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Essential Upgrades to Boost Your System

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In the quest to make our projects stand out, we spend alot of time and money in search of new software, plug-ins, and presets whilst possibly overlooking a rapidly failing or out-of-date computer. Other than your mind, your computer, or workstation, is one of the most important assets you have. It's the environment and toolbox with which you work and in which you store all your creative endeavors.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in December of 2009.

So don't put off those hardware upgrades. If your computer is plagued with slow-downs, insufficient storage, productivity issues, and a monitor that gives you a headache, it's time to deal with it. Upgrading your system is not only about current performance issues, it is also about giving yourself the room to push your projects to new heights.

So even if you're short on cash, now is the perfect time to plan your upgrades as the holidays are right around the corner. Not only are there great sales, but it's also your perfect opportunity to ask for a gift that can greatly effect how you work in the upcoming year.

The upgrades we will be looking at do not require you to be an expert. If you're not technically savvy, there is no better time than now to learn. The primary focus is a better understanding of how your system works and to upgrade it to be faster, more efficient, and more functional than ever.

For your information, I will be using the terms workstation and desktop computer interchangeably even though there is a difference. Generally a workstation refers to a computer that is designed for higher end use and to be on constantly or for longer periods of time. Principly they are the same as a regular desktop but the parts cost more and they are generally faster. As an example, the Mac Pro is considered a Workstation, while your iMac or regular desktop PC from Best Buy or built is considered a desktop computer. You can build your own workstation if you know what to buy and also companies such as Hewlett Packard and Boxx sell Windows-based workstations as well.


The following are items we will be looking at upgrading:

  • Memory.
  • Video Card.
  • Monitor.
  • Storage (hard drives).
  • I/O Card.

But first, lets get a bit of an understanding on how all of these components work together inside your computer with a simple analogy.



Picture the inside of your computer as a common work area, with a desk, drawers and closets, and you (the worker). The processor is you (how fast you can work), the drawers and closets are the hard drives (storage), and the memory is the desk space. The more memory you have, the bigger the size of your desk. A bigger desk allows you to have more papers, markers, and books out so you can work on multiple things at once (those things are your programs and files). If you didn't have sufficient desk space and needed to pull out another book, you would have to take items you have out on the desk, even ones you are still using, and put them away to make room for the new book. Without enough desk space you would need to keep playing the swapping and prioritization game which would slow you down tremendously. The difference between a regular user and one that works with video is that a regular user might only need enough space for a memo, while working with video is like needing to reference multiple copies of War and Peace simultaneously. Sufficient memory makes a huge difference.



The video card is like another employee that you've hired in an adjacent office that specializes in all the visual content your company puts out. You are in charge of the overall office, but he takes alot of the video tasks off you. The video card has its own processor and memory as well (the employee and his desk).

Your monitor is like the lighting in the office. Bad lighting can affect the output of your work by making you tired or messing with your perception of the items on your desk.

Finally, we have the I/O card. The other components found a place in my analogy quite easily. So for now, since one of it's main functions is to give you a real time preview of your work on an external HDTV monitor. I will liken this to a presentation room in your office.



Now that we understand a bit more about how the components work together, lets get to some upgrades.



1. Get a Bigger Desk (Memory)




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So you know you need memory, but how much memory do you need? Well, If you do a lot of motion graphics, 3D, and are running professional video applications, the answer is as much your computer can handle, or as much as you can afford (whichever comes first). For a more in-depth explanation, check out Harry Frank's fantastic article "After Effects & RAM 101".



For Mac users:
You can buy memory directly from Apple, but it's usually a lot more expensive, I'm talking hundreds more, so it's worth your while to look at third-party vendors. I recommend checking out Other World Computing, where I've bought memory for my Mac Pros multiple times. If you don't know what kind or how much memory your Mac can handle, no problem. Just click on your specific flavor of Mac and they will tell you exactly what you need. You can also trade in your current memory for cash if you don't need it. I'm currently running 24GB of memory in my Mac Pro and loving every Gigabyte. As far as installation goes, Other World also has a wonderful and comprehensive library of installation videos for almost any Mac you may own. That's right, step by step video tuts. The videos literally rock! Try watching one and you'll know what I mean. Even if you buy your memory elsewhere or they don't ship to your country, the videos are helpful and so is their memory upgrade guide.




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For PC users:
Since there are many different PC manufacturers, you have a lot more choice, but it takes a bit more work to find out for yourself how much RAM and what kind you need. You need to know at least three things to buy the right memory. Is it ECC or non-ECC? DDR1, DDR2 or DDR3? And its speed. A good place to check is your computer or motherboard manual, but if you've misplaced it look for a manufacturer's name on your motherboard and you can usually find information on their website. Once you know what you need, a good place to buy is Newegg. Some brands I've had really good experience with are Corsair, Kingston, and Crucial. Installing is usually as simple at just opening your case and popping the memory in.








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A final note for PC users. In order to run and use four (4) or more Gigabytes of memory in your PC, you need to be running a 64 bit version of Windows. If you are running a 32 bit version, it will still work, but you won't be benefiting from any of it over 4GB. Leopard and Snow leopard only come in 64 bit versions so this is not a problem on the Mac end. To tell what version of Windows you are currently running, press the Windows & Pause/break keys on your keyboard, or right click on "My Computer" and click properties and you should see what version of windows you have.




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2. Get Lighting That's Easy on the Eyes (Monitor)




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The monitor is one of the system components I try not to cheap out on too much. If you recall the lighting analogy, it illuminates everything you do. A good monitor will not only allow you to see higher resolution images and video, but also get accurate color, a good contrast range, and allow you to keep working several hours longer with less fatigue and eye strain. I also highly recomend using at least 2 monitors as it will double your work efficiency. The monitors don't have to be the same make, size, or model to natively work together on both Windows or Mac OSX, but I recomend buying 2 that are identical as it's easier to calibrate them to match looks.







There are five basic things I like to look for in a monitor : type, bit depth, size, resolution, and inputs. Most monitors you'll find under $400 are going to be of the type TN (Twisted Nematic) and are 6 bit color. They are fine for gaming, but for what we do, I recomend asking or looking for an 8 bit or higher IPS (In-Plane Switching) or PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment) type panel. For more on display types and their color bit depths, check out this Wikipedia article.




The other item to look at is the resolution and size. They go hand in hand because a small monitor with high resolution can sometimes be hard to see and vice versa, a large monitor with an inappropriately low resolution will leave you playing the game of spot the pixels. Two 24" monitors at 1920 X 1200 native resolution seems to be the sweet spot in my opinion. I like that specific resolution as it is the size of square pixel 1080 HD video, which will fit natively on the monitor without scaling.


There are four major monitor inputs worth mentioning: DVI, HDMI, Displayport, and mini-Displayport. Displayport is the new kid on the blog and DVI is the most common and has been arround for a while so your monitor needs to have one of those at the very least. I am a big fan of monitors that give you multiple input options. There are also adapters available between all 4 inputs if you need them as well.




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Now that we've looked at specs, I have used and recomend Dell's 24" Ultrasharp series for several years. There have been multiple evolutions of the Ultrasharp, all pretty well reviewed. The current version is the Ultrasharp U2410 and it is a 12bit IPS at 1920 X 1200 and for inputs it has HDMI, two DVI's, and Displayport. They also give you 4 USB ports and a multi-mediacard reader. I've used the last two generations of this line with no issues. The bases are very sturdy, well designed, and they swivel, tilt, and rotate as well as go into landscape mode if you need it. They retail around $599, but there is almost always at least $100 off or more in sale prices around the corner, so keep an eye out, and if you are a student, Dell gives you a discount as well. Two of these will serve you perfectly well and cost about as much as one Apple 24" Cinema Display.




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3. Hire a Video Specialist With Her Own Office (Video Card)




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The video card's basic task is to display everything you see on your monitor, but it doesn't end there. A good video card can power multiple high resolution monitors, accelerate renders, allow for smoother previews at higher resolutions, and boost many of your effects such as lighting and motion blur. Many Cards will also accelerate playback of Flash and H.264 video. Your system will also be faster in general as your graphics card will take video processing and other tasks off the shoulders of your main processor, just like the extra employee analogy, freeing it up for other tasks.


On the higher end of video cards, I present The NVidia Quadro FX 4800 for Mac. Quadro is NVidia's workstation class video card and this is the only one that works on and was designed for the Mac Pro. It also runs perfectly on a PC. So if you run both Mac OS and Windows via Bootcamp, you'll have no problem. If you have a PC, you aren't limited to this Quadro Card only, there are many Quadro offerings to check out. There is also a non-Mac version of the FX 4800, so be careful not to accidentally buy it if you mean to put it in a Mac Pro. The FX 4800 for Mac was designed with the Adobe CS4 Suite in mind. It also usually comes bundled with Elemental Accelerator, a $250 piece of software that boasts the ability to utilize the Quadro to dramatically boost your After Effects or Premiere Pro render times. Elemental Accelerator is written for and will only work with Quadro Cards.










You can also see here how a great video card can boost 3rd party plugins in After Effects.







Quadros are also used in HP's workstations as well. They are available at many online retailers including The Apple Store, Newegg, Amazon, Buy.com, etc. It's definitly worth your while to shop around a bit to save some money on your investment. A few caveats. Quadro FX 4800 for Mac will only run on the last 2 versions of the Mac Pro, 3.1 and 4.1 (if you don't know how to tell what Mac Pro you have, I'll show you further on). As with any add-in device, make sure to install the latest drivers from NVidia's website once you get and install the card. Keep checking every couple months for driver updates.






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If you can't quite afford a Quadro, then the next best thing is the Geforce GTX 285 Mac Edition. This is still a hefty card, as it resides in the $400 range and is one of the faster Geforce (non-workstation) level cards available, not to mention the fastest Geforce you can get for the Mac Pro. For many tasks, you may actually see a minimal difference in performance between this and the Quadro, so it's still a great upgrade. Once again, I'm highlighting this one as there are only a handful of video cards supported by Apple, while any Geforce card has the drivers to work on the PC. You will notice a lot of the same type of performance gains with this card but there is no Elemental Accelerator. This card is also only supported by the last two generations of Mac Pros, the 3.1 and the 4.1. If you aren't quite sure how to tell what version of Mac Pro you have, all you need do is Click on the Apple at top left of the menu bar, then click on 'About this Mac', then click the 'more info' button. You should then be able to see what version Mac Pro you have.




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4. Get More Storage Space (Hard Drives)




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When working with video, storage is always at a premium. Especially now that many of us aren't shooting to tape anymore, but instead to digital media like the P2. The Mac Pro can hold up to 4 hard drives internally and that number varies on the PC but it is usually around the same. Once that fills up, the only choice is to get an external drive. Instead of cluttering up your office with multiple single drives, I recommend instead that you get a 4 or 5 bay external hard drive enclosure.



There are two important things to look for in a good multi-bay enclosure. First is an eSATA out port and second is a built in RAID controler. eSATA is an external connection that is as fast as your internal drives, so you can edit off of them as well. RAID lets you run your drives in multiple configurations so you can utilize your drives together for speed and data security. If you are curious about RAID, check out this article on RAID basics.



There are many good choices for external storage such as Sonnet, Lacie, Drobo, Caldigit, and more. For the price and performance, I recomend trying out the Mercury Elite-AL Pro Qx2 as a good option. You can also get them as a rack mount if you want to stack them.

5. Get a Presentation Room to View Your Work (I/O Card)




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The last part of the office analogy is the presentation room. While your video card feeds your desktop monitors, The Blackmagic Intensity Pro lets you output your Premiere Pro or Final Cut timeline and your After Effects compositions to an external HDTV monitor while you edit or composite so that you can get real time previews of your work. This can be very useful as it lets you experience it like your audience will while you work. The Intensity Pro card fits nicely in your Mac Pro or PC's PCI-Express expansion slot. Not only is there HDMI out, but you can also capture HDMI through the HDMI in port. That means that you can connect an external HD Camera, DVD, Blu-ray, etc. and capture it for editing. Blackmagic also includes their own software to help with capturing, processing, and monitoring what is being input. When you install the software and drivers, you will see sequence, capture, and output settings within the supported editing and compositing apps. The card also accellerates uncompressed HD and HDV. All this for roughly $199 dollars. For more details, check out Blackmagic Design's website. Just like with any new hardware, check the website for the latest drivers when installing.

I hope this has been helpful to everyone. If any of you have any must-have hardware upgrades or tips that you want to share, please do. Also, if you've found any killer deals on the upgrades mentioned, feel free to share them with all of us as well. Thanks.

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