Computer Reviews

You are now Leaving the Appleverse: A Custom Workstation Build to do Battle in Davinci Resolve

THE PREAMBLE

I’ve always been a Mac user. I remember learning to write code for a rudimentary Space Invaders game in Grade 6, and the excitement of a Nazi shoot-up in Castle Wolfenstein on the venerable Apple IIe. It certainly wasn’t anything like the whirlwind you’d experience today, but things were a lot slower back than… albeit no less enjoyable. For many years, I had a firm belief that PCs weren’t nearly as capable as Apple computers – perhaps it was a greener grass thing, as my family didn’t own an Apple computer… certainly the 8-bit blocks were no better in Castle Wolfenstein than they were in my father’s favorite solitaire game? Perhaps it was the fact that our only computer was hidden deep in the wholly unfinished basement of our Calgary home – I must have associated PCs with dark, dank, unfinished concrete and spiders? Either way, it stuck with me. So, when the time came to purchase my first computer, it was indeed a Mac – the Apple Power Mac G4 500, to be precise. What a machine!

A photo of Rob Neilson holding up money from his first paycheque made using the equipment behind him - a G4 Mac and a Canon XL-1 camera.
Flaunting first earnings from a G4 Mac, FCP & Canon XL-1.

It really was a great computer. I had no idea how to use it, but it sure was cool! I cut my first feature film on that machine, using Final Cut Pro 1.2 – another terrific learning curve, but I got there. For may years after that, I stuck with Mac computers exclusively – I cut numerous features with them, did heaps of compositing and visual effects, graphic design, web design, motion graphics… you name it. I’d built my post-production studio around the Apple ecosystem with Mac Pro computers, AJA cards and breakout boxes, miniSAS external RAIDs… all that fun, expensive, stuff. My staff knew and loved Mac computers, and those “I’m a PC” commercials were hilarious! Everything was great, until… Final Cut Pro X! What a disaster. Overnight, I couldn’t use “Final Cut Poo” anymore for professional work – the XML fiasco, and absurd interface made it completely unusable for almost anything I was doing.

Onwards and upwards as they say, but changing the studio infrastructure and learning new software, workflow and keyboard shortcuts, cost me countless hours and thousands of dollars. It was frustrating, to say the least. I felt betrayed by the brand I had been so loyal to over the years – clearly Apple’s priority had become the shareholder? Yet, I continued to use Apple computers. Maybe it was my innate fear of Windows? Or spiders?? Maybe it was Thunderbolt? Maybe it was just plain laziness? Who knows, but I kept paying top-dollar for Apple products.

It wasn’t until I started color correction and delivery on feature films that I began to reconsider my choices. Indeed, adding noise reduction and features like Super Scale in Davinci Resolve began bogging down my workstations, making it abundantly clear that it was time to look for more power. As before however, my first thoughts gravitated toward the newly released post-trashcan Mac Pro, but the cheese grater Mac Pro came with an absurd price tag and, despite being back to a normal, expandable form factor, it was still, in perfect Apple form, extraordinarily restrictive.


THE BUILD

Whilst waiting for what turned out to be the cheese grater Mac Pro, I began researching PC builds as I, like many, feared that Apple had given up on the professional user completely. In fact, a year or two prior to my noise reduction epiphany, I decided to do a trial run and successfully built a somewhat respectable PC workstation. It had two GTX 1080 graphics cards and a fantastic AMD processor, but there weren’t many options for Thunderbolt on a PC at that time, so I didn’t go all-in. Once USB 4 and Thunderbolt 4 came out however, I knew the time had come to see what kind of post-production powerhouse I could build. As finances permitted, I purchased the parts I needed, eventually piecing the Frankenstation together with my daughter in the (finished, almost spider-less) basement of our townhouse.

I did quite a bit of research for this build – perusing the web for reviews and tutorials, which I found very informative and helpful. Above all else, the objective was speed, so I knew it wasn’t going to be cheap. Thunderbolt 4 / USB 4 was a must, which limited the number of motherboard options; I’d purchased several ASUS ProArt monitors for my studio in the past, and found the ProArt lineup to be quite solid, so I settled on the ProArt Z790-CREATOR WIFI motherboard in the end. With PCIe 5.0 and DDR5 slots, 2 x Thunderbolt 4 ports that were USB 4 compliant, 6 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports and a 10 Gb ethernet port to hook up my Synology DS1819+ NAS to, it checked all the right boxes for speed. It also worked with the new 13th Gen Intel Core i9-13900k processors, which were a no-brainer at the time.

ASUS ProArt Z790-CREATOR WIFI motherboard hero image.

I had originally put in an order for a Gigabyte GeForce RTX 4090 Windforce graphics card, as they were a slightly cheaper base-model card, and I was familiar with the brand. However, after waiting several weeks for the backorder to fill, another RTX 4090 became available – the ZOTAC Gaming GeForce RTX 4090 Trinity graphics card. So, despite not knowing this brand, I decided to take the plunge and purchase one. As with all the RTX 4090 cards, it was gargantuan!

ZOTAC Gaming GeForce RTX 4090 Trinity graphics card hero image with box.

I’ve used Kingston products for years and always found them reliable, so I went with 64GB (2 x 32GB) of Fury Beast DDR5 5600MT/s CL40 goodness for RAM and a Kingston NV2 1TB PCIe 4.0 M.2 NVMe SSD for my cache drive. I’d read a lot of reviews on this NVMe SSD and most of them were positive, but there was an underlying concern as to how long they would last, so I decided to play it safe and use it as a cache drive for Davinci Resolve. I had several Samsung 970 Pro 500GB NVMe SSD drives kicking around that I’d pulled from an OWC Express 4M2 NVMe RAID enclosure, so I used one of them for the system drive. To power the beast, I used an EVGA SuperNOVA 1300 G+ power supply.

Kingston Fury Beast DDR5 desktop memory kit product image.
Kingston NV2 PCIe 4.0 NVMe 1TB SSD product image.
Samsung 970 Pro 500GB NVMe SSD hero image.

After reading more about the dangers of not being grounded whilst working on electronics, I purchased a StarTech ESD Anti Static Wrist Strap Band with Grounding Wire, which I didn’t believe to be necessary with my first build… and, although I haven’t had any problems with that workstation thus far, I now believe that to have been a pretty dumb move on my part, as, from what I’ve now read, sometimes there are no immediate problems like sparks, spontaneous combustion and melted motherboards, but there certainly can be long term effects, with shortened product lifespan, etc.

I knew heat was still going to be an issue with this build, so I went with a Noctua NH-D15S Dual-Tower CPU Cooler and a Fractal Design Torrent E-ATX computer case to keep everything cool. I used the thermal paste that came with the CPU cooler as well.

Fractal Design Torrent E-ATX computer case hero image.

Windows 11 had come out by the time I started my build, so I bought Windows 11 Pro. There are certainly things I prefer with Mac OSX, but there are actually a couple of things I prefer in Windows, and the interface has become a lot more user friendly since Windows 7. Honestly though, I really wish someone would come out with another operating system! Windows and Mac OS are both great in their own ways, but it would be great to have a few more choices out there for the everyday user… yes, Linux, I said everyday user, so that’s out. Interestingly enough, last week I actually read something about the Chinese building a new operating system, to reduce their reliance on Windows and other American products – maybe this will start a trend?


LIFE IN THE FAST LANE

It’s now been around six months since I put this workstation into use, and I must say I’m very pleased with it overall. None of the components have given me any grief, or bricked themselves, and it’s fast! I mean absurdly fast – I didn’t realize how slow my other workstations were until I started rendering with this thing. Rendering out of Resolve, I’ve seen it clock over 400fps! I can render out a 22 minute show in less than five minutes, and a 2K Kakadu feature film DCP in just over an hour! Of course, if there’s heavy noise reduction on clips, grain added throughout, or I’m rendering out 8K RED RAW at Full Res. Premium, it does slow down, but, overall, it saves me a significant amount of time. I can get realtime playback on most media, even when using the 10Gb ethernet connection to my NAS, and even more with my SanDisk Professional 12TB G-RAID 2.

Overjoyed with the speeds I was getting, I fully expected to get real time playback on anything I threw at this beast, but that wasn’t actually the case. To test some hefty media out, I put one of the Samsung 970 SSD drives into an OWC Envoy Express enclosure and dumped some 8K RED media onto it. I was happy to see that I could get real time playback on graded Full Res. Premium 8K clips, in an 8K timeline, using no proxies and an 8K Output setting. It was impressive – an initial stutter off the top, but smooth, consistent playback after that. That is, until I cranked up the Temporal NR, at which point I was getting around 14fps playback… although, it was still nice and smooth. Dropping the RED settings to Half Res. Premium didn’t help much really and Quarter Res. Good only got me up to around 17fps playback. Changing the Output setting to 4K didn’t get me into real time either, but changing the Timeline Proxy Resolution to Half got me there. Smooth as butter, or ice, or whatever form of smooth you like really.

Aside from the slight learning curve with the OS, the only real downside to this setup so far is ProRes. Not being able to render ProRes out of Resolve, or capture footage from a deck using ProRes is definitely a limitation. Adobe has been offering ProRes rendering for a while now, but it would be most helpful if more PC software allowed for not only rendering in ProRes, but also capturing. In fact, I couldn’t even get Blackmagic Media Express to capture using 4K DNxHR – uncompressed seemed to be the only option, which forced me back to my old Mac Pro for that project. The various flavors of DNx are excellent – I find there is little difference between the DNx and ProRes wrappers, but DNx still isn’t mainstream enough, and some players won’t play it, so it’s not ideal.


IN CLOSING

To wrap it up, overall, this workstation has been of terrific value! Yes, it was expensive and has a few limitations, but after nearly 25 years in post-production, I’ve learned to accept that there will always be limitations. In the end, I spent a lot less putting this workstation together than buying a new Mac Pro, and being able to upgrade virtually anything I want on this machine is, in and of itself, enough to justify moving away from Mac in my opinion.

Having access to all the parts in a workstation can bring additional cost savings as well. One example of this occurred when a power supply on one of my HP LTO drives died and HP was absolutely useless – no interest whatsoever in fixing it, or pointing me in the right direction – they just told me to go out and buy a, very expensive, new LTO drive… thanks for doing your best for the environment HP! But, before I chucked (recycled) the unit, I popped it open and connected the molex cable inside to a spare molex on the workstation PSU… and voila! It’s a bit of an inconvenience, but it saved me thousands of dollars and meant less waste in the world. I don’t remember ever being able to do that kind of thing easily, if at all, with a Mac Pro, and in this day and age, with inflation and e-waste getting completely out of hand, this is a great workaround.

So, there it is. Yes, I’ll still need a Mac in the office for the foreseeable future, but I’d rather go with a less expensive Mac and a PC workstation with a much better bang for my buck, than feeding the Apple stock machine and having no flexibility.


DISCLAIMER

Whilst I have been in post-production for many years, my focus has generally been on the creative side of things. I have a good understanding of computers and software, but I am by no means a wizard. My hope in publishing this article is to provide a reference to those who might find themselves in a similar situation to mine, and are considering how a workstation like this might benefit them. This article therefore comes only from the perspective of a working professional. I will continue to revise this review as I discover new, relevant information, and look forward to hearing from all the motionpicturemakers out there!


As an affiliate with Amazon and Lumio Electronics, motionpicturemaker.com can earn commissions from qualifying purchases – by using the links below to buy products, you’re helping us build the ultimate online resource for motion picture enthusiasts around the world. We appreciate that very much, and hope you’ll also sign up for the MPM NEWSLETTER for more equipment news and reviews, or even splurge a bit and become a full motionpicturemaker.com member.

GEAR LIST
The National Flag of Canada
The National Flag of the United Kingdom
The National Flag of the United States of America
ASUS ProArt Z790-CREATOR WiFi ATX Motherboard
EVGA SuperNOVA 1300 G+ Power Supply
Fractal Design Torrent E-ATX Computer Case
INTEL Core i9-13900K Processor
Kingston Fury Beast DDR5 5600MT/s CL40 RAM
Kingston NV2 1TB PCIe 4.0 M.2 NVMe SSD
Noctua NH-D15S Dual-Tower CPU Cooler
Samsung 970 Pro NVMe SSD
StarTech ESD Anti Static Wrist Strap Band
Windows 11 Pro
ZOTAC Gaming GeForce RTX 4090 Trinity Graphics Card

Rob Neilson

Rob Neilson began working in motion pictures over 30 years ago. His credits span numerous departments, currently working mainly as a colorist, editor and producer in Canada, in and around the Vancouver area.

Leave a Reply