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iMac Editing Workstation

January 23, 2014 - Dave Hecei
workstation There is no denying that the new Mac Pro is a powerhouse packed in a small black cylinder. There is also no denying that a well equipped new Pro configured for HD (or 4K) video editing will also set you back several thousands of dollars. After seeing some benchmarks and comparisons it seems the iMac 27 can stand it’s ground against the new Pro – at least the quad-core version. This makes it a great alternative to cost-conscious film and photo editors.

The computer alone does not make an editing station, whether it’s for film, video, or even photos. There are several other components necessary in creating a workstation. The most important of course is the software. All Macs come with an operating system, OS X, plus extra bits. A very well known app that has been included with every Mac for several years is iMovie, which has been recently updated to version 10.0.1. This update is both a blessing and a curse for those who love iMovie. Apple has reworked iMovie bringing it into the 64bit Intel era, along with companion versions for iPhone and iPad. This means that there are some new features and some missing, plus a few bugs and glitches thrown in for good measure. This will eventually work itself out, but for now, iMovie is still a good place to start for the budding editor.

For the more serious editor and/or filmmaker, Apple’s Final Cut Pro X is the way to go. It is a very serious app that is both fast and powerful. I won’t say that it’s super easy to use. But compared to the previous version, I believe it has much less of a learning curve. The thing to remember, any high-end app does require some effort to get the most out of it. If only I could buy a baby grand piano and just sit down and start playing it.

So we have an iMac with Final Cut Pro X installed, the next piece of equipment is a storage device. The iMac has its own storage where the operating system and applications are kept. The video clips to be edited should be stored on a fast external device. If you plan on editing HD video the storage device needs to read and write the data fast enough to keep up with the editing app. Editing SD (Standard Definition) video, usually from a miniDV camcorder has fairly minimal requirements. I know this since I used to edit this type of video on a G4 tower with a Firewire drive.

A single external drive can work for basic video editing, even HD, if it has the speed to keep up. There are three main things that dictate the speed of an external storage device. There is the speed of the drive, or drives, the speed of the interface, and the number of drives in the device. Up until recently, a hard drive has a spinning magnetic coated platter. Storage is going to flash memory, which is similar to the memory cards used in digital cameras. Flash storage has no moving parts inside so speeds can be many times that of spinning storage. The faster a platter can spin, the faster it can read and write data to it.

You can edit video using a single dedicated drive. This means that the drive must not be the boot drive. This drive needs to be big enough to hold all the video clips to be used in a project, but also enough free space to hold the transcoding and still have free space for temp files and such.

For HD editing, you will need a fast spinning large capacity external drive that also has a fast interface. The latest version of USB (USB 3.0) is pretty fast, much faster than USB 2.0 or Firewire. Even better is Thunderbolt. Of course Thunderbolt drives are much harder to find and are a bit more expensive. If you get the right Thunderbolt drive, the extra speed will make it more versatile down the road. Instead of going with spinning drives you could opt for external SSD storage. SSD is a more expensive alternative. The cost per GB is much higher than a spinning drive, but prices are dropping.

To get even more speed there are external drives that can use two or more drives tied together. This is commonly referred to as a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Drives). Depending on how many drives installed in the RAID, there are different modes available. The most common are RAID 0, 1, and 5. For a two-drive unit, RAID 0 is the fastest mode. It is also the most vulnerable. In RAID 0, two hard drives are tied together and appear as a large single drive. Two 3TB drives will mount on the iMac desktop as a 6TB drive. In use, data is written to both drives simultaneously thus doubling the speed. It isn’t exactly double but near enough on a good RAID device. The vulnerability of RAID 0 is if either drive fails, all data is lost. So don’t rely on a RAID 0 device as a backup, just as temporary working storage.

There are more ‘pro’ level RAID units out there that can contain four or more drives. This allows even more speed, or by using RAID 5, can usually recover from a single drive failure. In RAID 5, all drives are combined into a single large drive, but a small chunk is used on each drive for redundancy. If a single drive fails, it can be replaced (by a new identical drive) and the system will reconstruct the data lost on the failed drive. This extra redundancy does take more time to create as data is written to the drive making RAID 5 a bit slower. For some, this loss of speed is offset by reliability. For multiple drive RAID arrays, connecting by Thunderbolt is the best way to go.

The last two pieces sort of go together. I’m talking about a HDTV and interface box. This allows for previewing your work-in-progress on a real TV. This is useful in checking video quality – color, sharpness, and such. Pretty much any HDTV will work, but use a TV and not a monitor to get real-world previews. The interface box connects to the iMac and has HDMI output. Some boxes have both HDMI input and output. Capturing directly from the HDMI output of a camcorder should allow you to import uncompressed HD video. Some camcorders do allow for live HDMI output while recording. This trick means you can import uncompressed video directly to disk but still have video on memory cards (or tape) as a backup.

So let’s put together a couple different systems using an iMac – a low-end and a high-end.


iMac 21.5-inch 3.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, and Final Cut Pro X

Blackmagic Design Intensity Shuttle with Thunderbolt

G-Raid 4GB RAID 0 Dual-drive Storage System

Samsung 32-inch LCD LED HDTV

Canon 32GB VIXIA HF G20 Full HD Camcorder

Total ~ $4500



         iMac 27-inch 3.5GHz quad-core i7 with 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD, and Final Cut Pro X

Blackmagic Design Intensity Extreme HDMI and Analog Capture & Playback Device – Thunderbolt

Samsung 40-inch LCD LED HDTV

PROMISE Pegasus2 R4 8TB (4 by 2TB) Thunderbolt 2 RAID System

Canon XF100 HD Professional Camcorder

Total ~ $8200




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