So Many Systems, So Little Time

What you need to know to choose the editing system that’s right for you

You’ve shot your video — now you need to edit and polish the final product. In other words, it’s time for an editing system! But what kind? What features do you need? How can you find one? That’s where this buyer’s guide comes in — keep reading and we’ll help you get the most editing bang for your buck.

Is It Dedicated?

Editing systems come in two basic flavors: PC/Mac-based or Dedicated. What’s the difference? The PC/Mac-based system is simply a regular computer optimized for video editing. This type of system can still do other tasks, such as word processing, internet interface or e-mail use.

A dedicated system (also known as an editing appliance or a stand-alone video editing system), on the other hand, isn’t so flexible. Instead, its sole focus is to edit video. While this may seem limiting, take a look at the benefits. No PC means no software or hardware conflicts, no viruses and no incompatibility problems. Dedicated editing systems are manufactured by Applied Magic, Edirol and MacroSystem.


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An editor might prefer a dedicated system if editing is all that’s needed, if ease of use is important and if future expandability isn’t a concern (although some dedicated systems allow for limited upgrades). An editor might choose a PC or Mac based solution if the system is needed for more than just editing or if they want the flexibility of changing their hardware/software configurations. (Consider, though, that a basic PC or Mac will almost always cost less out-the-door than an editing appliance.)

What’s The Difference?

Now to get down to the nitty-gritty — how do you differentiate one editing system from another? First, look at the processor(s). You don’t need the latest CPU for basic editing, but the more you want to avoid rendering and achieve real-time performance, the more you’ll want a speedier processor. Another way to ramp up system speed is by choosing a system with a HyperThreaded or dual-core processor.

Next, look at your storage needs. Because video can take up so much space (one minute of DV footage takes up approximately 220MB of hard disk space), bigger is always better. Evaluate how much video you’ll need to store on your system at one time then double that figure. Remember, there’s nothing worse than running out of storage room in the middle of a video project.

Lest you think that hard drive options are only about space, make sure you also look at drive types and configurations. Drive configuration options are usually either a single video drive or a RAID array (made up of multiple drives). Using a RAID 0 array (also known as a stripe set) spans your clips among multiple hard drives, which will increase your system’s sustained throughput. A RAID 5 array adds redundancy and fault-tolerance, at the expense of some raw disk capacity. If this extra speed or protection isn’t needed, choosing the single video drive will save you money!

As far as drive types go, Serial ATA is the newest, fastest version, but current models of the older Ultra ATA drives should have adequate data throughput for basic DV editing. If you’re planning on editing uncompressed SD or even compressed HD, look for drives with high sustained data rates, preferably in a RAID array.

There are three approaches to getting the editing system of your dreams. First, you can build it yourself, but this requires experience, patience and know-how that is beyond the scope of this article. Second, you can get an off-the-shelf computer to use as a foundation for your system, then you just add any software you need. Third, you can order your system from a system integrator that specializes in video editing machines. If you need to get editing in a hurry, this approach has some obvious advantages–especially if you find yourself needing support.

Be sure to take a hard look at the system’s warranty and tech support. Editing systems can fail, and unfortunately tend to do so at the most inopportune moments. Clarify with the salesperson what protection will be provided to you and what it will cost. You’ll never regret taking the extra effort to be safe.

Finding the Perfect Match

So what kinds of systems are available? You can narrow down the playing field by concentrating on features needed and available budget.

The Beginning Editor

(Price range: Up to $2,500)

Don’t have a big budget? Take heart, because today’s editing systems cost less and do more than ever before! For example, a typical off-the-shelf single-processor PC system with 1GB RAM, a 250GB Serial ATA video drive, DVD authoring capabilities, a FireWire port and one 17" LCD monitor can be yours for about a grand. A similarly equipped iMac would cost a bit more, but would fit comfortably in the same price range. (A Mac mini system would be less, but since the Mac mini uses a notebook hard drive, the largest capacity you can get is currently 80GB. You could add an external FireWire or USB 2.0 hard drive for a video drive.)

Intermediate Editor

(Price range: $2,500-$5,000)

As you move up in price, features such as dual processors and RAID drive configurations become available. A number of integrators offer these powerful yet modestly priced systems, which are available with your choice of AMD or Intel processors. Apple’s Power Mac G5 also fits into this category.

Semi-professional Editor

(Price range: $5,000-$10,000)

HD capability is finally within reach at this price point! The ProMax Cineform HD/HDV system provides you with the ability to edit with multiple HDV streams in real-time, as well as including an HDLink for HDV I/O. Core Microsystems sells the Edius SP for HDV system, which includes dual Xeon processors, 2GB of RAM, a 3-year warranty, and the ability to do such cool real-time tasks as HD/SD resolution conversion and mixed format editing of HD, HDV, DV and MPEG-2.

Ready to buy your system now? The options are wide open, so get that credit card out, fire up your Web browser and start shopping!

Julia Camenisch is a freelance video producer, and loves to daydream about buying bigger and better editing systems.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.