Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Small Box Field Transcoding

If you’ve read our Streaming Media Producer article and seen the Adobe Media Encoder CC (2014) results, and come here to learn more about two of the three test units we used, you’re in the right place!

In our tests, we used two types of small form factor (SFF) computers to transcode content in the field. Well three if you count our baseline ultraportable MacBook Air, a 2013 series 13" with 4GB RAM and a 256GB solid state drive (SSD) that we'd used in previous tests for Streaming Media Producer.

Each of these SFF computers have four main points in common:
  • External power supplies, each using a 19.5v AC-DC inverter
  • M-SATA slots, which we used to house the operating system and primary application—in this case, Adobe Media Encoder CC (2014), a program tied to the rental of Adobe Premiere CC, itself a part of the Adobe Creative Cloud package we're all so fond of renting these days
  • Two SO-DIMM RAM slots, which take 204-pin laptop memory
  • The ability to house a hard drive (HDD) or an SSD
We decided to use a 256GB M-SATA, 8GB of RAM (2x4GB) and a 512GB SSD, with the latter holding our master file and transcoded outputs.

Beyond those similarities, the units are quite different, as seen from the pictures below.

Intel NUC D52450 series. For a very compact test unit, albeit one that won’t fit in a one-unit rack space (RU) we used an Intel Next Unit of Computing (or NUC) D54250WYK in a form factor that can easily mount to the back of a monitor.

To make testing completely fair between the NUC and the other unit we used—a think mini-ITX unit that was 1RU in height and mounted into a data storage rack—we modified the D54250WYK to better match Intel’s other i5-based NUC, the taller D54250WYKH.

The H must stand for “housing” since the H is tall enough to accommodate the 512GB SSD we were using to store our original master file as well as the transcoded media content. Despite repeated requests for an D54250WYKH, we didn’t receive one in time for the review. So the modified 54250WYK stood in for its taller brother, by removing the mounting plate and laying the SSD outside the NUC’s casing.

Inside the NUC D54250WYK, we added three components: RAM, an M-SATA drive, and an SSD.
  • M-SATA 256GB SSD from Plextor (PX-256M5M series)
  • Kingston Low-Volage PC3-12800 1600 MHz 4GB at 1.35v (KTT-S3CL/4G) x2
  • Micron 512GB SATA III 2.5" Solid State Drive (RealSSD C400 series) 
Why did we add these in? The NUC at $450 is considered a bare-bones unit despite its elegant, finished form that already contains an Intel i5 4250 CPU (with integrated HD5000 GPU). Everything else needs to be added in order to make the NUC function.

The NUC does come with a smaller external AC to DC 19v 3.42a converter, which keeps part of the overall cost down and runs at 65w rather than the 150w we chose for the DIY option.

Based on what we paid for parts, as well as the street price of the NUC at the time, total cost was around $1150 ($200, $53 x2, $300, $450) at the time we began testing.

We waited long enough—almost three months, based on our email thread—for the D54250WYKH to arrive that Intel had already put out the next generation or the D54250WYKH1 (the same as before but with a 1 attached to the end) by the time we completed our review. Pricing has dropped by almost $100, at least temporarily, for the D54250WYKH1, to $350 instead of $450.

We're comfortable the results at are indicative of typical results for the fourth-generation i3/i5 series machines.

What's quite interesting to note is how poorly the i5-based NUC performed against the i3-based unit we highlight below. Having said that, though, the very small form factor, coupled with an ability to use two monitors—via the miniDisplayPort and mini HDMI ports—means that the NUC need only improve its performance to be a strong contender in the near future.

Inteset DIY Bundle. On the other side of our test solution, we used a combination of parts, starting with a rack-mount-capable Inteset case designed specifically for the thin mini-ITX motherboards:
  • M-SATA 256GB SSD from Plextor (PX-256M5M series)
  • Kingston Value RAM PC3-12800 1600 MHz 4GB at 1.5v (KVR16S11S8/4) x2
  • Micron 512GB SATA III 2.5" Solid State Drive (RealSSD C400 series) 
  • Intel i3-4130 CPU, with an integrated HD4600 GPU
  • Motherboard, a Gigabyte GA-H87TN
  • Wifi card
  • Roswill RCX-Z775 LP (low profile) heatsink
  • Inteset INT-TX482-1U case, offered either on Amazon or directly from the company
  • Power supply, 19.5v 7.7a (150W) AC-DC inverter (although we later found that we could substitute a 12v power supply, since the GA-H87TN motherboard can switch voltages)
  • Power cabling for SSD (provided by Inteset but also available from the company)
Why did we choose the Kingston Value RAM which is non-ECC at 1600MHz  (KVR16S11S8/4)? While it would be nice to come up with some fancy explanation, we actually chose this RAM because we wanted to a) keep cost down and b) match closely to the RAM in our NUC, which required 1.35v low-voltage RAM. In this case, the value RAM was a better price, coming in around $42 for each of the two 4GB sticks versus $53 each for the 1.35v RAM used in the NUC.

Our only major issue with the setup was the case itself. It's ideal for rack-mounting, especially in a side-by-side configuration allowing two of these units to be mounted in a 1U rack space.

If we had only had to mount the M-SATA inside the case, we could unequivocally give the case a strong recommendation. Yet, we had a number of issues mounting the SSD in the Inteset case, enough so that we had to flip the drive around to face the opposite direction.

In its proper configuration, we could never find enough space to mount the SSD's SATA power connector without exceeding case width. This is partly due to the SSD/HDD mounting bracket's location, which should be about a centimeter farther away from the outer case.

It is also partly due to the location of the foot that supports the mounting bracket, which in our case we had to bend several ways to avoid either having the mounting bracket put its weight on a soldered diode or capacitor.

Neither was a good option, yet turning the drive around presented the additional issue of having the SATA and power cables jammed between the heat sink and the mounting bracket. It also mean that we needed to dismount the SSD, the mounting bracket, and the cabling, if we needed access to the Wifi card. Which, of course, we did on at least one occasion in our setup.

In the end, we bent the mounting bracket up to relieve stress on the SATA and power cables, but that wasn't a satisfying long-term answer either. The best answer is to come up with an HDD mounting bracket that works with both the Gigabyte and other thin mini-ITX motherboards on the market.

So what was the cost point we paid for the Inteset set up? We had to supply several extra pieces, including a case, a motherboard, CPU, and an external 19.5v power supply, plus cables and a few odds and ends like thermal paste and a low-profile heat sink.

All that totaled up to $1049 ($200, $42 x2, $300, $139, $130, $15, $15, $65, $45, $26, $30). Given the D54250WYKH1 current price point, inclusive of the $100 price drop, this puts both options at almost the exact same price point. And, if you don't need the extra 512GB Micron SSD, either solution can be had for right around $750 plus shipping and applicable taxes.

Conclusion. The Inteset DIY solution performed very well, despite our SSD mounting issues, besting the Intel NUC D54250 series in both performance—with the i3 4130's Mercury Playback Engine Open CL certification providing a significant advantage over the non-certified i5 4250 NUC solution—and in ease of mounting in standard rack configurations.

If we were to go with a quick and very compact solution, which was geared towards short clips and single-resolution transcoding, we would choose the NUC. If we found ourselves in a place where we knew we would need heavy lifting, as described in the Streaming Media Producer article, we would choose the Inteset-rackmounted solution.

Both units have their place, and we look forward to testing the updated NUC in a few months, as well as seeing what tweaks have been made to both the Inteset case and the i3 series boxed CPUs in the meantime.