache). This fills the pipeline and gives you maximum transfer rates. RAID 5 adds another bit of fun to the mix. It also adds parity across all the drives. If one drive goes down, your information isn’t lost. Just throw in another drive to replace it, and boom … full recovery. You must have at least three identical drives to do RAID 5. Recommendation: Seagate Barracuda ST31000524AS 1TB (4): $110/each.
Optical Drive: For far too many reasons to list, you’ll want a Blu-ray recorder. They’ll burn CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays, and you’ll never regret having one. For backup, deliverables, or just for previewing an HD production … Blu-rays are a must-have in a studio. Recommendation: LG BH14NS40, about $130.
User Interface Devices (keyboard, mouse and monitors): Your keyboard and mouse are personal preferences. The only requirement here is that the keyboard MUST have a number pad. Monitors however, do have some requirements. Go for two, and it isn’t size that matters – it’s dots. If you use two, 60-inch HDTVs as your monitors, you’re still only getting 1920×1080 dots on the screen (you can’t fit more windows, they just look bigger). However, with some screens you can get resolutions up to 2560×2048. Recommendation: monitor: ViewSonic VX2250WM (2): $178/each; keyboard/mouse: Microsoft 400 5MH-00001: $27
A/V Input/Output hardware: Since Avid no longer requires the use of Avid-specific hardware, the world is nearly wide-open to Avid and Adobe editors alike. The major choices are AJA Video Systems, Blackmagic Design and the current crossover from consumer to professional, Matrox. AJA Video Systems and Blackmagic Design make hardware with beautiful interfaces, and amazingly solid, but the Matrox MXO2 series offers quick H.264 encoding (with the MAX series) and 3D (stereoscopic) workflows for far less money with stellar customer support. Matrox gets a strong recommendation for customer service; Matrox MXO2 Mini w/ MAX (PCI-E option), about $850.
Putting It Together
Building the computer can seem intimidating at first. But keep in mind that things only fit one way easily. Every plug is unique in size and shape and it’s extremely difficult to plug something into the wrong place. But, if you’re interested in the ins and outs of building technique, lifehacker.com has some great in-depth tutorials on how to go about your build. And when in doubt, Read the Frakkin’ Manual (RTFM.)
The biggest tip is that it’s important to remain grounded. No, not as in, don’t get cocky. Literally, keep yourself grounded by either holding the side of the computer case while working, or using an anti-static mat to work on.
Never ever use the latest version of software for production. The Internet has been a curse and a blessing. Now we can download updates super fast, but, software companies can also release buggy software for the public to test before releasing patches. Wait for a .01 version of the software to come out. (example: The smart people waited for Media Composer 6.0.1 so they didn’t end up with a plethora of bugs).
Your operating system is easy. Windows 7 64-bit. Don’t get Windows 8 on release day, wait at least three months (or really, until your editing software manufacturer blesses it).
For editing and compositing software, again, it’s personal choice. If you’re going pro, all of the packages oscillate between the best and worst, but the choice is clearly between three suites at the moment. It’s going to be either Adobe Premiere Pro and Avid Media Composer, with Sony Vegas Pro catching up. All three have their pros and cons, however it really depends on what you are using it for, who you’re delivering to and a whole slew of other factors. Avid Media Composer 6 is solid, while Premiere Pro offers familiarity to those who were abandoned when Apple released Final Cut X (the interface is very similar to Final Cut Pro 7), plus a whole lot of other tools (like Adobe After Effects, Encore, and Audition).
First, remember this is an editing machine, not your personal computer. It should be treated like it has one major purpose and anything else is secondary. Some rules to follow:
• Never ever install any games on your system!
• Pay close attention to the room temperature.
• Don’t put it where it can get kicked.
• Blow out the dust regularly.
• Image your drive (make a backup).
• After everything is installed, and you have the system just the way you like it … use some imaging software (like Macrium Reflect or Symantec Ghost) to create an image of your drive. You can go back to that image and have a brand new machine within 30 minutes.
A Final Bit of Advice
Take your time and take breaks! Building your own video editing computer can be extremely rewarding and educational, but, it’s not without it’s troubleshooting requirements and frustrations. Play some music, relax a bit and have fun!
Ty Audronis is an editor, special effects guru and consultant for studio technology. He has designed, built and worked in several multi-million dollar facilities creating entertainment and educational shows seen by millions world-wide.