Looking to edit 4K footage? Needing a bigger and better machine to handle all that data? Determining the best computer system to edit 4K footage is a bit more complicated than just looking at the system requirements of the editing software you want to use. You need to consider your whole post-production workflow to determine the minimum requirements for the work you're doing, not the minimum the software will run on.
To start off, you need to ask yourself some questions about your projects. What type of footage will you be editing: R3D, CinemaDNG, ProRes, XAVC S? How complex are your projects: single camera, multi-camera, animation, VFX? What are your output formats? How long do you have to deliver your edits? Finally, are you editing online or offline?
Offline Editing, Nothing to Do With the Web
Offline editing refers to editing a proxy of the original source footage; online editing is cutting the original material. If you don't have to deliver right away then you can edit offline. Offline editing can also be a good option if you're only delivering in HD.
Where offline editing takes more time and storage space, it allows you ease in editing your footage. It can help a less powerful system run more smoothly. If you’re working with minimal 4K footage and your final edit isn’t that long, like a short promo or a music video, offline editing may be a good option for you.
Digital footage formats vary from camera to camera. Recording format makes a huge difference in meeting what your editing system requires. If you're editing footage from 4K cameras like a JVC GY-HMQ10, Canon EOS-1D C or Sony FDR-AX1, then the demands aren’t much more than that of low compression HD because the bitrates are similar. However, if you're working with footage from RED cameras or Sony NEX-FS700, the raw 4K files have much higher bitrates requiring more storage and processing power. Editing raw 4K footage takes more horsepower and storage than compressed formats. Additionally, multi-camera edits, VFX, and tight deadlines typically require a much more powerful system.
The Speed You Need
We’ll break things down into two categories: offline editing (and limited online work) and online editing (a good entry level for multiple 4K streams, VFX and color grading at or near real-time). These specs are good for both PC and Mac since there isn’t much difference in the hardware.
Offline Editing: Intel Core i7 2.3GHz four-core
Online Editing: Dual Intel Xeon 2GHz six-core
Now that most editing software supports GPU rendering, CPU power is less important than it was in the past. Note: AMD processors are not listed because of the lack of support for PCIe 3.0 in most AMD motherboards, which hinders the performance of the latest GPUs. AMD processors can still be used but should be paired with a more powerful GPU.
GPU: Video Card
Offline Editing: NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M
Online Editing: Dual NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760M
Always check the compatibility of your editing software with your video card to ensure that GPU rendering and multiple GPUs are supported. A comparable, compatible AMD or NVIDIA GPU can also be used. The GeForce cards listed above are a baseline. While many GPUs have greater video rendering power than system CPUs and RAM, remember GPUs need enough power to drive your system display monitors in addition to rendering video.
When monitoring in 4K, you can improve system performance by taking some of the workload off your GPU by using a RED ROCKET card, Blackmagic Design’s DeckLink 4K Extreme or Matrox’s Mojito 4K. It's important to note that with the developments of REDCINE-X PRO, you can now use GPU rendering instead of needing a Red Rocket card for accelerated transcoding of R3D footage.
RAM – Memory
Offline Editing: 8GB RAM
Online Editing: 32GB RAM
RAM is relatively cheap so don't skimp here. Remember, when you're running RAM intensive programs like Adobe’s Photoshop or After Effects concurrently with your editing software, your RAM needs may increase.
Offline Editing: dedicated 7200rpm hard drive or SSD for media
Online Editing: dedicated 7200rpm hard drive or SSD for project files and a striped RAID array
Your storage needs depend on how much source footage you expect to be working with. Generally, your media storage should be three to four times the size of the source footage of a project. For example, if you're editing offline on a laptop, a 3TB USB 3.0 drive might be sufficient, but if you're doing an online edit of a four-camera shoot in 4K raw, you might need a 12TB RAID.
You want to ensure that any hard drive you use spins at 7200rpm or faster for a smooth data throughput. Additionally, by storing your media and project files on separate drives from your programs and operating system, you’ll see a boost in performance. Despite the recent hype about SSDs, not all SSDs are as fast as they claim to be. SSDs are a good replacement for boot drives and project drives, but not for raid array drives unless you need greater speed. In the long run, the cost per GB of hard drives is a more affordable solution.
For online editing of 4K, you need a striped RAID array of three disks or more to ensure data speed. You'll also need a hardware RAID controller as well. Beware of less expensive RAID controllers that are software based; these are slower and use your system CPU and RAM which hinders overall performance.
Whether you're doing offline or online editing, you'll want to look for a motherboard that supports all your current component needs while giving you space to expand. A good motherboard will have at least three to four PCIe x16 ports that can all be used at full speed for video cards, RAID cards and monitoring cards. ASUS, GIGABYTE and Supermicro make quality motherboards. Remember, most laptop motherboards don't support add-on cards.
Many on-board audio chipsets pick up noise from the motherboard, noise that can sometimes be heard when you move the mouse. Dedicated audio cards don’t always solve this problem; furthermore, they take up valuable space inside your computer. Instead, you can use an external sound card. For $100, you can get M-Audio's M-Track which combines an external sound card and a two channel mixer with two XLR inputs.
So What’s All This Going to Cost
You can purchase a properly equipped laptop to offline edit like the Dell Precision M6800, HP ZBook 17 or Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina Display for less than $3,500. Combine that with a 7200rpm USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt hard drive that costs around $150 and you're ready to edit offline. You could probably find a desktop solution for even less.
For online editing, you’ll need a custom configured or custom built system that tends to range from about $8,000 and up. There are many companies offering custom Macs and PCs for editing. HP has partnered with RED on the HP Z820 RED Edition which has built in RED card readers. Of course, if you're a little hardware savvy, you can build your own system and save thousands.
Your Software Can Make a Difference
Most editing software packages do not support all the codecs and file types used by 4K cameras. Right now Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Apple Final Cut Pro X are the top editing solutions that have native support for CinemaDNG. Sony Vegas Pro has the only native support for XAVC-S. REDCODE RAW (R3D) is supported by all 4K editing software including Lightworks and EDIUS Pro 7 although it seems to run best in Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro. Editing software updates are frequent and native support for camera files are usually a priority. Before you buy, check websites for updates to see what formats are supported.
If you’re planning to edit 4K with Avid Media Composer 7, it supports FrameFlex 4K, but note that you may not qualify for product support unless you work on an Avid certified system. This is something to keep in mind when considering system options.
Don’t Forget the Monitoring
If you're building a new 4K editing system, it’s easy to get consumed with GPUs and storage needs and forget about monitoring solutions. While you can continue to use HD computer monitors for your editing interface, it’s important to use a 4K external video monitor to watch the footage as you edit, particularly if you're mastering in 4K.
4K monitors are gradually becoming less expensive and for most editors, there are now some affordable solutions. Seiki Digital released its SE39UY04 39-inch UHD TV (3840x2160 resolution) which has a retail price of $599 and can be connected via HDMI. The SE39UY04's color reproduction is subpar making it poor choice for color monitoring; however, you can pair it with a lower resolution monitor with good color reproduction for your color correction work.
Dell announced three 4K monitors that reproduce 100 percent of the sRGB color space making them a good option for color grading. The Dell UltraSharp 32 Ultra HD Monitor (UP3214Q) retails for a hefty $3,500, where the UltraSharp 24 Ultra HD Monitor (UP2414Q) is $1,400. The Dell UltraSharp 28 Ultra HD Monitor (P2815Q) released earlier this year and retails for $700.
Protect Your Investment
Even if you're editing on a laptop, you can benefit from using an uninterrupted power supply with voltage monitoring and filtering. While your standard UPS only turns on when the power goes out, more advanced models include power filtering and under- and over-voltage protection. Low voltage can damage electronics just as easily as over voltage and is a common and costly problem.
Determining your 4K editing needs, both now and in the near future may take some time, but it will ensure that you purchase an editing system than can handle all the projects you'll be working on, the type of footage you'll be editing, and the length and complexity of the edits. Remember that minimum specs get minimum performance. Go above the minimums for optimal performance.
Building Your Own 4K Editing System for About $4k
Building your own editing system can be a little scary at first, but a DIY rig can save you thousands of dollars. If you need help, there are many tutorials and guides to computer construction online. Here is a list of parts with prices sourced from one online retailer, so it should be considered an average, knowing that with fluctuations in the market, you may find either greater or lesser prices.
CPUs: Dual Xeon 2GHz six-core - $819
CPU Cooler: CoolerMaster Hyper T4 (2) - $60
Motherboard: Supermicro MBD-X9DA7-O - $520
GPU: GIGABYTE GeForce GTX 760 4GB (2) - $600
RAM: Kingston 16GB DDR3 1600 ECC (2) - $360
Boot Drive - Kingston 240GB HyperX 3K SSD - $175
Project Drive - Kingston SSDNow V300 120GB SSD - $89
Media Drive - Seagate NAS HDD 2TB (6) - $720
Blu-ray Disc Drive: ASUS BW-12B1ST - $90
Case: Habey RPC-800 - $90
OS: Windows 7 Pro 64-bit - $140
Power Supply: Thermaltake Toughpower 1200W - $250
Cables and misc: $50
You could save a little money if you don’t need an 18TB RAID and can use fewer drives; however, at minimum you would need three drives striped (RAID 0) to have fast enough media storage for 4K. In addition to your computer, you'll need monitors, speakers, a UPS and any computer peripherals you don't already own. That could ultimately bring your cost up to approximately $6,500.
Odin Lindblom is an award-winning editor whose work includes film, commercials, and corporate video. Odin has been building his own editing systems for the past ten years.