Have you noticed that computer years are a lot like dog years? Just a few scant years back, computer-based video editing was a fringe activity reserved for production houses and those who could afford to be on the bleeding edge of technology. In what seems like the blink of an eye, editing systems are everywhere, from boardrooms to schoolrooms and even family rooms. In reality, this process has happened in predictable steps that mirror advances in the computer industry. Multi-gigahertz processors, larger hard drives and huge chunks of affordable memory have all contributed to the current state-of-the-art in desktop video editing.
But what if your computer isn’t exactly the fastest thing on the planet? Is there any point in trying to edit video with last year’s model? Absolutely! In fact, with some simple upgrades and tweaks, virtually any modern computer can edit video.
First Things First
Before we get started, let’s define "any modern computer." Your machine’s processor should have at least a 1.0 GHz processor from AMD or Intel. Your computer case should have at least one empty drive bay. As for operating systems, this article will focus on Windows machines, although much of the hardware advice applies to Macs too. And don’t even think of upgrading or tweaking your machine until it’s stable and running predictably under normal circumstances. This isn’t an article about how to fix your computer and we’re looking for a happy box with no serious issues. If you already have or are considering a specific piece of editing software, check the manufacturer’s minimum system requirements (which truly are minimums), but pay closer attention to their recommended system requirements.
More Storage Please
Most video editing software companies recommend one hard disk drive (HDD) for software and another drive for capturing and playing video files. This is not the way most computers come from the factory but, happily, it’s easy to remedy. Everyone from office supply stores to discount warehouse clubs carry hard drives today. Check the ad in Sunday’s paper and find a drive in the 80-120GB range. Somewhere on the box, you’ll see a rating for how fast the drive spins; 7,200 rpm is a minimum for video editing needs. In case you’re wondering, 80GB is roughly six hours of DV footage. That seems like a lot, but trust me, you’ll use every bit of it soon enough. Hard drive prices have fallen to the magic dollar-per-gigabyte range, but watch for rebates for even better deals.
Installing your new media HDD is fairly straightforward. Be certain to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, but basically, you bolt it in, hook up the power and the IDE controller cable. You will need to set some jumpers on the drive. Typically, there are three possible modes: Master (MA), Slave (SL) or Cable Select (CS). A simple jumper on the back of the drive sets the mode. See our diagram (Figure 1) for two possible setups with the jumper configuration. Be aware that this process can be frustrating and confusing, but it is a relatively safe procedure that will not destroy your computer if you get it wrong. Once installed and powered up, you’ll typically have to format the drive before you can capture video. Again, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and you should be fine, but this process might involve DOS if you are using Win98 or WinMe. Our only caution is that you make sure you know which drive is the new one and can distinguish it from your old drive before you format.
I Can’t Remember
As it goes with hard drives, the same is true of memory: more is better. Video editing is a resource hog and you will notice an instant performance increase with more memory. Most computers come with 256MB today. If possible, upgrade to 512MB or even 1GB. There are several types of memory, so perhaps the easiest way to get the right memory is to take your current memory out and bring it to the computer store when you buy. Installation is as simple as sliding the stick into the right slot and powering up your computer.
For $50 or less, you can upgrade your video card to one that can allow you to hook up two monitors, doubling the screen real estate available. The display card industry is driven by games, so you can often find a great dual-head display card that just won’t cut it for the latest games, but will be more than adequate for video editing. Just imagine having an extra screen available for toolbars, preview monitors and the timeline. It’s costs a little extra, but the convenience and improved efficiency are worth it.
Dirty Little Secrets
Windows is a complex operating system and there are often many small applications that can rob your computer of processing power. Turn off everything you don’t absolutely need. This means screen savers, instant messaging programs, firewall software, Kazaa, anti-virus software, everything. If you’re concerned about viruses or online intruders (and you should be), disconnect your computer from the Internet when you edit. You can re-enable the safety software after editing.
Windows 98, Me, 2000 and XP all have a secret little program that can make a huge difference in how cleanly your computer runs. Click the Start button, select Run, type "msconfig" and then click OK. On the right-hand side of the dialog box, you’ll see a tab marked Startup. This window has a bunch of checkboxes representing all of the programs that run in the background when you start your computer. It is safe to experiment and uncheck unfamiliar items to see what the effect is on your computer. If you turn off something you’d really rather have left on, just run msconfig again to restore it.
Make sure you have the latest drivers for your graphics card, sound card and capture card. Download and install the latest version of DirectX, too. This is a common source of errors on many computers.
A little cleanup and maintenance goes a long way. When you’re finished with a project and have everything archived, delete the project files and folders. Empty the recycle bin and then defrag your hard disks. This may take a while, since video files are huge and a lengthy project can generate mountains of temp files and other stray items.
If all these upgrades and tips sound a little overwhelming and you can’t tell a memory slot from an IDE channel, don’t worry. There are competent computer service centers in most areas that will be glad to do the upgrades for you, for a reasonable price, of course. It’s easier than ever to build and maintain a fine-tuned computer that loves to edit video, extending your computer’s life for at least another year.
[Sidebar: Caveat Emptor]
If you’re the least bit squeamish about performing any of the procedures outlined in this article, stop right now. Take two giant steps back and rethink your strategy. It’s also possible that opening the case to add or change hardware will void the warranty on a new computer. Check the manual or the manufacturer’s web site to see if your upgrades will affect the warranty status. And, finally, if your computer is stable and responsive, but just a little slow on rendering, we’d recommend that you don’t touch a thing. Rendering has always been a slow process and continues to be time consuming, even on the latest top-dollar 64-bit computers. Stability, on the other hand, is priceless.