This guide describes the principles of selecting hardware for a wysiwyg workstation and it is meant to be a guideline for choosing the right hardware for your intended use of wysiwyg. Before diving into the actual components and the criteria for selecting them, there are three important things to note:
1. A “good” video card, by itself, or a “good” processor (again, by itself) is not enough to make a “good” wysiwyg workstation. Instead, the hardware selection should be based on “balanced” components that work well together. For example, while it is likely possible to upgrade a three-year-old system with a latest-generation video card, the performance improvements will not be as significant as using that same video card in a more modern system (likely due to the fact that the old system is most likely using a slower video card interface, and therefore the video card’s speed is throttled.
2. Even the fastest hardware will not be able to properly-handle a file that is not optimized and contains inefficient geometry—and more so if your video card’s settings and your Shaded View Options are inappropriate. The Improving Performance in Shaded View article provides information about these topics, and it is recommended that you read through it and follow its advice in an attempt to improve performance , before purchasing new hardware . Like many other users who have done this, you too may find that performance has increased so much that you do not require a new computer after all — and even if this is not the case for you, files should always be properly optimized.
3. Hardware selection should be based on geometric complexity of the shows that you typically use wysiwyg for, the number and type of fixtures, and your intended use of the software. In essence:
- The more complex/detailed the geometry, the more processing power it will require, so if you are constantly working with/importing “large” 3D models created in other software, a higher-end processor is recommended.
- The larger the number of fixtures in your file, the more processing and graphics power you will require, so if you constantly use wysiwyg for “(very) large” shows, you will require a relatively high-end processor and a high-end video card.
- If you are planning to render a lot, since renderings are processed solely by the processor, you may wish to consider a workstation-class CPU (more on this below). Conversely, if you are mainly concerned with visualization and/or pre-cueing, such an investment is not necessary, and the money would be better-spent on a higher-end video card.
The processor is the component that determines the overall speed of the computer, how fast multiple DMX streams are processed during pre-cueing in wysiwyg, how quickly files load or import, and how quickly renderings will complete. As mentioned above, unless you plan to render a lot (i.e. many high-resolution renderings for every file you create in wysiwyg), a workstation-class CPUs (from Intel’s XEON line and AMD’s Opteron line) is simply not worth it. For use with wysiwyg, these CPUs’ (much) higher cost and that of the specialized hardware needed to use them (workstation-class motherboards, registered/buffered RAM, etc.), doesn’t quite justify the somewhat shorter render processing times—when compared to today’s high-end desktop-class CPUs. A good compromise is an Intel “Extreme Edition” processor which can definitely hold its own against many workstation-class CPUs, and does not require any special hardware.
That said, no wysiwyg workstation should run on anything lower than a current-generation Intel Core i5 CPU (or AMD equivalent). Core i7 CPUs are preferred for higher-end wysiwyg workstations though, and they are strongly recommended, based on tests and benchmarks performed by CAST Software. The aforementioned i7 Extreme Edition CPUs should definitely be considered over ‘standard’ Core i7s, and are pretty much a necessity if you anticipate using wysiwyg for (very) large shows, with hundreds of fixtures and complex geometry.
In terms of specific recommendations, either of Intel’s current “Skylake-S” CPUs (the “Standard Power” models) perform very well; the 6700K is the better option because it operates at a higher stock speed and it may be overclocked; if considering an Extreme Edition processor, any of the “Broadwell-E” CPUs will work extremely well, though the 6850K offers the best value.
The most important thing to remember when choosing the amount of memory for your new system is that since wysiwyg is currently a 32bit application, the maximum amount of memory it can use is 4GB. This is the bare minimum amount you should opt for, with 8GB being ideal. Less than 4GB will result in a poorly-performing system overall, and there is no need to go beyond the suggested 8GB because wysiwyg would never make use of it.[i] (In such a configuration, even if a .wyg file is large enough to require the full 4GB of RAM that wysiwyg can access, there would still be at least 4GB left for the operating system—which is sufficient.) All that said, most higher-end modern computers are equipped with 16GB of RAM.
The actual amount of RAM and its configuration for your system will be dictated by the memory architecture of the processor you select, which may be dual-channel (for standard processors) or quad-channel (for Extreme Edition processors). Considering that memory modules only come in sizes of 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, 8GB and 16GB, the following configurations are possible:
- For dual-channel memory, where modules are installed in multiples of two: 2GB (with two 1GB modules), 4GB (with two 2GB modules), 8GB (with two 4GB modules), 16GB (with two 8GB modules) or 32GB (with two 16GB modules).
- For quad-channel memory, where modules are installed in multiples of four: 4GB (with four 1GB modules), 8GB (with four 2GB modules), 16GB (with four 4GB modules), 32GB (with four 8GB modules) or 64GB (with four 16GB modules).
Please keep in mind that while installing memory in configurations other than the ones above is physically possible—for example, you can insert two 2GB modules and two 4GB modules in a quad-channel motherboard for a total of 12GB of RAM—this will cause the memory to operate in single-channel mode, which will result in poor overall system performance; in fact, going by this example, you would be better off reducing the amount of RAM to 8GB by utilizing a kit of four 2GB modules. Please always install RAM modules as described in your motherboard’s manual, and do not run in single-channel mode.
All processors mentioned above require DDR4 memory modules, so that is your only choice. Naturally, you will have to select memory modules that match the memory architecture and speed supported by the CPU and motherboard; please consult these components’ user manuals and/or specifications in order to find this information. It is strongly recommended that a memory kit is purchased over individual memory modules, since modules within a kit feature matched timings and are manufactured virtually at the same time, ensuring a (near-)perfect compatibility with each other; this is difficult or impossible to achieve with individually-purchased modules, but important to the computer’s overall speed.
Given the sheer amount of available options, no specific recommendations are provided here. Consulting your chosen motherboard manufacturer’s “Qualified RAM Vendor List” is a good idea, as the memory kits and modules listed have been tested by the manufacturer and therefore known to be compatible with the motherboard; lean towards a higher-speed kit with potentially-higher timings/lower latency, than for a lower-speed one with potentially-lower timings/higher latency. (The best would be, of course, a high-speed kit with the lowest possible latency.)
Video Card (GPU)
The speed of wysiwyg’s Shaded Views depends entirely on the video card. Therefore, in many ways, the video card is the most important hardware component of a wysiwyg workstation because its speed is directly-related to the speed of Shaded Views. When selecting a video card for a wysiwyg workstation, the old “bigger is better” rule applies, but only so far as gaming cards are concerned: please do not choose a workstation-level video card for wysiwyg use because it will not provide the performance you might expect, despite its (much) higher price tag.[ii]
While wysiwyg works with the latest integrated GPUs (i.e. Intel’s “HD Graphics” or AMD’s “HD” GPUs built into the processors mentioned above) it is strongly recommended that a dedicated video card/GPU is installed, because integrated GPUs simply lack most of the features that Shaded Views require. This lack of required features affects not only the quality of Shaded Views (for example, Volumetric beams are simply not available with integrated GPUs), but also, and even more so, performance.
Video cards from nVidia’s GeForce GTX line of gaming cards are typically recommended for use with wysiwyg, but AMD’s higher-end Radeon R9 cards work just as well. nVidia’s GT model cards will work too (as will lower end AMD Radeon R9 cards and even R7 cards), but these are not recommended unless you only ever need to previsualize small shows of less than a hundred fixtures, and small amounts of geometry. That said though, it is still recommended that a higher-end card is purchased for the system regardless of the type of show files being worked on, since not only will a higher-end card provide a better experience with wysiwyg overall, but it will also better “future-proof” the new computer.
Such video cards come with enough video memory that it is highly unlikely for it to run out when using wysiwyg. In most cases however, the difference in price between a model with more memory and one with less memory is not that great, so opting for a model with more memory in order to better future-proof the new system is not a bad idea.
Using multiple video cards in one system via nVidia’s “SLI” or AMD’s “CrossFireX” technologies is supported by wysiwyg, but our benchmarking has only shown a 15-20% performance gain when using two cards of the same type in one system (versus using only one such card). Therefore, the expense of the extra card and specialized motherboard (which would be required in order for this to truly make a difference) may not necessarily make sense. so the best advice here is to purchase one card to begin with, and then add a second card (of the same type) if an actual need for it arises.
When choosing which manufacturer’s card to purchase, it is worth noting that you always get the same GPU (Graphics Processing Unit—the “brain” of the video card), manufactured by nVidia (or AMD); only the card itself, and its cooling solution, is made by the manufacturer. As such, if you purchase a “reference design” card (i.e. one that is not overclocked by the manufacturer to operate at speeds beyond nVidia or AMD’s specifications), there will be no difference in performance between, for example, a card made by ASUS and one made by EVGA. However, most manufacturers produce “overclocked” video cards which can be slightly faster than “reference design” cards; the “higher numbers are better” rule applies here, so when comparing various cards’ specifications, higher clock speeds mean better performance. This is the obvious advantage of purchasing a factory-overclocked card; the other is that the factory overclock is covered by warranty, whereas warranty would not cover a card that you attempt to overclock yourself and happen to break as a result. Finally, speaking of warranty, some manufacturers offer longer periods than others, so that may be something worth factoring into your decision.
As for specific recommendations, any of nVidia’s current-generation GeForce 10-series and previous-generation GeForce 900-series GTX video cards work very well, although models numbered “under” *70 should only be considered for “budget” systems, since they will deliver poor performance in large show files. The GTX Titan X should only be considered in “extreme” circumstances, when highly- or ”perfectly-“optimized show files (comprised of hundreds upon hundreds of fixtures, complex sets, moving scenery, large amounts of CITP/video streams, etc.) fail to perform acceptably; for anything else, the GTX 980 Ti, GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 offer the best value.
Should you opt to purchase a factory-built computer (i.e. one manufactured by Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc.) instead of building your own or having a local or online computer shop build it for you, you will likely not have a choice when it comes to the motherboard and features it offers. (As such, it is recommended that wysiwyg workstations are custom-built (by a shop), in order to have complete control over their hardware components.)
While specific motherboard recommendations are beyond the scope of this article, here are some things to keep in mind when selecting your motherboard:
- Ensure that it is compatible with the processor you’ve chosen; also ensure that the chipset that the motherboard is based on meets your requirements. (For example, Intel’s ”Skylake” processors can operate on any of six chipsets, each with its own set of features, which may or may not play a part in your decision.)
- It should feature enough PCI Express (PCIe) slots to accommodate the expansion cards—video card(s), video capture card(s), etc.—that you will need to plug in.
- Ensure that it features enough PCIe 3.0 slots to accommodate your current video card needs (and, perhaps, future expansion requirements as well, especially if you think you may wish to add video cards in the future).
- It should feature the right type of signaling (i.e. “speed”) for the PCIe slots—x16, x8, etc.—regardless of their physical size. Many motherboards feature, for example, x4-size (or even x8-size) PCIe slots which are only wired for x1 operation; in such cases, even though an expansion card that requires x4 signaling will fit (physically) into the PCIe slot, that card may not operate (properly or at all), because that slot does not provide the necessary signaling it requires. Check the motherboard’s specifications carefully before making your decision.
- This should almost never be a problem, but ensure that it features the enough USB 3.0/3.1 and SATA 3.0 connections to meet your requirements.
Solid State Drives (SSDs) have become the standard, and no modern computer should feature anything else as its system drive—anything else would not make sense (as detailed in articles such as this) especially considering their continuing price drops. An SSD will not make much difference to wysiwyg’s speed (except when loading large files and when the library needs to be (re-)indexed), but will make for a much faster computer overall when compared to using a regular hard drive (HDD) as the system drive.
Power Supply (PSU)
If you purchase a factory-built computer, or even from a local or online shop, it will come with the correct power supply, but if you build your own system, you will have to choose this yourself. Consider the following when selecting this very important piece of hardware:
- Use an online tool such as Extreme Power Supply Calculator Lite to calculate your power requirements and therefore determine the wattage you should select. When using such tools, if you foresee the addition of a video card or other expansions in the future, add them to the initial calculation in order to factor them into the initial PSU purchase. (The PSU is a component which, like a motherboard, is time-consuming to swap out once the computer is built.)
- The PSU should provide enough power to supply the system under heavy load, but not much more. For example, if, based on your input, the power calculator determines that your system requires a 750W PSU, there is no reason to choose a 1000W unit.
- It should feature the necessary number, and correct type, of connectors required by the motherboard, video card and all other hardware that depends on power being supplied directly by the PSU. Note that all video cards mentioned above require at least one 6- or 8-pin power connection, while the higher-end cards require two.
- “Fully-modular” PSUs are somewhat of a gimmick because power connectors such as the ones which plug into the motherboard are ALWAYS required, and hence, modularity is irrelevant. “Semi-modular” PSU are not a bad idea though, as less cables and connectors mean less clutter within the case, ensuring better airflow.
- While 80 PLUS certification is not irrelevant, it should also not be your primary concern when selecting the PSU.
- Your PSU selection should be based on reviews, manufacturer’s reputation and price, (in this order); it is worth noting that when it comes to PSUs, “more expensive” almost never means “better”. Consider your selection carefully: potential damage to expensive components caused by a “cheap” PSU is simply not worth the risk.
The cooling solution that is bundled with most CPUs these days is typically adequate for normal operation (and wysiwyg will never task the CPU beyond spec). However, if you plan to overclock or if you simply desire a quieter solution than the bundled one, you will require an after-market CPU cooler, which can be of either the air or the liquid variety. Closed-loop liquid coolers are definitely recommended for a quieter solution (note, however, that even these use fans to cool the liquid), but are only really required when overclocking. Many manufacturers offer a very wide selection of both; once again, consider basing your selection on reviews first and price second.
Keeping all of your hardware cool is very important for maintaining its lifespan, so ensure that your case can accommodate enough fans for your needs and that all cables are neatly tucked away so as not to impede airflow. If you are not familiar with case cooling concepts, you may wish to familiarize yourself with them—a simple Google search for a case cooling guide will yield all the information you require.
wysiwyg is supported on all of Microsoft’s current operating systems (Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Windows 10) but the 64bit versions are recommended due to their ability to access larger (virtually unlimited) amounts of memory/RAM. 32bit implementations are limited to about 2.75GB of usable memory, which is very little by today’s standards. Despite being a 32bit application, wysiwyg is fully-compliant with 64bit operating systems, and would never be able to use the maximum 4GB of RAM when needed, while running on a 32bit operating system.
Confirming Your Hardware Selection
Now that you have read and understood the information above, should you have specific questions regarding components that you are considering, or if you have a new computer in mind and would like to get our thoughts on it, please send us the specifications, and we will be glad to give you our thoughts on it. In addition to the specs, please provide information about your intended use of wysiwyg: rendering or live simulation, number and type of fixtures you typically use in a show, and complexity of stage setup and/or sets (in terms of 3D geometry).
[i] That said, if you plan to use the computer for 64bit applications other than wysiwyg, which are built with a 64bit code base (i.e. Adobe Creative Suite, AutoCAD and/or other 3D modeling/animation packages) which can, therefore, take advantage of more memory, you may wish to consider a higher amount of RAM.
[ii] The technology that wysiwyg employs in Shaded Views is similar in many ways to that used in video games, and that is why it works best on gaming-grade video cards. Workstation cards are designed to provide “pixel-perfect” simulation, so they must ensure that every pixel they render to the screen is the exact colour, shade, etc. that it is supposed to be. As always when it comes to quality versus performance, this is achieved by sacrificing frame rates (performance) in order to ensure accuracy (quality). Gaming cards on the other hand, do not analyze their output in such ways and can therefore provide much higher frame rates. In wysiwyg, since the Shaded View must be able to simulate and animate large and very large amounts of beams from multiple fixture types in real time while processing large amounts of incoming DMX data, this can simply not be achieved with “slower” workstation cards (note the intentional quotes).