It’s a pretty common question from folks getting into editing, and from those who are growing their aptitude in editing to determine the best possible configuration for a computer to use for this practice.
Operating System and Platform
Pick what you like and can afford. Both Windows and Macintosh machines exist with the horsepower to perform editing. Since the applications are for the most part identical when available on both platforms, only the User Interface is going to be a bit different. I use Macintosh computers but also have a Windows machine for training purposes, mostly because the keyboards differ. I won’t play the Mac vs PC game, because in the long term, we like what we like and so long as the machine delivers, that’s what matters.
Editing is going to need storage for two distinct things. The first is the application itself and in most cases the application will live on the boot volume. For this reason, if you can, choose an SSD or PCIe based storage system. I would recommend a minimum of 256GB, and go as large as you can afford in the machine. Spinning drives just cannot keep up and the software that we will be using is going to be big, and needs to load a lot of information and do so frequently from the volume where it is stored.
The second is where you are going to keep your files. This should not be on the boot volume, and your best bet is to use external storage. Speed matters here too, but in two distinct places. Most often we think of the disks, and in this case go SSD if you can afford it, if not go for the fastest spinning drive with the largest cache that you can afford. Some folks want a drive that is small and that can run off the power supplied through the computer interface. Others want the fastest drive and are willing to require AC power and have a larger disk. Whatever method you choose, there is no substitute for performance and capacit.
While you are getting that external drive, get two, because you are going to want a live backup of your files. Pair matching the drives is the cheapest route to doing so.
Another option for the storage of your files is an array. If you only have one computer, an array with a really fast Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C interface is a good choice, presuming that your computer has those interfaces. If you have more than one computer, consider a Network Attached Storage system that connects to your home network. I heartily recommend solutions from Synology. I have used several different options and Synology has been the most reliable, the most robust and has never given me any issues. I cannot say that for some others. Note that a NAS will depend on a fast home network, so wired connections may be preferable to wireless unless you have a very well managed and very fast wireless network and wireless cards that can support it. Many folks buy really fast wireless routers but don’t see a performance boost, because the wireless adapter in the computer is older and cannot keep up.
As fast as SSDs and PCIe storage is, the fastest storage is memory. The amount of memory you need is the maximum that you can afford and stuff into the machine, presuming that the operating system and applications are written well enough to leverage the memory available. This is not always so. At minimum for a stills editing machine, I would propose at least 8GB. For video editing, I would propose at least 16GB. If you have the option to put more memory in, do so. Manufacturers will always specify a minimum amount of memory. This is the number at which the program will start and probably not crash. It’s not enough. Double what the software developer says to be safe. Some software is very old and does not know how to use lots of memory efficiently, or is based on very old single user databases, but a lot of recently written applications do not have this baggage and more memory can really change performance.
None of us are getting any younger. Therefore the larger and better resolution the display the better. Whether you use a laptop or desktop, budget for a large screen to do your editing upon. At the time of writing, the 27” editing displays are quite economical. These are different from generic or gaming displays. You are not looking for super fast refresh, you are looking for a display capable of getting as close as possible to being able to show the full AdobeRGB gamut. You would also prefer a 10bit at minimum capable display. sRGB displays are everywhere and while you can get by. they are not adequate for really serious editing. particularly if you are going to be making large prints.
To each his or her own, but I advocate at least two displays. One for the work and one for the tool palettes and all the other stuff. Most software uses a modular palette layout so you can even customize your workspace to suit your own needs.
While on the subject of displays, a screen calibrator is not an option for good editing, it is a requirement. You would like a unit that is always connected and that monitors the ambient light so it can dynamically adjust the display as ambient brightness changes. A display that is too bright ends up with edits that are too dark. I hear all the time, that “it looked good on the screen, but the print is bad, it’s too dark”. The print is actually correct and shows you the edit that you have made, and if your prints are dark, it means that your screen is too bright. If the colours do not look correct, it means that the display is out, not the print. Many folks find it easy to blame the printer, when the problem is actually the display and all the spent paper, ink and fidgeting doesn’t correct the root cause. I recommend either the ColorMunki Display or the Spyder5Pro as good starting tools.
Some, but not all editing software takes advantage of the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) over the CPU for rendering. This pays you to go for the fastest and most capable graphics card available for your machine. Again, we are not building a gaming machine, although gaming cards can be fine if you are building a PC workstation. Look for at least 4GB of on card video memory and the fastest GPU that you can find. nVidia presently leads the charge in high performance video, but recent Macintoshes have been going with only AMD cards and MACos has dropped direct support for CUDA cards. This is annoying and there is no good customer reason to do so. The graphics card is of particular importance when you get into any real time rendering such as for video and for computer graphics such as Fusion or After Effects. Photoshop also leverages the GPU as do Premiere and Resolve. I am not ignoring Final Cut Pro X or Motion, but as they only run on Macintosh, they do not contribute to a really balanced conversation.
CPUs can be confusing. A CPU will have a clock speed, where faster typically means more performance, and a number of cores which allows for splitting applications across multiple cores for faster execution that combine onto a shared bus architecture. Some applications are written to leverage multiple cores, but many are not, so throwing cores at the problem may not make any difference at all in performance. Some recent tests with Adobe Lightroom show clock speed to be much more impactful than more cores. Other applications will leverage multiple cores more effectively. Go for the fastest CPU you can afford that has multiple cores. This puts you in the best place possible.
Every machine has at least a keyboard and a mouse. We need the keyboard, but may find a mouse or even a touchpad too laggy or imprecise for our work. Particularly for stills work, consider budgeting for a Wacom tablet. It will take you some time to get used to it, but once you do, it’s very difficult to work without one. If you are editing video, you may wish to look at a device like a Contour Shuttle Pro to make moving around in your timeline, a lot faster and easier, and if you are a colourist, look into one of the Blackmagic Design control panels. Working with colour wheels was never simpler nor more efficient than it is with one of these devices.
Network connectivity is an obvious requirement with at minimum high speed WiFi being built in. Some users prefer a wired network connection capability if the infrastructure exists. Wired is faster than wireless in most cases and a better choice if you are using Network Attached Storage.
You are also going to need connectivity to peripheral devices. You will want to ensure that you have the latest iteration of Bluetooth for connection to keyboards, mice, phones and the like. Bluetooth for storage is too slow, but can be used to simply making a higher speed wireless connection.
Accessory ports are also critical, particularly as some makers find ports "offensive to the eye", ie Apple and limit the number and availability. As I write this, USB-C and USB-3 are industry standards. Thunderbolt 3 is an excellent interface but has not seen widespread use outside of Apple as of writing. If you have a newer Mac that has ports limited to Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C, you will likely need a collection of port adapters, commonly known as dongles so you can use existing tech on the newer machine. Dongles are annoying, space consuming and give you one more thing to become disconnected. They're also the only way to make connections from older tech such as VGA based projectors or DVI-D monitors to a new computer. Plan ahead so you don't find yourself disconnected in the last couple of inches.
Video editing and graphics applications tend to work with very large temporary files and are served for this by what they call scratch disks. The default scratch is your boot drive. If you can, you are best to set the scratch as a dedicated high speed SSD on a high speed interface. It’s amazing how much of a difference this can make when rendering.
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