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Issue: July 1, 2006

BATTLE STATIONS

By: Randall Simpson

Over the course of my career in production and post production there are a few tools that I consider to be absolutely essential in getting the job done. One of those on the production side is gaffer’s tape — real honest to goodness gaffer’s tape. It has saved many a production. On the post side, the tool that has grown to be the most essential is easily the computer workstation. It has become the multi-tool of post, for handling nearly every task, from editing to complex compositing. The purpose of this article is to give a snapshot look at the current state of the DCC workstation market. We’ll look at some of the hottest technology trends and review some (but not necessarily all) of the companies that are players in this market, including a quick review of some of their products.

TECHNICAL TRENDS

In my estimation, the most significant advancement in workstation technology coming into the market right now is the introduction of multi-core processors. These processors, offered by both Intel and AMD, allow you to run multiple applications without slowing down overall performance or run multi-threaded applications with a significant increase in performance. Besides the increase in performance, a major advantage to these multi-core processors is that they use less power than older processors. Any workstation worth considering for purchase today should at least have the option of a multi-core processor or processors. If it doesn’t, unless you get a screaming great deal, don’t bother.

Connectivity is another trend in workstations that you should take note of. You want a good supply of internal USB 2.0 connections and lots of front and back I/O ports in general. With so many USB dongles being used these days, smart manufacturers decided to put a supply of these connections inside the chassis. Look for lots of available internal and external USB connections and lots of front and back FireWire connectivity in any workstation you might be considering in the future

Other technical trends you should pay attention to: much faster front side bus speeds (at least 667MHz), internal Serial Attached SCCI (SAS) and SATA RAID controllers, and support for (though not necessarily available) larger amounts of memory than were possible in the last generation of workstations. The highest end workstations can handle from 64GB to even 128GB. I wouldn’t suggest the purchase of any workstation that can hold less than 16GB, unless you are absolutely certain you won’t need that much memory, ever.

On the software side, of course, Windows Vista will eventually be here and compatibility with this new operating system will be essential. Obviously any workstation you consider purchasing should be completely Windows Vista compatible.

Finally, though moving more slowly than some might have thought, the introduction of 64-bit computing will take hold more and more in the marketplace. During this seemingly endless transition period, the best choice is to look at workstations that can run in either 32-bit or 64-bit mode without any compromises in performance.

PLAYERS & THEIR PRODUCTS

As mentioned before, this article is in no way a comprehensive list of all the companies that are players in the DCC workstation marketplace, but I think it offers a good snapshot of those who are significant. Overall, the DCC workstation marketplace has become less fragmented than it was just a few years back. It can, of course, still be divided along the major Mac/PC camps. Let’s begin with the one and only workstation competitor in the Mac universe.

APPLE

The enormous success of Final Cut Pro has by default gone hand in hand with the success of the Apple’s Power Mac desktop workstations and MacBook Pro mobile workstation lines. Apple (www.apple.com) has done what no other company in the DCC marketplace has been able to: successfully build powerful multi-purpose workstations and simultaneously create a popular and powerful piece of software that runs only on those workstations. How can this combination not be the envy of many? To put this in perspective, imagine if HP or Boxx Technologies owned Avid, or visa-versa!

On Apple’s mobile workstation side, they now offer the very sleek MacBook Pro with a 17-inch monitor. Apple is justifiably quite proud of this techno-gem as its innovative one-inch thin design fits the famous Apple trademark of being hands down the most beautiful looking computer technology on the planet. But underneath its design and beauty is real power.

According to Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior VP of worldwide product marketing, “The 17-inch MacBook Pro delivers the speed and screen area of a professional desktop system in [a] notebook design.”

The MacBook Pro features Intel’s latest and greatest Core Duo processor. The 17-inch screen includes a 36 percent brighter display and an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 PCI Express graphics card with 256MB of dedicated GDDR3 graphics memory. Every 17-inch MacBook Pro also includes a FireWire 800 port, a FireWire 400 port, three USB 2.0 ports, optical and digital audio input and output, built-in Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) and integrated AirPort Extreme 54 Mbps 802.11g Wi-Fi wireless networking. The fully loaded MacBook Pro, with its wonderful 17-inch monitor and loaded with Final Cut Pro Studio 5.1, will set you back about $2,799 MSRP.

Though it comes in different configurations, the Power Mac G5 is Apple’s only desktop workstation model. The big news here, of course, was the announcement last year that Apple would be switching over to Intel-based processors from the PowerPC processors. Look for Intel processors (multi-core, of course!) inside Apple workstations in the coming months. Right now, the top-of-the-line PowerPC G5 features two dual-core PowerPC processors (what Apple calls quad-core) processors running at 2.5GHz. It has a very impressive 1.25GHz front side bus and can support up to 16GB of memory. If you’re a Final Cut Pro user or want to be one and will use a desktop workstation, some flavor of the G5 will be what you’ll use. The base MSRP for a Power Mac G5 Quad, loaded with Final Cut Studio 5.1 is $3,299.

DELL

As is the case with most of the players in the workstation market, Dell (www.dell.com) offers a family of true mobile and desktop workstations. Each product can be customized in a wide array of configurations. One thing I appreciate about Dell is that in addition to providing a good value, they also clearly show their prices on their Web site, from base models right up through all the options, which is not true for all vendors.

In mobile workstations, even at their lowest level — the Dell Precision workstation M65 — they provide an array of leading technology such the Intel Core Duo processor and the Nvidia Quadro FX 350M graphics card with 512MB of memory, perfectly suited to handle the demands of 2D and 3D applications. The M65 features up to 4GB memory and a 15.4-inch screen. The base MSRP of this unit is $1,849. From the M65 you can jump to either the Dell Precision M70 or M90 models. The M70 features the Intel Pentium M processors, up to 2GB of memory, the Nvidia Quadro FX Go1400 256MB graphics card, a 15.4-inch screen, at a MSRP of $1,948. Dell’s top mobile workstation is the Precision workstation M90, sporting a 17-inch wide monitor, up to 4GB of memory, an Nvidia Quadro FX 1500M or 2500M graphics card, and lots more. The base MSRP of this solid performer is $2,239.

In their desktop workstation line, Dell offers three basic models ranging from the from the Precision 390, featuring a Pentium 4-based processor and up to 8GB of memory, up to the Precision 690 with up to two of the newer dual-core Intel Xeon processors and up to 64GB of memory. The workstation 690 also supports a quad-monitor display with Nvidia SLI technology. Between these two is the Precision 490, also with up to two dual-core Xeon processors and a maximum of 32GB of memory.

Dell builds solid workstations that are dependable and priced very competitively, yet stay on the cutting edge of technology. One thing to keep in mind is that Dell does not use AMD processors in their workstation products, so if you are interested in having AMD in your workstation, you’ll need to look elsewhere. If, however, the new dual-core Intel Xeons suit your needs, then Dell’s a great place to start comparison shopping.

IBM

IBM (www.ibm.com) competes nicely in many markets, and while they make a showing in the DCC marketplace with their IntelliStation Pro product family, they may have their work cut out for them if their goal is to gain a larger market share this area. This industry has always been a bit fickle when it comes to the “sexiness” of a product, and while that is certainly no indication of the actual quality or performance of IBM’s workstation line, they have a way to go in enticing the type of users who require that elusive air of sex appeal. The IntelliStation Pro family is divided into three main model groups: the M pro, the Z Pro and the A Pro.

The M Pro uses dual-core Pentium 4 processors and can be loaded with up to 8GB of memory. The Z Pro workstation features Intel Xeon processors, 32-bit or 64-bit operating systems, and can handle up to 16GB of memory. The IntelliStation A Pro is in my opinion the most important of the three for the DCC workstation market and has many configurations and customizations available. Like the Z Pro, the A Pro can also handle 32-bit or 64-bit operating systems and features the AMD single or dual-core Opteron processors. It has up to 16GB of memory and has lots of available drive bays for expansion.

The IntelliStation A Pro is definitely a robust high-end workstation. Like most of the workstations reviewed here, there is a range of graphic accelerators that can be installed, from mid-range up to the ultra high-end Nvidia Quadro FX 4500. I think IBM has done a great job in delivering a rock solid and powerful tool for digital content creators with the IntelliStation A Pro. It has an MSRP for the base unit beginning at around $3,429.

HP

In the DCC workstation marketplace, HP (www.hp.com) has been a remarkable success story. The formerly separate engineers and designers from Compaq and HP had to get together quickly and figure out how to take the best technology from their respective companies and raise the bar and bring the marketplace something even better. A general perusal of vendors using workstations to display their products on the floor at NAB opened my eyes to the fact that HP had a huge presence. This purely anecdotal observation can be reinforced by the fact that leading studios, such as DreamWorks SKG, Lucasfilm and Disney, can be counted among the notable customers using significant quantities of HP workstations each day in their digital content creation. Beside their technology, HP’s success can also be attributed to their technique.

HP stays very active in listening to and working collaboratively to bring the best and most useful product to market in a timely manner. HP offers a full family of both mobile workstations and desktops. Their recently released HP Compaq nw9440 and nw8440 notebooks feature the new Intel Core Duo processors. The nw8400 workstation features a 15.4-inch screen and an ATI Mobility FireGL V5200 graphics controller with 256MB of discrete video memory.

The new nw9440 mobile features a high-resolution 17-inch screen and an Nvidia Quadro FX 1500M graphics controller with 256MB of discrete video memory. Both graphics controllers have hardware OpenGL acceleration. There is a range of customizations available for both of these mobile workstations as well, including processor speed, memory (up to 4GB), drives and more. A serious digital artist will have no problem being extremely productive on either of these mobile workstations. The nw8400 begins at an MSRP of $2,099 and the nw9400 begins at around $2,299.

In its desktop workstation family, HP’s true growing power in the DCC marketplace can clearly be seen. It is a testimony to HP’s strength that Avid chose HP’s xw8200 workstation to be the standard product shipped with their editing systems worldwide. While Compaq had brought this relationship to the table in the merger, it was up to the newly-combined company to prove itself. As Jim Zafarana, VP/worldwide marketing manager for HP’s workstation global business unit put it, “We take nothing for granted. While we very much appreciate Avid’s continued confidence in our products, our philosophy is that we have to go out and earn those relationships everyday by bringing the absolute highest quality and leading edge products to market that meet our customers changing needs.”

The HP workstation family begins with the low cost xw4300 with either an Intel Pentium 4, or dual-core Intel Pentium D processor and up to 8GB of memory. The next level is the xw6200 featuring the Intel Xeon processor and also up to 8GB of memory. The previously mentioned xw8200 is the next step up, also featuring the Xeon processor, a highly expandable chassis and up to 16GB of memory. The newly-released xw8400 comes next in the sequence (see my review in Post’s June ’06 issue) and features the new dual-core Intel Xeon 5000 sequence-based processor in a highly expandable chassis and up to 32GB of RAM.

Topping out the HP desktop workstation family is their xw9300. It features the AMD Opteron processor or dual-core AMD Opteron processor, a highly expandable chassis, up to 32GB of memory and two PCIe x16 graphics slots. The MSRP of these workstation in base configurations are: xw4300: $829; xw6200: $1,199; xw8200: $1,449; xw8400: $2,245; xw9300: $1,699. You can expect to see more workstation offerings from HP in the very near future featuring the new multi-core Intel Xeon processors.

BOXX

If there’s a counterpart in the PC world to what Apple offers in the Mac world in terms of elegance and just plain sexiness of design, I would have to say it’s the workstations from Boxx Technologies (www.boxxtech.com). They have a certain “wow” factor to them, and hidden beneath the surface cosmetics, Boxx workstations pack some serious creative power. Unlike some other workstation manufacturers, Boxx is completely focused on designing and manufacturing high-performance workstations and render nodes for visual effects professionals working in film, broadcast, advertising, Web and game development.

Across the product line they offer a variety of highly-customizable configurations. Boxx has a reputation for being experts when it comes to the specific needs of users in the DCC community, and workstations can be customized both online at boxxtech.com, or through Boxx Sales Consultants.

The Boxx workstation product line is comprised of Apexx, which are what they call super-workstations for VFX professionals; 3DBoxx, or high-performance VFX workstations; and GoBoxx mobile workstations.

At the highest end, Boxx recently introduced their Apexx models. With the Apexx 4 and the Apexx 8, Boxx offers what it calls the era of the “superworkstation.” The Apexx 4 features up to four AMD Opteron dual-core processors and an integrated DDR memory controller handling up to 64GB of DDR400 Memory. It has capabilities for dual PCI Express graphics supporting two Nvidia SLI-ready Quadro cards. If that’s not enough, the Apexx 8 features up to eight AMD Opteron dual-core processors and an integrated DDR memory controller handling up to 128GB of DDR400 memory. Did you read that last line? Up to 128GB of DDR400 memory! It’s obvious now why Boxx calls these “superworkstations.”

The 3DBoxx family of workstations covers the desktop needs of VFX artists with three series: the 3DBoxx 3000, 5000 and 7000 series, which are AMD-based desktop workstations; and the 4000, 6000 and 8000 series, which are Intel-based desktop workstations. Boxx recently released the 3DBoxx 8300. This high-performance workstation uses Intel’s new dual-core Xeon 5100 series processors running in conjunction with the new Intel 5000X chipset. It features a new 1333MHz front side bus, 4MB of cache shared between two cores and up to 32GB of FB-DIMMs, a new memory technology.

Finally, there’s the GoBoxx line of mobile workstations. More of us in the DCC market prefer to or need to demonstrate work on the go. GoBoxx features real desktop technology in a portable format: a large 17-inch 1920x1200 WUXGA Active Matrix display, real dual-core desktop processors — either Intel Pentium 4 up to 3.8GHz (GoBoxx 2300) or AMD Athlon 64 X2 dual-core processors (GoBoxx 1400).

Because of the high degree of customization available with Boxx, it is difficult to give accurate or meaningful MSRPs for their products. It’s best to go to their Web site for a custom quotation and assistance from a Boxx sales professional.

1 BEYOND

Starting in 1996, 1 Beyond’s founding premise was to make high quality post production tools available at a fraction of the cost they were at the time. This is an exciting young company that has both achieved its original goal and I think surpassed it. 1 Beyond (www.1beyond.com) offers a range of DCC applicable workstations from the mobile and valued priced all the way up to the HD OctoFlex 8-processor superworkstation. On the mobile workstation side, they offer their Mobility 990, which is configured with five removable SCCI drives for true mobile editing and can have Dual Xeon 3.6 GHz processors and up to 12GB RAM. This unit is much more than just a laptop type of mobile workstation that other vendors offer, but it is quite portable and comes with a 17-inch high-resolution LCD monitor. It starts with an MSRP of $5,265

1 Beyond’s desktop workstations include their Pro HD Flex line. Once more, everything they offer is highly customizable, as they really want to make sure the workstation meets the client’s specific needs. The Pro HD Flex line includes such features as Dual 3.6 GHz Xeon processors with an 800MHz front side bus and 1TB of RAID disk storage. The amazing thing here is the starting MSRP of only $6,595.

Finally, at the top end of 1 Beyond’s workstation offerings is the superworkstation OctoFlex. Like the other 1 Beyond products, extreme customization is the key. “One size does not fit all” is their motto. As an example of the power, a recent customer test of the 1 Beyond HD OctoFlex with the Matrox Axio LE card yielded 10 layers of uncompressed SD calculating nine picture-in-picture windows and still had over 50 percent of the processor power left for additional layers, graphics and effects, all in realtime. The starting MSRP of the Octoflex is $9,995.

LONGEVITY & CUSTOMER SERVICE

In wrapping up this article, it seems important to point out that while power, speed and technology are critical to evaluating the relative merits of one workstation over another, in my experience they are not the most important thing. You absolutely need to buy from a company that will be there after the sale. A superworkstation with the latest and greatest of everything on it does you no good if it’s sitting in the corner because you can’t get parts or service for it. Boat anchors are cheaper, so just buy one of those. Closely research the details of the warranty and service policies and abilities of a company before you buy. The ability of the manufacturer to support this essential tool of post production should be the number one spec you review very intently before laying down your hard-earned cash.