Dell Precision – All In A Name?




Asking whether or not the Dell Precision line of workstations is a suitable replacement for the Mac Pro isn’t quite the right question. The question is – are Dell workstations right for you? That, readers, is something only you can answer. The beauty, and madness, of video/film production is there are a myriad number of workflows depending on your clients and the end goals of your projects. I’ve been testing the Dell Workstation for almost six weeks now, and I felt it time to share my thoughts on it. Full disclosure, Dell has provided me this system for free. Take what I say with a grain of salt.

SPECS

  • Model: T5500
  • 2.8Ghz Dual Quadcore Intel Xeon Processor
  • 24GB DDR3 RAM
  • NVIDIA Quadro 4000
  • Windows 7 Professional, 64 Bit
  • 256GB SSD Boot Drive
  • 500GB SATA Drive
  • 500GB SATA Drive
  • 6 in 1 Card Reader on front – CF, SD, etc.
  • 12x DVD-RW Drive

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Taking the Dell T5500 out of the box, it became clear that it wasn’t designed with looks in mind. The tower design is not a new idea, but there’s a reason it permeates post production facilities.  Heavy duty work requires heavy duty tools. For many, the Mac Pro has been the tool of choice. However, the longer Apple goes without refreshing the Mac Pro line, the more others will be looking elsewhere for solutions to their workflow. For myself, I am always looking to spend my dollars on something that is going to last. Saving money is a delicate balancing act. You must try to not pay top dollar, but if you get cheap gear that is flimsy, or has cheap parts, you’re going to get what you pay for. I did receive the Dell T5500 free, so there was no reason to not fully explore this option. My iMac was on its last leg, a purchase from late 2009. The social media program Dell has been running targets those switching from a Final Cut Pro 7 workflow to one based around Premiere Pro CS5.5.  I was already exploring this as I’d purchased my CS5.5 upgrade on my iMac. However, many features of the suite like Dynamic Link basically did not work due to my iMac’s processor, and underwhelming graphics card. Firing up the Dell T5500 for the first time was interesting. The last time I had used Windows was 6-7 years ago. I was making terrible gaming videos, editing in Pinnacle Studio 9 on a woefully under-equipped Dell laptop. The irony of that fact does not escape me.

DESIGN

Design is something that has always been important to me. It was one of the first things that attracted me to Apple products in the first place. There’s a philosophy of design that permeates their entire product line. A beautiful minimalism, if you will. The exterior of the Dell T5500 is honestly the biggest disappointment to me. It’s definitely more about function than form. In the end function does trump form – if it doesn’t work all that makes it is a polished turd. Lipstick on a pig, all that good stuff. The card reader on the front is a nice touch – even though it connects via the universal serial bus having an extra CF and SD card reader has helped me out quite a bit. So while the exterior case design for my T5500 was a bit of a disappointment, I was curious to see how the system performed under pressure.

The internal design of the computer is something I can comment very little on. I am not a homebrew PC guy, I have never put together my own system. To me, the guts of the computer did seem a bit messy.

PERFORMANCE

Performance is definitely the key word to remember about this system. The specs on it definitely are geared towards speed. My first “stress test” of sorts was editing my 2012 reel on it prior to participating in SXSW 2012. My iMac’s failings with Dynamic Link led that to be one of the first things I was interested in testing on my Dell workstation. I was curious how it would perform – I used effects like Warp Stabilizer and a few others from Red Giant Software to polish a few shots up and do general color correction. To say I was pleased would be something of an understatement. The speed of my workstation allowed me to export 7 or so versions of my reel. At the time, I was not too familiar with codecs and best practices for web compression on a PC. Hence, why I had 7 different versions. I was able to upload my 2012 reel before I got up on stage for the SXSW 2012 panel “Moving From Final Cut: Progress or Peril?” Performance is something I have yet to find the ceiling on with this system.

I thought I had found the ceiling with my latest project, but it turned out I was mistaken. It was 28 minutes long, 138 clips, all Dynamic Linked AE Compositions. It was 7D, T2i, Sony FX-1 and GoPro footage. The system did chug, but I’ve recently discovered from more knowledgeable folks that are participating in testing these Dell workstations that I hadn’t yet discovered the system’s limitations. There’s a dirty little secret editing H.264 native inside of Premiere – the secret is, you are going to pay the toll at some point. For an FCP 7 based workflow, the toll was transcoding time. Not transcoding has been a huge selling point for Premiere, and for minimal effects it sort of works. However, I was doing noise reduction, cleanup, and a more extensive color grade than usual. The way it was explained to me was a bit complicated and went over my head a bit. Essentially, you are asking the system to do triple duty. If I had used Adobe Media Encoder to transcode to another format in the beginning, say to CineForm, the footage would have been easier to deal with when doing such work. Paying the cost of storage space may prove to be a toll worth taking if I can squeeze more performance out of my Dell system.

CHALLENGES

Moving from FCP 7 to Premiere on this system comes with an added challenge: moving from OS X to Windows 7. For a lot of folks, this alone will deter them from moving to something like a Dell T5500 until Apple completely abandons the pro market and kills off the Mac Pro. Whether they will or not is not a topic I care to speculate on due to lack of knowledge. Moving to Windows hasn’t been super easy, but it’s not as hard as I thought it was going to be. Do I worry about viruses? Absolutely, and its something I will worry about in the future. My main concern with this workstation was more how Premiere and CS5.5 as a whole would perform on it. On FCP 7, using the ProRes family was something of a no brainer. You can easily make the argument, and I would agree, that those are compressed codecs. However, for most out there, ProRes is enough. On a PC like the Dell, I now had to think about it a bit. For the moment, DNxHD has filled that gap. CineForm is something I’d like to use, but for right now DNxHD works just fine, and is free.

Exporting lossless copies is a practice I used daily on FCP 7. In Premiere it isn’t quite as simple – there’s many sorts of uncompressed codecs. Hence why I’d like to eventually use CineForm 444 – it’s the best there is. Not according to firsthand knowledge, but conversations I’ve had at NAB 2012 and with those much smarter than me. Best practices on the post side of things is something I’m constantly investigating and refining. My workflow is not perfect, by a long shot, but growing and learning how to get the best images is something I’m keenly interested in.

MOVING FROM FCP 7 TO PREMIERE CS5.5

No rendering, native H.264 editing, throw any codec you like at it, it must all be rainbow cookies and kool aid right? Wrong – at least in my own experience. While the Mercury Playback engine is everything its cracked up to be, there is no such thing as no rendering in Premiere. I render more than most, just to see the changes I made in After Effects. Typically, I’m switching between AE and Premiere quite a bit. Dynamic Linked compositions do not play back smoothly, in my experience. So don’t expect to do no rendering, though the performance of Premiere CS5.5 and the T5500 is impressive. That performance is even more extreme when you implement NVIDIA’s Maximus technology, which was demoed at NAB 2012 in NVIDIA’s booth. That technology and CS6 is going to be a killer combo.

I was already transitioning to Premiere CS5.5 when I owned my iMac, so I don’t believe the transition was as painful as it could have been. You’ll note I said “owned” my iMac. I say that because I didn’t sell my iMac until just before NAB 2012. I have full confidence in this system and its ability to handle my workflow. I have a lot of different clients, mainly in the lower budget end of the indie world of production. Weddings, events, corporate gigs, commercials, a lot of different hats to wear. I am confident in the ability of my T5500 to handle my needs for at least the next year. Getting my hands on that new Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera is the plan for now, and I am confident this system will more than meet my needs.

The rest of the suite has been a pleasant surprise. I was already using Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects. There are common elements in Adobe’s UI design that permeate themselves throughout their line of software. Firing up Adobe Audition for the first time was an easy experience. I was only doing basic noise cleanup and Audition actually had more complex controls than Soundtrack Pro. Dynamic Link makes this quite easy, and with a little tinkering I had removed most of the noise in the offending audio clips. Granted, I did watch a few tutorials and do research prior to firing up Audition. Doing research and making informed decisions is something you should do before any major software or hardware purchase.

Switching my projects from FCP 7 to Premiere was simple using XML. I have a few ongoing projects, and some that won’t be done for a year or more. I simply exported XML from FCP 7 and Premiere read the files easily. The only errors were in the titles I generated in Final Cut Pro. Generating titles in Premiere for the offending projects literally took only 5 minutes. Other than that Premiere read my timelines perfectly.

CONCLUSION

The Dell T5500 is a thing of beauty. In a private meeting at NAB 2012, every other participant was shooting RED and loved the performance of CS5.5, their Dell, and NVIDIA’s Maximus technology. It should be noted I am not using Maximus – it requires two graphics cards, and I have one Quadro 4000 in my Dell T5500. I also had occasion to use Dell’s ProSupport service, which they have provided me 3 years service. I had to install a Belkin FireWire 800 PCI card, something I’ve never attempted before. I was on the line with them for literally an hour. I was worried about one of the cords that seemed to be blocking the PCI slot I needed, but it all turned out fine in the end. The Dell ProSupport rep I dealt with was patient and very knowledgeable. I talked with a few people from Dell about it at NAB 2012 and I got the distinct impression they would do whatever it took to remedy the situation. That level of customer service is the only way to properly compete with Apple.

I have completely switched over to this system and I think what’s coming down the pipe will surprise a lot of people. I was given a presentation during a private meeting at NAB 2012 and though I am under NDA, I’m here to say if what I saw makes it into full production, this will be what you want to switch to from a Mac Pro. What I saw reflected a company changed from many years ago when I owned that awful laptop and Pinnacle Studio 9. If Dell continues on the path I saw behind the scenes, they can definitely be considered a viable contender against Apple.

UPDATE:

Dell has put out a press release regarding their new line of Precision workstations. These ones are newer than the one I am currently testing. There’s plenty of juicy details in this press release. When I first saw these, the first sentence out of my mouth was “This is how I would design a computer.” I mean that, inside and out. This will be a big contender for those switching away from a Mac Pro.

UPDATE 2:

The cat is fully out of the bag. Dell has put up a great post with pictures and a promotional video. Now you can see what I’ve been under NDA from sharing.

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