Choosing the right computer to power the Skype Studio

Choosing the right computer to power the Skype Studio

Summary: In later articles, when I tell you what obscenities I'm making this little machine do in the name of broadcasting, you'll understand why this is so very important.


All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide This project: Build your own, broadcast-quality Skype Studio

Probably the single most challenging decision for the Skype Studio project was deciding what computer to use. Given that there's very little free space in the studio, and a lot of interconnections, I wanted to use just one computer as the main engine for all of the studio's capabilities.

Physical requirements

I had some physical requirements that were a necessity. First, the machine had to be quiet and, if possible, silent. The studio is a small, sound-insulated space, and every errant sound will get picked up by the mic. So, I couldn't just grab a spare over-powered tower PC out of my closet and plug it in. Those fans would sound like a jet engine on recordings.

See also: Soundproofing the Skype Studio

Second, the computer had to be small. With just 10 feet by 9 feet to work with, every piece of gear has to be carefully chosen and placed.

And, although I had the electricians wire the studio room with dedicated circuits in each wall, I wanted the power consumption of the machine to be as light as possible. This wasn't just to be green and save on my power bill.

No, it's actually the first law of thermodynamics. More power means more heat and I didn't want to make the studio any warmer than it has to be. So the less power used by the computer, the less heat.

Next, I wanted fast drives. Typical 5400 or (horror!) 4800 RPM laptop drives wouldn't be able to handle writing video data without hiccup. I could have used USB 3.0 drives, but I really wanted an internal drive. I have a 10,000 RPM monster in one of my desktops, but it's expensive and comparatively low capacity for the price. The studio had a top end $5,000 budget.

What I really wanted was to be able to run 7200 RPM drives. That requirement rules out most laptops (at least without drive replacement).

Finally, I wanted RAM. I wanted as much RAM as I could possibly get. Sadly, as you'll see, I wound up with a solution that maxes at 8GB. It works, but I still want more.

It also needed a FireWire port, because I'm feeding in video from a video camera, not from a USB webcam.

See also: Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

Oh, and finally I wanted a fast network connection. When we bought this house, I had it wired with GigE to every wall and I wanted to be sure the computer I used had a GigE Ethernet port.

So far, most of these requirements could (sort of) be met by either a PC or a Mac. But these were actually all secondary requirements after the most important requirement: software capability.

Software requirements

As it turns out, I had a specific requirement. I wanted to feed chroma key (post-processed green screen input) into Skype. The only software I found that would do what I wanted, the way I wanted it, was on the Mac. I'll tell you all about that my next article.

See also: Getting started with green screen

See also: Green screen lighting in the Skype Studio

But the point was, because of the software I wanted to use, I determined I needed a Mac in the studio. Note that this wasn't a choice based on operating system preference.

Although I worked as an Apple project leader back in the day, and have published and coded both Mac and iOS applications and apps, I'm not particularly a fan of OS X. Frankly OS X annoys me. So, given my preference had there not been a software requirement, I probably would have chosen Windows. But I chose a Mac.

Next was the question of which Mac?

Astute Mac users out there will have figured it out by now, but have you? There's really only one Mac that's very small, fast, and has 7200RPM drives: the Mac mini server.

So that's what I bought, a Mac mini server. You can see it snugly fitting on the small desk I use in the studio, right under my beloved and very dog-eared set of Knuth.

For studio use, I'm ignoring the server elements of the OS, but I chose the server anyway because it's the only Mac mini that comes with big, fast drives in a laptop drive form factor. My machine has two 500GB 7200 drives.

Now, to be fair, 500GB isn't a tremendous amount of storage, especially when dealing with video, but it works for a few recordings.

That's why I wanted the fast GigE port, because after each recording session, I upload the video to The Tank, our big media server. One of these days, I'll tell you more about The Tank project.

The regular Mac minis have dual-core Intel Core i5 processors, while the Mac mini server has a quad-core Intel Core i7 beast. It has the 7200RPM drives, and while it ships with 4GB RAM, Apple's specs it to 8GB. I upgraded my Mac mini immediately.

I do wish it would support more RAM. Ooh, ooh, stop the presses!

I wanted to tell you how much I spent on RAM, so I went over to to quickly look up the 8GB upgrade. RAM prices fluctuate, and I wanted to give you today's price, which is about $80 for DDR3-1600 (you always want the fastest RAM you can get for video). Anyway, when I did the lookup, what did I see?

I am so excited. I would do a happy dance if I danced. I don't dance. But I'm still excited.

Crucial has 16GB upgrades for the Mac mini. Yes, yes they do. For $179, they have a DDR3-1600 16GB upgrade. I'll tell you what, boooy, as soon as I finish this article and post it, I'm going to pull the trigger on a 16GB kit. Yeah, it adds $179 to my budget, but it'll double my RAM.

In later articles, when I tell you what obscenities I'm making this little Mac do in the name of broadcasting, you'll understand why this is so very important.

If it weren't for the fact that I had to sit down and this article today, I wouldn't have gone back and looked at RAM for the Mac mini. It was spec'd out to top out at 8GB when I bought it, and I didn't expect that RAM densities would double on this generation and make a 16GB (8GBx2) part available.

So, here's a hint within a hint: if you're not satisfied with your computer's RAM, check back. It might increase.

Not counting the RAM upgrade I'm about to buy, the studio's computer set me back about $1,100 (RAM and shipping, etc).

Anyway, so now you know why I chose the Mac mini. For its form-factor, it's surprisingly powerful and small. There are clearly small PCs you could build in the same size and power, but I'm not sure they'd beat the price.

More to the point, the Mac runs specific production software I need, so the Mac (despite my general dislike of OS X) became the choice for the studio.

Topics: Processors, Apple, Collaboration, Hardware, Servers, SMBs, Social Enterprise


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • SSD

    Why didn't you get an SSD and rsync data out to account for the small size? Faster and more silent....
    • Because

      The Mac Mini Server is a BITCH to open up and install replacement drives in. You have to do a complete disassembly, and it's nothing like opening up a PC case and swapping a drive. You need precision tools to do it correctly and there's no margin for screwing up.
      • Makes sense

        I have seen one of these ones. Not my cup of tea. Beautiful it is. Practical it is not.
        What about very thin client like the raspberry and a fully capable monster outside the room. The Pi would be the ears, eyes and display. The network should be more than capable to handle that much data.
  • I am just shaking my head in disbelief

    at the time and effort you are spending to produce 640x480 streaming video full of pixelation and drops depending on internet bandwidth capacity in your area.

    I also had a good laugh at you stating a 5400 RPM (or even 4800 RPM) hard drive can't write video without a hiccup. That's just ignorant. You're seriously trying to tell me that a data stream that a blu-ray optical disk can deliver without glitch is too much for a 4800 RPM hard drive to write without a problem?
  • Bluetooth?

    The guy that mentioned another room was what I thought about immediately. You could have an adjacent room with a window, with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Then it could be as big as you want, and loud.

    But, what you came up with seems good too. I probably would have considered SSDs for speed and stealth, especially since you are going to upload them anyway. But, what you did will probably be fine.

    I'm figuring that what you want to do has to do with peripherals that you need to connect to the computer, so the other room idea would be problematic.
  • I want to answer a few of the questions posted here.

    @kirova, I didn't go SSD because it's all about sweet spot, cost, and time-to-implementation. Since stock, installed 7200 RPM drives work fine, there's no compelling reason to go the added expense and lower capacity of SSDs. Plus, as Jason said, I had no need to field strip the Mac mini server, since it's actually serving my needs.

    Don't get side-tracked on the idea of using another PC or Linux. The key factor here are two pieces of Mac software I chose to use, because I haven't found anything that does the complete job with the same productivity level on another platform (not even Linux).

    @baggins_z, We actually tested the bandwidth and service availability in this house before we made an offer to buy. I actually put in an order and installed Internet service during the inspection phase of the house purchase, just to be sure we could have sustainable bandwidth. It was the single most important factor (or at least veto factor) in our house purchase, since I make my living online over video and audio streams.

    We have sustainable high-speed upload bandwidth just for this purpose (and for which I, sadly, pay extra each month). And I'm feeding 720p out when I do live interviews. I can do 1080, but none of the networks I've come into can take that stream.

    I haven't had any pixelation (on my side), although some of the post-production used by remote studios isn't the best in the world.

    @Hameiri, I think you're kind of missing the point. Bluetooth wouldn't get the FireWire interface from the camera, for example.

    All of you -- the idea is to make this practical, and not overcomplicate it. I'll admit I'm not a fan of Apple, but the Mac mini server was fast, cheap, and perfectly served the needs of the project. Given that, there's no need to jump through random hoops.

    When building out a project, use the tools that best fit the needs of the project, but be flexible enough to use tools beyond your comfort zone if they do the job well.
    David Gewirtz