What is the best computer for video editing? It’s a question everyone is forced to ask every couple of years. Today, it just happens to be my turn.
It doesn’t matter what your line is in filmmaking or media content creation, you need a computer. More often than not, you need a computer that can edit video. This article explains how I’m going about building a computer that I feel will put in me ‘in good stead’.
‘In good stead’? What the heck does that mean anyway?
Before we proceed, be forewarned that I’m assuming you know your processor from your RAM, and so on. If you don’t, head over to the first few chapters of AFRAID for a quick overview of the basics.
What I need and why I need it
However, this hobby machine must really be able to hold its own as far as specs are concerned. For this purpose, I’ll be comparing it with the workstations quoted above, as well as an ‘equivalent’ Mac Pro workstation.
What kind of footage will I be editing on it? All kinds, from H.264 to AVCHD to R3D to Arriraw. It doesn’t have to handle any of these heavy codecs in ‘real-time’ or full resolution. The rendering times can be long. Projects will not be more than 10 minutes finished.
At any given moment, I don’t anticipate working with source footage that is longer than 2 hours’ worth. Two hours of R3D or Cinema DNG is about 1 TB. Nothing earth shattering.
I will discount hard drives from this exercise simply because I prefer scalable hard drive architecture. In other words, the system should be bare bones inside, and whatever footage I’ll bring in or export to will go to external drives, possibly in RAID.
The system should be able to deal with a sustained data rate of 150 MB/s. Even though the data rates for Red cameras and the BMCC fall within this limit, it still won’t run in real-time because of the additional decompression (in case of Red) and debayering time (not a lot, but still existent). I had a discussion at Reduser.net about a Red Rocket and have decided it’s not worth it at this point. So, I’ll have to live with half-res 5K at best. I figure, if I can live with half-res, I can also live with quarter-res.
When all else fails, there’s always ‘proxies’.
I’m ambivalent about 10-bit. First of all, it’s really not that important. On the flip side, I’m probably going to pair this system with a Dell Ultrasharp U2711 10-bit display – so it ‘could’ make sense. We’ll see.
Effects and CGI
Not important. I’m not doing any 3D CGI. At most, I’ll stick to basic keying and compositing, and some light motion graphics. I might play around with other effects and tools, but I don’t need the performance of a professional grade workstation for any of these tasks.
I haven’t decided which NLE to use. Why not? First of all, it’s a hobby build, so I’m probably going to test every NLE out there at some point – if only with the demo version. Building an editing workflow isn’t child’s play, or a one-day job. It’ll take me months to figure out what works for me, and I don’t want to commit to any software.
For effects and finishing I’ll probably use Adobe After Effects, and maybe Nuke. For grading and mastering work I’m planning on trying Resolve, Scratch, Speedgrade, etc.
As you can see, my requirements are anything but ‘hobby-ist’. I realize there are many individuals out there struggling to find the right specifications for a professional computer for video editing, but without the budget for a custom workstation. Hopefully, my method of going about it will help you sort out your own system.
Minimum Requirements for all NLEs
The first thing I did was list all the minimum and recommended requirements for each NLE (Non-linear editing software). The NLEs are:
- Adobe Premiere Pro CS6
- Apple FCP-X
- Avid Media Composer 6.5
- Sony Vegas Pro 12
- Autodesk Smoke 2013
- Grass Valley Edius Pro 6.5
The links take you to the minimum specifications page. If they have changed, you can easily find it under the product links on the respective websites. Also, don’t forget to dig deeper. Many vendors have excellent white papers on how to find and optimize the right hardware for their respective software.
What I’m looking for is the highest common factor, so I know my computer will at least meet the minimum requirements of each software should I choose to run it.
Note: I include FCP and Smoke in the list, even though they are purely Apple-based NLEs, simply because I might end up buying a Mac Pro or build a Hackintosh and run Windows in Bootcamp. Actually, I will be investing in a Macbook Pro later so I don’t how this is going to work out.
So, what are we left with? You’ll be surprised to know a Core 2 Duo 2.33 GHz or higher, with 8 GB RAM and a 64-bit OS is good enough to run all of these NLEs. The GPU should have a memory of 1GB and it should be capable of driving a display with a resolution of 1280 x 900 or higher.
Now, I know these specifications are the bare minimum. The most important component for an NLE is the processor.
Minimum Requirements for Effects and Finishing
- Adobe After Effects CS6
- Apple Motion 5
- Nuke v7.04
Rinse and repeat.
Result? The specifications don’t change; the only ‘improvement’ being the GPU/Display resolution which must now meet 1280 x 1024. Having experience with both After Effects and Nuke, I know RAM is what drives this boat.
Minimum Requirements for Color Grading
For color grading and finishing I compared the following software:
The system requirements are much higher here, but slightly skewed, in my opinion. The specs are as follows:
- Intel i7
- 12 GB RAM
- GPU – Quadro, with a minimum resolution of 1920×1080
Note: Even though many vendors list Quadro as a minimum requirement the software still works with a GTX or Firepro. However, for color grading purposes, adhering to a 10-bit pipeline is common, and among GPUs that means either a Quadro or a Firepro.
It’s time to put everything together and see where we stand.
Specifications for a Computer for Video Editing
Here is my list of ‘preliminary’ specifications based on my experience:
- Intel i7 or Xeon E3/E5
- 12 GB RAM 1600 MHz+
- GTX or Quadro, with a minimum RAM of 2 GB
- Resolution of 1920 x 1080 or higher
- 256 GB SSD for OS and Apps
- 128 GB SSD for Cache
- 1 TB 7,200 rpm drive for testing, temporary files, emergencies, etc.
- Motherboard with SATA III, USB 3.0 and at least 4 slots for RAM
- Windows 7 Pro 64-bit or Mac OS X Mountain Lion
- Blu-ray drive and burner
You may be wondering: Why do I do it the hard way?
The answer is simple: I have no time for second guessing. Neither do I have the budget for another build. Where I live, I can’t exchange stuff I don’t need, and the average turnaround for any replacements is 2 weeks.
This way, I don’t have to look back. Laying out everything like this makes clear what my priorities are, and what aren’t. This simple but long-winded exercise can throw light on many a confusion:
- I shouldn’t get an ‘older’ i7 because I expect this system to last for at least 2 years before an upgrade. Why not? Think ‘Parts’. If my older generation i7 fails mid-way, and I can’t replace it because the item has been discontinued, where does that put me? This goes for every component on the list.
- I know I’ll probably have to plan for at least 16 GB of RAM, or even 32 GB. RAM is important, and there’s no getting around that.
- I know I’ll need a motherboard that can support an external RAID solution when I need it, in addition to the three SATA III drives inside. USB 3.0 also gives me options looking forward. When I need serious RAID power, I’ll opt for an external solution with a Hardware RAID controller.
- When push comes to shove, I know I’ll sacrifice ‘GPU power’ over every other component. It is important, but it’s not the most important.
This exercise was just the beginning. What I’ve done is narrow down my options to a manageable level so I can spend more time on researching stuff that really matters.
In Part Two I’ll look at four options or builds, and compare them with ready-to-use workstations from HP and Apple.