Computer for Video Editing (Part Two): Comparing an i7 with a Xeon

In Part One we looked at the minimum and recommended requirements of each software to narrow down our choices to a more manageable level.

In this part we’ll isolate four classes of CPUs for a computer for video editing, and how each might affect the end result.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

Supermicro Workstation

Budget

My budget, excluding drives, monitors and video hardware, is about $2,000 to $3,000.

I have to face the facts. A ‘hobby-ist’ machine isn’t going to earn me any money. The two reasons I need such a machine are:

  • It’s time for my routine ‘update’ anyway.
  • I don’t want to mix my ‘business’ machines with trial software and experimental ‘stuff’.

Like I said in Part One, many filmmakers, editors and cinematographers make a living with systems within this budget. Who knows? I might end up working on paid projects on this machine – so it has to be capable.

Here in lies the crux of the problem. We all want ‘capable’ machines but can’t figure out why ‘others’ pay more. After all, if a $2,000 machine can do everything, why pay $7,000 or $10,000?

The point is, a $2,000 machine cannot do everything, but it can do some things really well. Video editing happens to be one of them.

The Four Classes

I realize, considering my budget, that I can’t afford the top-of-the-line Xeons (E7, E5 high end, E3 high end) or i7 processors. Some of these processors themselves are more than what I intend to spend on the whole system. For the same reason, dual Xeons are out, too.

It’s easy to get bogged down by so many options. I know based on experience, that my processor can only go up to a certain percentage of the overall budget. In my case, it should be less than $1,000, or ideally around the $600 mark, or lower.
Intel i7 3930K
After looking at the options I arrived at four ‘classes’ of processors:

Why classes? If you study the processors surrounding each class in price range and performance, you’ll notice there’s not much difference (to video editors anyway) between them. It becomes very difficult to judge correctly when you have a page full of CPUs thrown at you.

If I can look at CPUs in groups, I can easily eliminate a whole group (if it came to that) and not waste time on all the CPUs within that group. Make sense?

I used the following resources to arrive at my classes:

  • ppbm5.com – Site for Premiere Pro CS5, CS5.5 and CS6 benchmarks and reports
  • Intel Comparison Site – Site for a quick detailed comparison of Intel CPUs
  • CPUBenchmark – Site that benchmarks CPUs, RAM, GPUs, Hard Drives, etc.

The 3770K and 1275 V2 are in very similar price and performance brackets. After looking at a horde of benchmarks, reviews and blah blahs, I decide this is the lowest price category I’ll look at.

At the higher end, there are processors in the $800-$1,000 range, but I decide to opt for a lower class ($600). After I’ve arrived at my overall cost, I can simply slot in the higher CPUs because everything else remains the same.

The i7 3930K is the ‘hot CPU’ of the moment. Everyone wants and recommends one. For me, it is the ‘base’ CPU, against which all other CPUs will be compared.

The E5-2630 is a funny choice, even though it’s expensive. Performance-wise, it is the lowest in the bunch. I include it because:

  • I also plan to spec an HP Z820 Workstation alongside, with the same components.
  • I might want a dual Xeon setup if the budget allows for it.

Let’s see where all this takes us.

Dell T7600 Workstation

Xeon vs i7

Now begins a process of comparison and elimination.

The processor is the most important component in any computer, make no mistake. It’s easy to get carried away with buzz about CUDA, OpenCL, OpenGL, RAM, RAID and so on; but none of these are as important as the CPU.

For quick reference, here’s a brief comparison of the four processors I’ve chosen on Intel’s website: http://ark.intel.com/compare/64593,65726,63697,65523

If the link doesn’t work, just plug in the processors you’re interested in and study the basic differences.

Here’s the list whittled down:

Product Name E5-2630 (15M Cache, 2.30 GHz, 7.20 GT/s E3-1275 V2 (8M Cache, 3.50 GHz) i7-3930K (12M Cache, up to 3.80 GHz) i7- 3770K (8M Cache,up to 3.90 GHz)
Code Name Sandy Bridge-EP Ivy Bridge Sandy Bridge-E Ivy Bridge
# of Cores 6 4 6 4
# of Threads 12 8 12 8
Clock Speed 2.3 GHz 3.5 GHz 3.2 GHz 3.5 GHz
Cache 15 MB 8 MB Intel® Smart Cache 12 MB Intel® Smart Cache 8 MB Intel® Smart Cache
Bus Type QPI DMI DMI DMI
System Bus 7.2 GT/s 5 GT/s 5 GT/s 5 GT/s
Instruction Set 64-bit 64-bit 64-bit 64-bit
Max TDP 95 W 77 W 130 W 77 W
Max Memory Size (dependent on memory type) 750 GB 32 GB 64 GB 32 GB
Memory Types DDR3- 800 /1066  /1333 DDR3- 1333 /1600 DDR3- 1066 /1333 /1600 DDR3- 1333 /1600
# of Memory Channels 4 2 4 2
Max Memory Bandwidth 42.6 GB/s 25.6 GB/s 51.2 GB/s 25.6 GB/s
ECC Memory Supported Yes Yes No No
Graphics Model HD Graphics P4000 HD Graphics 4000
# of Displays Supported 3 3
Max CPU Configuration 2 1 1 1
TCASE 77.4°C n/a 66.8°C 67.4°C
Sockets Supported 2011 1155 2011 1155

We’re not computer engineers, and aren’t supposed to understand the intricacies of CPU technology. I know that comparing clock speeds and other specs on a table like this are useless pursuits – there are too many variables, and most of it are hidden. Why bother?

Here are some notes though:

  • An E5 Xeon is the only processor family in this class of which two can be used in the same computer (motherboard).
  • When most people compare Xeons to i7s, they usually compare dual-Xeons to i7s. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out if I had two E5-2630 processors I’d beat the i7 3930K. In fact, two of these E5s would beat any single E5 or i7 processor.
  • The E5 can accept a lot of RAM, while the 3930K is limited to 64GB. The other two only go up to 32 GB.
  • The E5 has a much better Cache and transfer/bus speed. However, after researching a bit about this, I’ve come to realize we can’t use this ‘advantage’ to come to any sane conclusion.
  • The E5 cannot accept 1600 MHz RAM modules.
  • The Xeons support ECC memory. ECC memory is what you want when your system is ‘mission-critical’. An editing system does not qualify as such unless money, the economy, security or lives are on the line. ECC memory does not prevent crashes or down-time. What it does do is provide a more stable environment for data transfer so errors are reduced. As far as I can tell, the only time when you have to worry about such errors is if your system is calculating like a maniac 24/7/365. One scenario where this is important is rendering. If you are a one-machine shop with no render farm, and you have a 24 hour turnaround and are busy throughout the year, you might need ECC RAM to keep your sanity and your customers.
  • The Xeons used to save a lot of power, until Ivy Bridge came along. The difference in electricity bills between the 3930K and the 3770K is about 50%. That’s huge if your machine is running 24/7.
  • The cheaper two models come with Intel Graphics 4000 chips, which can run up to 3 displays. If your GPU card breaks, you can still continue working.
  • Finally, the expensive models use a 2011 socket while the cheaper ones use the 1155 socket. As far as I know, there’s no difference between the two performance-wise. But it’s important to know the difference, because the motherboard changes accordingly, and upgrades have to be planned as such.

In my case, even though I’ll be using the machine a lot, I realize ECC RAM is probably overkill. In basic terms, what I’ve gathered from my research is that Xeons with ECC RAM are more stable, and are able to handle continuous 24/7/365 computing without complaining.

This makes them more reliable. However, there’s a healthy percentage of the population who believes there’s no difference in reliability in real-world use, at least as far as editing is concerned. People use i7s all around the world for editing work, and make a decent living off it. Even manufacturers of workstations, like HP, Dell, Supermicro and so on, use i7s in their systems with the same level of support and warranty they provide with the Xeons.

If you’re still in doubt, ask Intel. The warranty on both Xeons and i7s are three years each, limited.

In any case, the Xeons in my list are not faster than the i7 processors when compared one on one. I decide to complete my comparisons before coming to conclusions.

‘Do I need a Xeon’ checklist

Here’s a quick checklist that should tell you whether you absolutely need a Xeon or not:

  • ECC RAM – helps keep memory errors at a minimum.
  • A lot more RAM – More RAM helps working with larger file sizes and resolutions.
  • Stable Intensive Computing 24/7/365 – You already know you need Xeons!
  • Dual CPU – A machine that the neighbor’s kids will be terrified and in awe of at the same time.
  • Lower Power and Temperature – If you’re paying for commercial electricity, this one is huge.

In Part Three, we’ll compare four builds to ready-to-use solutions. Finally, I’ll tell you which system I’ve chosen and why.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

9 replies on “Computer for Video Editing (Part Two): Comparing an i7 with a Xeon”

  1. I did this assessment six months ago for my home edit/color system. The number one question I had to grapple with as a DaVinci Resolve user is that Dual Xenon supports 40 + 40 lanes of PCI Express,  the i7-3930K is 40 lanes, Ivy Bridge is 20. I ended up going with SandyBridge-E but my PCI lanes are maxed out with no room for expansion. Physically I have open slots to add more but the realtime functionality of Resolve would suffer which is not an option for me.

      1. Sareesh Sudhakaran mathchris  On this system in the past six months, I’ve received ProRes/DSLR/FCP7 projects only for finishing. Also edited some DSLR projects in Premiere… not transcoding the camera files rocked my world. The next one coming is is looking like a RED project so I’ll have to make a trip over to my friends place to make use of his RedRocket cards & bring it onto this system as an intermediate codec.

  2. Great post very interesting as usual, i have just purchased a dual xeon hp 620 and i’m still thinking on the hard drives config, after reading this i think internal raid is discarted.
    Good point on the 10bits card!
    Keep going, i really like your stuff!

    1. JavierMartos Thanks, Javier! I’m taking a close look at the new K2000 and K4000 Quadro. Also the E5-1650 Xeon, which is discontinued ‘officially’, but still available. 
      Which Xeon did you opt for?

      1. Sareesh Sudhakaran those are just being relased it’s a new GPU almost everyday jaja! I have just purchased a “cheap” quadro 600 for 10bit on my dreamcolor, maybe later i will add a powerfull nvidia gtx.
        The processors of my hp z 620 are E5 2620 2.0, it was an exdemo workstation i’ve bought from an uk retailer, very happy with the performance and construction.Will you please write how to configure the diferent hard discs for data, cache etc…cheers!

        1. Sareesh Sudhakaran JavierMartos great jaja! didn’t know part 3 was already there, can’t wait to read it!

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