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Video Editing Hardware: What You’ll Need To Get Started

Storage, CPU And Memory

System Configurations for Video Editing

This can be a touchy topic, and it delves far into the 'Mac versus PC' realm often.

First up, if you aren't using Final Cut or Smoke as your editing software, there is no real reason to use a Mac for video editing anymore. At a basic level, the hardware is the same—and Macs, especially the Mac Pro, tend to lag behind PC technology by several months, with a limited selection of available hardware for your machine.

If you're worried about reliability and stability, then use a workstation-class PC instead of a desktop. And don't install anything unnecessary on the machine. There is a reason why professional video editors look to tier one machines instead of having the IT guy run down to Fry's and buy a bunch of components. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with doing that, especially if you're just starting out. But there comes a point where professionally-integrated systems should be a consideration, especially if you're moving into a lot of paid work.

Beyond the software you are using, there are two immediately relevant questions to be asked when discussing how to configure a system for video editing: what type of projects are you planning on editing, and what format will you be working in?

Storage

If you are just shooting video of your kid skateboarding on a consumer camera, you're likely to be editing long single takes. On the other hand, if you're editing a feature-length film, you'll be working with many relatively short takes, multiple takes of the exact same scene from different angles, and ten times the footage for the final running time of your film—in professional parlance, your shooting ratio. For documentary films, higher shooting ratios are common, even 16:1 or 18:1 (eighteen times more footage than the final running time) is not unheard of.

The format of your video is the next consideration. If you are shooting H.264 or AVCHD on a consumer, prosumer or professional camera, including most SLRs set up for filmmaking, then your data rate is going to be relatively low. On the other hand, if you are shooting 5K RAW video on a RED camera, the data rate is going to be comparatively huge.

FormatData Rule
H.264 (4.2, Main Profile)20 Mb/s
ProRes 10-bit 4:2:2 (1080 @ 24p)220 Mb/s
RED 2K RAW (@24p, 3:1 compression)202 Mb/s
BMD 2.4K RAW (@24p, 12-bit)960 Mb/s

Briefly, a look at the common video formats shows that you're going to need lots of drive bandwidth to directly edit the more professional formats. RAID arrays and even hardware RAID cards become advisable, as does working with proxies (lower-resolution, often more compressed copies of the video made specifically for editing purposes) instead of the full-resolution original formats.

CPU

All rendering takes place on the CPU. Alright, that was more true five years ago. Now, many pieces of video editing software (to varying degrees) use GPU acceleration to greatly increase speed. The more professional an application is, the more likely it is to leverage GPU-based parallelization. But that doesn't mean you should skimp on the CPU. Many third-party effects haven't yet been optimized for GPUs, and many more complex effects are not accelerated or only partially accelerated. For instance, in the popular Boris FX plug-in, some effects can be offloaded, while others use OpenGL. Most editing software responds well to additional CPU cores, and as a result more cores are preferable to higher clock rates. A caveat: most of the calculations for video rendering are floating-point math. And in most cases, the audio is calculated in floating-point as well. Sorry AMD fans. Those extra integer cores won't help much here. Memory bandwidth is another consideration. If you can make the jump to an LGA 2011-based CPU, even at the expense of frequency, do so.

Memory

Although video is streamed from disk, a system's memory is relevant to the size of the project that can be handled. We're not saying you need 32GB to edit your feature-length epic, but 8GB might not cut it and 4GB is out the window. Also, check the recommendations for your application and target project. Avid, in particular, has specific memory recommendations and requirements for different project types. If you're using Adobe products and have embedded After Effects projects and/or SpeedGrade color correction, expect the project to use additional RAM. Ultimately, memory bandwidth is more important than data rate (see CPU, above).

  • qubits
    software responds to more cores.. ok the i5 can be comparable with the high ipc to a fx 8-core but what the i5 lacks in comparison is in prime numbers and floating-point math.. no?
    Reply
  • qubits
    i decided to compare synthetics
    i5-4950 and fx-8350 score close in floating-point math and prime numbers but the i5 falls short with a overclock
    fx-8350 destroys i5-4950 in integer math, sse, compression, encryption, physics, and sorting
    i think the fx-8350 may get the job done a little better than the i5-4950 as a pure editing build but the i5-4950 would win to double as gaming and editing plus you got a i7 to upgrade to so after some thought on it i could back you on the suggestion but i dont think a fx-8350 is something to just cast aside as a option.
    Reply
  • CaedenV
    I came here to tear this apart, but am pleasantly surprised to find that this article is very well done and practical. About the only two nit-picky things I would point out is; that to do the actual editing you can do just fine (at least for 1080p editing) on the entry level with an i3 processor and onboard Intel graphics. Yes, you are not going to get much in-software acceleration for effects, and your export may take a little time, but it is more than enough power to import your clips, set your cuts and transitions, and export overnight effectively on the low end for those starting out. Certainly you would want to move up to an i5 with whatever GPU acceleration is supported by your software of choice ASAP (especially as your income comes to depend on it and rendering time begins to cap your income), but to say that it is required for an 'entry level' system is really underestimating what a modern i3 can do.

    The other little point is that I would never be able to suggest a single HDD even on the entry level. Your storage drive should at least have a RAID1, or you should have a nice fat USB3 external HDD or NAS of some sort to off-load video. Drives fail, it is just a fact of life. But drives are also cheap, and just about every board under the sun comes with a basic RAID controller. I would much rather spend $75 on a 2nd 2TB drive for the worry-free uptime that it brings to the table than $150 on a GPU that is going to have minimal impact on the editing process, and merely accelerate exports which are likely going to be done at the end of the day and are much less time sensitive (at least when starting out). Faster exports are a nice perk, but catastrophic drive failure is catastrophic.

    Still, great article, and full of great information that is sorely lacking in the forums.
    Reply
  • edwd2
    The Xeon E3-1231 V3 is priced at around $240 tray is the equivalent of an i7-4770 without the iGPU and is compatible with any LGA1150 motherboard. It games and renders better than both the non-k i5s and the FX-8350. It's really the best choice if you're looking for a balanced and reliable multipurpose work and gaming rig.
    Reply
  • Duckhunt
    You can get a phone now that is 4k.
    MEIZU MX4 16GB 4G LTE 20,4MP CAMERA 4K VIDEO
    Reply
  • Duckhunt
    I have a 4k smart tv.

    It is much better on my eyes.

    I am trying to say that 4k video on a phone has been done and you can upload it to the pc. Then we have folks talking about 1080p video editing? Are you kidding me?
    Reply
  • TheFluffyDog
    You dont need a 4k monitor to produce 4k content. When you zoom in on a 1/4 section of a frame on a 1080p monitor you will be seeing a 1/1 pixel ratio. Meaning, when you view the whole frame or the whole clip, you just won't see it how it will look, however you can still edit and render full 4k content.
    Reply
  • silverblue
    "Most editing software responds well to additional CPU cores, and as a result more cores are preferable to higher clock rates. A caveat: most of the calculations for video rendering are floating-point math. And in most cases, the audio is calculated in floating-point as well. Sorry AMD fans. Those extra integer cores won't help much here."

    The following results may not serve to prove your statement wrong, but will show that it's not a universal truth:

    http://www.anandtech.com/bench/CPU/1061
    http://www.anandtech.com/bench/CPU/54
    http://www.anandtech.com/bench/CPU/28

    There may be a question over the amount of power used for the work done, however.
    Reply
  • harley2ride
    It would have been nice to see a little more information. IE: Capture device recommendations, and a list of softwares would have been nice. Doing mostly my own videos and doing some for friends and family, I use an ADS PYRO AV/Link, and my softwares of choice are Pinnacle Studio Ultimate for simple stuff, and Sony Vegas Pro for stuff I want to look more professional.
    Reply
  • Demianra
    You can make a review for video editing of Windows vs OSX covering quality, performance and price?
    Reply