Need more grunt than a standard PC can offer? We test four of the most powerful rigs on the planet.

Most of us don’t need a huge amount of computing power in our day-to-day working lives. For many, a lightweight, low-powered laptop, even a Chromebook, is good enough. But for some only the best will do. Anyone whose job involves digital content creation – video editors, 3D designers, architects, photographers – will need a higher grade of hardware.

In many cases, this means a workstation: a powerful, specialised desktop PC (or even a laptop) designed for professional tasks. When purchasing one, however, the devil is in the detail. The software you plan to use will dictate the components worth spending money on.

Some activities benefit from more processor cores; some from a faster processor frequency; some from extra memory; and some get a major boost from expensive 3D graphics acceleration. A fast hard disk is essential for video editing, but less crucial for other applications. In this Labs, we’ll be looking at a range of workstations that represent a cross-section of what’s available for many of these intensive tasks.

3D modelling and rendering
3D animation is one of the most important types of professional activity for which a specialised workstation is needed. The work is divided into two areas, each with different requirements. Modelling – the process of designing and building 3D objects and characters – is an interactive activity that requires the greatest real-time responsiveness available. However, modelling software isn’t generally highly multithreaded, so a fast CPU clock speed is more beneficial than the greatest possible number of cores.

On the other hand, the software used to render models and animations – in other words, to produce the finished article – is among the most multithreaded you can find, so the more cores the merrier. Since processors with a greater number of cores are generally clocked more conservatively than those with fewer, modelling and rendering benefit from different types of processor.

While a fast professional graphics card is a boon for modelling, not all rendering software can harness the power available. In other words, there’s no need to spend extra on expensive graphics unless you use software that can take full advantage of it. In this case, there’s a further choice to make, between the types of GPU acceleration available. Only Nvidia’s cards offer CUDA acceleration, while both Nvidia and AMD accelerate OpenCL.

In practice, the systems in a small 3D-content-creation company or independent artist’s studio will need to be able to handle modelling and rendering. Only larger companies can afford to set up machines dedicated to each task: a dedicated farm of servers for rendering, and workstations for modelling. We have examples of both approaches in this month’s Labs. 

Photo and video editing
Photo editing benefits from a fast processor and plenty of RAM, but doesn’t usually gain much from multiple cores or a high-end graphics card. However, some software – including the DxO OpticsPro 10 application we used for testing – can be accelerated via utilising CUDA or OpenCL.

Video editing may gain from multiple cores as well as clock speed, but the software you use will dictate whether the graphics card is of any benefit. Sony Vegas supports OpenCL, and Adobe Premiere Pro’s Mercury Playback Engine can benefit from Nvidia’s CUDA acceleration. Keep in mind that the benefits of this acceleration apply only to certain activities, not across the board. Perhaps a more important consideration with video is the huge amount of hard disk space the files occupy. And, with data rates for 4K footage pushing past the 100Mbits/sec mark even when the video is compressed, the disks need to be as fast as possible too.

Maintenance concerns
Of course, it isn’t all about performance. In this Labs we’ve focussed on mainstream big brands Apple, Lenovo, Dell and HP, being more likely to offer clever chassis designs that are easier to upgrade and maintain, or that are smaller, quieter and easier to live with than a large unwieldy box.

Above all, bear in mind that workflow fluidity can have a huge impact on the economic viability of your business, and a fast, reliable workstation tailored to your specific needs can make all the difference in the end. 

How we test 
In order to give the broadest possible workstation advice, we’ve used a wide variety of software for testing. Our Real World Benchmarks suite assesses the general speed at which the system runs Windows, how good it is at running more than one application simultaneously, and how it runs a selection of common media tasks including video and 3D rendering.

In addition to this, we run tests specifically aimed at higher-end workstation activities. To test 3D modelling, we use SPECviewperf 12, which runs a number of tests representing graphics content and real-world behaviour from a number of popular 3D, engineering and medical applications. Maxon Cinebench R15 contains another OpenGL modelling test, alongside a highly multithreaded 3D-rendering test, which benefits greatly from multiple processor cores. We also test GPU-accelerated 3D rendering with the Nvidia CUDA-orientated Bunkspeed Shot and OpenCL-powered LuxMark 2.

We test the raw performance of the storage subsystem with ATTO’s Disk Benchmark. Image-editing performance is assessed using DxO OpticsPro 10 running a gruelling noise-reduction process across multiple raw images. Video editing is tested using our standard Sony Vegas test, but with 4K video files instead of HD.

In the case of the Apple Mac Pro, which doesn’t run Windows out of the box, we ran every test we could using OS X, including Maxon Cinebench R15, LuxMark 2 and DxO OpticsPro 10. The remainder of our test suite was run on Windows 8.1 under Boot Camp.

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