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Next-Gen Video Editing Systems for HD (6/2006)
by Douglas Dixon
The past few years have been a good time to be working with digital video. The technology in today's PCs -- multi-megahertz machines, larger storage, fast disks, external USB 2.0 storage, and plug-and-play DV / FireWire camcorders -- makes DV editing feasible even on common desktop and laptop systems.
But now we want more: longer and more complex projects, real-time preview of multiple video streams and effects, and, of course, high-definition video -- with up to 4X the data rate and complexity. The PC industry is answering this demand with new technology including multi-processor systems, multi-core processors, hardware-accelerated video processing, and faster disk access through RAID and SATA.
So whether you're ready to step up to a next-generation system, or just dreaming of what's to come, let's take a look at the kind of video PCs that you can look forward to for your next system. Our exploration is simplified a bit now that the Apple Macintosh is moving to the Intel architecture, so we'll check out Apple's current recommendations for working in Final Cut Studio with its multi-processor systems, and look at what Intel is doing to enhance its processors to dual core.
And on the Windows side, we'll use the Adobe Production Studio as the example for the discussion, since Adobe has worked with its partners to develop recommended system configurations. We can also use the handy Dell website to easily explore different system configurations and options. Of course, there are many more options for systems, software, components, and peripherals, but these companies provide a nice array of representative options for us to explore here.
Editing on the Macintosh is obviously centered around the Apple Final Cut Studio suite, which includes Final Cut Pro 5 with HD editing, Motion 2 for motion graphics, Soundtrack Pro for audio, and DVD Studio Pro 4 (www.apple.com/finalcutstudio). Final Cut Pro is written as a multi-threaded, inherently scalable application, so it is able to take full advantage of Apple's current multi-processor systems (as is Mac OS X).
Apple Final Cut Studio
If you need high-end editing power, especially if you are working with HD, Apple recommends the high-end Apple Power Mac G5 Quad systems (www.apple.com/powermac). You'll see noticeable performance improvement, in the form of more streams and more real-time effects, as Dynamic RT scales performance with more CPU power. For example, Apple demos up to 16 streams of SD or even DVCPRO HD video in real time.
Apple Power Mac G5
The Power Mac G5 is available in Dual and Quad configurations, with up to two dual-core processors at speeds up to 2.5 GHz per core -- that's four Velocity Engines and eight double-precision floating-point units powering away on your footage. Apple's benchmarks show Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects running from 60 to 69 percent faster on the Quad system, compared to the Dual.
Quad G5 systems start at $3,299 with 512 MB memory and 250 GB hard disk, and increase to $8,874 with the full 16 GB memory and 1 TB hard disk (and no display).
Applications like Motion are written to take full advantage of available processing and memory, so feel free to load up your system to handle computationally complex multi-layer composites in real time. The base Power Mac G5 systems include 512 MB of 533 MHz DDR2 main memory, and support up to the 16 GB.
DDR2 SDRAM (Double Data Rate Two Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory) redoubles the data rate of DDR-SDRAM, offering faster throughput, lower power usage, and future growth in clock speeds (www.memforum.org).
The Apple Pro applications also can take advantage of graphics acceleration, so the G5s can upgraded to use the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 with 512MB of integrated GDDR3 SDRAM, or the NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GT with 256MB of GDDR3 SDRAM plus one single-link DVI port and one dual-link DVI port.
The G5s use the PCI Express architecture for these graphics card and other expansion slots, offering double the throughput of the previous AGP 8X protocols (www.pcisig.com). PCI Express guarantees each device dedicated bandwidth through the system controller. PCI Express slots are defined by their bandwidth, or number of data lanes - typically one, four, eight lanes, or 16 lanes. At 250 MBps per lane, a four-lane slot can transfer data at up to 1 GBps and an eight-lane slot, up to 2 GBps - almost twice as fast as a 133MHz PCI-X slot at a maximum throughput of just over 1 GBps.
Available expansion possibilities for G5 video editing include audio DSP solutions from Digidesign and video capture cards from Blackmagic Design and AJA Video.
You also need to move all this data to and from hard disk. The G5s support up to two internal 500 GB Serial ATA (SATA) drives for a total capacity of 1TB of storage. SATA offers dedicated connections for each device, with faster data rates, longer cable lengths, and even the bonus of smaller physical cables than the old parallel ribbon cables that cramped system internals and obstructed airflow.
While SATA was originally developed as an interconnect inside PC systems, it has been extended outside the box with external SATA (eSATA), offering up to 6X the performance of USB 2.0 and FireWire. SATA runs at 1.5 GHz or effectively 1.2 Gbps (i.e., 1228 Mbps, or 150 MBps). SATA II is doubled to 2400 Mbps (300 MBps) -- compared to 400 Mbps for FireWire or 800 Mbps for FireWire 800.
While Serial ATA offers plenty of throughput for working with SD video (DV at 25 Mbps), HD video is more of a challenge, with DVCPRO 50 at 50 Mbps and DVCPRO HD at 100 Mbps. Apple recommends using the Apple Fibre Channel PCI Express Card to connect to the Apple Xserve RAID storage solution, with up to 14 hot-swappable Apple Drive Modules in a rack storage enclosure, up to 7 TB of data, starting at $5,999 (www.apple.com/xserve/raid).
Meanwhile, Apple is migrating its product line to the Intel architecture by the end of 2006. The Final Cut Studio suite will scale nicely to Intel's dual-core processors, and Apple is completing the process of converting the existing versions of its applications to the Universal applications format -- designed to run natively on both the new Intel-based and older PowerPC-based Macintosh systems (www.apple.com/universal). Apple's benchmarks show performance increases of around 1.5 to 2 X for Final Cut Pro HD rendering with the Intel Core Duo, (for the iMac compared with an iMac G5 with 2.1 GHz PowerPC, and the MacBook Pro compared to PowerBook G4 with 1.67 GHz PowerPC).
To get its applications ready for the new Intel systems, Apple is currently offering low-priced "crossgrade" promotions for current owners to get the Universal version (i.e., $49 for Final Cut Studio). The individual applications are no longer available separately, only as part of Final Cut Studio ($1299), with upgrade offers from the previous version of any single application to the Universal version of the Studio ($199). Upgrades are not available from Final Cut Express -- the next version will be Universal.
As you might expect, Windows-based video editing offers a much broader range of hardware and software options, which can be both liberating and overwhelming. To address this issue, Adobe has created the Adobe OpenHD Alliance, offering a line of integrated, certified, Windows-based solutions for HD editing (www.adobeopenhd.com). Originally started with Dell, HP, Intel, and Microsoft, the group has added 10 additional partners for capture cards, graphics and video accelerators, audio tools, and data storage products, including AJA, AMD, Blackmagic, Bluefish, CineForm, Focusrite, Ciprico, Matrox, NVIDIA, and Rorke Data.
The OpenHD site offers specific system configurations from Dell and HP optimized for different type of production workflow, including HDV editing and HD/SD editing and finishing. These range from around $6,500 for HDV editing, to $10,000 with HD capture hardware, to $25,000 with Matrox Axio accelerated HD editing and effects.
These systems are tested and certified with the new Adobe Production Studio suite of applications for performance and reliability (www.adobe.com/products/productionstudio). The resulting systems then can scale from SD to HDV to HD editing workflows. The Production Studio Standard software is $1,199, with Premiere Pro 2.0 for video editing, After Effects 7.0 Standard for motion graphics, plus the latest Photoshop CS2. Production Studio Premium is $1,699 with the addition of After Effects 7.0 Professional, Audition 2.0 for audio editing, Encore DVD 2.0 for DVD authoring, and Illustrator CS2 software. Adobe also offers the full Video Bundle with the addition of Macromedia Flash Professional 8 for $2,099. (Dell offers Adobe Production Studio Standard bundled with the Precision system for $799.)
Adobe Production Studio
The Adobe applications and its compression codecs are optimized for multi-threading, multiple processors, and hyper threading on Intel processors -- and work well on AMD processors as well. Adobe recommends at least a Pentium 4, 1.4 GHz processor for DV editing with Premiere Pro, a Pentium 4, 3.4 GHz processor supporting Hyper-Threading Technology for HDV, and dual Intel Xeon, 2.8 GHz processors for HD (SSE2-enabled processor required for AMD systems).
Video and graphics effects in Premiere Pro also can be enhanced with a graphics card offering GPU-accelerated playback (see www.adobe.com/compatiblehardware). And for OpenGL enhanced motion effects (www.opengl.org), Adobe After Effects supports OpenGL 2.0 cards with native 2D and 3D graphics (NVIDIA recommended, see www.adobe.com/products/aftereffects/opengl).
Of course, more memory is also useful: Adobe recommends at least 512 MB of RAM for DV editing, and 2 GB for HDV and HD. For taking advantage of the suite by running multiple applications simultaneously, Adobe recommends a minimum of 1 GB of RAM. Premiere Pro and After Effects can both use up to 3 GB of RAM each.
And for best hard disk performance in accessing multiple streams of video, Adobe recommends a dedicated 7200RPM hard drive for DV and HDV editing, and a striped disk array storage (RAID 0) for HD.
The recommended OpenHD system from Dell is the Dell Precision 670 Workstation (www.dell.com/precision). While you may be tempted by Dell's Dimension and XPS desktop lines for home and home office with snazzier designs and hot new technology, Dell recommends the Precision workstation as a certified, integrated, and robust solution for professional video users. In particular, the Precision provides full OpenGL support and support for SATA RAID disks.
Dell Precision 670 Workstation
You can use the Dell website to explore various configurations of the Precision 670, to understand the current cost / performance trade-offs in adding more processing and storage. The recommended configuration includes dual CPU 64-bit Intel Xeon 3.6 Ghz 800 FSB Hyper-threaded processors, 4 GB 400MHz DDR RAM, Seagate 80 GB 7200 RPM SATA system drive plus 500 GB 7200 RPM SATA media storage drive, and a PCI Express NVIDIA Quadro 3450 256 MB video card -- plus 16x DVD+/-RW Drive, Windows XP Pro, and Adobe Production Studio Standard, for around $6,000.
The biggest first question is processors. The Intel Xeon workstation processors currently are available in speeds from 2.8 to 3.8 GHz, with single or dual cores, and with one or two processors in the system (www.intel.com/products/processor). You can look at the price curve to help choose an optimal speed -- it's probably worth $100 more to step up from the slowest speed (i.e., from 2.8 to 3.0 GHz), but the jump to the top of the line (from 3.6 to 3.8) is more like $400, and may not result in much visible speed-up.
The Xeon processors do support Intel's Hyper-Threading Technology under Windows XP, offering two virtual processors on the same hardware -- which means that the one (virtual) processor can be running flat-out for an intensive operation like video compression, while the second is still available to allow the interface to remain response and do other work (www.intel.com/technology/hyperthread). Since hyper-threading has been available in a variety of desktop Intel Pentium and Xeon processors (although not on mobile systems), most video applications now use multi-threaded designs to take advantage of multi-processor systems.
The next processor step is to dual-core processors, with two full processors in one -- offering up to double the performance (although limited by memory access). These include the Dual-Core Xeon for workstations and servers, Pentium D (dual-core) and Pentium Extreme Edition (dual-core and hyper-threading) for desktops, and low-power Core Duo for laptops (beyond the Pentium M).
Your choices for processor upgrades, then, start with one Xeon 2.8 GHz. You can jump up to a faster 3.8 GHz processor for $930, double down with a dual-core 2.8 GHz processor for $950, or add a full second 2.8 GHz processor for $1,299. Your best bet is probably to spend your money on a matched set of processors with whatever bump in speed you can afford, giving you two full processors, with the bonus of hyper-threading to add two more virtual processors. Of course, for mega performance, you can splurge on two dual-core processors. Or, for future upgrade options, get one dual-core processor now, and come back for the second later.
For system memory, these 32-bit Windows XP systems offer up to 4 GB, with a similar cost curve: $130 to jump from 512 MB to 1 GB, $120 for the next GB, and $320 more for 4 GB. You can save money by filling the memory slots with lower-capacity DIMMS, or pay more to leave space for chips later. (These applications run under 64-bit Windows, but are not yet certified for it.)
And for video / graphics performance, Dell offers a wide range of PCI Express x16 graphics cards, with dedicated memory and support for graphics and video effects. The nVidia Quadro FX 3450 adds $725 to a basic system, with OpenGL support and dual monitors with analog VGA or digital DVI interfaces.
Finally, the Dell Precision platform offers a tremendous variety of options for built-in RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) support on the motherboard to gang together multiple disks for enhanced performance and/or reliability. Dell recommends the new SATA drives for higher capacity, but also supports older and familiar SCSI drives that still spin faster.
You can configure at least two drives as RAID 0, striped together to spread the data across multiple drives for double (or more) the performance. Or use RAID 1 for mirrored reliability (with increased performance but half the storage), RAID 5 for striping with redundant parity (the best of both worlds), or RAID 10 (1+0).
This will be an interesting new year for PC-based video editing, with Apple's new Intel-based systems and the coming of the new version of Microsoft Windows Vista (www.microsoft.com/Windowsvista).
Processors are blowing past 3 GHz, and new dual-core processors offer even more performance. Intel's new microarchitecture, due out later this year, offers significantly lower heat, with a 2X to 3X performance improvement per watt -- making laptop-based editing even more interesting for Windows and Apple.
The new PCI Express bus and Serial ATA disks with RAID configurations are offering major boosts in data throughput, not only on the motherboard, but in external disk drives from companies like LaCie (www.lacie.com) -- with external terabyte drives, multi-terabyte RAID enclosures with hot-swappable drives, and SATA II towers with sustained transfer rates of 160 MBps. Just add a SATA card to your system, plug in four of these units, and enable software RAID within Windows XP for unbelievable performance!
The software is upgraded to support multiple processors and the latest graphics cards, so it's not unreasonable to expect your next system to not only fly through SD editing, but also step up comfortably to HD editing.
Apple - Power Mac G5
Apple - Xserve RAID
Apple - Final Cut Studio
Apple - Universal Applications
Adobe - Recommended Hardware
Adobe - OpenGL
Adobe - Production Studio
Adobe - OpenHD Alliance
Dell / Intel / Microsoft
Dell - Precision Workstation
Intel - Processors (Pentium, Xeon, Core)
Intel - Hyper-Threading Technology
Microsoft Windows Vista
PCI-SIG - Peripheral Component Interconnect Special Interest Group -- PCI
Memory Implementers Forum (Dell, HP and Intel) -- DDR2 SDRAM
RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) References
Serial ATA References