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Good Foundation

March 19, 2013 - Dave Hecei

To build a sturdy home you need to have a solid foundation. Building a editing suite is a similar process. In the past this used to be a PowerMac and recently it was a Mac Pro. The current high-end Mac Pro 12-core system is still a good foundation, but it has not been updated for a few years. The new iMac can do almost as much as a Pro, but it can do a few things the Pro cannot.

First, the Pro has fallen behind in its chipset. This means that the Pro does not have built-in USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt. Both of these interfaces are now crucial for most video production. While there are not a plethora of Thunderbolt peripherals out there, there are some nice ones. While a 12-core Pro might process video a bit faster, the combination of the latest quad-core i7 and Apple’s new Fusion drive technology allows the iMac to do many things faster than the Pro. The 12-core Pro pricing starts at almost $4000, and when decked out with the fastest processors and video cards is over $7000.

The high-end 27-inch iMac starts out at a penny under $2000. Decked out with the fastest Core i7 processor and GeForce video card it comes in at around $2600. Unfortunately, Apple wants $600 to max out the RAM to 32GB. I’d get the base RAM and then buy the 32GB kit from Other World Computing, who sells it for only $230, and install it yourself. This way you get to keep the 8GB that the iMac ships with, which you can use in another computer or sell on EBay. Total cost of the decked out iMac, at this time, is $2830 (minus whatever you sell the extra RAM for). This is a bargain compared to a decked out Pro tower.

The specs for our build-to-order iMac are as follows: Built-in 27-inch high-resolution LED backlit LCD display, 3.4GHz Core i7 quad-core processor (Hyperthreaded with turbo boost up to 3.9GHz), 32GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 1TB Fusion hard drive (combination of spinning drive and SSD), nVidia GeForce GTX 680MX with 2GB GDDR5, your choice of Bluetooth mouse or trackpad, Bluetooth keyboard, Mac OS X Mountain Lion, and iLife 11. Ports include: AC power, headphone, SDXC memory card slot, 4 – USB 3.0, 2 – Thunderbolt, and Gigabit Ethernet.

While the new iMac is beautiful with its new super slim profile, it’s not perfect. Using an iMac for workstation class computing is a compromise. The first is the case is all but sealed and because of the new super thin edge design there is no internal optical drive. If you have need for a DVD or Blu-Ray burner you can always go with an external model connected via USB.

The fact that the new iMacs have USB 3.0 and two Thunderbolt ports does make some of this moot. Yes, the Pro has four internal bays for hard drives. Yes, the Pro has internal PCI-express slots to add cards. USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt both have very fast throughputs. I won’t promise that it’s as fast as an internal SATA bus, but it’s practically the same. If you were to use a RAID array connected to Thunderbolt, it is faster.

There are a couple of manufacturers that have come up with an external box for Thunderbolt that has PCI-E slots. You can now use most cards for a Pro with any Thunderbolt-based Mac. The only thing these boxes don’t do are graphics cards. The types of cards that do work are ones used for I/O (USB, Firewire, SATA, etc.), networking, audio capture/output, and video capture/output.

There are several external PCIE bus boxes out there. OWC, Sonnet, mLogic, and Magma are good. Along with external card expansion, there are a few Thunderbolt interface boxes coming. These are just smallish external boxes that have Thunderbolt inputs and outputs along with additional ports such as Firewire, USB 2.0/3.0, ESATA, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, VGA, DVI, and audio in/out.

As you can see, the iMac, or any Thunderbolt-based Mac is not as handicapped as they once were. The Pro tower is the granddaddy of all Macs and hopefully it will still go on with another update from Apple (someday soon?). But we are here to create an editing suite with the iMac. Something that is easily in the realm of possibilities today.


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