In Part One we looked at the minimum and recommended requirements of each software to narrow down our choices for a computer for video editing.

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In Part Two we went further and divided CPUs into four classes for easy comparison. Then, we looked at the differences between i7 and Xeon processors.

In this final part, I’ll break down the various builds to their components and prices, and then compare these against ready-for-use workstations like the HP Z820, Dell T7600, Supermicro, Apple Mac Pro, and so on.

Finally, I’ll reveal what I’ve decided for my ‘hobby-ist’ machine.

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know how complex things are becoming. It’s a colossal headache, no doubt about it.

You are not the problem. Yet, it is your problem to solve. In my opinion, the only way to do it is by putting yourself first. Look after yourself, and the problem will be easier to deal with. Draw your own conclusions.

The Four Builds

In order to price out my builds, I need to add components to my CPUs. Some hard choices have to be made.

RAM

I decide I’ll price for both 16 GB and 32 GB RAM, for 1600 MHz DDR3. I don’t need ECC RAM, but I’ve included it in the comparisons. The price difference isn’t that huge anyway.

MOTHERBOARD

Motherboards are easier, since most review sites and expert opinions are unanimous (okay, semi-unanimous):

  • Asus X79 for the i7 3930K
  • Asus X77 for the i7 3770K
  • Supermicro X9 for the Xeons

GPU – Quadro vs GTX

After CPUs, graphics cards are probably the most confusing part of any workstation for video editing. On the one hand, the Quadro gives me 10-bit and reliability. On the other hand, the GTX gives me performance and good-enough reliability.

10-bit is something I can add later with either an additional Quadro 600 or something like a Blackmagic Decklink or similar.

I decide a 4 GB GTX 680 (or even a GTX 670) will be perfect. For the purposes of this comparison though, I’ve also included a Quadro 4000 and a Quadro 600.

Tower, Power and UPS

I will get an ATX case or bigger, since I plan on reusing the tower for future use.

To calculate power supply, I use this tool: http://www.extreme.outervision.com/psucalculatorlite.jsp. They also have a pro version which also gives you UPS ratings and so on. In my case, I need an 850 W supply. I’ll buy a Corsair Professional Gold 850W, since that’s the brand I’m currently using.

To calculate the UPS Volt-Ampere (VA) rating, I use this tool: http://www.csgnetwork.com/upssizecalc.html. Typically, an 850 Watt machine will run at about 550 Watts. Then there’s the monitor (Dell Ultrasharp U2711), a couple of audio monitors (Yamaha MSP3), maybe an additional reference monitor, and the RAID array(s).

All in all, I think I should be able to get by with something like the APC SURTA1500XL 1500VA 1050 Watt UPS. This should give me about 20 minutes at half load, and about 5 minutes at full load, so I have sufficient time to power down and twiddle my thumbs.

A word about Hard Drives

My philosophy of hard drives can be summed up in the phrase – one room, one door. If two teen siblings had their own rooms, surely they won’t appreciate a common door, would they?

The OS does its own thing, as does the applications. In my experience, the OS (Windows 7 64-bit) and applications can happily co-exist on one drive, as long as 33% of the drive is free. It’s just a force of habit. Since I’m currently using SSDs and they perform admirably, there’s no reason to go platter here.

Then there’s the cache, which needs to be fast. SSDs only – high performing ones.

Next comes the ‘Read Media’, which is the source footage. This media is accessed the most in any editing workflow. Even when you’re rendering to a final master or whatever, the source footage is accessed. It needs its own space and pipe. This drive needs to have excellent read speeds. For this reason, I will be using RAID 1 or RAID 10 for it. Since the source footage is almost always the space-taker, it’ll be platter drives.

Finally, we have the ‘Write Media’, which is the disk one exports or renders to. This drive needs to have better write performance than anything else, or it’ll become a bottleneck. Depending on the size of the final footage, you could use RAID, SSD or whatever it takes to get the job done. I look at how fast my system can render, and then match that speed.

In my comparison, I’ve only included three drives:

  • 256 GB SATA III SSD for OS and Apps
  • 128 GB SATA III SSD for Cache/temp/page (whatever the software calls this process)
  • 1 TB 7,200 rpm SATA III for general storage or emergencies

CPUs

The four CPUs I’ve chosen in Part Two.

Comparing the Builds with Ready Video Workstations

Pricing these four builds was easy enough. Here’s a chart with the four builds compared to ready solutions (Click to enlarge):

Note: Prices may vary and might not be accurate. The HP and Apple prices are from their respective websites. Real world figures might be lower.

The chart clearly divides the four builds into two price groups:

  • $2,000 – i7 3770K and the E3-1275 V2
  • $3,000 – i7 3930K and the E5-2630

I feel that the E3, being close to the 3770K performance-wise, isn’t worth the extra money. A fully spec’d E3 would be about $2,400. Then, why not an i7 3930K? To be honest, the E3 just doesn’t feel right on a gut level.

Since I can extend my budget to $3,000 or so, it is plain that my ‘inspired’ build (Inspired by two really cool dudes – Jeff Kilgroe, who hangs out at reduser.net, and Harm Millaard, who hangs out at Adobe) is clearly the BFTB (Best Value for the Buck).

The ‘Xeon-fix’ build is expensive, no doubt, and it offers peace of mind (more on that later). Compare it to the HP Z820, Mac Pro and the Supermicro builds. The ready-to-use solutions are approximately $2,000 more (except for the Supermicro deal, which looks awesome). I realize prices will be lower than the official quotes, but by how much?

It is important to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of buying. After all, if these systems cost $2,000 more than a DIY build, why buy? Imagine all the gear or software you can buy with that!

Advantages of Buying

As far as I can determine, people buy instead of build, for the following reasons:

  • Three year onsite warranty and service.
  • Excellent case design with easily swappable bays, covers, etc.
  • Availability of parts when something fails a few years from now.
  • Tested firmware, drivers and software for maximum compatibility. No surprises.
  • Saves a lot of time in hunting, bargaining, thinking, assembling and testing. E.g., my own research took me about a week, and I anticipate a couple more!
  • Brand names have better resale value.

These are not trivial advantages, as anyone who runs a small business will know. Think of it in this way:

If I had to pay a premium of $1,800 for a computer that will guarantee me peace of mind over a period of three years or more, how much is that worth to me? E.g., $1,800 spread over three years is $50 a month.

To put this into perspective, you can use the latest Adobe CS6 suite (all of it) for $50 a month. As an editor, filmmaker or cinematographer, you might earn $50 by working one extra hour every month, or charging five clients $10 more. At the very least, a business owner or professional freelancer knows he or she can buy a computer in monthly installments and pay it off over a period of time.

Looking at it another way, how long can you go without working if your system failed? If you were desperate, and decided to buy a component instead of waiting for support, wouldn’t it take you at least a day on average? What if the part isn’t available anymore? In fact, single systems need the greatest care (or insurance, if you want to call it that).

It’s pure economics. There are people who think ready builds are a rip off. I’m not one of them. I think of these as cars – the overall experience is more important than the efficacy of any single component.

Advantages of Building

I’ve built three computers personally, so there are some advantages:

  • Price.
  • Options.
  • Customized exactly for your needs, with no unnecessary components or software.
  • Not limited to any manufacturer or software if you don’t like it.
  • Open source systems are possible.
  • You can customize your system without breaking the warranty or service agreement.
  • You learn how computers and software works.

To me, this last advantage is the most important. When faced with limited hardware, if you know how to wring the last bit of performance juice from it, you are worth your weight in gold.

My Choice for Computer for Video Editing

So, what have I decided?

I opt for

  • an Intel Core i7 3930K or a dual E5-2630 Xeon (a distant possibility) CPU,
  • with 32 GB DDR3 1600 MHz RAM, and
  • an Nvidia GTX 680 4 GB GPU, and a
  • 2011 socket Motherboard that can take whatever I throw at it.

I should be able to get all this for about $3,000. I will also be contacting HP, Dell and Supermicro for quotes to see if any deals are available for both CPU options. I’m in no rush.

The onus is on these manufacturers to provide the best deal they can. In my interactions, I will carefully study their service levels. Their attitude and reply will tell me what I need to know.

Do you feel it is better to build than to buy? Have you ever been in a situation where a client is watching and your system crashes? How did you deal with it?

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free cheatsheet (with examples) of tried and tested ways to cover a scene or action that will save your skin when your mind goes blank (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

5 replies on “Computer for Video Editing (Part Three): Build or Buy?”

  1. I am in agreement with your approach that focuses on data movement in the computer setup. A separate cache drive is smart as the processing of image files creates many temporary files and can heavily fragment a drive in a heartbeat. Having data on RAID1 is my approach so as to never lose my working data. I have a separate output drive so data is not going from the source drives with files being opened and then back to the same drive through the same “pipe”. Overlooked in terms of advantages with regard to video is that a great deal of CPU performance can get sucked up for decompression and this is where a dual CPU computer is advantageous. This is true today with H.264 and will be 10x as much of a concern if working with H.265.

    Cost wise in July of 2016 I bought a Lenovo P710 tower with Window 7 Pro (and anytime Windows 10 upgrade) with a single Xeon 2630 processor (which has actually 20MB of L3 cache) and a Quadro M2000 GPU and 16GB ECC RAM for $2,443, or about $500 less than a comparable HP Z840 computer. Same onsite warranty and service with Lenovo except that Lenovo service personnel are based in the USA and speak English as their native tongue.

  2. Which motherboard would you suggest for an i7 4770k haswell processor based video editing pc?

    Regards
    Madhur K

  3. I read your whole blog very in depth. I’m actually going to build your “xeon fix” for a client of mine and pimp it out. He’s a graphics designer who’s worked for pixar and he wants to be able to render at home too. Gonna start with that and maybe put in 2 graphic cards.. we’ll see. Thanks a lot. I’ll be using your amazon links.  Please support my site too at http://www.gobanditech.com, we make custom gaming rigs.  This would be our first to feature a Xeon.

  4. Addendum: I’ve also taken note of the new Nvidia Quadro K2000 and K4000 cards. 
    In addition, both HP and Supermicro still sell the E5-1650 Xeon, which is a phenomenal deal. I’m getting quotes for those too.

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