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Test Drive: Intel Nehalem, Part 1

HP Z800 with Intel Nehalem processor

A few months ago, I ran some Adobe Creative Suite 4 (CS4) benchmarks on different computers that isolated how CS4 performed with formats ranging from DV to Red. Now that Intel”s Nehalem processor is upon us, those numbers are obsolete, so I”m updating them with results from two Nehalem-based workstations that I”ve been testing. In this installment, I”ll explain the tests and share DV and HDV results; next time, I”ll present the results for AVCHD, DVCPRO HD, and Red.

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By way of background, Nehalem is a new CPU from Intel with greatly expanded throughput to and from system memory, and improved performance, primarily through Hyper-threaded Technology (HTT), which appeared on many CPUs prior to the Core 2 Duo line. HP recently launched three Nehalem-based computers: the Z400 (single CPU), Z600 (dual-CPU capable, limited memory and hard disk expandability), and Z800 (dual-CPU capable, max expandability). HP also redesigned the cases for the latter two computers, for cooling, noise reduction, and ease of access. You can see a cute demonstration of the ease of access part, courtesy of my daughter Rose, here and read a review of the Z800 here.

One of the points that HP made quite strongly during the Z-series launch is that most of the workstations currently used for digital content creation are single- or dual-core. I didn”t have this perspective when I reviewed the Z800, so I compared the Z400 and Z800 to two older eight-core systems—one running 32-bit Windows, the other 64-bit Windows. For this article, I wanted to benchmark performance on lower-power systems as well.

While I didn”t have a single-core system with the necessary software around, I did have a Pentium D system, which was the dual-core technology Intel released prior to the Core 2 Duo architecture. Though this computer was as fast as they got back in 2002, adding it to the comparison matrix made me wonder how we got any work done at all back then.

Figure 1. Here”s the short DVCPRO HD project, with the pink overlay on the third track the chroma key incorporated via Dynamic Link.

Meet the Tests

For this first article, I ran two tests on all computers: one 2 minutes or less, the other 10 minutes long. The short project involved multiple picture-in-picture effects, including an Adobe After Effects chroma key effect incorporated via Dynamic Link. My goal was to stress system memory and simulate the production of a heavily edited but short project such as a 60-second commercial.

The second round of tests involves 10 minutes of lightly-edited source material, including color correction and a logo, but no picture-in-picture or Dynamic Link. This test was designed to assess pure throughput, in essence to see how Nehalem”s increased data bandwidth would perform in the typical event-type production, such as concerts, ballets, and sporting events.

Figure 2. Here”s the longer project, 10 minutes of fast rendering.

I know that my own practice involves a mix of long and short form projects, so I really care about both sets of results, and I”m guessing that most producers are the same way. If you”re a pure long-form event shooter—or, at the other extreme, a 60-seconds-or-less producer—you can obviously focus on the most relevant results to you.

Here”s where it gets a bit confusing, so listen up. In the first round of tests for Affordable HD, I rendered the HD source clips to Blu-ray-compatible MPEG-2. In this round, I”m rendering all clips, SD and HD, to DVD compatible MPEG-2, which was faster and applicable to more producers. As with all tests that I performed with the Z800 and Z400, I ran the tests with HTT enabled and disabled and used the fastest time in this comparison. I”ll show these results at the conclusion of the second installment.

Tested Systems

Let”s have a quick look at the systems that I tested, including the Z400 and Z800:

  • HP Z800: two 3.2GHz Intel Xeon 5580 quad-core processors and 18GB of RAM, running 64-bit Windows Vista
  • HP Z400: one 3.2GHz Intel Xeon 3750 quad-core processor and 6GB of RAM, running 64-bit Windows XP
  • HP xw8600: two 3.33GHz Intel Xeon 5470 quad-core processors and 16GB of RAM, running 64-bit Vista
  • HP xw6600: two 2.83GHz Intel Xeon E5440 quad-core processors and 3GB of RAM, running 32-bit Windows XP
  • HP xw4600: One four-core 3GHz Xeon Q6850 CPU and 3GB of RAM, running 32-bit Windows XP
  • HP xw4300: one dual-core 3.4GHz Pentium D and 2GB of RAM, running 32-bit Windows.

There are a range of factors contributing to the disparate performance in these tests—including three generations of processors, three different operating systems, and multiple RAM configurations. As you”ll see, in some instances, it”s fairly easy to discern why performance differed so greatly between the systems; other times, it”s like trying to make sense out of tea leaves.

Table 1. DV results.

DV Results

I present the results by format, starting with DV. Table 1 shows the results.

If you”re primarily producing short DV-source projects, rendering time doesn”t appear to be a significant problem for you. All the systems except the Pentium D-based xw4300 are fairly adept at producing even the 10-minute project. Though the 191 percent difference between the Z800 and xw4600 looks dramatic, if you”re producing an hour of video a week, the Z800 will save you about 34 minutes a week. Time is money, but it ain”t that much money.

Clearly there”s reason to upgrade if you”re in the single- or dual-processor camp, but if you already have a four-core or faster system, you”ll have to be producing a heck of a lot of DV footage to justify an upgrade. Let”s move on.

Table 2. Results from HDV.

HDV Results

HDV short-project results sang a similar tune, probably because its MPEG-2 scheme is easy to decode and efficient memory-wise, as evidenced by the fact that the 32-bit eight- and four-core workstations pretty much kept up with the 64-bit models.

On the longer project, the Z800”s combination of processing power and data throughput almost doubled the performance of the single core Z400 and handily outpaced that of the xw8600. In this regards, I should mention that for the Z800 review, I rendered a real-world, 90-minute, two-camera HDV project to DVD-compatible MPEG-2, and the Z800 was 100 percent faster than the xw8600. If you”re producing long-form HDV-based projects, the Z800 provides a very meaningfully performance boost.

Farther to the right, the dramatic difference between the 64-bit xw8600 and 32-bit xw6600 in the longer project indicates that if you”re running 32-bit Windows on a workstation that you can expand up to 8GB of RAM or so, the investment will definitely be worth it. Finally, if you”re producing longer HDV projects on a single- or dual-processor computer (and you know who you are), you should definitely consider upgrading to at least an inexpensive 64-bit Nehalem-based system such as the Z400.

Unfortunately, I don”t have any XDCAM HD footage inhouse to test (anyone from Sony out there?), but since HDV is the closest format to XDCAM HD (both Long-GOP MPEG-2) these results are likely to be the most analogous.

OK, that”s all for this installment; tune in two weeks from now to see results for DVCPRO HD, AVCHD, and Red.