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What hardware do I need to edit on my computer?

Internet Filmmakers' FAQ

With the constant advances in computer power and the wide-spread availability of digital video formats, the entry bar for editing on a PC has dropped considerably lower than it once was. However, if you are interested in editing at a prosumer level, and let's face it, most independent filmmakers are, then rushing off to your local PC megastore and grabbing the cheapest box you can find will most-likely leave you with some disappointing results.

The type of PC you need to do effective editing largely depends on your preferred video format. In most cases if you want to edit DV then you have a wider range of options available to you, for generally less money. If on the other hand, you are looking to edit uncompressed or analogue video, or work in HD or non-DV formats (e.g. MPEG-2), then you will need to invest significantly more cash.

Either way, consider the following when planning your editing station:

Firewire Support
Aka IEEE 1394 (Sony callsit "iLink"). If you want to edit DV, your PC must have Firewire ports. Firewire was originally an Apple technology, but a large number of PC motherboards now come with Firewire onboard. If not, PCI Firewire cards are easy to come by and relatively cheap - you should be able to pick one up for under USD $50, and they are quick and easy to install. Make sure you pick a card which has been designated as "OHCI compliant" (most are), as you need this for the card to work with Windows. If possible, look for Firewire 800 which will provide you with faster transfer speeds. You should also check that your chosen firewire card is compliant with your editing software.

Hard Drives
The first consideration with hard drives for video editing is space. Video chews up disk space like it's going out of fashion (at the bottom end, DV/HDV will consume around 200 MB a minute; at the top end, uncompressed HD could be chewing up 8-10GB per minute). You need as much disk space as you can get your hands on, and this should be in the form of a completely separate drive (not just another partition on your OS drive). It is not recommended to edit on the same drive as your operating system.

The second consideration is the type of hard drive(s) you use for your editing. You want to be looking for drives which can offer a consistent transfer rate. Cheaper drives aren't suitable for video editing as they are unable to provide a consistent data transfer rate. In other words, these drives may be transferring at 10MB/sec one moment, but then drop back to 975K/sec when under a large load. This is death for video editing and will result in dropped frames and other unwanted artefacts in your images.

For your video drives you should be looking at SCSI (U180, U320, SAS), Firewire 800, or SATA II. Of course, faster drives tend to be more expensive (prohibitively so in the case of SCSI), but when it comes to hard drives it's very much a case of you get what you pay for. If you're budget-conscious, you should probably purse the SATA II route (opt for drives which the manufacturer says are suitable for "workstations"). Firewire drives will also be an option, but it's important to only consider drives which are specifically designated by the manufacturer as suitable for video editing (normally Firewire 800). SCSI, on the other hand, will give you rock-solid transfer rates and is worth investigating if you're planning on working with HD or uncompressed video. Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) is the new standard, with transfer speeds up to 6 GB/sec, but you might find that the slightly older (and therefore cheaper) U320 or U180 standards are still suitable for your needs, but the drives are often too small for today's demands. To run SCSI hard drives, most standard PCs require an appropriate controller card to be installed.

Finally, to give yourself maximum disk space you should consider configuring multiple drives into a RAID array. RAID allows you to create single volume across multiple disks, and can also significantly increase data transfer speeds (using Striped RAID-0 or RAID-5 configurations). Striped RAID-0 requires two or more disks and speeds up access times, but does not offer any redundancy (if one drive fails, the whole volume is corrupted). RAID-5 requires at least three disks, but offers redundancy as well as speed - if one drive fails, the remaining two will continue to function. The down side with RAID-5 is you will lose the equivalent of one drive's worth of space (when using a three-drive configuration). For super speed and redundancy, RAID-10 is the ideal option (which is RAID1+0), however you will lose the equivilent space of two drives. If you'd like to learn more about RAID, visit RAID Explained.

Processors & RAM
For prosumer DV editing, you should have at least a Pentium 4 or Athlon CPU (pretty old these days), and ideally at least 512MB of RAM. For HDV, get a dual-core processor (Intel Core 2 series) and at least 1GB of RAM (ideally 4GB+). For full HD and MPEG-2 editing, you'll need considerably more grunt so it's worth considering buying a custom-built workstation from companies like Dell (Precision) or IBM (Intellistation). For Macs, make sure you have an Intel-based one.

Operating System
Windows 7 (a non-"Home" edition), with all your drives formatted with NTFS (FAT32, Microsoft's older file system format has a 2GB file size limitation). If possible, you should opt for the 64-bit version of Windows 7. This will allow you to install more than 4GB of RAM (32-bit versions of Windows have a 4GB limit). If you have a Mac, the latest version of OSX is a given.

Graphics Card
Most modern graphics cards will do the job, so long as they have at least 128MB of onboard RAM and fully-support DirectDraw overlays and Open GL (for effects). However, if you are doing any moderately serious editing, you should also have a TV monitor attached to your system so that you can see your footage as it will finally appear (computer monitors tend to distort things a little), in which case you should consider a graphics card that supports multiple displays (aka "Dual Head", "Triple Head" etc). Manufacturers like Nvidia, Matrox and ATI produce multi-display cards. Nvidia's Quadro series cards are ideal for video editing.

Video Capture Cards
If your system meets most of the criteria set out in this answer, then you probably will not need an special video capture/editing cards to edit DV or HDV. However, there are other benefits of using proprietary capture cards, such as access to real-time effects, accelerated bus speeds for transferring data between cameras/VCRs and more. And if you want to edit analogue video, HD, or MPEG-2 then you will definitely need a suitable capture card.

Although many graphics cards offer "video in" functions, these are not suitable for digital video editing, since there is usually a ceiling on quality, and the codecs they use may not be the best for the job. Companies like Pinnacle Systems, Canopus, Matrox, and Black Magic Design make a range of video capture cards for different needs. If you are looking to do prosumer editing, then you should not be looking at the bottom of the range products from these companies.

The hardware in a laptop is often very different to that found in a desktop, and sacrifices in speed need to be made to enable portability and battery conservation. For example, a Pentium 4 1GHz laptop is considerably slower than a Pentium 4 1GHz desktop. Consequently, editing on laptops is a hit and miss affair. Be absolutely sure that the laptop you intend to buy will suit your needs before shelling out your cash. The best way to do this is to only consider laptops where the manufacturer has specifically stated that they are suitable for video editing.

PC vs Mac
Arguements could range for weeks on which is a better computer to buy, but in the end it boils down to one thing: your personal preference, Bill or Steve. People who tell you that "Macs are better for editing, better for graphics, industry standard etc" are living in the past and being manipulated by Apple's extremely clever marketing. These days the two platforms are completely and utterly on par, so it simply boils down to which one you feel more comfortable with and what software you want to run. Regardless of which route you decide to take, do not buy entry-level computers if you plan to do prosumer editing. For Macs this means no iMacs, for PCs this means anything from a computer megastore (unless the price-tag says USD $1,500 or more). Buy an Intel Mac if you are a Macophile, buy any system that is optimised for hard-core gaming (if you prefer PCs), or a custom workstation from companies like Dell (Precision) or IBM (Intellistation).

Further Research
This answer is not intended to provide you with a definitive route to building a kick-arse editing system, but rather to make you aware of key considerations you must make as part of your planning and ultimate purchases. You should do further research yourself to determine the most appropriate system configuration for your needs. We'd also recommend checking out the great system recommendations in the Desktop Video Handbook Online at Video Guys.

Answer by Benjamin Craig  |  Last updated 31-Mar-2011