ScreenCastsOnline Studio Revamp

If you follow my twitter account, you may already know I’ve had a busy weekend.

I’ve been using my 11″ MacBook Air as my main production machine for quite a while now, recently acquiring a 27″ Thunderbolt display to go with it. The 27″ Thunderbolt display was a game changer in conjunction with the 11″ MBA – the responsiveness of the machine, the clarity of the display not to mention the convenience of the ports built into the display – all accessible via a single Thunderbolt connector.

I still used my 2008 Mac Pro for encoding and storage as despite the 11″ MBA being a little powerhouse, the Mac Pro still outperformed it on encoding. I also use a Mac mini as a dedicated development machine for Xcode and publishing the SCOtutor Apps.

Consequently, I had a triple monitor setup – 1 x 15″ for the Mac mini, 1 x 15″ for the Mac Pro and the 27″ for the MacBook Air.

The only thing is, the two 15″ monitors were not used. I’ve started to use Remote Desktop and it works like a dream. I can view the desktops of both machines in high resolution on my 27″ monitor. So both monitors were superfluous.

The only three issues I had with the MacBook Air were:

  • Lack of Memory – the MBA maxed out at 4GB
  • Lack of Screen Real Estate – for video editing on the go, the 11″ screen didn’t really hack it
  • Lack of Grunt – It’s a super responsive machine, but for really processor intensive tasks, it could use a touch more horsepower

The solution to all three issues was the introduction of the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display – ordered! I placed an order for the following configuration – 2.7GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, 16GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM, 512GB Flash Storage

At the same time, I started to think about a revamp to the studio.

The two 15″ monitors had to go, but I decided to replace them with a second 27″ Thunderbolt display. The new MacBook Pro can drive two monitors at full resolution via Thunderbolt plus a third display via HDMI. I can continue to use Remote Desktop to the other machines with plenty of screen real estate.

Usually with a laptop and 2 x 27″ displays, you’d tend to use the laptop in clamshell mode and just used the external displays. With having the Retina Display, I didn’t want to do this and thought of a way to utilise the 15″ display also (See photo). I’m not sure if this is the way to go but I’ll use it in this configuration for the next week or so.

I also wanted to tidy up and move some of the more noisier components into a rack. This would both give me a quieter environment and give me lots more under desk storage. So a new rack was ordered and duly installed. This now contains:

  • 24 port Gigabit Ethernet Switch (no more daisy chained switches around the office)
  • DBX 226XL Limiter/Compressor
  • 2 x Mac Mini – Xcode machine & Media Server
  • 1 x 4 bay Drobo
  • 1 x 8 bay DroboPro – I didn’t bother with the rack-mount kit – £150!!!

The Drobos are starting to show their age and are the noisiest bits of kit in the room. I think they will be the next things to go when I start looking at Thunderbolt rack mounted storage.

So most of the new equipment is in place and I now need to spend a couple of days tidying up the inevitable boxes of cables and detritus that seem to accumulate when you take on a job like this.

Oh and by the way, the MacBook Pro outperforms my 2008 8 core Xeon Mac Pro in encoding. I’ll do some tests later in the week and post some comparisons.

If you want to see the flurry of activity over the past two days, checkout the embedded YouTube video below (looks like the 1st version won’t work on Mobile devices such as iPad as I’ve included some music YouTube identified as copyright – use the second version for iPad/iPhone)

Desktop Version


iPad/iPhone Version

Real Life MacBook Air 11″ Benchmark – Video Encoding

Ok, so we’ve seen lot’s of raw processor speeds and “GeekBench” benchmarks for the new 2011 MacBook Air, but how does it stand up in “real-life” usage?

One of the first things people said about the 2010 MacBook Air was that it was a powerful machine, “but you really wouldn’t want to use it for video editing”.

To be honest, the video editing is fine, it’s the video encoding that might give cause for concern.

Video encoding is one of the most processor intensive tasks you can throw at a computer. As well as maxing out the processors (the more cores the better), it also stresses the i/o of a machine.

For maximum video encoding speed, you need multiple processors and speedy disks.

As part of my standard production workflow, I routinely produce huge “master” video files of the ScreenCastsOnline tutorials, then encode them into multiple resolutions for distribution. For fun, I thought I’d take one of my production master files and run it through Handbrake on various machines, to see the relative video encoding performance of each machine.

I chose a 20 minute screencast, with a resolution of 1280×720 encoded with the lossless animation codec at 25 frames per second and millions of colours. The “master” file weighed in at 3.8 GB.

Using Handbrake, I selected the standard Apple TV preset, bumped the resolution up to 1280×720 with a constant quality of 25.

Handbrake is a great encoder, running at 64bit and optimised for multiple cores.

Here is how it played out:

Timings 1

Obviously, the 8 core MacPro with 16GB of RAM and a striped RAID drive crunched though the file pretty speedily, with all 8 cores powering through the encode.

However, I was shocked at the performance of the 2011 MacBook Air 11″ with the 1.8 GHz Intel Core i7 – It only took 3.5 minutes longer compared to the Mac Pro.

That’s nearly twice as fast as the 2010 MacBook Air.

I don’t think you need to worry about video encoding on a 2011 MacBook Air.

Will be interesting to see what a difference using Thunderbolt attached storage would make!

Update: Here is a screenshot of the MBA showing all the processor maxing out. The Intel Core i7 is a dual core chip, but uses Hyper-Threading which makes it appear as a 4 core chip to the OS. Hence the 4 displays.