Nowadays, editors of different abilities and ambitions can put together an effective video editing computer at a fairly low cost. This story looks at some of the options you have in the current marketplace and examines what makes a video editing computer ideal for each type of editor.
Research Tech Specs
Many times, videographers need to start their computer search by first assessing their software needs. If you want a full-blown video editing software suite (e.g. Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas,) or a powerful editing system like Avid, you’ll want to check the technical specifications for details about what kind of hardware is required to run the software. If you don’t pay close attention to these details you may be returning your computer for the next step up in the product line. Always review the “recommended” specifications, too. Adhering to just the minimum requirements allows you to install the software, but the user experience may be poor because there won’t be enough system resources for the software to run smoothly.
Further adding to the complexity of your specifications, different video formats may require more robust hardware. Generally speaking, high definition video requires faster performing hard drives, significantly more RAM (in some cases at least 4 GB) and faster processor speeds. Be certain to consider what type of footage you’ll be editing. That can make a big difference in the end. Basic video editing applications (e.g., Microsoft MovieMaker, Apple iMovie, Adobe Premiere Elements) may not require as much resources to run, but processor speeds and plenty of RAM are still ideal to get the job done.
Editors who wish to relinquish their responsibilities of researching the technical specifications may find relief in providers of Turnkey Video Editing Workstations. There are a few companies in the marketplace that provide entry level and semi-professional video computers complete with the video editing applications pre-installed and pre-tested. These systems have been configured for the video editor in mind and have been typically built with more than the mere basic specifications. These systems are ideal for editors who do not have interest in configuring their own system, or perhaps don’t feel confident that they can marry the hardware with the software. The truth is that it can be a complicated ordeal setting up a system, even when you do all your research.
You will end up spending more money on a pre-built system, but it may be just the right fit for you. Typically, these companies offer reliable customer support and computer repair as well. That, too, may come in handy. Shops that put these systems together can be found all over the Internet by doing a Google search for “video editing workstation”. Also, Videomaker compiles an annual Workstations Buyer’s Guide, which is a good place to search for companies that make these systems. Many major computer manufacturers offer similar solutions, but they may not have the same level of experience when dealing with video editing sales and support questions.
Macs have long earned trust among video editors as being a very reliable and stable system for video editing. The iMac product-line has been a good fit for amateurs and students who need an all-in-one system (monitor and computer are one unit). These machines are not as powerful as the Mac Pro line but they usually are equipped to handle Final Cut Pro right out of the box.
The Mac Pro systems are workhorses that can chew through a lot of data processing with their quad core processing capabilities. Many professional video editing studios cut major films and TV shows with these systems. You’ll pay a pretty penny for a Mac Pro, but it may be worth it if you plan on attending film school or making a feature length film.
Of course, the other side of the Mac coin is that many people are not familiar with the Mac interface. It may take some getting use to if you’re new to the Mac OS. The price of the hardware, and the investment of time required to get acquainted, tends to scare off quite a few folks. Find an Apple Store and take one for a test drive. Most users know whether they love it or hate it within the first few minutes. Overall, many Mac users are loyal, happy users as their workstations perform admirably throughout the years with little to no down time.
Big Box Options
Computers from Big Box Retailers offer great savings and competitive performance marks, too. While you might not find the staff to be as knowledgeable, you’ll find a treasure trove of options and reasonable prices (you might even find yourself walking out the door with a free printer). Systems from commonplace computer manufacturers like HP, Sony Vaio, Gateway, Acer, Dell and others can be compared and contrasted right before one’s eyes. Be careful of the misinformed sales agent who assumes a good gaming computer will make a good video editing computer. It’s usually not the case.
What Makes a Good Video Editing Computer
We can take a look at some of the components that make a good editing computer to see what might be the best fit for you. Think about what type of content you’ll be editing, the type of editing you’ll be doing and if you want your editing computer to do more than just edit video.
Mobility: Work From Anywhere
Are you shooting documentaries? Are you shooting them in Brazil, then China and then off to Madrid? Consider a laptop if you need to take your editing work with you. A laptop can also double as a field video monitor too! Because they can follow you just about anywhere, and provide more help when you need it (booking travel, email etc.), laptops make great companions for the nomadic video editor. Of course, there are some drawbacks, such as limited screen sizes, quickly depleting battery life, risk of damage or theft and a limited capacity for upgrades and add-ons. There are lots of solutions and workarounds that allow laptops to do more, however, they all seem to be peripherals to the system. Next thing you know, you’ve got more equipment than a desktop.
Laptops also work well for folks who don’t want to meet clients at home or at the office. More often these days, business happens anywhere but the office. Consider a laptop if you want to be able to meet your clients anywhere, on the fly. It’s always nice to show your video on your laptop and make changes to the edits with the client right there.
Computers That Grow With You
Desktops are generally considered the more economical choice, as many of them are capable of scaling to your needs. You might not be editing 3D video today, but what about three years from now? Desktop components can easily be upgraded or replaced, making them much more useful as new video formats arise and software demands more resources from the computer.
Monitors: Eyes and Ears
It’s ideal if you’re going to do a lot of editing to have two good monitors working in unison, giving you plenty of screen real estate. Dual monitors are key in professional settings where time is money. Look for a computer that has a video card with two outputs that work together. Or, it’s not unlikely to have two separate video cards that work together. A lot of editors don’t want to spend the extra cash on a second monitor, but it’s incredibly convenient to edit video this way.
A good pair of speakers is also necessary for editing audio. Most computer speakers that ship with a computer are not adequate. These cheap speakers won’t reproduce quality audio and should not be used as a reference for making audio edits. If you can’t afford a good set of speakers (which are also called monitors in the professional audio world), then at least get a good pair of headphones and occasionally suffer with the cheap speakers when you have to.
As general rule of thumb, make sure your computer has plenty of USB 2.0 jacks. These are incredible useful for all sorts of devices – printers, scanners, digital cameras, camcorders, cell phones, hard drives, flash drives, mouse, keyboard, etc. These are all tools of the video editor and most of them connect via USB 2.0. One of the downsides of a laptop is that you usually have a limited supply of USB 2.0 jacks.
FireWire is a very common connection type for video editors. Make sure to have at least one FireWire 400 jack on your machine. Most modern camcorders use this jack to transfer video to and from the computer. FireWire 800, a faster connection, is also available, but you won’t find it on any camcorders. For the most part it’s only useful for connecting hard drives, but USB 2.0 tends to rule here.
Look for eSATA connectors for ultra high performance throughput with external hard drives. If you’re certain you’ll be adding external hard drives at some point, consider an eSATA jack for your machine. It works with many different hard drive housings and an increasing number of common hard drive models that emphasize high performance.
Also, look for HDMI inputs/outputs on your computer. This can be used as an alternative video capture input and also to connect a computer directly to an HDTV. This would be ideal for showing your work to a client.
Extra PCI slots are ideal for expanding your system, as well. You never know what new technology will be released, promising faster performance. Having some spare slots means that you can embrace these new technologies and make good use of the computer system you’ve purchased. It’s great to get as much out of your computer as you can, as we all know it won’t be long until it’s obsolete.
With speeds up to 400 MB/s, one of the great features of USB 3.0 is that a 25 GB file can be transferred in just 70 seconds. Essential when transferring large HD assets from one hard drive to another. Keep an eye out when buying your new editing suite, you might want to have at least one USB 3.0 port, if not several.
Adobe has let us know the new CS5 suite will be a 64-bit application only, we expect other software manufactures to soon follow. 64-bit provides optimized code, greater stability and more performance. It’s the most logical choice, especially when producing HD or higher-resolution content where the future of video is headed, perhaps even 3D. Good News, if you bought your PC after 2005, chances are it’s capable of running 64-bit software, if it’s not already. Find out more
Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who exhibits regularly and has written books on technology and photographic art.