Boxx’s Apexx S3 – Intel’s Alder Lake Maxxed Out

I have spent the last few weeks using Boxx’s newest iteration of their Apexx S3 Workstation, and it is quite impressive. Based on Intel’s “Alder Lake” CPUs, with DDR5, it is technically a workstation built from gaming class hardware, but this just makes it more power efficient and budget friendly. And with a 5Ghz Core i9 CPU and 64GB of RAM, it doesn’t lack in performance.

I have been interested in trying out a Core i9 based desktop system for quite a while, but the right opportunity hadn’t come along. My last consumer desktop was a Pentium4 system I built in 2004, and I have used dual socket Xeon workstations both at work and at home ever since then. I have also reviewed two single socket workstations recently, but these were still high end professional architectures that don’t have the economies of scale to allow them to compete bang-for-buck with more broadly available consumer systems.

Two years ago I reviewed an AMD Ryzen based desktop, in Boxx’s A3 workstation, and didn’t have comparison data from a similar Intel machine. I wanted to test the equivalent 9th gen Intel 9900K at the time, but three generations later, I am now finally gathering that data, with a 12th-Gen Intel CPU. A lot has changed in the interim, with more cores, higher bandwidth, and new OS and application releases, but this allows me to see what professional content creation tasks can be accomplished effectively on a consumer targeted architecture designed for gaming performance.

The basic question is, how far a can a consumer level architecture be pushed, before you have to step up to a more expensive professional solution? You don’t find this answer out by testing the higher end options, although that data is needed for comparison purposes. And to be fair, the system I am testing, in the Boxx Apexx S3, is as high-end as a consumer architecture system can be. But it is still based on Intel’s “consumer” chipset and CPU, and should offer a reasonable look at what most other similar systems should be able to do in optimal conditions.

Similar to the A3 I reviewed two years ago, Boxx’s S3 workstation comes in their compact tower case, with integrated liquid cooling for the CPU. The Core i9 12900K is a 16 core processor, with support for both DDR5 memory, and PCIe 5.0 interface. Although PCIe 5.0 isn’t widely enough supported to be functional yet, it will be useful in the future.  It increases overall available bandwidth, which is an issue in consumer systems, especially when it comes to PCIe slots. On the topic of PCIe cards, they sent me the machine equipped with an NVidia A4000 GPU, which is the professional equivalent of the GeForce 3070 Ti.

I was planning to also test it with my existing GeForce 3090 installed, for comparison purposes.  But with the smaller sized case, it was too tight to install the behemoth of a GPU in it without modifying the chassis.  It was only about 1mm short, so if it was my permanent system I definitely would have been able to make it work, but not without some permanent bending or cutting that I didn’t want to do to this review unit.  It didn’t really matter though, as the A4000 was more than powerful enough for anything I wanted to throw at it, and is as fast of a GPU as any video editor should need.  Only people working in true 3D should need anything faster.  I usually recommend GeForce cards unless a user needs a specific pro feature, but with the inflated price of GPUs right now, the premium for the Pro version is minimal, and the single slot solution with professional drivers and support is much more attractive than usual.

There are 3 other PCIe slots available for other cards (Two x8 and one x1 slot).  Other cards that are relevant to video editors would be a SAS or SATA RAID card for large media storage volumes, a high speed NIC for sharing data with other editors, and an I/O device for viewing that content on professional displays. The system comes with dual 2.5GbE ports, which should meet the needs of many users, but I also installed a 10GbE card for connecting to my 64TB storage server at higher speeds, to test large projects on the system. I have used AJA’s Kona5 and other cards in the past, but am not testing with one now.  NVidia’s HDMI output is sufficient for me at the moment, since Premiere now supports HDR display over that output, but SDI based users will want a dedicated video I/O interface. If I was configuring this system for an individual editor, they would undoubtedly have a RAID card for storing their media, but users who are part of a team are likely using the network interface to connect to a shared storage solution, or both, to share their own local media volumes with others.

Speaking of local volumes, this system came configured with a 1TB PCIe 4 NVMe SSD, which I consider essential for any performance system.  The choice of a Samsung 980 Pro seems widely regarded as the best SSD option available.  Your OS doesn’t need the multi GB/s bandwidth it offers, but it does benefit from the lower latency and higher I/O count of an NVMe disk. And while you might be able to get by with a 512GB system drive, applications continue to balloon in size, so 1TB is probably the sweet spot at the moment. For those who want more SSD storage capacity, the three M.2 slots in the system could support up to 24TB of internal SSD storage now that 8TB M.2 cards are on the market, and that is before you look at PCIe add in cards. But Boxx only configures it with 2TB cards, topping out at 6TB.  Instead, they offer up to two 10TB SATA drives, which should be more cost effective for most users.  SSD drives in those capacities are very expensive, so there is still a place for good old high capacity spinning disks, when managing large amounts of media. The system can be configured with two internal hard disks, which could offer up to 20TB of storage if RAID’ed together. Anything larger than that will require an external solution, connected via USB, SAS/SATA, ethernet, or Thunderbolt. (Or stepping up to Boxx’s larger S4 model offers more than twice as many drive bay options.)

Boxx’s newest version of the S3 is based on ASRock’s Z690 Taichi, meaning that it has Intel’s highest end Z690 chipset, supporting PCIe 5.0 and DDR5. This system came with two 32GB sticks of DDR5-4800 memory, for maximum performance at dual channel settings. Utilizing all four DIMM slots has a performance limitation on Intel’s newest architecture, for reasons I haven’t really wrapped my head around, besides that Intel is pushing the limit as far as it can, and two sticks is better. As a Premiere editor, I would recommend users have at least 32GB of RAM, and ideally 64GB. I have 128GB on my dual socket systems for large projects, but that may be overkill for most users. After Effects on the other hand can benefit from even more than that if you are processing larger frame-sizes, higher bit depths, or lots of layers. Unfortunately DDR5 is currently much more expensive than DDR4 (to the tune of triple the price at the moment) for fairly minimal benefit that I am aware of.  So the 64GB of DDR5 in this system is a pretty optimal choice.

The motherboard also supports two Thunderbolt 4 ports, which I consider an essential feature for editors, but less so for VFX artists and other positions. Thunderbolt is a fast interface for connecting large storage volumes, and enough Mac users are exchanging data on Thunderbolt drives, that editors need the option of connecting those devices to their systems. Thunderbolt is also the interface for I/O devices like the AJA T-Tap Pro, for connecting to professional displays and other gear via SDI. So lack of Thunderbolt support would be a disqualifying limitation for many users, but this system has full support for it. It also has 6 USB 3.2 ports, dual 2.5GbE NICs, WiFi, surround audio, 7 SATA ports, 4 PCIe slots, and 3 M.2 slots.

The system came with Windows 10 installed, which is what I would usually recommend for most users, but after my initial benchmarks, I upgraded to Windows 11, to see if it would make any noticeable difference in performance. One significant change in Windows 11 that is relevant to this processor architecture, is new recognition of the difference between power (“P”) and efficiency (“E”) cores. P-cores are hyper threaded, and more responsive for foreground applications, while E-cores are for offloading simpler background tasks to. Windows 10 doesn’t recognize the difference, and therefore may assign complex high priority tasks to the slower E-cores, not realizing that it will take those core far longer to complete the task. One way around this, is to disable the E-cores either for particular application, or entirely, to force all of the processing tasks onto the faster P-cores. With Windows 11, this shouldn’t be an issue, and higher priority tasks should automatically be assigned to the power cores. I was curious to measure this affect in person, hence my request for the system with Windows 10, with the intention of retesting after upgrading.  I did not expect this to make a big difference, and was quite surprised to see that the upgrade to Windows 11 resulted in an average of a 20% increase in rendering performance.  I also had some stability issues in Windows 10, with occasional lockups and blue screens, but after upgrading to Windows 11 and updating the BIOS I never had another issue with the system.  I ran into some obstacles when updating the BIOS, which would have been show stoppers in the past, but the motherboard’s out of band BIOS flashing functionality performed flawlessly, and I was up and running minutes later.  So sometimes new changes to technology can be great.

It is also worth noting that the system came with Windows 10 Pro for Workstations. The Workstation edition adds support for RDMA networking, ReFS drive format, and NV-DIMM persistent memory, but none of those features are relevant to this use case.

Performance was impressive, especially in the Adobe applications, even in Windows 10.  I have a series of standard tests I run in Premiere Pro and Media Encoder, and those tests are based on taking large RAW camera footage clips, processing them with effects, and encoding them to HEVC. (RAW 8K to HEVC encoding was the best torture test I could dream up a few years ago.) But with Adobe’s newest version 22 releases, that workflow is fully GPU accelerated, all the way to 10bit HDR HEVC output. While this is great, it makes it harder to do an apples to apples comparison with previous systems I have tested in the past.  Regardless, this machine outperforms any system I have ever test in Premiere Pro and Adobe Media Encoder.  The 5Ghz processor frequency sits heavily in its favor compared to the higher core counts of the more expensive workstations I have been reviewing recently.  For applications (Like Cinebench) that can scale perfectly across more threads, those extra cores make a bigger difference, but for many editing tasks, the raw single threaded performance is a more significant factor.

We can see that upgrading to Windows 11 cut render times in some cases by between 5 and 30%, depending on the benchmark.  This is presumably due to the fact that Windows 10 loses performance by evenly distributing computational tasks between the performance and efficient cores.  This causes the efficient cores to drag down overall performance.  This is most clear in the Cinebench15 single thread test, which apparently got assigned to an E-Core in Windows 10, because we see a 50% performance improvement after the upgrade, and all the single threaded tests are huge improvements over previous systems, due to the high CPU frequency.  I re-tested to confirm it wasn’t a glitch, but couldn’t re-test in Win10 at that point.  We also see that the more visual effects (CPU tasks) I add to a sequence, the bigger the difference the OS upgrade makes, because much of the rest of the processing is done on the GPU, which is less effected by the OS version.

So while I wouldn’t recommend most users upgrade to Windows 11 without good reason, Alder Lake system owners have good reason to make the jump to the newer OS.  But this, regardless of the OS, this is the fastest system I have ever tested, at least for Adobe applications, which is my primary use case.  In synthetic benchmarks like Cinebench, and surely many other real 3D applications, there will be benefits to having more cores on higher end architectures, but Adobe users can select Alder Lake based systems with zero compromise in regards to performance.

The new 12th gen processors also include Intel’s UHD Graphics 770 hardware (Except the F variants that are a few dollars cheaper.) I have no intention of using the integrated graphics to drive my displays, because I have powerful PCIe based GPUs for my graphics processing, but Intel’s Quicksync media engine can be leveraged in Adobe software independent of the display outputs. Intel Quicksync includes hardware accelerated encode and decode of H.264, H.265/HEVC, and a variety of other formats. Most NVidia GPUs offer similar capabilities, and Premiere now supports both vendors’ hardware, but Intel’s iteration is slightly more flexible, offering support for 4:2:2 color space processing, while NVidia is limited to 4:2:0 and 4:4:4. 4:2:0 is used for media deliver and playback streaming, while 4:4:4 is used for high end UI streaming, but 4:2:2 is sits in the middle, and is popular in broadcast environments.  4:2:2 HEVC acceleration is currently limited to Intel CPUs, and specifically this Alder Lake generation, but it is supported in Premiere Pro, and I did see a noticeable difference in playback performance of those media files when it was enabled. (Smooth playback of multiple layers, and much less CPU and power usage.)  So as more cameras record in that format, this acceleration will become more useful to editors.

The system only used 120Watts at idle, that jumped to 400Watts at full load. The idle power usage is much improved over some of the professional CPU architectures I have been testing recently, while still spooling up to an impressive level of peak performance.  The system also supports sleep, allowing users to quickly resume their work where they left off after taking a break.

This system costs $6700 in the exact configuration that it was sent to me, but money could be saved by opting for a lower end GPU instead of the A4000. Money could also be saved with a lower end CPU or less RAM, but I would definitely recommend against that, as it will effect your performance. I would consider the 12900K CPU to be the most budget conscious solution for a system that could still be considered “high end.” I would use this system to edit 8K video, full sized feature films, and other such projects. The main reasons I could imagine for needing to upgrade to a higher level system would be more storage and connectivity options (more PCIe cards), or 3D VFX artists who need more GPUs, over 128GB RAM, or more cores. But for actual video editors, 16 cores is enough for most NLE apps, and 128GB is enough to run all my Adobe apps concurrently. So I would give tricked out Alder Lake systems like this Boxx Apexx S3 my highest recommendation, as the optimal system design for top end video editors.

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