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Editing Hardware

6 minute read

The NLE is the most important piece of software for the editorial team, and so it largely dictates which hardware you’ll choose for peak performance. Editing effectively requires stability and performance between hardware and software.

Each NLE favors particular types of hardware, though there’s always a range, and the more you spend, the better performance you’ll get generally.

How can you choose the best hardware for your situation? It all starts with your NLE’s system requirements. Here are some requirements for frequently used NLEs (presented in alphabetical order):

Looking through them all, you’ll see some common threads.

Core Hardware

CPU (Central Processing Unit)

The first thing you’ll notice? These all run on Intel-branded hardware.

The next thing? The clock speed. More gigahertz translates almost directly to faster performance, but you also need to decide how many cores. Multiple cores allow you to run multiple operations simultaneously, but not all operations can be spread across multiple cores. Some tasks do a great job of making use of 6, 8 or 12 cores. Other tasks will only use one core, letting the rest sit idle.

Add to that the size of the CPU cache (again, higher numbers equals faster computing), and you can decide which combination is best for your budget.

Look for CPUs listed with these specifications:

  • 6th Generation Intel Core and newer: i5, i7, or i9.
  • Intel Xeon Workstation Family: E Series and W Series

Storage

A high-performance editing computer should always have at least two drives:

The system/boot drive – internal, where your operating system lives.

The media drive – internal or external, where your editing assets live.

The software application and support files for your NLE are stored on the system drive. Project files, Libraries, and editing assets are stored on the media drive. It’s important that these be separate because the software will often need to be reading from both locations simultaneously. If your project files and media files are on the same drive as your software and operating system, that will slow you down.

For peak performance, purchase a workstation with a SATA III solid state drive (SSD) for the system drive. When your operating system runs out of memory (RAM), it’ll use start using portions of your system drive instead of memory. This is called swap. The faster the system drive, the less you’ll notice when you’ve run out of RAM. (And you will).

Media drives are typically external drives (although a large enough internal drive can be partitioned to achieve some of the same benefits of an external drive). For peak performance, you’ll want to purchase a drive that has high sustained throughput and also has a fast connection (i.e. interface) on your workstation. If you buy a high-end SSD and connect it via USB 2, you’re wasting your money.

Memory (RAM)

Memory is often confused with storage, but they are very different things. Storage (hard drives and SSDs) is where you put your files. Memory, or Random Access Memory (RAM), is a temporary, high-speed staging area where a computer stores and retrieves calculated data. Once your computer turns off, the RAM is wiped clean.

So how much RAM do you need? In short: you can never have enough RAM.

Most Windows-based workstations have computer cases you can open up and upgrade later. Recent Apple offerings have become less and less user-upgradeable, which means that you need to predict how much RAM you’re going to need when you buy a Mac.

If you’re doing any kind of significant video processing, you’ll want as much as you can afford.

GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)

The GPU is a specialized tool that’s optimized for dealing with images, unlike the CPU which is a general-purpose tool.

GPU advancements have outpaced CPUs in so many respects that NLE developers have taken advantage of that extra horsepower to offload tasks once reserved for the CPU.

GPUs come in three flavors:

  1. 1
    Integrated
  2. 2
    Discrete
  3. 3
    External

Integrated GPUs are built into your workstation’s motherboard. It’s a budget-friendly option, and some NLE’s can competently perform on these. But if you know you’ll regularly work with full-resolution media or you’ll be doing any online or finishing work, you’ll need more power. Enter discrete and external GPUs.

Discrete and external GPUs are generally both more powerful and physically larger than integrated GPUs. A discrete GPU is inserted into an open slot in a desktop computer and thus cannot be added to a laptop. An external GPU connects via a cable and can be added to a laptop or desktop.

Just like with multi-core CPUs, it’s up to the software in question to take advantage of the GPU’s power. Playback or rendering functions that take advantage of these are commonly referred to as GPU-accelerated.

Just like CPUs, deciding on the right GPU will be a balance of expected performance to price point.

Displays

For most editors, the most important feature of a display (besides its size) is the ability to display accurate colors. If you’ve ever walked into a Best Buy or a Walmart and seen 10 different TVs playing the same demo loop, you’ll know that the same image can look vastly different on different displays.

Low-quality monitors can have strong color casts or may be unable to properly display colors at the ends of the visible spectrum. These can cause serious issues to an editor and are completely unusable for color correction.

These are some of the core factors to consider when searching for a high-quality display.

  • IPS (in-plane switching) and OLED are generally known for good viewing angles and accurate color and contrast reproduction
  • Good contrast ratio (ration between darkest darks and brightest brights)
  • High resolution as more projects are shot in 4K, 6K, 8K and higher.
  • Wide color gamut support (as wide as possible)

When correct color is absolutely essential to the final delivery (e.g. delivering media to a large distribution network like Netflix or Hulu, or to a broadcast channel with specific color specs), a professional monitor as well as a color calibrator will be used.

Additional Hardware

I/O Cards and Breakout Boxes

I/O cards and breakout boxes extend your computer’s capabilities for specific purposes. Those include:

  • Capturing and importing footage from an analog source, such as miniDV.
  • Receiving and recording audio from an external source, such as a microphone with an XLR connection.
  • Recording video and audio to an analog deliverable, such as Betacam SP.
  • Powering extra monitors.
  • Decoding raw footage more quickly (RED Rocket card)

Some NLE developers, like Avid and Blackmagic Design, sell cards or breakout boxes specifically designed for their software. Third-parties like AJA sell devices for use with multiple NLEs.

Speakers or Studio Monitors

Sound is an extremely important element of any video. Even if the project will be handed off to a professional sound mixer later on, it’s important for the editor to be able to monitor the sound accurately while editing.

Assuming you’re not working with audio beyond stereo sound, here’s what to look for in a proper set of speakers:

  • Size – how much physical space is available?
  • Active vs. passive – is the sound amplifier part of the speaker enclosure, or will you need a separate component to power the speakers?
  • Frequency range/response – what sonic range can these speakers reproduce?
  • Intended listening distance – are they designed for near, mid, or far listening distances? More than likely, you’ll choose speakers meant for near-field listening.

For best listening, form a triangle with your speakers, point both of them at your main sitting or standing position. You’ll be surprised how much you miss when they’re just facing forward.

Choosing hardware that’s the best fit for your day-to-day NLE will keep you focused on your story and not on IT. Those choices may also affect how much support is rendered by the vendor and fellow users when things go awry. So choose wisely, and you’ll keep that edit going at the speed of thought.

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