How to Spec a TouchDesigner PC #2

Deciding what kind of computer you want (or even need) for a TouchDesigner installation can be a challenge. How much is too much to spend on a PC? Do you really need that much power? Are you sure the computer can handle all the generative content? These questions have no real answers so I decided to write this series. If you haven’t read the first part, start by clicking here. In this post I’ll talk about some key things to look for in different pieces of hardware. This isn’t an exhaustive guide, because the specs for any individual thing we’re talking about here can certainly be exhausting, but it should give you some tips on hardware you can use. Let’s dive right in!

CPU

CPU’s are definitely tricky. There are so many different kinds of CPU’s and each one of the different models has a bunch of variants. For example, maybe you fell for buying what you thought was a sweet Intel i7 processor only to find out later that the U at the end meant it was a low power chip that wouldn’t actually be that powerful. A lot of these things you can only learn through lots of reading and experience in the field, but some tips that you can follow when looking for PCs. The big rule of thumb with CPU’s is keep it simple!

High clock speed

Generally you’ll always want the fastest clock speed you can get. Unless you’re specifically doing multi-threaded work, you’re almost always better off with fewer cores that are faster instead of getting lots of cores that are slower. Some of the main things in TouchDesigner that are multi-threaded are movie reading of some codes like H264. Outside of that, you should generally assume TouchDesigner is single-threaded. I’m a big fan of getting fast quad core processors. The older i7 Extreme chips were great and getting any nice Intel i7 chip with 3.5-4ghz clock speed will make your life easier.

Not a server

For almost 95% of jobs, there’s no benefit to using a Xeon or equivalent server type processors. They’re generally slower clock speed than their i7 or i9 counterparts and make the rest of your PC build more expensive because then you need a server motherboard, more expensive RAM, etc. Just stick to regular computer parts like the Intel i7 or i9 chips.

Moral?

Keep it simple. Intel i7 or i9 chips are more than enough. Usually you’ll want faster clock speeds instead of more cores. You don’t need Xeon chips and server class gear (not even for permanent installations). Look for sales when you can, CPU’s generally have a good amount of sales and small kits (such as CPU + motherboard combos) that make purchasing them cheaper.That’s it!

GPU

GPUs can also be pretty straightforward except there are a few small catches in terms of specs. A lot of GPU’s are now getting more and more buzzwords thrown into the mix, which can make it even harder to figure out what to buy. Where do you begin?

nVidia

Sorry AMD and AMD fans, just use nVidia. The drivers are much more stable, the cards perform better, TouchDesigner has nVidia CUDA only features, TouchDesigner was built and tested most extensively with nVidia cards…what more can I say. If you were maybe running a Linux graphics server then I might recommend AMD cards, but that’s not what we’re doing. We’re talking about building PC’s and Windows boxes for TouchDesigner installations. In that case, no question in my mind: nVidia.

Quadro

Once you firm up that you’re using nVidia, there’s one more word you will live and die by: Quadro. There are basically zero circumstances where I’ll do a gig on an nVidia Geforce card. Even in the early days of my career, I fought tooth and nail to get Quadro cards on my projects. Sometimes this came at the expense of getting a weaker Quadro card for the same price we would have gotten a super fast Geforce card. If you’re unfamiliar with the terms, Geforce is nVidia’s consumer/gaming line of graphics cards while Quadro is the professional/industrial line. The drivers are rock solid, have a TON of flexibility to helping you during your installation. Most importantly, they GUARANTEE that if you use a Quadro with all the same displays on the same signal paths coming out of the GPU that you won’t have any tearing or stuttering. They even have a professional support line that will make sure you achieve that in the field. I’d rather have a Quadro RTX4000 than a RTX 2080 SUPER. Any day of the week.

Cores and memory

Once you give in to nVidia and Quadro there’s really 2 other specs to look for generally. Those are the CUDA cores and GPU memory. CUDA cores are processing cores, so the more of them, the faster the card. GPU memory is how much memory the GPU has to hold textures in memory. The more GPU memory you have, the more assets you can load in at once and more memory makes your life a lot easier when working on very high resolution content. Unfortunately it’s hard to know how many cores you’ll need, so it only becomes useful as a reference to yourself over time. For example I’ve used the 5000 series of Quadros on almost every gig, so I know how fast they are. When someone doesn’t have the budget for 5000 line, then I can compare the amount of cores on the current 4000 line and determine how much “weaker” it will be than what I’m used to. Similarly, when new GPU’s come out, I can roughly tell how much faster they may or may not be based on the cores. This isn’t 100% technically correct, but it’s a rough estimation you can make.

Moral?

Moral of the story: get an nVidia Quadro card. Whatever the latest series is (right now it’s RTX) and even the series behind it (currently the P series), stay in that zone. Then try your best to stay within the 4000, 5000, and 6000 numbered cards. The higher the number, the better the card. So right now that’s the Quadro RTX 4000, RTX 5000, and RTX 6000. RTX 4000 on a budget, RTX 5000 great choice all around for anything, RTX 6000 if you need some real heavy firepower.

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Storage

Ok, this one is the easiest of the bunch. I won’t even preface this one, let’s go.

Samsung

For our purposes to get the most performance for dollars, Samsung is the best. Whether it’s their more consumer EVO line or their Pro line, I have yet to buy Samsung storage that hasn’t been fantastic. They’re all great. They’re priced great. They perform great. Thanks, Samsung.

Interfaces/Types

These days there are only 2 types of storage you need to worry about in 2020: M.2 NVMe PCIe SSDs and SATA SSDs. Unless you’re doing a really specialised gig with TONS of data storage, there’s no reason you shouldn’t at least be using SATA SSDs. With the cost of 2.5″ SATA SSD storage hovering around $150 CAD per TB, I can’t imagine ever going back to spinning hard drives. But the real breakthroughs are in the M.2 NVMe PCIe storages. Units like the Samsung 970’s range in price from about $250 – $400 CAD per TB, but I can’t even express how fast they are. They are incredible. One single Samsung 970 can run layers upon layers of 4K HAP Q content in real-time without dropping a beat. Like I mentioned that I’d never do a gig without a Quadro, at this point I’d also not take a gig if they couldn’t afford putting a Samsung 970 NVMe PCIe M.2 SSD in the PC. They’re that amazing.

Moral?

Samsung is great at storage and have you covered between all the lines of their 2.5″ SATA SSDs and their incredible M.2 NVMe PCIe makes media-based project a breeze.

Wrap up

Whether you’re stuck on a CPU, GPU, or storage decision, I hope this post helps give you some tips and insight between the hardware choices I make for projects. I always go in for some combination of Intel chips, nVidia Quadro graphics, and Samsung storage. In the next post, I’ll be talking about the different possibilities when it comes to building a PC yourself or getting it from a PC vendor. Enjoy!