Are you facing an uncertain future with Apple hardware? Would you like to be able to take full advantage of the latest tech, but don't want to have to lay out £6000, just to get things like PCIe slots, and future proofing like USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 and M2?
Since my Is 2017 The Year Of The Windows Self Build? article earlier this year, the challenge has been on to build a Windows equivalent to an Apple MacPro, at a competitive price, but with a killer specification.
This is where Scan Computers and their professional computer division 3XS come into the equation. With their help I've put together an incredible DAW host system, brimming with all the latest greatest tech.
The Full Service
Up until recently, being able to fully specify the exact specifications and order a pre-built machine with support, was the preserve of bespoke companies like Workstation Pros, who James Ivey has recently bought a machine from.
Over the last four years, I've watched one UK "mainstream" IT company, in particular, develop a range of "workstation" PCs, specification tuned to specific purposes. This is the 3XS division of Scan Computers, in Bolton, UK. Two years ago when I rebuilt my main Pro Tools Host PC, I did so in very close liaison with their experts and managed to dodge a couple of bullets on the way.
For my upgrade, I already had a lot of the components from my old system, and simply needed to upgrade the core components - the motherboard and processor. I'm a reasonably proficient PC builder and form my own IT support, so doing this was well within my abilities. However, not everyone has the ability or even the desire to get this "up close and personal" with their computer, so I set out to investigate what pre-build and support services were out there.
Scan Computer's configurator page makes choosing the specification for your machine an absolute breeze. Once you've worked out what you like, you can also call Scan and speak to an actual expert, who can help you fine tune your specification.
3XS FWX99 PowerDAW - Digital Audio Workstation Computer
Here's the headline spec -
Intel i7 8 Core 16 Thread 3.2GHz CPU on an Asus X99-Deluxe motherboard, with 32GB DDR4 RAM, 256GB M2 SSD System Drive, NVidia 4GB GTX1050Ti GPU, Thunderbolt 3, Dual Gigabit Ethernet, Fractal Design R4 Tower Case with "silent" cooling.
And for those of you who like detail, here it is -
- Asus X99-DELUXE II, Intel X99, S 2011-3, DDR4, SATAe, U.2, M.2 (PCIe), 3-Way SLi/CrossFire, 2xGbE, acWiFi, USB3.1, ATX
- Intel Core i7 6900K, S 2011-3, Broadwell-E, 8 Core, 16 Thread, 3.2GHz Clock, 3.7GHz Turbo, 20MB, 40 Lane, 140W CPU,
- 32GB (4x8GB) Corsair DDR4 Vengeance LPX Black PC4-19200 (2400), Non-ECC Unbuffered, CAS 14-16-16-31, XMP 2.0, 1.2V
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050 Ti WINDFORCE OC 4GB GDDR5 Graphics Card, 768 Core, 1328MHz GPU, 1442MHz Boost
- 250GB Samsung 960 Evo, V-NAND, M.2 PCIe Gen 3.0 x4, NVMe 1.1, 3200MB/s Read, 1500MB/s Write, 330K/300K IOPS
- 650W be quiet! Dark Power Pro 11 Power Supply, Hybrid Modular, 80 PLUS Platinum, ATX v2.4, PSU
- Asus DRW-24D5MT DVD Re-Writer, x24, SATA, with M-DISC support, Tray Loading, Black OEM
- 2 x 140mm be quiet! Silent Wings 3, 7 Blade, PWM, Inaudible Airflow Fan, 1000rpm, 59.5CFM, 15.5dB, Fluid Dynamic, 4-pin, be quiet! Dark Rock 3, Single Tower CPU Cooler, 6 Heatpipes, 1x 135mm PWM Fan, 190W TDP, for Intel/AMD CPUs
- Fractal Design Define R4 Black Pearl Mid Tower Ultra Low Noise Performance Case USB 3.0 with Silent 140mm Fans
- Scan 3XS System - 3 Year Warranty (Mainland UK) - 1st Year Onsite, 2nd & 3rd Year Return to Base (Parts & Labour)
- Windows 10 Professional
And Now, The Really Technical Stuff
The eagle-eyed among you will notice that we're not using the direct Mac equivalent of the E5 Xeon processors. This is because they are now out of date so it makes no sense as you don't get all the latest niceties, and it certainly adversely affects your performance. This came about after a lengthy discussion with the wonderful people at Scan.
At the heart of the FWX99 is the 8 core (16 thread) Intel i7 6900K, which can come supplied with both at stock settings and a free overclock to 4.1GHz as an option, which was applied to the review system.
Other system tweaks have been applied to both Windows and within the BIOS. Crucial for audio work is driver responsiveness and Deferred Procedure Call (DPC) testing is key. The DPC is the time it takes for the whole driver stack to cycle through and action all the related software and drivers. Any lag in this process tends to exhibit itself through pops and glitches in the audio stream. Choosing the correct components is key here and the hardware combination is pre-tested to ensure their driver sets are responsive enough to be glitch free in studio use.
3XS disable real time CPU re-clocking features, often found in Windows power schemes, due to their changing of the clocks on the fly being known to be a cause of internal system noise that tends to bleed into audio. The Windows power profile has been customised to included 3XS' dedicated scheme that disables the hibernation routines, and stops external USB devices powering down when the machine is left alone for a time. They also invoke the Core Parking tweak, that stops Windows from disabling and re-enabling the cores on the fly.
The Benefits Of Not Self Building
It was during the pre-testing that Scan 3XS discovered an issue with the BlackMagic Card and the Thunderbolt interface seemingly conflicting. Before they would ship the system, they undertook extensive testing to try and identify the real cause of the issue, After swapping out all the components they found it to actually be an issue with the processor. Replacing this solved the problem. This problem would have driven me utterly insane and I certainly don't have the test equipment or an extensive supply of replacement parts to hand, so I'm massively grateful for this service, even though it caused a slight delay in the system arriving. I'm sure this issue would have cost me a lot more time and importantly money in lost revenue, had I self built.
How Does It Perform?
This machine absolutely flies. All the tweaks and proper optimisations carried out by Scan 3XS really go towards making a machine that's better than the sum of its parts and has incredible future proofing. And the price? £2600, including delivery and 3 year warranty. The equivalent spec Mac Pro (if we're being entirely honest there really isn't an actual equivalent) has a list price of £3600. So already you're £1000 better off and have an incredibly powerful future-proof platform to work from.
Come back for part two, where I will be putting this machine through a series of Stress Tests, designed to represent using the machine in real life situations, rather than poring over pages of almost meaningless technical specifications. I will also be looking at how easily this machine could replace a Mac Pro that's in an existing installation.
As it stands, based on the customer service, the flexibility and the future-proofing, I would have no hesitation in recommending Scan Computers as a Pro Audio PC supplier. Their expertise and service are second to none and they are bang on up to date.