I received a message the other day from a reader named Ron concerning an article I wrote – “Would it be too much to ask the specs on the machine you purchased? I’m trying to build a windows-based machine for Adobe CS 5.5 for editing some After Effect work and have no idea where to start.”
I wrote back and promised I’d write something this week about choosing a system. Ron, here you go.
One of my first pro-video jobs was working at a small mom-and-pop production company. One day I came in with a laptop that I had just bought. I wanted to write screenplays, play Civilization, and use my Doonesbury CDROM I had just gotten for my birthday. My boss looked at it and asked me to find him one like that. Young and naive, I went to a couple of electronics stores and found three or four pretty good laptops that fit his specifications. I went back and gave him a list of what I found. He took me with him when he bought one. He didn’t buy one on the list. Instead, he berated me for not choosing one with a sound card (back then soundcards for laptops were mostly PCMCIA add-on cards and not built-in) which was not on his list of specs, paid too much for one with toys he didn’t know how to use, and went on his way. The moral of this story – choosing a computer for someone else is like choosing a car or a house for someone else. Everyone is different. My likes and needs may not match up to yours. So instead fo saying buy system X, I’m going to share with you what you should consider as you shop for a system. On a personal note, I quit that job three months later. No loss.
Choosing a system can be daunting, as much by the homework as the actual expense. The wrong move and you’ve wasted a hefty chunk of change. It is possible to buy too much system for what you are doing, as it is possible to buy something woefully underpowered. So where do you go? Let’s go through the list.
1. Avid / Apple / Adobe / Autodesk / Other?
What kind of system do you want? I like Adobe. Bob likes Final Cut. Jill next suite over likes Avid. Susie across the hall uses Smoke. The artist down the street is planning on using a Linux system with Lightworks. None of us are right or wrong, just different. Look closely at the software. See if the software does what you want to do. It helps to take some training classes on it, or even watch online tutorials. If you live close to a major metropolitan city, someone will be able to demo the software for you.
Once you have down what you want to use, it’s time to look at the specs. Go to the software maker’s website and take a look at the specs. They all put up their requirements. For example, Avid puts up a list of systems, both Apple and Windows, they have checked for compatibility. So if you want an Avid system, you know which specific computer system to buy. Adobe keeps their tech requirements online. So does Apple. So does Autodesk. So does Sony for those who want a Vegas system. Adobe has a list of CUDA-enabled cards they have tested with CS 6, as well as the basic tech requirements for Creative Suite 6.
Look closely at the requirements. Most tech requirements show the bare minimum oommph a system needs in order to run. My rule of thumb is to always buy a bigger system than the tech requirements show, limited by your needs and your budget. If it says 4 gigs of RAM, I put in 8. If it says a dual-core processor, I go with four or six cores per processor. If it calls for a 512mb graphics card, spend a little more on a 1gb card. Your system should last you a long time. When putting it together think about your render times, how much hardware expansion you plan to eventually do, and how often you will use it. Make sure there is room to grow as your needs grow. My previous edit system before my current one lasted me several years. The one I have now I plan to have for several years.
A side note – please don’t pirate software. First off, it is theft. Second, developers deserve to get paid for the tools they make that we use. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
2. Mac or PC?
I know. It’s a simple question. If you are after a Final Cut Pro system or Autodesk Smoke, you have to go with Apple. If you are after Adobe or Avid, you have a choice. Both will do what you want. A lot depends on your comfort level. If you know Windows, you probably want to stick with Windows. If you know OS X, stay with Apple. If you have a like / dislike of one over another, go with it. Remember, this is your system.
3. Notebook or Desktop?
This is purely up to you. For years I worked with one-man-bands who had Avid laptops they’d take into the field and work with back at the station. I had a laptop I used in a live-truck, and stayed with networked desktops in my edit bay. Of the two, I prefer desktops. They are easier, for me, to upgrade. And I prefer having big screens to work with. Once again, this is all a matter of personal preference.
4. Turnkey / Big Box / DIY
This is the big question. Some people are just not techies. That’s where the turnkey system comes in. A turnkey system is one ready to go out of the box. The software is, in most cases, already pre-installed. The hardware is ready to go, hence the term turnkey. Set it up, turn it on, jump in. The downside is cost. Turnkey systems come at a premium – someone else is doing all the grunt-work. But if you are not technically inclined, this may be the way to go. There are several vendors out there for turnkey systems, both Apple and Windows-based, Avid and/or Adobe.
The next one down is a Big Box Retailer / Web solution. Go to a store or computer website, buy a computer, a monitor or two, a video card, how ever many extra hard-drives you need and possibly some extra RAM. Take it home, put it together, turn it on, install the software, etc. This is what I do. I feel perfectly comfortable adding RAM and drives to a computer, plugging in PCIe cards, and connecting cables. The other part of this is sales. Sometimes, when I’ve been shopping for a system, I’ve found a system on sale that exceeds my requirements for less money than I was budgeting for. My 6-core Asus was a sale computer one Sunday at a major Big Box retailer. I spent two hundred less on the computer and took that money and bought a much better video card than what I thought I’d be getting. This solution is just like anything else: don’t be afraid to comparison shop.
If you’re putting together a Windows solution, buy the computer brand you feel comfortable with. If brand Blank, which you have at work, always fries out Friday at 3:30, don’t buy that brand. If Brand Y has a killer warranty and all the expansion slots you need, go for it.
And finally, there is the true DIY solution. Buy each individual companent – motherboard, case, power supply, drives, video and audio cards, I/O cards, operating system, etc. Wait for the delivery man to show up with your shipment, and put it all together yourself. I have friends who do this. I don’t have the patience for it. The plus side is you can usually put it together yourself cheaper than a big box solution or a turnkey solution. You also can get more system for your buck that way. The downside is you need to be a bit of a techie to want to do this to yourself in the first place. If this is you, I tip my hat to you.
This is where a lot of money is needlessly blown. Ask yourself what you need, not what you want. I want four 60″ calibrated flat-screen video monitors hanging on the wall for color correction for clients. I need a small calibrated monitor next to the system for color correction for clients. I want an illuminated keyboard with a built-in touchpad, a separate control board for color correction, and a great big jog/shuttle wheel, a giant Wacom tablet, a Blackmagic design capture solution, and a Sony HDCam deck. I need a keyboard, a ShuttlePro, a mouse, a blackmagic design HDMI card for monitoring out of Adobe, and my aging Wacom 3 tablet that I’ve had forever.
But that’s me. You may need those 60″ flat-screens. Or that huge new Wacom tablet, which I’d love to have, or that keyboard with the shortcuts already printed on it. If you were doing professional color correction, a couple of grand on a control surface is just the cost of doing business. If your client come to you with tape after HDCam tape, you may be well-served buying the deck instead of renting it. It all depends on what is going to be your greatest return-on-investment. If it makes your cutting easier or brings in clients, it may be worth the money.
Owning and working with a system should be fun. If you’re not having fun, why do it? Speaking of having fun, I like writing about editing and effects. If you have any questions, or ideas for articles you’d like to see tackled, feel free to drop me a line.
Hope this helps, and happy cutting.