Beef it Up: Basic Hardware Requirements for Editing

It’s a very common set of questions readers ask us: “When I’m shopping for a video editing computer, what should I look for? Should I buy a Mac or a PC? What are the minimum system requirements for a desktop machine that can handle the rigors of nonlinear editing? How fast should the hard drive be? How much RAM do I need?” To handle these and other questions, we’ve put together a list of the most important issues to consider when building or purchasing a computer for video editing.

Mac or PC?

Some folks swear by Apple’s Macintosh platform and the OS X operating system for video editing; others insist on working only within the Windows universe. Before you assume you’re going to stick with your favorite platform, you should take a moment to leave behind your pride and prejudice and seriously consider what both platforms have to offer for your video editing chores. If you think it isn’t worth it to learn a new operating system at this point in your life, think again: it’s not that difficult, and there are some professional advantages to being OS-bilingual.

Windows aficionados who think Macs are too expensive should check out how the prices have come down recently. Mac users who think Windows machines are too quirky and difficult to operate should take a fresh look at the latest enhancements to the Windows XP interface. Pound for pound, the Windows machines can still be less expensive, but the Apple-based software still tends to set the bar for professional-level functionality (which of course the Windows software manufacturers are quick to successfully imitate). Confusing? Sure it is, but take another look before you decide for sure: you might be surprised how much things have changed on the Mac vs. PC battlefield recently.

What Type of CPU?

In general, the rule for video editing computers is “the more powerful, the better,” because faster and more efficient computers render fancy effects and titles faster. If the computer’s hardware is fast enough, it might even allow real-time effects that keep you working on your project instead of waiting for your effects to render. In both the Mac and the PC world, higher CPU clock speeds generally make for better performance; thus a 2.8 GHz chip is not as fast as, say, a 3.2 GHz chip. The latest, greatest chips might be the 64-bit, dual 2.7GHz powerPC G5 for the Mac or the 64-bit AMD Athlon 64 4000+ for Windows machines, but new releases change this all the time. If you’re editing HD material or film, then it would certainly pay to go for the most powerful processor available or perhaps even two paired together in a single machine. If you’re just planning to edit DV, however, then the premium price you pay for the fastest might break the price/performance barrier. There is no shame in having a second-fastest machine if the cost savings are high enough, and they usually are.

Motherboard Issues

There are a number of important things that differentiate motherboards in the desktop Windows marketplace, including bus speed, the type of CPU chip supported, and built-in support for sound, FireWire, graphics and RAID controllers. Inexpensive solutions usually have more built-in options directly on the motherboard, such as graphics and audio support. This level of integration can sometimes make these less-expensive systems more difficult to upgrade later. More expensive motherboards have faster bus speeds and support for larger amounts of RAM and peripherals via AGP video and PCI slots. For video editors, it’s once again best not to skimp on the raw processing power and upgradability of a system, especially if you plan to do high-resolution work or 3D graphics production. Often you don’t have a choice of a motherboard in a stock system, but you can be certain that eMachines use a cheaper motherboard than, say, Alienware does.

Hard Drives

Ideally, a video-editing computer should have the biggest, fastest and most reliable hard drives you can get your hands on for video storage and playback. The best systems keep the storage drives (for large audio and video files) separate from the main drive used to store the software that runs the machine. It’s possible, however, to do everything on one big drive. Just make sure that the drive you’re using is fast enough to handle the work you plan to give it and large enough so your video files don’t fill it up too quickly. For DV users, this means a good 80GB (or larger) 7,200 rpm drive. This is pretty common for most modern drives, but be warned to steer clear of 5,400 rpm models. For HD users and other high-definition projects, a RAID is a must.

To RAID or not to RAID?

A RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) is a way of combining two or more hard drives in a way that enhances reliability or performance or both. There are many types of RAIDs, but the type that video editors use most are RAID 0 (zero) arrays, which “stripe” information across multiple drives for maximum performance. When building a system from scratch, you should consider purchasing a motherboard with built-in RAID functionality, which allows you to construct your own RAID from a pair of identical hard drives. RAID 0 arrays are risky, since if you lose one drive, you’ll lose both. If you are careful to store your project files on another drive and keep careful batch capture lists, you can reconstruct projects in a few hours if a drive ever does fail. For DV users, a RAID might be overkill, but for those who do serious 3D animation, HD or film work, a RAID is a necessity.

RAM: How Much? What Kind?

The simple answers to these questions for video editors are: “a lot,” and “the fastest available.” In today’s machines, RAM speed can influence performance as much as a few hundred MHz in CPU speed. Older or bargain computers often make use of slower RAM, which can greatly hinder render and playback performance. Most brand-new video editing machines should have DDR or DDR2 RAM. As for quantity, 512 MB should be considered a minimum, with 2GB being a good place to maximize render speeds. Newer, next-generation machines boast 4GB capacities, but, once again, this is probably overkill except for the most demanding graphics applications.

The Case

Your case is more than just a box that holds all your hardware together, the computer’s case can make a big difference, especially for media production types who like access to front-mounted FireWire, audio and USB2 jacks. Some cases offer a nice hinged, flip-open construction to provide easy access to the motherboard when you’re installing or removing a card, a drive or a RAM module. Cheaper cases have lots of sharp edges to cut yourself on and sometimes have inadequate fans or power supplies.

If you’re building a system from the ground up, be sure to get a case that can handle the wattage of your motherboard: newer Pentium 4 systems, for example, require a 400 watt power supply to operate properly. Of course with a Mac, you automatically get a beautiful and almost silent case by default.

Decisions, Decisions

The good news is that just about any computer you buy in today’s marketplace has some capability for video editing. Free, powerful, easy-to-use editing software is available for all Windows XP and Mac OS X users. Furthermore, the hardware has advanced to the point where even the bargain-basement option on brand-new computers can probably handle simple DV editing–if you don’t mind waiting a while to render titles and effects, and if you don’t mind a lost frame or two here and there. Video professionals, however, should still seek the highest performance the industry has to offer, because higher-performance systems offer greater reliability, fewer crashes, less downtime and best of all, less time spent waiting for graphics to render.

Joe McCleskey is a multimedia producer and freelance writer.

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

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