A small guide to System Building
Whether you are an VFX Artist, Video Editor or 3D Modeler, the thing you will need for your everyday work the most is your workstation. Every artist who also wants to freelance will be depending on his workstation every day. Maybe more than in any other industry, content creators will know one rule: time is money. Especially when it comes to rendertimes. Assuming most artists only have one machine, the problem is very clear: you wont be able to work while your system is rendering. So the faster the better. But fast hardware comes at a price, and not everyone can or is willing to pay a huge amount for his system. This article is meant to be a little guideline for people who have an older system and want an upgrade to save time and to earn a little bit more money or have more time for other projects that way.
If you are an artist who wants the best service and fast exchange of hardware in case of a hardware defect, I mean if you really are a fulltime artist who can't afford to wait some days for a replacement you might be better off looking for a prebuild workstation by Dell, HP or Lenovo. This would guarantee the best possible service but also has it's cons. This workstations usually come at a higher price, when upgrading hardware you are forced to look at your manufacturers range and you are not allowed to do any repairing by yourself, otherwise your product warranty will expire. Although this prebuild workstations with excellent service are prefered by many professionals I myself am also a bit of a hardware enthusiast and so this article will be focused on custom build PC's. This also means nothing for the Mac users here I'm afraid.
Let's take a look at what you will need for your workstation first. Depending on what you are actually planing to do with your PC, the possibilities seem to be endless. In the end the core parts stay the same, so everyone will at least need:
CPU + Cooler
Storage (HDD, SSD)
A Case obviously
This are the main components. Lets start with the CPU.
With Intel launching Broadwell-E along with their new flagship CPU Core i7 6950x there sure is much to talk about. Finally the CPU will be the heart of your workstation, taking some time to decide which one to buy is a good option here.
The CPU is the most important choice as it will have a huge impact on the possibilities you can chose from for rest of your system.
Namely the Motherboard and the type of RAM you can use will be depending on the CPU you chose. As AMD isn't a big competitor on the workstation market these days we will be focusing on what Intel has to offer.
Intel's workstation CPU's are called Xeon and are a good choice for every serious artist. Featuring up to 24 cores (Intel Xeon E7 v4) and supporting up to 24 TB RAM this CPU's are real beasts when it comes to rendering. However, this Processors are not cheap, and the motherboards aren't an exception. They are the way to go if you are really depending on your system for a living. And if so, you surely will be happily spending money on better and expensive hardware if it will benefit you in your everyday projects. After all you can get up to 48 cores (96! Threads) when using a Multi-CPU setup. I wont name any specific CPU here, as it's kinda up to your budget how many cores you can afford.
However, a system like this may be a good choice for people who are rendering much and using software where that many cores are a huge benefit. Remember that not every software will benefit from an endless amount of cores, in many cases also clock speed will be important. Rendering for movies with render engines like arnold or vray surely will benefit from as many cores as possible, game developers on the other side may have other preferences. For game engines like Unreal Engine 4 or Unity 5 even a Quadcore CPU could be enough and you should lay your focus on the graphics card and a SLI Setup.
Nonetheless also the CPU plays an important part. You wont be running your game engine only, multitasking will of course be needed. Fixing a model here, painting a texture there will define your everyday workflow. A six, eight or even a ten core CPU is to be prefered. Although there might be Xeon processors fitting your needs, when it comes to actually testing your 3D games clock speed will be important. Intels new Broadwell-E CPU's could come in very handy. Although they are consumer grade Processors, you can build a powerful workstation with these. The flagship definitely is the i7 6950x. It is a 10 core processor with a stock speed of 3 GHz (max Turboboost 4GHz). This makes it a great CPU for multitasking and rendering, the most powerful consumer grade CPU by far. The choice would be easy if not only this processor would be extreme but also the price. Intel's last generation Extreme Edition Processor, the octacore i7 5960x, was priced about $1000, the i7 6950x costs more than $1600!
With such a high price I just can't recommend this CPU as it just feels to expensive. Only when you really need the power and money isn't something you need to look at. But is it a wise choice? The i7 6900k looks much more like a smarter decision in my opinion. It comes at the same price as the i7 5960x and is slightly more efficient and powerful. Broadwell-E CPU's seem to be bad overclockers though. As for a workstation I wouldn't recommend overclocking at all as you are depending on a stable and reliable system.
I think there is no need to look at other CPU's at this point. Your workstation really shouldn't have less then eight cores these days, especially when it shall generate some income. As mentioned before, AMD isn't a real competitor when it comes to workstations. Maybe this will change with Zen. Considering Intel's price policy we all should hope for the best. As of now, Intel is the way to go when looking for a workstation.
This topic isn't very tricky, in fact the election of the motherboard highly depends on the CPU you choose to buy and on your actual needs. When buying a motherboard you really have to pay attention what you really need and what not, otherwise you will spend way more money than you would have had to. For example if you are going to run a 4-Way SLI System make sure the motherboard actually supports it otherwise this isn't a must have. You often find motherboards specified as workstation boards. These boards traditionally come with many connection possibilities. Often more then you actually need. And that is the whole point. If you are going to need many hard disc drives, make sure your board has enough SATA ports etc. Buy for your needs and also of little bit futureproof.
The RAM is very much the same as the motherboard. You are also limited by your motherboard respectively CPU. Newer generations rather support DDR4, gladly the prices dropped much over time so it is actually affordable. A decent workstation shouldn't have less than 32GB RAM, preferably more. RAM speeds are a thing to talk about. When you are looking for RAM there are a whole lot of different speeds and timings. From my personal experience this is a rather difficult topic. There are situations where higher clock speeds equal higher performance but this really isn't something that should cause you much headache. If you do not mind to spend a couple of bucks more for a little bit of benefit, go with higher clock speeds. Nice to have but not a must.
This is where things get a little bit more complicated. Although you could use a decent AMD or Nvidia consumer grade card like a fast Geforce, serious artists will prefer an actual workstation card like a Nvidia Quadro.
It's a little bit sad that there is not much competition in the PC hardware market these days, this gives customers a limited choice. The thing is: If you want a good workstation these days you should go with Intel for CPU and also you should go with Nvidia for GPU.
The lack of competition slows down the development and the prices only go one way − up.
If you are working as a game developer you should go for a Nvidia Quadro card. They outperform their Geforce siblings in professional applications by far. Creating visual effects and game developing needs much processing power, thus saves time and makes you more productive. For a video editor a consumer grade graphics card could be enough. Don't forget: If you need even more power, you could always get a multi GPU configuration.
Hard Disc Drive
The last important topic is the hard disc drive. Depending on the choice this can make your workstation much faster. As a VFX Artist you will write and read large amounts of data to your hard drives what means, that SSD's are the way to go. Make sure to at least use a SSD as your system drive. I would even recommend to have at least two SSD's, one for your system, and one for the actual work. On top a large old school magnetic hard disc drive should be used for the storage of large files. That guarantees enough space for all your projects. An interesting choice are the rather new m.2 drives or Intel's 750 SSD. Both types outperform traditional SATA SSD's by far.
We talked about the most important parts of your workstation. You will still need a proper cooler for your CPU and of course a power supply and a case. At this point there are many different choices. Air coolers or All in One watercooling are the most popular and affordable. The choice really is up to you. When choosing a PSU don't overpay. You don't need 1000W with only one graphics cards, not even 800. Last but not least, the case. Choose something what you like, just make sure it has a good air flow, dust filters are also nice to have.
I hope this little overview can be a guideline for people who want to buy a new workstation and still are undecided. Buying a workstation these days should be futureproof for at least 5 years, if not much longer. By making sure your components offer enough space for future investments like new hard disc drives or graphics card you should be good to go. Hardwarewise there isn't that much to choose from though. By choosing the right CPU for your needs you make the rest a nearly straight forward decision. Brand- and Designwise you get a much wider choice when it comes to things like motherboards, RAM or graphics cards. But don't forget: Buy for your needs!