Building a fast Windows Vista machine for video processing

About six months before embarking on my quest to build a top-of-the-line Vista Media Center from off-the-shelf parts, I researched, purchased and assembled all the components to build my home workstation. My goal was to create a moderately fast machine capable of running 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate. The machine needed to have sufficient processing power, memory and storage for editing and rendering video—one of the most computationally intensive tasks that can bring a machine to its knees.

With the following hardware I was able to obtain a Vista Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 4.8:

  • 3 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 CPU (overclocked to 3.83 GHz)
  • 4 GB G.SKILL DDR2 800 RAM
  • EVGA NVIDIA GeForce 7600GS 512 MB Graphics Adapter
  • 320 GB Samsung HD321KJ SATA-2 7,200 RPM Hard Drive

Windows Experience Index before upgrade

The Vista WEI ranges from 1.0 to 5.9 so a score of 4.8 is respectable. Furthermore, as you can see in the image above, the processor, memory and hard drive contributed individual scores of 5.7 or greater. Since overall WEI reflects the weakest link, the 4.8 graphics adapter score pulled down my system rating. At that time, it was not a big deal. I am not much of a gamer and the graphics adapter was fast enough for standard definition video editing and periodic movie conversions. That was May 2007.

Fast-forward about 18 months to when I first learned of NVIDIA CUDA parallel computing architecture and the novel way a few software companies were using it to significantly accelerate video processing in their products. I had been using TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress by Pegasys for a few years for converting videos for portable devices, my media center and the Web. Also, Elemental Technologies was getting amazing results and stellar reviews for its Badaboom Media Converter. Both companies had incorporated CUDA into the processing pipelines of their respective products resulting in 5-10x speed improvements. The only problem: Only the GeForce 8000 series and later NVIDIA graphics adapters support CUDA. I had an older 7600 series. 🙁

A faster graphics adapter would surely increase my system’s WEI but I would also need to do something about my hard drive. The difference between 5.7 and 5.9 seems minor but for a hard drive it turns out it is fairly significant. It is particularly noticeable when it comes to reading and writing files several gigabytes in size, typical of video processing. For example, a 2 1/2 hour HD broadcast can consume over 30 GB of disk space.

After several weeks of research including reviews, benchmarks and price comparisons, I was ready to take the plunge and upgrade my hard drive and graphics adapter.

With the upgraded hardware, my system currently is as follows (only the last two items have changed):

  • 3.00 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 CPU (overclocked to 3.83 GHz)
  • 4 GB G.SKILL DDR2 800 RAM
  • ASUS NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 896 MB Graphics Adapter
  • 300 GB Western Digital VelociRaptor SATA-2 10,000 RPM Hard Drive

Windows Experience Index after upgrade

This upgrade increased my system’s WEI from 4.8 to 5.8. As you can see in the image above, every element in my system (except the CPU) now achieves the Vista maximum of 5.9. The upgrades together set me back $510—$240 for the drive, $270 for the graphics adapter.

Was it worth it? If converting a 2-hour DVD movie for playback on your iPhone/iPod/Zune/etc. in 10-15 minutes is important to you, or you edit and render a lot of video and don’t want your machine slowing to a crawl, absolutely. Otherwise, use the $510 and buy your videos on iTunes or Amazon Unbox.

I have been running this new system configuration for a couple months now and the performance improvement is very noticeable. I figure I will be happy with my system for another 12 months or so at which point Microsoft Windows 7, Intel Core i7 processors and plunging prices of Intel X25-M SSD drives will make a new round of upgrades hard to resist.