While it's always the situation that "there's never been a better time to get a new computer," this is more true than ever with the completion of the transition to 64-bit computing, widespread support for multi-core CPU (Central Processing Unit) and GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) acceleration, and major boosts in disk interface speeds. In addition, there's an even broader range of options for configuring a system to your particular needs, not only with dedicated editing workstations and cutting-edge desktop systems, but also with powerful laptops that really can support intensive video work.
Let's look at your options from several perspectives: the system, the trade-offs of cost and performance - processor vs. graphics accelerator, memory vs. hard drives.
The traditional answer for serious video editing is still a dedicated workstation system. These are engineered for performance, often with Xeon processors offering high-performance speed and cores, video acceleration from a professional-grade GPU, integrated high-performance hard drives, and more attention to system integration issues like heat dissipation.
These dedicated editing workstation systems are particularly appropriate for higher-end work such as compositing, effects, and 3D, as well as for working with higher resolutions such as from the RED camera.
On the other hand, today's mainstream processors like the Intel Core i5 and i7 can pack a powerful punch in mainstream desktop systems, allowing you to configure a system with impressive specifications while taking advantage of more commodity pricing.
And the power even extends to portable computing, as 64-bit laptop systems with high-end processors and GPUs allow you to take video editing off the desktop and on the road. For complex layered projects, you then can add a fast external disk drive like a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) storage array to provide the necessary bandwidth for processing multitudes of files.
One way to start thinking about configuring your video editing computer is to build up from the minimum requirements of your particular editing software. Products like Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5, Apple Final Cut Pro X, and Sony Vegas Pro 10 typically recommend at least a 2 GHz multi-core processor (e.g., Intel Core 2 Duo), 2 to 4 GB of RAM, a GPU-accelerated graphics card like the NVIDIA GeForce with at least 256 MB of internal memory, and a 7200 RPM hard drive for editing compressed video formats or RAID 0 for uncompressed.
That's a good start for even HD editing, but these companies also work with partners to recommend step-up systems for more advanced editing. Apple obviously is happy to offer Macintosh and MacBook systems; Adobe has Dell, HP, and Lenovo as hardware partners; and Sony highlights a selection of certified, pre-configured Supermicro workstations from around $4,000 to $7,000.
If you're doing more intensive editing, you can step up to a mid-range system for improved rendering speeds and real-time playback on the timeline. This might include a next-generation processor like the Core i5, quad cores for better multi-processing, redoubled memory at 4 to 8 GB, a more professional-grade GPU like the NVIDIA Quadro or AMD Radeon HD with more internal memory (512 MB to 1 GB), and higher-performance hard drives at 10,000 RPM / 3 Gbps.
While you can start with a pre-configured baseline system for your general editing needs, you still can tweak the components to best allocate your purchasing dollars to fit your specific editing projects, particularly the types of video material that you work with and the complexity of your editing timeline.
The key trade-offs for configuring your new video editing computer are the processor for doing the heavy lifting, the graphics accelerator (GPU) for speeding effects, local memory for working directly on sequences, and the disk drive for access to all the media files. The goal is to provide the right combination of hardware to assist your editing software in providing the best editing experience - with real-time playback of layered timelines, instant preview of edits and effects, and background rendering for export while you continue to work.
Your first priority with today's 64-bit software is to bulk up on the local memory to provide more elbow room to directly process sequences. This is particularly useful if you are working with many layers, tweaking a sophisticated effect like stabilization on a short clip, or moving beyond HD to work with film resolutions. More memory also allows you to keep all your applications open and available as you work, to move seamlessly between editing, effects, and rendering as with Adobe Dynamic Link, then bounce over to Photoshop to update a complex layered raw image, or just to check your email.
But if you typically edit native compressed formats like AVCHD (Advanced Video Coding High Definition), or encode your productions to multiple compressed formats, then a faster processor with more cores will help across a wide variety of tasks. This can not only speed up the processing across multiple formats, for example, but also allow you to continue to edit while your files are being compressed and exported in the background.
Or if you tend to have effects-heavy timelines with multiple tracks with multiple effects, then look to a more advanced graphics accelerator for real-time previews. The GPU also can help with rendering common formats like AVC (Advanced Video Coding), depending on the available support in your software. Or your favorite third-party effects collections may not be accelerated in this way, and instead would lean more heavily on the processor performance.
Accelerating the Hard Drive
While processer, memory, and GPU all help accelerate local video processing, working efficiently with multiple files and higher resolutions also requires efficiently moving the video frames from and to files on disk. Especially if you tend to composite many layers in your timelines, your hard drive not only needs to have the capacity to store all of your original, edited, and intermediate clips, but also requires the bandwidth to simultaneously deliver the frames from all the files for real-time playback. And again film resolutions will further push the hard drive requirements.
One developing answer for fast mass storage is the SSD (Solid State Drive), basically memory packaged as a hard drive, and often a good option for the main disk on a laptop system. But good old spinning magnetic disks still provide a much more cost-effective option for very large storage devices, as even portable drives pass 1TB in capacity. The limitation in accessing these drives has been the interface, particularly the external cabling to attach mass storage to your computer.
The familiar USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 formats offer convenient plug-and play interfaces with 480 and 800 Mbps (megabits per second) transfer rates. eSATA brings the internal SATA interface out of the box to offer another step in improvement, up to 3 Gbps for SATA 3G. And then the new USB 3.0 steps up to 5 Gbps, or around ten times faster than USB 2.0.
And now there's Thunderbolt, a new interface championed by Intel and released on new Apple products which provides 10 Gbps rates. Thunderbolt is based on PCI Express technology for data transfer and DisplayPort for displays, so it can be used to daisy-chain multiple high-speed devices without using a hub or switch, including external RAID arrays, video capture devices, and high-resolution displays. You also can connect legacy devices to Thunderbolt using adapters, including DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI, and VGA displays, USB and FireWire peripherals, and Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks.
So, as usual, there's never been a better time to step up to a new editing computer. The industry has completed the 64-bit transition, so you really can see major improvements in your workflow with the latest 64-bit software running with gigabytes of memory. Software also is taking better advantage of multi-core processors and GPUs for additional acceleration. Even better, all this in-memory performance now is better matched to external disk speeds with new technologies like USB 3.0, eSATA, and Thunderbolt. These even may well be worth waiting for if they're not yet available from your preferred system vendor.
So take the step by starting with a good baseline system, and then make sure to bulk up the right components for your editing needs so you can get the responsiveness that can make editing and experimenting a real joy.
Douglas Dixon covers digital media at Manifest-Tech.com.