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Creative Cow Alienware Review

COW Library : Roswell 3200 : Rick Gerard : Creative Cow Alienware Review
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Creative Cow Alienware Review
A Creative COW Hardware Systems Review

Rick Gerard Rick Gerard
Gerard Productions, Roseville, California USA

©2004 by CreativeCOW.net. All rights are reserved.

Article Focus:
Rick Gerard needs a new PC. In a quest to discover the best high end workstation optimized for video production, performance, and value he begins a series of experiments in the lab. The first system on the table is the Roswell 3200 Extreme workstation from Alienware. This rocket ship may be just what the doctor ordered.

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What is the best computer for After Effects?

I'll bet that it has been less than a week since you've seen that question on at least one of the forums you visit. Somebody is always thinking about upgrading their system. The motivation could be profit, pride, or deadline driven. For me, the question was forced on me when Northwest Airlines completely destroyed my dual Athlon workstation somewhere between Dayton, Ohio and my home in Sacramento, California. It was dropped so hard that drives were sheared from their mounts and both CPU's were ripped from their sockets. I had no choice - find a new workstation. A trip to Google turned up several promising solutions. I really wanted to evaluate a few systems before making a purchase. So, in my search for the Perfect PC, I began my search with Alienware as I've been hearing alot about them -- if you haven't, you will.

Who is Alienware?

Roswell 3200Alienware opened their doors in 1996 and quickly established themselves as one of the premiere manufacturers of gaming systems. Reviews hailed Alienware as one of, if not the best gaming computer builders in the world. Attention to detail, quality components, and a technical staff dedicated to producing trouble free machines with exceptional performance has kept Alienware systems at the top of the radar screen. Expanding the line to include workstation, business, and office systems was a natural step for the company. Professional workstations were introduced this year. Alienware has always been known for their distinctive styling. Their workstations are no exception. The system to the right is the Roswell 3200 Extreme system I'll be checking out.

Ordering:

Geek Speak
Roswell 3200 Specs
Processors (2) Xeon 3.06 GHz
Motherboard Super Micro
X5DAL - TG2
Memory 2 - 1024 MB
PC 2100 SD Ram
DVD R/RW Plextor DVDR
PX 708 A
CR Drive Lite-on
52327S
Sound Creative SB
Audigy 2 DS
Display NVIDIA
Quadro FX 3000
Capture Matrox
RTX.100
Storage 446 GB in two
Level 0 SATA Raid Array
The first thing you need to do when building up a system is to determine your requirements. I do a great deal of work in After Effects, a little in Cinema 4D, a very little in Maya and Lightwave, and there's also a demand for some editing. I need about a half a terabyte of storage space in the machine, some way to get video in and out, and some speed. I wanted to see what the normal customer would do to place an order so after putting together my want list I called Alienware. Within a very few momemts I was talking to Nestor Villalobos, Marketing Manager for Workstations, and we discussed several options. I decided that the best system for my workload was the Roswell 3200 Extreme with a Matrox RTX 100 Extreme Pro suite, a Nvidia Quadro FX 3000 display adaptor, and 2GB of ram. The system is built around a Supermicro X5 DAL motherboard and Dual XeonTM 3.06 GHz processors.

Now is a good time to start talking about my impressions of Alienware as a company. Right off the top Nestor knew what questions to ask me. He was extremely knowledgeable about both his product and the requirements I would have as a video professional. I never was pushed toward a particular system. The Alienware company vision, mission and core value statements list Best-in-class customer service as a goal. I am happy to tell you that I've never had better service. It's so refreshing to deal with folks that have your best interest at heart. For this step in picking out a new PC, Alienware scores an A+.

Within a few moments we had an order put together. Typical turnaround for a custom workstation is seven days. There was nothing to do but sit back and wait for FedEx to show up at my door.

Oh happy day!

Just before I left for NAB the knock came at the door. The Roswell 3200 was here. Two huge boxes contained the workstation, accessories and software. Within minutes I had the box open and the system was sitting on a table in my living room. My wife couldn't believe it when the first thing I did was grab a screwdriver and start taking things apart. Even if it wasn't a requirement of my curiosity, it's always a good idea to open up the case on a computer that's been delivered by truck to make sure that nothing has been knocked loose. I wasn't prepared at all for what I saw. (Scared you, didn't I.) I've never seen a better built computer. Not only was everything intact, the workmanship was magnificent. Cables runs were clean and neat, there are extra screws right there in special screw holders. There are fans everywhere. Alienware even includes custom board holders to keep things in place. I wiggled each fan blade to make sure they were free, closed up the case, and moved it into the office to hook it up to my dual 21" monitors, mixer and VTR.

Will it run out of the box?

Just for fun I started a stopwatch. It took just a few minutes to hook up the power cable, connect the monitors, keyboard and mouse. It took me a minute to figure out the adaptor cable for the Matrox RTX 100 and the sound connections. I powered up the system. Right after the boot the found new hardware screen came up for my monitors. Two clicks later and it was time to configure the display. Another two or three clicks of the mouse and I was ready to explore the Start Menu and the file structure. Here's where I noticed my first mistake; I had requested that both the C and D drive be identically configured. The D drive is comprised of 2 Serial ATA Segate Barracuda 120 GB hard drives. The C Drive is also composed of 2 120 GB Serial ATA hard drives. I should have had Alienware split the C drive into two partitions - one for system files and the other for non video data storage. This was actually recommended by Nestor. In this case, the Alienware staff had a better idea of what I wanted than I did. I should have listened. I decided to live with the single huge boot drive so I grabbed the software disks to install Premiere Pro and the Matrox drivers. I noticed that the Premiere Pro install disk had been opened so I checked the Start menu. To my surprise - everything I ordered was installed. One click to open Premiere, a few more clicks to set up my file structure and I was capturing video.

Exactly 20 minutes and 12 seconds later I was capturing footage to the hard drive. Alienware had delivered a system with all included software installed, tested, and working, at least so far, without problems. Everything worked exactly as I expected it to. Everything! Alienware scores another touchdown.

Installing my own stuff:

The next hour or so was spent configuring my E-mail, installing After Effects 6.5 and all the plug-ins that I own as well as Photoshop, Illustrator, Cinema 4D, and a host of other programs. I plugged in an external USB2 hard drive and an external 1394 hard drive to copy some projects that I was working on to the new box. Everything was recognized immediately. I was amazed that there were no problems at all. It was time to go to work.

So how fast is it Rick???

If there was ever a loaded question this is it. Speed depends on lots of things and varies by not only OS and processor speed but by buss speed, memory type, processor type, chip set, drive speed, available memory, and a host of other factors. For every test I performed with this system it was blazingly fast. I was more than impressed. The first test I performed was just a simple photo montage project I had rendered on my borrowed 2.4 GHz Celeron powered HP laptop. As you can see the Laptop took an hour to crank out this 4 minute photo montage while the Roswell 3200 took just under 9 minutes. I know, I know! Comparing a laptop to a dual Xeon workstation isn't exactly fair, but look at the numbers! This exercise convinced me that I was not going to use the laptop for rendering.

TEST RESULTS

Photoshop Test
(seconds)

everything - 431.1
effects only - 378.7

Night Flight

1 hour 4 minutes
  • Total Benchmark
    (seconds)
  • Comp 1 - 101
    Comp 2 - 1257
    It was time for more tests. The first test I ran was a Photoshop test that uses actions to create a 50 MB file and then apply various filters to the image. While there are many web sites that publish Photoshop test results this I used the only Photoshop test that I could find that fellow bovines could download to compare with their own machines. The Photoshop test is an action that you run and record times. I used only the 50 MB test. I recorded the total time for all operations including the "revert to original" (.7 seconds on average for a 50 MB file) and for effects only. I then ran a test render of Night Flight from the Adobe web site and the Brian Maffitt designed Total Benchmark After Effects test. The test results are in the table to the left. The Roswell Extreme scores very well in all of these tests. More importantly to After Effects users - the Hyper Threading works extremely well. Rendering Magic Bullet effects shows nearly 100% on all processors all of the time. Night Flight, which puts tremendous strain on the CPU also responded very well with usage at 75% or better for all processors most of the time. A dual Athlon MP 2000 that I have used in the past only utilized 1 processor for Night Flight and Magic Bullet effects. So far this looks like a very well setup machine. It's time to do some editing.

    Premiere Pro 1.5 + Matrox RTX 100 Extreme

    The Roswell 3200 Extreme came with Premiere Pro and the Matrox RTX 100 Extreme Pro installed and worked very well right out of the box. I cut several short sequences to test the features. By the time I had a project that would challenge editing capabilities of this Alienware box, Premiere Pro 1.5 had been introduced. I was advised by Alienware Tech support that drivers for the RTX 100 and Premiere Pro 1.5 were not ready yet but that the team was working closely with Matrox on development and certification. Within a few days I had my hands on a release candidate and a day or so later certified drivers were available from the Matrox website. Matrox was the first company to release certified drivers for Premiere Pro 1.5.

    Installation was a breeze and I dove into an hour long project with nearly 7 hours of source footage. Some of the footage was shot with 12 bit audio using all four audio channels. One of the cameras ran constantly for an hour to provide a master wide shot of the concert. The other footage was shot with several cameras. If any project would tax the system, this was it.

    The Matrox card handles the 12 bit / 4 channel audio without any problem capturing channel 1 and 2 with the video stream in an avi file while capturing a wav file at the same time. The audio is up sampled to 48KHZ 16 bit on the fly. The audio is up-sampled to 48KHZ 16 bit on the fly. My master shot and 4 channel audio was no problem. The hour long shot and hour long wave file went from the tape to the hard drive as single files without a hiccup. I was not looking forward to digitizing the other7 tapes from 3 different cameras. There's a Detect Scene option in the capture window of Premiere Pro 1.5. I decided to give it a try. All you do is cue up your tape to the head of the reel, pick out or create a folder to store your shots, set the reel name and the starting file name and press the little record button in the capture window. Premiere and Matrox work together to capture the entire tape with each shot as an individual clip. There's no stopping and starting of the deck. Every shot from all seven tapes were captured perfectly. The only goofy thing about the process is that the last scene captured is only a single frame - the last frame of the tape. I just deleted these last single frame files and went to work.

    The edit went smoothly. I created individual sequences for most numbers, used slow-mo effects and a few of the 3D transitions included with the Matrox RTX 100. Many of Premiere Pro's standard transitions and effects are processed in realtime. If you make the right selections in the project Playback Settings you'll get realtime preview out to the monitor for anything you want to stack up on your shot. I used copy and paste to transfer several sequences from Premiere Pro 1.5 directly into After Effects for special effects. This worked perfectly every time. The only caveat is that you must turn off the Matrox realtime preview output in After Effects while Premiere Pro is running.

    As I was assembling the final movie from sequences I noticed a problem. Nested sequences with slow motion and transition effects were freezing on the first frame. Believing I had discovered a bug, it was time for a call to tech support. This is where the Alienware story gets amazing. Within just a few minutes I had someone responding to my question. Within a business day I had a call from Matrox. It turns out that there is a bug, but there is also a work around. The problem was solved. There's a playback option that was improperly set for the task. One click and I was back in business.

    I was ready to go out to tape and DVD. The final timeline contained 22 nested sequences some of which contained another 2 or 3 nested sequences. The timeline went directly to the VCR using Export to Tape. An MPEG2 file for the DVD was created with the Matrox Realtime Export to disk feature. The VBR 8Mb/sec MPEG file looked great and was rendered in realtime. The timeline markers for chapter points don't come into Adobe Encore like they do when you use Premiere Pro's supplied encoder, but the time saved on this hour long project was more than worth the trouble of manually adding chapter markers. Two hours and 20 minutes after the final cut was made I had the first copy of the DVD in my hand. Now that's productivity.

    So what's the bottom line Rick?

    When considering the purchase of a workstation the decision should be based on more than the initial out of pocket expense. For anyone depending on a computer to generate an income, tech support and service should weigh heavily in the calculations. Even though this system is expensive at just over $6,000 you're only paying about $700 more than you would have to pay for the same components, software, and a similar case if you built it yourself. In my lifetime I've built about 30 computers from scratch. To put together a similar system and load software would take at least 2 days. I'd probably spend another day or two sorting out drivers and conflicts. The Roswell 3200 worked right out of the box. For me it's no contest. I couldn't afford to build a similar box from scratch. Add in their great support and service and I don't see how you could go wrong. I've had dealings with Dell and Gateway. I've had dealings with IBM. All three give great support and great warrantee programs. Alienware is a giant step ahead of these big three for two reasons. First the staff really knows what they are doing and they obviously are using the software they bundle. Second, Alienware has a close enough relationship with their vendors and they will put you in touch with the vendor's support staff. I've never seen any other company work that hard to solve your problems.

    It's a great system, but it's not perfect

    I don't want to give you the idea that this system is the end-all solution for producing video. It's a great DV solution. It's been very reliable. The Alienware Roswell 3200 is without a doubt the fastest computer that I've ever used. There are a few things I'd like to see improved. The first thing is noise. The case has at least 8 fans inside. To keep all that horsepower cool you must move a lot of air. Moving air generates noise. The noise level isn't intrusive to the editing process but it would be better if it were reduced to about half of the current level. I asked about cooling options. Nestor Villalobos, Alienware's Workstation Product Manager, told me that the liquid cooling option offered in the Alienware ALX series is could eventually be worked into their workstation designs. Alienware's new PCI Express technology was introduced in the new 3150 line of workstations released June 28th. This new technology promises dramatic performance increases in sustained data flow. I'd also like to be able to edit HD or at least HDV. Again, Nestor assured me that Alienware was working with several vendors including Matrox to incorporate these features. Implementation of PCI Express technology in their new workstations will go a long way supply the enormous bandwidth demands of HD content. Cooperation between Alienware and Matrox has been great in the past and I'm confident that when they offer HD or HDV solutions they will be thoroughly tested and ready to go out of the box.

    Alienware may indeed build the perfect video/effects workstation in the very near future. As for this review I'm giving the Alienware Roswell 3200 Extreme four and a half cows, but I'm giving Alienware five -- and if Ron will allow it, six cows as the best customer oriented, service oriented, and innovative computer manufacturers I've ever done business with. I'd also like to thank Nestor Villalobos and Algeria Bridges of Alienware for letting me play with their toys, and Wayne Andrews of Matrox for his help in getting up and running with Premiere Pro 1.5. What a great bunch of folks to work with.

    Final Score:
    Alienware Roswell 3200 EXTREME
    Alienware - the company
    Alienware builds a fabulous system. If you're considering a new PC workstation you owe it to yourself to call or visit their website.

    ###


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