Video Editing Best Practices Part III: Build the Ultimate Video Editing PC

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By Dustin Sklavos

In trying to get you ready to handle digital video editing, I’ve given you a baseline in video editing terminology and how to use pro-grade video editing software. These are both extremely important but there’s a third point that’s nearly equally crucial: the hardware.

Now it’s true, you can do video editing on just about any modern machine. When I was taking my first Adobe After Effects class (about six or so years ago), I was doing my work on a tiny Sony TR2A laptop. It had a ten inch screen, a 1GHz Pentium M, and 512MB of RAM. Not ideal, but it got the job done, and I never liked using lab machines during my college career. For most tasks, my own workstation was often vastly superior — because I had properly tuned the hardware.

Video editing — especially working in high definition — will eat every last ounce of performance you make available, so it’s vital to have a balanced machine to work off of. Below I offer up a checklist of steps to ensure your PC is tuned to make video editing as efficient as possible.

WORKING OUT THE BOTTLENECKS

A modern computer is actually several different components working in tandem. If one of these is substantially slower than the others, it can bring the whole system’s performance down. This is the definition of an unbalanced PC. Need an example?

Pop a DVD-ROM into your computer’s DVD drive and copy it to the hard drive. Pay attention to how slowly that copy goes. Now copy that same data to another folder on the same hard drive. You’ll notice the copying process goes by reasonably faster. Now, if you have another hard drive in the system, copy the data to that drive. It should be faster again. We’ve highlighted bottlenecks. A CD or DVD drive is typically slower to access data than a hard drive. Moving data around on a single hard drive means that drive has to both read and write data simultaneously, but internally is still faster than the CD or DVD drive. If you copy data from one drive to another, that means that the source drive can divert all of its resources to doing the read and the destination drive only has to do the write.

These principles apply to all aspects of a computer. For video editing, we want to move the bottleneck all the way to the processor, since the processor is the part that’s going to have to do all the heavy lifting. That means we need a healthy amount of RAM to keep the processor fed and a fast enough storage subsystem (fancy way of saying “hard drives”) to keep the RAM filled.

A GOOD INTERFACE

The other outside pieces here are the screen and speakers. A good quality screen is necessary to pick out fine detail in the video and to present you with as large a workspace as possible. If you’re shooting in high definition, it stands to reason you’re going to want to be able to see your footage in high definition while you’re working on it, and that means you’re going to want at least one screen that can display video in full 1080p. Ideally, you’ll want to have at least two screens: one to use as a program monitor, and one to use for editing proper. I actually have three on my home machine, but that’s because I’m insane. Most users will be perfectly fine with two.

This is also where I’m going to be a complete zealot about screen quality. The overwhelming majority of consumer screens on the market use crappy TN panels that can’t natively produce the kind of color palette you’re going to need and, worse, have poor enough viewing angles that you risk losing detail in your video. Most people are using these TN panels. If you’re only showing your video on computers that should be fine, but high definition televisions don’t use TN panels. I’ve gotten nasty surprises because I used a cheap screen for editing.

Mercifully, good panels have gotten mighty cheap these days. Dell sells 21″ and 23″ IPS panels for under $300 — basically just a $100 premium over comparable TN panels, but with far superior color reproduction and viewing angles. If you want to edit video, I recommend at least using one of these as your program monitor. A TN panel is fine for your workspace (timeline, project bin, etc.), but you’re going to want the best fidelity you can get for your final product.

Sound quality can be just as important. Cheap speakers or headphones are going to hide flaws in your audio track that will manifest on better quality systems. Some advice from an old sound editing professor: don’t use active noise-cancelling headphones because they’ll distort your sound due to how they work, and try to get a good pair of speakers and avoid doing editing on headphones in general. That last part I’m willing to give some wiggle room on, since I’ve edited with headphones before. And you don’t have to break the bank for a good pair of speakers; most systems from about $50 onward should be fine, and I use a pair of Bose Companion II speakers that have done fantastically for me.

HARDWARE YOU CAN SAFELY RULE OUT

If you’re shopping for a primary editing machine, there are two classes I think you can typically rule out (and I guarantee I’m going to draw fire for these): notebooks and Macs.

Notebooks aren’t ideal for primary editing machines, at least unto themselves, because they typically only have one hard disk, almost always have TN panel screens, and notebook speakers almost never have any low end. All of these can be remedied by using an external hard disk (eSATA or USB 3.0 only), attaching a second screen, and using better speakers. But at that point, shouldn’t you just be using a desktop?

Which leads me to the second point (and this is what’s really going to get me chewed out): Macs. It’s true that Final Cut Pro is only available on Mac OS X, and that it’s an industry standard. However, Adobe has covered a heck of a lot of ground with Premiere Pro CS5 and made it — in my opinion at least — not just a viable alternative, but an ideal successor. If you want to work professionally, you’ll need to learn Final Cut Pro, if only because it is expected – but you’re under no obligation to do so on your personal editing system.

The problem with Macs is that they frankly cost way too much. When you’re doing video work you want as much computer as you can get, and the “Apple tax” takes a massive bite out of that. Worse, Apple tends to skimp horribly on RAM in their machines and charges obscenely for the upgrade. I recently upgraded my desktop to a Core i7 930 with 12GB of DDR3. 12GB of good Corsair DDR3 RAM only cost me about $315. Upgrading a Mac Pro to 12GB from the base adds a staggering $1,275 to the pricetag. That might not be so bad, but it gets worse. A Mac Pro with comparable performance to my custom built desktop — a PC anyone can build for around $1,600 (probably less) — would cost more than $5,000 from the factory.

I don’t care how clean and simple and popular Macs are — no computer is worth triple the price of its equivalent competitor.

WHAT YOU WANT

I’ll break down what you want to look for in a new machine for video editing in a few basic steps.

As far as hard drives go, you’ll want as much capacity as you can get as fast as you can get it. Mercifully, higher capacity drives tend to be faster than the lower capacity ones (excluding SSDs) due to how mechanical hard drives work. You’ll also ideally want two drives for when you go to render out your project: one source drive that video is read from, and a destination drive that the video is being rendered to. This helps remove the slow hard disk interface as a potential bottleneck. And, as general good practice, you’ll want to have an external hard drive to periodically back your data up.

An appropriate amount of RAM is typically a trickier thing. I will say that if money is no object there’s certainly no such thing as too much RAM, but there’s definitely such a thing as too little. I would shoot for 4GB of RAM as an absolute bare minimum, but 8GB is far better and more than that is ideal. Core i7-based machines with triple-channel memory are able to get up to 12GB reasonably cheaply and easily, and that’s a good place to be.

The video card you use is, at least at this juncture, not that important. Video editing doesn’t tend to hit the video card that much, although the Mercury Playback Engine in Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 can see substantial gains from using qualified Nvidia cards. I will point out that GPU-based video transcoders like ATI’s tool and Elemental’s Badaboom are going to produce inferior results compared to letting your processor do the hard work. At some point these will be options, but for now it’s best to ignore these applications.

Finally, you’ll want as much processor as you can get, but it gets tricky here. While I can’t speak for other applications, I can tell you that if you’re going to be using Adobe’s software, you’ll want a modern Intel processor. AMD’s chips lack an instruction set (due to arrive in their next architecture in early 2011) that Intel’s chips have, and that instruction set makes a major difference in overall rendering performance. Video editing software tends to be extremely well-threaded, so the more cores you can provide the better. When it comes to video editing, Intel’s hyper-threading can produce a healthy performance boost.

That said, don’t break the bank. There are major diminishing returns with more expensive processors; right now the best values tend to be Intel quad cores in the $200-$300 range. Even the Core i7-720QM offers enough horsepower to do video work. The software will always demand more, but if the difference between a twenty minute render time and an eighteen minute render time is $200+, it’s probably not worth it.

CONCLUSION

I want to be clear here: you can do video work without breaking the bank and if you’re on the tightest of budgets, compromises can be made. The most important parts in the machine itself may actually just be having separate drives to read and write to and a healthy amount of RAM; most modern processors can at least get the job done. But you’re going to want to invest in a quality monitor, and you’re going to want good speakers, and mercifully these things have can be had for reasonable prices if you know where to shop.

Bottom line: with a good, well-balanced machine, you can work inexpensively and efficiently. It can mean the difference between beating your head against a project and having to make sandwiches between tests, and being able to hum along smoothly. The less time and energy you spend worrying about technology, the more time and energy you can spend on creativity.

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