Building a Video Computer Work Station

By Staff Published on .

You need to build a computer workstation that will import, process and export Web video. What equipment do you need? What software is best? The prospects can be bewildering.

This buyers’ guide will help guide you in purchasing the computer system, other hardware and software you need to get video up on the Web.

This article deals primarily with the Apple technology environment, so most of the specific examples here focus on those products. But the lessons are transportable to the PC environment.

Mac Pro

The suggestions in this article are one person’s opinion, and while I do mention brand names, I’m not receiving any exchange of value in return for listing them. While some of the information here may seem remedial to Web video pros, there are some recommendations that even accomplished video wizards may find surprising.

Computers for Video Editing
You first need to decide if you want to have a desktop, laptop, or an all-in-one system for your video. They all have their advantages and disadvantages: it all comes down to your preference. Either way, this is the heart and soul of your video-processing system.

There are three important computer characteristics that will determine how well your computer can handle video: processor speed, how much RAM (random access memory) you have, and how big your hard drive is.

The Processor: This technology does the mathematical computations that “process” the information. Basically think of it as an engine but for your computer. You want to have the fastest processor you can get. Video editing and compression are known to use large amounts of processor power.

RAM: RAM describes the storage that your applications access when they operate. It is different than the storage used to save files. Every application that you have open will take up a portion of the RAM that your computer has available.

You want to max your RAM out in a laptop and get at least 4 gigs of RAM for your desktop. You can get by with less RAM, and there won’t be that many issues, but more means faster.

Video applications are notorious RAM hogs. If you have any other programs open and you have a limited amount of RAM, things can slow down.

You can buy RAM from third-party companies at a drastically reduced rate and install it yourself on desktop models to save some money. For example, if you wanted to max out your Mac Pro desktop with 16 gigs of RAM it will cost you $4,499 from the manufacturer. If you go to third-party companies it will cost you about $2,600 and will take a few minutes to install yourself.

If you are looking for RAM to add to your computer, you should checkout Crucial Technologies. They have an easy tool to figure out what RAM is right for your computer and they have a good price for good RAM.

Hard Drives: This is the technology that lets you store your computer files. You have two main choices when selecting a hard drive: internal or external. The internal drives will always be in your computer. The external drives can be plugged in and unplugged and moved.

Lacie Golden Disk

When selecting your hard drive, you should consider the cost per gigabyte of storage. Prices have declined dramatically the past two years. You’ll also need to figure out how much storage you are going to need. I like to have one terabyte of storage (that’s 1,000 GB), so I know I won’t run out of space anytime soon.

You also want a hard drive that has a high RPM speed. Try to get a hard drive with at least 7,200 RPM or better. Most laptops come with 7,200 but some have 5,400. With a slower moving drive, your data transfers slowly and it can hang up your work from time to time.

Another consideration is how loud your hard drive gets. It can get annoying when you are trying to work and all you hear is a loud hum. Make sure that the drive mentions that it is quiet.

Apple is selling hard drives that are 750 gigs for $499 ($.67 per GB) each. You can get a 1TB for under $300 ($.30 per GB) at most online stores.

Hard Drive Companies: I personally use Lacie as my choice for hard drives. I think it offers a good price for solid drive that is flexible and quiet. I have used a Western Digital My Book that was the same storage size as my Lacie and it was louder and the body of it was much larger. A solid drive that many people like is the G-Drive. This is usually a high GB price but it is really stable from what I have been told.

Hard Drive Connections: When I buy a drive, I want to make sure that I can plug it into any computer that I need to at the fastest connection possible. Currently, the fastest connection that is available on the Mac is FireWire 800. This is about 5 times faster in passing files than USB 2.0. The drive you want to buy should have these three connection types: USB 2.0, FireWire 400 and 800.

Peripheral Devices: These add-ons can make the difference between fatigue and enjoyment when working with Web video.

Computer Speakers and Headphones: I have to say that after having 4 different kinds of speakers for my computers over the years, none have come close to design, sound quality, and features as my Bose Companion 5 speakers.

As to headphones, I recently purchased the Bose Quiet Comfort 3 headphones and they sound great. After having a great experience with Bose’s computer speakers, I knew they would be what I wanted. Currently I have about 8 pairs of headphones of all different types and the Bose Quiet Comfort 3s are the best for sitting down and working with headphones on.

Desktop, Laptop or All-in-One?
Desktop Computers: In the plus column, desktops can be faster than laptops, can be customized component-by-component and can offer huge amounts of internal storage. They have faster processors, more RAM and more options in terms of upgrading graphics and sound cards. They also let users add more PCI Express cards (which can add functionalities like FireWire or USB ports) to your computer.

Desktop: Mac Pro

Processor: Two 2.6 GHz Dual Core Intel Xeon

Hard drives: 250 GB 7200 rpm

Memory: 1 GB

Display: 20-inch

~COST: $3,100

The disadvantages are inherent in the desktop format: They’re difficult to move, louder and take up more space.

As to monitors, look at the monitor in action on a basic computer. Don’t buy a monitor unless you have seen how good the colors are. Make sure that you have a high contrast ratio. This is should be 800:1 or better. This is how black the blacks will be and how white the whites will be. The monitor should also be able to display over 16 million colors.

When it comes to monitors, bigger is better. It really helps to have the screen real estate when working with video. It usually is not that much more for a larger screen. You might also consider getting two monitors. Also, make sure you like the look of the monitor you select.

There are dozens of companies that produce monitors. Personally, I have had a few Samsung monitors and they have been great, with only a few bugs here or there. I would probably buy one again. The Apple monitors are always rated high and have a nice stylish look to them. You should also checkout the Sony and Viewsonic monitors.

Laptop Computers: The laptop’s allure comes from its portability and quiet operation. On the downside, they don’t offer as many upgrade possibilities as the desktops to and have fewer ports for inputs from peripheral devices. They also tend to be slower on the RAM front and have a single internal hard drive that’s generally slower than a desktop.

Laptop: Macbook Pro 3

Operating System: OS X

Processor: 2.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo

Memory: 4 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM

Hard Drive: 500 GB

Screen: 17-inch matte

~COST: $4,400

All-In-One Computers: This is a bit of a hybrid, combining characteristics of both laptops and desktops. In the plus column, because the computer and the screen are in the same unit, they are somewhat portable. The all-in-ones also are fairly quiet.

The downsides are that they are not as flexible for upgrades, have fewer ports to attach peripheral devices and tend to be slower than desktops. They also have only one internal hard drive that’s not as large as a desktop.

Tips For Buying an Apple Computer
Special Deals: Go to their online store and look at the bottom left of the page for “Special Deals.”

This is the area where Apple sells refurbished machines and the computers all come with the same warranty as the new computers. They are not customizable but they are usually pretty good deals. Typically the systems are anywhere from 10-20% or more off.

Buy “Apple Care”: This is an expensive extended warranty, but can be well worth it. You get 3 full years of coverage for your laptop. I had a DVD drive die on me and it was more than what Apple Care cost. Luckily I had Apple Care at the time.

Buy “.Mac” account: This is an online service that will allow you to do many things like tutorials, create a Website, post your photos and movies. It lets you back up documents, gives you an e-mail account, and offers other goodies.

All-in-One: iMac

Processor: 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo

Memory: 1 GB

Hard Drive: 250 GB

Monitor: 20-inch

~ COST: $1,199

Getting Video Into Your Computer
DV Converter: A DV Converter is a hardware device that can take an analog video signal and convert it into a digital video signal, so you can edit your video on your computer. Any DVD player, VHS or other media playing technology that has RCA (Red, White, Yellow) plugs on a device can plug into a DV converter.

There are a bunch of different DV converters on the market. You really can’t go wrong with any of them. I prefer to have my DV converter connect to my computer through my FireWire 400 port since my drives are connected to the FireWire 800 port and other devices are using my USB 2.0 ports.

The other feature that can make a difference is the “Copy Protection Detection” that some DV converters have. If you try to ingest a Copy Protected DVD the DV converter will not allow it.

I use the Sony DVMC-DA2 and I have had zero issues with it. This is a pretty old DV converter and it has worked great. You might be able to find them on eBay at a good price.

DVD and VHS Player: You can get a DVD/VHS combo unit pretty much anywhere that will work with the DV converter to bring your video into your computer. I like the ones that add the DVD recording abilities so I can record on them if I need to but you will pay a little higher price for it.

Video Editing: Apple’s video-editing software is incredibly easy to use and are becoming a Web video and Hollywood editing standard. All of the company’s video-editing software will allow you to export your videos into many different formats. You can also export your videos to the iPhone, iPod, and AppleTV.

iMovie: This is the free video editing software that comes with your computer or can be access online through Apple’s iLife service. The latest version, iMovie 08, is even easier to use than older versions.

Final Cut Express 4: This is a prosumer (not quite professional level, but more powerful than pure consumer models) editing software product that you will need to get some training on before you use it. Approximate cost: $199

Final Cut Pro 2: This is professional quality video editing software. Many blockbuster movies are edited using this software. Approximate cost: $1,299

Compression Software
You will let you take the video that you have created and edited, and compact it into a smaller file size so you can put it on other devices and/or the Web to be viewed.
On2 has a program called Flix that many companies are using to encode Flash video. Flash video is one of the most popular formats for video on the Web.

Sorenson Media: This company has been in the compression business for many years. They have a product called Sorenson Squeeze that can convert video to any format you need.

Elegato Turbo .264: This is a USB device that looks like a USB thumb drive. It will drastically speed up your compression times if you want to compress your video into the H.264 format. This is the format used for iPods, iPhones, Apple TV, PSP’s, etc… YouTube has announced they are converting their videos to the H.264 format.

Video Utilities
These are programs that help you do various tasks easier when dealing with video.

Perian: This is a free plugin for QuickTime that allows for many types of files to be viewed in QuickTime.

Flip 4 Mac: They have a program called WMV or Windows Media Components for Mac. It allows you to bring in WMV files into QuickTime.

QuickTime Pro: This is an updated version of QuickTime that allows you to export all different kinds of movies. You can also export to the iPhone, iPod, and AppleTV.

Tips and Tutorials
If you live near an Apple store you can sign up for classes to get additional training with all Apple software. It is $99 for the year and you get a 1-hour private lesson once a week that you can schedule. That is less than $2 per 1-hour lesson if you go once a week for the year. In one year you will be an expert on all of their software.
You can get in depth tutorial at the “.Mac” site for all of Apple’s software. You can also get free basic tutorials that will teach you 90% of each program on the main Apple Web site.

Apple has an area of their site for pros, but it is just a bunch of cool tips you can also check out based on the application you are trying to learn.

Dave Andrews is president of Devious Media, a cross-media consulting and production company. Devious Media consults on and implements cross-media strategies, as well as new businesses, across numerous different entertainment platforms. The company also specializes in the social networking, community moderation, and games space. Andrews has worked as an animation production manager and postproduction supervisor at Disney. At Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, he designed Web sites, worked in marketing and consulted on Internet communities. Andrews has also held positions with Icebox, as producer of experimental on-line programming and gaming. Most recently, Andrews served as Vice President of Production & Interactive Entertainment at GSN, formerly Game Show Network. Andrews is a member of the Producers Guild of America New Media Council and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He also is a four-time Emmy Award nominee in the category of Interactive Television.
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