Computer power button drawn in chalk

A desktop workstation is a high performance computer that is designed to be fast and accurate. These machines are used in situations where large amounts of data need to be rendered and range in price from around $1200 to anywhere above $10,000. As you would imagine you get what you pay for; lower end machines are only slightly more powerful than your standard PC, while more expensive, higher-end machines are virtual supercomputers.

As you would imagine you get what you pay for; lower end machines are only slightly more powerful than your standard PC, while more expensive, higher-end machines are virtual supercomputers.

As a video editor, your workstation is arguably your most important tool. Finding the right tool for what you do is important. You might not necessarily need a top of the line $10,000 PC, but you also might need more than a boosted standard PC. Multi-Monitor support, high performance graphics cards and expandable storage are all features that separate a workstation from a standard PC. Your workflow, software and line of work will ultimately determine what workstation you should choose.

From the Beginning

At the most basic level you need to decide what operating system you want to use. Once you know which way you want to go, you can then buy your software and begin working. In terms of operating systems you have two basic choices: Windows or Mac. Both work well, and your choice should depend on what you expect to do with your system. Apple has long been regarded as the creative’s choice of computer while Windows machines have been seen as more focused on business, but your main consideration should be compatibility with the software that you will be running.

Today both systems are used in almost every industry. For instance, Adobe's Creative Cloud can run on either system. The big difference for Apple is compatibility with Final Cut Pro and a generally higher price point. For the home videographer and vlogger, a high-performing windows based system is probably your best bet. Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo both offer systems in a more affordable price range. They also do not sacrifice too much power and will get the job done for a home-based videographer.

The HP Z230 SFF workstation is perfect for the home-based videographer looking for a precision and high-powered system without breaking the bank. With a range of Intel processors from the Core i3 to the Xeon E3 available and space for up to 16GB of RAM, the Z230 is available starting at $800.

HP Z230 SFF

The Lenovo ThinkStation P300 SFF, with a base price tag of just $660, an Nvidia Quadro graphics card and up to 8GB of RAM, is another great system for the home videographer and vlogger.

Lenovo ThinkStation P300 SFF

Paid for Your Work

For the corporate and event videographer, either a Windows or Mac system can work. Depending on your budget a mid-range iMac or Windows based system can be the perfect fit. For around $1,300, you can purchase a 21.5-inch iMac with 1TB of storage, a 2.8GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of onboard memory, configurable up to 16GB, or opt for a faster processor and a Retina display for $200 more.

 iMac

Other lower priced PC’s such as the HP Z240, which starts at around $880 with a range of Intel processors, Nvidia or AMD graphics cards and up to 64GB of RAM available — a good option for filmmakers on a budget.

HP Z240

Destined for the Silver Screen

For the feature filmmaker, a high-powered system is a must. Generally filmmaking requires a more creative focus, and Final Cut is often the standard, meaning an Apple system will probably be your best bet.

On the PC side, the Dell Precision 5810 tower offers a lot of power for a small price. The base model includes an Intel Xeon E5 processor, 8GB of RAM and an NVIDIA Quadro 310 graphics card. Starting at $1598, it can serve as a great PC workstation for someone on a tighter budget.

 Dell Precision 5810

Beyond Editing

For the VFX artist and 3D animator only the top performing system will do. Complex animations and Visual effects take time and precision, and you need a machine capable of taking on those tasks.

The HP Z840 workstation is a massive powerhouse that can easily handle massive amounts of data. The base price of a Z840 is around $2400, but that is a single processor, standard drive machine with no graphics card. After adding some necessary workstation features like dual processors, graphics cards, and SSDs, that price increases dramatically.

HP Z840

Starting at $3,000, the Apple Mac Pro delivers exceptional power in a compact package. The optimal dual 6-core processor model offers options for dual AMD graphics cards and an available 64GB of RAM for a starting price of $4,000, but  a fully loaded Mac Pro will run you somewhere in the vicinity of $10,000. That price will definitely get you what you need though, whether you are running the full suite of Adobe CC or rendering and exporting 4K video from Final Cut, this machine will get the job done. With standard workstation features like support for multiple monitor setups, multiple graphics cards, and multiple processors this machine is perfect for the filmmaker and Mac user.

Apple Mac Pro

Incredible Power

Ultra high-end workstations such as the Silverdraft Demon DSPi Workstation might be your best way to go. With support for 20 total cores of processing power, 64 Gb of RAM, and multiple graphics cards, this workstation may be the ultimate in desktop PC workstations. At a price tag of around $12,400, that kind of power does not come cheap, but as a primary workstation for the full-time VFX artist or animator, it may be the perfect fit.

Silverdraft Demon DSPi

Built from Scratch

Another option for tech savvy videographers, or specialized projects can be building your own workstation. While most people will do well with buying “off the shelf” machines some who have very specific needs may want to look into building your own machine. While there are drawbacks in terms of customer support and tech service for some it may be an option.

Final Thoughts

In the video production world workstations are the workhorses that get the difficult tasks done. Ultimately you should buy the system that bests suits your needs. At an OS level Mac and Windows are both great operating systems that will allow you to get your work done. The Mac Pro is no doubt an apple powerhouse for the videographers using final cut or Adobe for Mac. However the array of options when it comes to windows machines allows for customizability depending on your system's intended use. The home videographer and VFX artist have different needs and need different systems that will better suit their work or business. 

Sidebar

One of the most important parts of your workstation is your graphics card. With the multitude of brands and models to choose from it can be difficult to choose what graphics card you want in your machine. AMD and Nvidia both make high-end graphics cards for workstations. The question to the videographer is what card to buy for their specific purpose. Part of the problem is that ratings and performance numbers do not transfer well between different brands, and there is really no standard that makers of graphics cards use in comparison of their product to other brands. The statistics and numbers are not very intuitive and a lot of research needs to be done before deciding on what card you will buy.

The first thing to remember is that memory while important should not be the sole factor in purchasing a graphics card. Memory is important in video work especially in the 4K realm but bandwidth is an equally important factor that needs to be considered. For 4K look for GDDR5 or better.

A second important part to your graphics card is the coolers. High-end graphics cards produce a lot of heat, which can fry your GPU rendering you system useless. A good liquid, reference, or custom cooler will keep your system running cool and quiet.

Overall graphics cards are an essential part of a desktop workstation and give you the ability to work with high-end 4K video or graphics. Any desktop workstation needs a high-end graphics card. Be sure to research your options and pick the card that works best for you. 

Chris Settineri is the CEO of Studio 10 Films. He is skilled at shooting, directing, and editing video productions.

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