How to Build a Computer for Video Encoding

by Jeff Grundy
Even on some new computers, encoding or converting the format of a two-hour movie can take hours.

Even on some new computers, encoding or converting the format of a two-hour movie can take hours.

With a modern camcorder and video-editing software, even beginners can create high-quality movies and videos. Your camcorder or editing application does most of the work in creating a video clip, and even relatively low-end computers can import movies or perform editing functions rather quickly. After you create or import a clip, though, encoding the video is a different matter. Encoding a video with a specific file format is a processor-intensive operation that requires quite a bit of computing power. If your present computer encodes videos too slowly and you want to build a custom computer that rips through video processing, be prepared to spend a bit more than you would pay for a basic multimedia PC at your local department store.

The Processor

Even the largest business software applications run seamlessly on modern dual and quad-core processors, but this is not the case with video encoding. Encoding even a short, 10-minute video requires billions of individual processor instructions and operations, and the processor must be able to keep up to avoid having to cache too much data in memory. For this reason, professional video houses often use clusters or networks of computers simultaneously to encode a single file. If you want to encode video on a machine with a single CPU, you'll need to buy the most powerful processor you can afford. Intel designed the i7 series of processors with video encoding in mind. These CPUs come with a large, 8MB on-die cache, include internal video acceleration and work in motherboards that support up to 32GB of RAM. An i7 2600K has a default clock speed of 3.4 GHz but overclocks with a mouse click to 3.8 GHz. If you’re an AMD fan, the FX and Phenom series of processors offer excellent video coding performance – albeit slightly less than an i7 CPU – for about $100 less than the Intel 2600K.

RAM and Windows

Adding Random Access Memory to your computer will help everything move along a little faster. However, for a video-encoding machine, RAM is probably the most important factor in building a system that sails through processing or one that takes hours on end to encode the latest episode of your favorite sitcom. A fast processor can help speed up video encoding considerably, but it can only do so as long as it has sufficient RAM, allowing it to send and receive data quickly. In other words, the more RAM the system has, the better. The 32-bit versions of Windows 7 support only 4GB of memory (the same as Windows XP). To run your video encoding application at full speed, use the 64-bit version of Windows and install as much memory as possible. Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit edition supports up to 192GB of RAM, and while you probably don’t need that much, installing 8GB or more of high-speed DDR3 RAM will help accelerate video encoding more than anything else.

The Video Card

You might think that the video card would be the most important component in a high-end video-encoding system – after all, the machine is for “video encoding!” However, the processor and RAM play a much larger role in encoding video files. If using an Intel i7 processor, its integrated video-encoding support is better and faster than that found in many mainstream 3D-video cards, so just about any discrete video card with 256MB or more of dedicated memory should suffice. If you are using another processor, though, the video card becomes a bigger part of the equation, and you should buy a good 3D-gaming card to ensure its processor is fast enough to transcode pixel and frame information as needed during the video-encoding process. Unlike a serious gaming machine, you don’t need a $500+ graphics card for a video-encoding computer, but you should not use a low-end card or motherboard-integrated graphics chips either. If video encoding is the primary purpose of the computer, a mid-range AMD or NVIDIA should suit your needs well. Just as with RAM, though, try to purchase a graphics card with as much dedicated memory as possible.

Storage Requirements

Depending on the quality settings you select for your videos, file sizes will range from relatively small to huge. Videos that use smaller resolutions don’t take up much hard drive space, but HD 1080i clips using 1920-by-1080 pixel resolution will consume many gigabytes quickly. Most modern SATA hard drives are more than fast enough to receive and write data from encoding applications without requiring buffering or caching. Therefore, you should concern yourself more with buying a hard drive with a large storage capacity rather than a speedy 10,000 RPM or SSD drive. Many 1TB and 2TB drives are relatively inexpensive these days, so consider buying one for your new video-encoding system. Better still, buy two large drives for plenty of video storage space. While you’re at it, pick up the largest USB flash drive and external hard drive you can afford for backing up videos or taking them with you while traveling.

Encoding Software

After you assemble your video-encoding dream machine, you will need software to convert and encode your movie clips. Hundreds of available applications let you encode video files, and the program you use will ultimately be a matter of preference. If you invest a lot in building a high-end video computer, though, installing low-end encoding software kind of defeats its purpose. That does not mean that high-quality encoding software has to be expensive. Commercial applications such as Adobe Premier and SONY Vegas are the choice of many professionals, but open source video-encoding programs such as FFmpeg and VLC Media Player do an excellent job of creating, converting and encoding video files. Open source applications usually don’t include the bells and whistles of their commercial counterparts, but they perform most essential video-encoding functions just as well. Additionally, if you invest some time in research, you can download and install plugins that will make open source video-encoding applications even more powerful and useful.

Other Things to Consider

If you plan to work with online videos or clips you import from camera only, you probably don’t need too much additional hardware for your video-encoding computer besides a large LCD or LED monitor. Just ensure that the motherboard you use for the system has an adequate number of USB ports for your video camera and external drives. If you have a camcorder with a FireWire connector instead of USB, you may have to purchase and install an add-on card, as most motherboards don’t have an integrated FireWire adapter. Likewise, if you plan to import video clips from a Super-8 projector or VCR, you will need a USB video capture device to stream video to your capture and editing application. The only other thing you will need is a high-speed Internet connection so you can upload your videos and share them. If you intend on working with large-file-size videos, consider using an Ethernet connection rather than a Wi-Fi adapter (which most desktops don’t have anyway), as a wired connection is generally more reliable and secure and offers faster transfer speeds.

About the Author

Jeff Grundy has been writing computer-related articles and tutorials since 1995. Since that time, Grundy has written many guides to using various applications that are published on numerous how-to and tutorial sites. Born and raised in South Georgia, Grundy holds a Master of Science degree in mathematics from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Photo Credits

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