Where do I start? 

It’s been years since I even started up a PC, let alone kept up on the newest hardware.  I know what a Mac has inside it, but what is better out there?  What is cheaper?  At this point my business partner rolled his eyes and said, matter of fact;

“I don’t have time for this, and if you build a machine who will be customer support?  You?”

 I’ll admit that the thought of my iPhone ringing every time there was in issue in the edit room was an immediate deterrent.  There is also the torturous process of researching and buying all the right parts to deal with.  Then trying to install them.   This was going to be incredibly time consuming.  There has got to be a better way.   There has to be another company marketing to the convenience of the creative world, but who?  So many of the giants that were around when I was younger are either gone or focused on some other industry today.  Oh wait….. there’s always Dell, right?  Hell no! 

I was determined to find an answer and promised my business partner that I would find an alternative to the Mac Pro. 

First step was finding the right specs for a fast 4K compatible machine that would edit and do high-end color grading.  This is harder than you think.  Sure there are some tech blogs out there that suggest stuff  - though they tend to be forums for know-it-all’s and techies that all buy the newest and best thing and look down on those who don’t.  The software companies suggest brands and give you a rough outline, but I wanted a definitive list from someone who was working in a professional environment.   I definitely needed a system that would run multiple layers of 4k in my project.  One that could handle the Photoshop renders on giant photographs.  It was frustrating that I couldn’t find a comprehensive shopping list of what I needed anywhere online.  Then I came across the companies that build custom gaming systems. 

The hardware needed to run modern HD video games is just as powerful (if not more) as the edit systems.  Sorting through these processing giants I couldn’t help but think that they all look like something from The Fast and Furious franchise.  With their LED lighting, sneaker-design looking cases, and over-clocked insides.  They did look ridiculous but the prices were much cheaper than Mac’s and they provided more power. 

I was determined to see if I could get a sleek machine specially built for video editing, specially built for my needs; so I reached out to a few of the most promising options.  Some of the bigger brand names seemed too busy with the gaming market to really concern themselves with my needs.  Some listed edit machine packages, but they felt like an afterthought.  I couldn’t help but think that they were really missing out on an opportunity here.  I’m not the only one looking over the fence built by Apple.

Then I stumbled across this small company in Washington called Puget Systems.  There wasn’t anything sexy about their website, in fact it was kind of plain.  I figured, what the hell! Dropped them an email that day and asked to speak to someone about my issues.   I got someone on the phone almost instantly!  That was huge!  They sounded genuinely interested in my dilemma.

We talked about my business.  We talked about filmmaking.  We talked about computers.  It felt like calling up one of my old computer tech buddies just to shoot the shit.

“I want a specially build machine for 4k editing, photo editing, DaVinci Resolve color, and anything else my job will throw at me.  I want it to be easily upgradable, quiet, and it’s gotta be cost effective so I can make a profit.”

 Not only did the guys accept the challenge, but they also wanted to team up with me on this project!  They wanted the chance to show me that you can build a machine that will not only compete with Apple but, in a lot of ways, surpasses it!  So began my relationship with the amazing guys at Puget Systems.

Building the Beast

The word is out.  Professionals are looking for options.  The PC building companies are taking notice.   Users need horsepower.  They need beefy graphics cards.  They need room for third party hardware!  The guys at Puget Systems were very interested in building machines that could compete with Apple and so over the past month, we teamed up to build an edit system that is both affordable and run’s 4K footage in Adobe Creative Suite, as well as Davinci’s Resolve.   In exchange for providing insight into just how my workflow works, share my experiences and what I’ve found is in demand in my industry, they would let me test out their solution.  Let me just say that my experience with their interest in this isn’t a special case.  They are this personal with all their clients.  They really are that private company that actually listens and helps you build exactly what you need.  There isn’t a slick website with two or three options, there is an actual team of guys who are up on all the latest hardware and toys that will make your system fast and affordable.  So lets start where I did with Pudget System’s and look at the hardware specs on the new 2015 Mac Pro.

2015 Mac Pro:

  • 3.5GHz 6-core with 12MB of L3 cache
  • 32GB Ram
  • 1TB PCIe-based flash storage
  • Dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs with 3GB of GDDR5 VRAM each
  • Apple USB SuperDrive
  • User's Guide (English)
  • AppleCare Protection Plan for Mac Pro - Auto-enroll
  • Apple Thunderbolt Cable (0.5 m) - White
  • Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter
  • Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter
  • Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter
  • (4) USB ports
  • (6) Thunder Bolt 2 ports
  • (1) HDMI port

Approx. Price: $6300.00

This is approximate because I couldn’t tell if I was getting all of the adapters needed for my accessories.  Small items like thunderbolt adapters are needed to run external accessories.  External Chassis are needed to make your Red Rocket cards or other third party graphic cards work.  They range anywhere from $250 - $1500.00 and are not even sold by Apple.  All that just to make the cards work like they did on your older system.  This price also comes with an Apple Care Package.  Something I have never used on my tower, laptop, or I-phone before. 

If I wanted new monitors I could also get the Mac Thunderbolt Display for around $999.00.  I would want it specifically for coloring video and processing my photographs.  Apple claims that out of the box you can start editing with it, but it doesn’t come with a calibrator.  With a little research it turns out that the monitor only see about 80% of the Adobe sRGB color space.  I don’t want a glossy piece of hardware that makes every thing look better with a back lit screen and compressed color space.  I want an accurate baseline to set my color to.  How will my stuff look when it’s not displayed on an Apple monitor?  That’s important. 

Also note that there is only one HDMI port on the can.  If you want a second monitor you have to get a thunderbolt adapter and take up one of your ports to run it.  There is a lot of rumbling on the Internet about how it apparently taxes on your CPU when you do that, making playback slower.  I haven’t seen that myself but it is a definite concern.

Puget Systems, you’re up.  What do ya got?

2015 Pudget System Genesis I (4K) Edit Machine:

  • Asus x99 Deluxe Mother board
  • Intel Xeon E5 3.5 GHz Six Core 15MB Processor
  •  32 Gigs of Ram
  • Asus GeForce GTX 980 4GB Video Card.
  •  1.2 TB PCI-E SSD Main Drive
  • 4TB SATA Storage Drive
  • ASUS 16x BluRay Burner
  • Windows 8 operating system
  • (10) USB3 Ports on the back of the machine
  • (2) USB3 Ports on top.
  • (2) USB 2 Ports on the back of the machine.
  • (2) USB 2 Ports on top.
  •  (1)HDMI Port
  • (1)DVI Port
  • (3) Display Ports

*** Yup 5, up to 5 monitors!***

Approx. Cost: $5400.00

Ok so we are already $900 cheaper and it comes with a lot more options.  Tons of USB3 ports, no Thunderbolt ports because Apple doesn’t like to share.  All my plug-ins are USB3 and Firewire drives anyways, so I’m not worried.  Notice that this processor is slightly faster than the one on the Mac Pro.  Not sure if it’s enough to brag about, but the point is, I was able to choose something a small step better than their low end option and not have to pay an extra $1500.00 to get their mid grade option.  The 1TB PCI-E SSD main hard drive is exciting as well because It’s over 5 times faster than the fastest SATA SSD drive!  Faster boot up times!  Also, take a peek at the HDMI port, the DVI port, and the 3 display ports.  Yup! 5 monitors!  Not that I need that many now, but three would be nice.  I can hook up my two older ones and have leftover cash to buy something new.  

The Eizo’s ColorEdge CG277 27" monitor.  It’s pricier than the one from Apple, but it can see 99% of the Adobe RGB color space. You’re able to switch freely between multiple modes including sRGB and REC709 (used to view video) with the press of a button, and it comes in with a built in self-calibrator.  You turn it on and it sets the colors perfectly!  This monitor will not only work for my printing needs, but when hooked up to a Black Magic card it will also serve as a broadcast monitor for coloring in Resolve.

The case they designed for me is both sleek and comes with plenty of room.  The motherboard has plenty of PCI slots for third party cards and there is room to build in internal raid.  The future upgrade options are the most exciting part of this machine.  If I have a job that come at me that requires more, I can buy the stuff when that time comes as a need-based purchase.  This is the complete opposite of the Apple buying strategy, which seems to be buying it as big as you can in the beginning, so it lasts longer before you have to throw it out in a few years.  Now since the PC is built using components available in a competitive market, prices tend to plummet once the stuff is released.  The cost of RAM is dirt cheap, Solid state drives are coming down in price and getting much bigger, and you can easily swap out your processor or graphics card as new formats and technology demands arise.  This means you can use this beast for quite a while.  With this in mind, you can also start making a profit off it much sooner.  This price floats based on the market price for the components you want. 

So part the big appeal of Apple products is the unpacking experience.  Heavily designed boxes, smooth surfaces, and visually appealing packaging add to the wow factor of your first interaction with it.  Inside you will find the Mac, a power cable, a small booklet, and some Apple stickers.  That’s it.  The unboxing of the Puget computer was much different.  Here is what was inside:

  • The machine.
  • The machine comes with lifetime labor & tech support, and one-year parts warranties starting from the date your PC ships.
  • One year on-site service.
  • A box of cables and extra parts in case you want to install more hardware.
  • A custom-made information booklet.

The booklet is interesting.  It looks like it was printed and put together in their office specifically for this machine.  Not pressed in bulk quantity with blanket instructions, but printed, hole punched, and put together with specific instructions on my custom build in a real binder.  The first thing you read inside is a small note:

“Puget Systems is based on a simple philosophy: build a quality computer system, offer outstanding support, and your product will sell itself!  In an internet age where your marketing is more important than your product, this philosophy is going against the trend, but it works!”

A bold statement, and as I go through this booklet and meet the individual specialists who constructed my machine, the step-by-step setup guide, and a detailed assembly and testing list -- I can see that these guys are focused on making my machine work.  There is even thermal imaging and benchmark test runs on my machine!  Needles to say I have never felt safer about the accountability and construction of a product.

So lets get to the point.  How does it run?

In the newest version of Adobe Premier I was able to run:

  • Over 12 tracks of 1080HD video footage with color effects and scaling in real time at full resolution.
  • Over 5 tracks of 4K Red .r3d video in real time with color effects at full resolution.
  • All my renders have been in real time.  That’s one minute per minute of footage.

Other programs:

  • Photoshop runs flawlessly even at over 25 layers of FX on a 2 gig file size image.
  • Startup is lightning fast with the SSD main drive.
  • My firewire 3 drives keep up with the workload, and I was able to keep them from going to sleep by adjusting the settings in windows and using a program called Keep Alive HD.  It can be set to write a note file to each drive every minute to keep my G-Drives from going to sleep while they’re in idle.
  • Real time playback of both 4k and 1080 footage in Resolve, and real time rendering.  The extra PCI ports allow me to get one of the Black Magic breakout cards and give me a full screen client preview.

How is the workflow with apple?

We seamlessly work off of Apple formatted NTFS drives by using a program called Paragon HFS+.  It lets us read and write to the drives in any program.

We also tested the Eizo monitor after it ran it’s self-calibration process.  The sRGB mode matches Apple displays exactly.  The REC709 mode matches broadcast monitors, and the Adobe RGB mode makes me wish all monitors had it.  Most people will never be able to see my photos look this good!

So in conclusion, I was able to find a strong competitor to Apple. 

There were a few options to choose from and I went with a smaller company for a more personal experience.  Those of you looking should decide for yourself.   That is what makes building a PC so great.  Competition and ultimate customization.  The price on the entire system, including the top of the line monitor comes in at what the Mac Pro was going to cost, just for the can itself.  After taking the honest time to weigh my options, I now have a better system with a really awesome 27inch monitor.  We were also able to use older hardware that we had bought previously (firewire cards, hard drives, ect.).  

After this experience, I feel comfortable knowing that my investment can be upgraded to handle the ever changing software needs, and there is a comfort in knowing that I can call on the guy who personally build my system for advice. 

If you are a post house or a filmmaker that wants a system that will be relevant longer, have room for upgrades, and will make you money faster then I suggest you try to…..”gasp”…build a PC!

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Written by Mike Pecci 

You can follow Mike on twitter or instagram @mikepecci