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Upgrading your Previs Workstation

Is buying a new workstation making your head spin? What should a previs artist be concerned about when considering his/her next rig? Join me as I take a quick look some general guidelines previs artists should consider when upgrading their hardware.

Every so many years, a previs artist has to evaluate the equipment he’s working on. Moore’s law and the computer industry will pretty much ensure that your hardware will rapidly become obsolete. In mere months, the powerful workstation you were so proud of when you first put your rig together now looks long in the tooth and woefully underpowered.

Recently I’ve found myself in need of updating my personal workstation. Its been sitting diligently in my home office collecting dust. Thankfully I get to work on modern equipment throughout the various jobs I’ve been on, but recently a project has surfaced where I can no longer avoid upgrading my old, outdated gear. With the advent of Maya 2012 and Adobe 5.5 products, my poor computer cowers from the thought of running that software.

For the sake of civility, I’m going to avoid the entire Mac vs. PC debate because I use them both. My Mac is the most advanced machine I own and it’s only a mere 2.6 Ghz Core-duo laptop. For now, that will have to do because it’s my PC that’s woefully deficient with its puny dual core Athlon 64 processor and obsolete AGP graphics card. Personally I like to use my Mac as my editing and compositing machine, while my PC provides me with the 3D muscle and video card options I desire.

Shopping for a new computer, especially a Windows PC, can be a very frustrating experience. Unlike Apple, PC manufacturers don’t usually pre-assemble workstation class or even high end gamer machines for the general public to purchase via a brick and mortar store. Dell came close, but decided to pull the plug on their retail effort and while I’m happy to support the local computer stores’ efforts, it’s always a bit of a crap shoot to determine which one to use and how well they’ll support it.

Today, mainstream PC manufacturers only provide consumer class machines that can be purchased through various large scale, commercial retailers. While these may be ok for the average home user, the first thing you need to realize is that nearly any off the shelf PCs being sold at Best Buy, Frys or Costco are not going to cut it. Most of these consumer PCs lack sufficient power supplies to drive the powerful video cards and expansion options we need.  By the time you’ve upgraded the necessary components, you might as well gone elsewhere.  I can’t recommend any consumer product from HP, Gateway, Lenovo or Acer for your next previs workstation.

So where should you turn? Well I checked out a couple of local dealers and found nearly all of them had to mail order everything before they could even begin to assemble a machine for me. The promise of getting a machine in a matter of a couple of days dwindled rapidly as estimates rose into the weeks. So I turned to the main system builders and suppliers online to see what I could find.

Whether you build or buy, its unfortunate that both usually require a mail order service to supply you with the things you need. But there are clear advantages and disadvantages to both routes. Building your own system is rewarding and provides you a sense of accomplishment when you’re done. Not only is it satisfying, its usually less expensive if you don’t factor in the value of your own personal time. However, unless you’re well versed in the latest hardware options, it can get confusing as to which components to buy. Its also time consuming to evaluate component compatibility, and nerve racking to install them. A six-core 990x Intel Extreme Edition i7 CPU is still running a cool $1000. Slip up and do something wrong and your pocketbook will suffer for it. If this doesn’t bother you, and you are the type of guy who enjoys tinkering under the hood, then I say go for it. I assembled my last PC and had a good time doing so.

This time around, I’ve decided to use a custom online system builder. In general, using a system builder will usually result in a price tag that is $400-$600 higher than a comparable system built by yourself. The question you should ask yourself is, “what does that $400-$600 buy me?” Well usually it comes in the form of your time. The first time you build your own machine, I guarantee you’ll spend more than a couple of hours doing so. By the time you put it all together, resolve any assembly problems, install your OS and do your burn in tests you’ll have more than a five o’clock shadow to show for it. My last build took me a couple of days because I was being overly cautious. But in addition to saving time, the cost premium of using a system builder will also provide you with tech support and a manufacturer’s warranty that you won’t find if you’re building it yourself. System builders have done all the leg work for you to select components that are ensured to work together and they usually go the extra mile to provide you with a computer case that is of high quality and pleasing to look at.

Whichever way you go, you’ll need to determine which specific platform components to choose. This is a chore considering the convoluted naming conventions and company roadmaps chip manufacturers are using these days. Intel seems to be cornering the processor market right now but there is much speculation that AMD’s Bulldozer processor could be a game changer. Intel’s Sandybridge CPU lineup is proving to be more than a formidable match to the previous i7 Nehelem/Westmere processors in performance, but at a far better price/performance ratio. Unfortunately the motherboards associated with the Sandybridge LGA 1155 socket have fewer PCI lanes for dual 16x PCI-e support. So if you want to run SLI, Crossfire, or some high end Tesla cards in a Sandybridge machine it will only be at 8x. You may want to fall back on a mature LGA 1366 X58 motherboard or wait till Q4 for the new LGA 2011 X79 motherboards to appear.

If that last paragraph had your heading spinning, you’re not alone. There are so many options out there, you wonder which is the best choice.  The best rule of thumb I can provide you is to remember that in a year or so, no matter what you buy it will be obsolete. Choose a platform that is powerful and expandable but yet reasonably affordable. Credit card debt is never fun.

Personally I tend to refrain from buying on the bleeding edge. As nice as it may seem to have the top of the line for the next few months, that feeling is always eclipsed when new entry-level office machines are outclassing your $6500 workstation. Thus pick something somewhere in between.  A $2000-$2500 single quad or hex core i7 or Xeon CPU machine with a workstation class AMD FirePro or Nvidia Quadro video card will provide you with more than enough power to meet your previs needs.

Consumer class gamer cards like the GeForce or Radeon cards are usually ok provided you’re willing to potentially sacrifice advanced Maya Viewport 2.0 options in the process. You may also encounter other limitations when using high-end content creation software. Remember in previs the graphics card and its GPU are your best friends, so don’t skimp here. A large power supply is also a good investment considering most of higher end video cards require additional power. A limited 400-watt power supply will struggle to keep up. Shoot for 850-watts or higher.

As far as CPU’s go, buy something modern, but don’t worry so much about having the top of the line. Workstation motherboards with dual quad or hex core CPUs are nice for rendering, but most previs is constructed with hardware graphics. Plus adding that second CPU will raise your total system price by an easy grand or two. Your GPU choice will always trump the CPU. If you truly require a 12-core machine to provide you with a software rendering solution, consider purchasing stripped down render boxes that can be networked together and managed with a distributed rendering solution. This way you can offload the rendering requirement onto a series of slave machines rather than tying up your main system.

Finally get as much RAM as you can afford and consider a high performance storage solution. The machine I’m purchasing includes a front loading, hot swappable, 3-drive SATA enclosure which will make swapping out storage and backup drives efficient and quick. Yes, external drives are just as convenient, but swapable internal drives are still less expensive and usually faster.

Now go forth and build or buy that dream machine of yours. In 12 to 18 months, we will be talking about this all over again!

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