Dell Precision Workstation 650 Video Editing Computer Review

Take two Intel Xeon 3.06GHz processors, each with HT architecture, and you end up with a virtual quadro-CPU system. Pragmatically speaking, there is only so much a single user can do to stress out four processors. Still, we’ll take a serious whack in this editing computer review and see if candy spills out or not. For power-users and production houses that absolutely need the muscle of two premium-priced professional Xeon processors, this is the editing computer for you. This is clearly more computer than the casual home video hobbyist would ever need.

Built for Power

The system is built around the two professional Intel Xeon CPUs accessing a gig of RAM at a 533MHz front side bus. While this hardware is technically cutting edge as of this writing, the rest of the machine is solid but unremarkable. For example, the 80GB video hard disk is isolated from the 40GB system disk for flawless capture and output, just like we’d demand from any video editing system. The onboard FireWire port uses the Windows natively supported TI chipset. Perhaps the only hardware feature we were less than enthusiastic about was the onboard sound card, but for DiDo (Digital in Digital out) applications such as FireWire or DVD, it makes no difference at all. The 64MB ATI FireGL E1 dual-display card (+$80) should make a difference in displaying OpenGL 3D optimized applications, but not for video. In fact, the only minor problems we experienced during the entire review process involved screen redraw/overlay problems in Premiere that were very likely related to the display card.

The Precision 650 we received was totally loaded with software as well. Premiere 6.5 was installed for video editing, as was Photoshop 7 for still image support. The no-compromises Adobe After Effects Production bundle ($1,654) rounded out the software suite. This machine really is ready for a professional post-production house.

Top Performance

Almost all real-time rendering software is “scalable,” which is marketing-speak for “the software is faster on a faster computer.” Well, the Precision 650 is indisputably fast, so Premiere should really fly. And it did: real-time previews are instantaneous. Even rendering was fast, however. When sending DV out to a camcorder for previews on a television monitor (which is a critical feature), renders typically did not interrupt the workflow significantly. For example, a five-second title overlay took only 4.74 seconds to render. Adding motion to the title increased the wait to 8.06 seconds. Crossfades (dissolves) happened in less time than the duration of the effect itself. At this speed, renders are so fast that you will simply want to render everything all of the time and preview on your DV camcorder and television. We therefore found Premiere’s old-fashioned non-realtime editing mode to be more efficient and pragmatic than the RT preview mode.

After editing and subjectively finding the machine to be fast, we performed our standardized Videomaker MPEG render test (VeRT) to get some real numbers for comparison. Objectively, we were able to render two-pass VBR MPEG-2 video at 21.03fps (about 70% realtime).

CPU Abuse

The true advantage of any multi-processor system should become apparent when running multiple applications, so we loaded up a complex After Effects (AE) project and started a render and, against our better judgment, began burning a DVD at the same time. Then we simultaneously ran the VeRT again and consistently averaged 15.71 fps, which is a performance hit of about 25%. Performance continued to decline if we ran more processes, such as browsing the Web or watching a movie.

In our final tests, we pulled one of the CPUs and ran our tests again. As expected, the single-thread render test numbers remained unchanged. Further, when we disabled the Intel HT (Hyper-Threading) feature in the BIOS (so Windows and Premiere only see a single CPU), the basic render test was identical to the 4-CPU system. Again, it wasn’t until we stressed the CPU with an AE render that a performance difference appeared: 15.51 fps. The same tests with HT turned on revealed a surprising 15.10 fps. We double checked our settings, rebooted and ran the tests again and got similar numbers: MPEG rendering performance decreased very slightly but consistently using HT technology. That leads us to the logical ultimate test: What if we use both CPUs, but disable HT on them? Render speed climbed back a bit to 15.80 fps. We are not confident enough in our margin of error to conclude that HT hurts rendering performance, but we are prepared to declare that it doesn’t help.

Still, the dual-virtual-quad CPU machine was eminently usable even while we were wailing away on the CPUs, RAM and hard disk. At no point did the system crash or grind to a crawl and our DVDs came out just fine. This performance is analogous to having a car with a 60MPH maximum engine. If we add another 60MPH engine (or three more), the car will still have a maximum speed of 60MPH, but it will still have a lot more power than the single engine car.


Diminishing Returns

With computers, you always pay a premium on the latest/greatest/fastest, and the harsh law of diminishing returns strictly applies here, with the extra real-world performance costing quite a lot of money over a single CPU Pentium 4 machine. In fact, in a single-thread pure render test, there was no performance advantage over an equivalent single Xeon 3.06GHz system. Still, if you commonly find yourself with a looming deadline, Premiere editing to be done and a complex AE composition to render – or, more simply, you wish you had another PC dedicated to renders – this machine can do it all.

STRENGTHS

  • Rock stable
  • Fastest machine we’ve seen
  • Comprehensive, professional video software bundle

WEAKNESSES

  • Premium price
  • Hyper-Thread hype

TECH SPECS

  • Model Precision 650
  • Platform PC
  • Operating System Windows XP Pro
  • Processors Dual Intel Xeon 3.06GHz (HT)
  • RAM 1GB (DDR266 SDRAM)
  • Hard Disk (system) 40GB (7,200 rpm)
  • Hard Disk (system) 80GB (7,200 rpm)
  • Sound Card Integrated on Motherboard
  • Display Card ATI Fire GL E1
  • Disc Writer NEC DVD+RW (ND1100A)
  • Video In/Out FireWire
  • Additional Hardware
  • 10/100 NiC
  • Ultra 160 SCSI
  • Optical Mouse
  • Keyboard
  • Editing Software
  • Premiere 6.5, After Effects 5.5
  • Production Bundle, Photoshop 7.0
  • MPEG-2 Render Speed 21.03fps

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