Configure a 2017 iMac for Video Editing

Posted on by Larry

At their WWDC, in June, 2017, Apple announced and released new iMac computers, designed to meet the needs of professionals. These new systems sport a variety of very exciting features. However, if you are on a budget, how do you determine where to spend your money?

This article is designed to help you make more informed choices when you don’t have a lot of money to spend.

NOTE: I have not purchased any of these systems. My recommendations are based on past experience, current system specs and talking with informed individuals.

ALSO: Here are two other configuration articles you may find useful:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

If money is no object, buy the top of the line. It will work great and you will have bragging rights over everyone else.

If money IS an object, then you need to make trade-offs, balancing the performance you need with the money you have. However, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a system today that can meet your editing needs for the next several years.

NOTE: If you are looking for a laptop, here’s an article that discusses how to configure a 2016 or 2017 MacBook Pro laptop for video editing.

YES, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE IMAC PRO?

Holy smokes! What a system. However, it isn’t shipping yet. Not till December, in fact. If you need to get work done today, you’ll need something that’s shipping now to meet your needs.

I’m looking forward to testing the new system. Right now, though, I need to pay the bills.

YES, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MAC PRO?

Given the latest iMac releases, there are very, very few reasons to purchase a Mac Pro right now; especially given its price. Keep in mind, however, that Apple has already announced they are working on a new, top-of-the-line Mac Pro which will ship sometime after 2017.

Given what Apple has announced for the iMac Pro, however, that upcoming Mac Pro will need to be a true screamer to compete. I’m looking forward to seeing what Apple creates – but, as I mentioned earlier, I still need to pay my bills today.

And that leads us directly to the latest updates to the iMac.

WHAT SIZE SCREEN?

Both Final Cut Pro X and Premiere interfaces work best on larger screens. This is not to say they work poorly on smaller screens, but both of these display a LOT of elements on screen. More screen room is MUCH better.

I recommend a 27″ display. Plus, all the new 27″ iMacs now share the same 5K Retina Display.

NOTE: One of my iMacs is an older 5K iMac. I’ve discovered, that while seeing a 5K image is nice, the on-screen text is often very hard to read. So I’ve lowered the screen resolution using System Preferences to make the text larger. I prefer to easily read the text to seeing every pixel in my image.

However, if the purpose of the new system is video compression, you don’t need the bigger screen size. In which case, you can save money and improve performance with a 21″ system.

NOTE: Both H.264 and the up-coming H.265 video codecs are hardware-accelerated in all the new hardware. While this won’t help when transcoding into ProRes, hardware-acceleration will significantly speed compressing files for the web.

WHAT SPEED CPU?

All new iMacs have moved up to Kaby Lake processors from Intel. Based upon the reviews I’m reading, these new processors are at least 20% faster than the older systems. Also, don’t worry that these processors are i5 as opposed to the older i7. These are from two different families, so the numbers won’t match.

While CPU speed is important, it is not critical for video editing; remember, iMacs that were current as recently as last month, were easily able to edit almost all forms of SD, HD, and 4K media.

Any of the processors in any of the new iMacs will be fine for video or audio editing.

HOW MUCH STORAGE?

I really like that Apple has put Fusion drives into all but two of their iMacs. I own two iMacs with Fusion drives and I remain very impressed with these systems. They are an excellent balance between the speed of an SSD with the storage capacity of spinning media.

Keep in mind that the SSD portion of a Fusion drive is only a part of the total storage. For example, the 1 TB Fusion uses a 32 GB SSD, while the 2 and 3 TB Fusion drives use a 128 GB SSD. The OS watches what you do and moves files onto the SSD based upon what you are using most. Which means that a Fusion drive works fastest with files you access over and over.

NOTE: Here is an updated article on storage speeds and media requirements that explains the load your storage system needs to carry.

If you want maximum performance AND you plan to store media on an external drive, get the 512 GB SSD. All the files in macOS will take less than 30 GB, leaving plenty of room for working files and immediate storage.

If you want an excellent balance between performance, price and capacity, stay with the 1 TB Fusion drive. Again, store media externally.

If you don’t plan to purchase external storage – and you will, you just don’t know it yet – get the 3 TB Fusion drive. (An extra TB for $100 makes this a better value than the 2 TB Fusion drive.)

One of my systems has a 3 TB Fusion drive. Currently, I’m using 600 GB of it. The rest is sitting around idle. When using external storage, you really don’t need lots of internal storage.

If you just want maximum performance from your storage, get the 1 TB SSD. It’s pricey, but it’s speed will make you giggle.

Apple notes: “For the best performance, iMac systems with 32GB or more of memory should be configured with a 2TB or larger Fusion Drive or all-SSD storage.”

NOTE: Apple’s marketing materials now define a terabyte as one trillion bytes. This means that when a disk is formatted, its storage capacity will be less than 1 TB because of the differences between how marketing and engineering calculate disk sizes.

WHICH GPU?

Configuring the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is now done when you pick the initial iMac, rather than as a build-to-order option within each iMac family. So, much though I would like to pick the mid-range system and add a high-end GPU into it, we no longer have that option.

Which is a shame. Because we don’t need the high-end CPU system for most video editing, but we would significantly benefit from the high-end 580 GPU in any system.

Both Final Cut and Premiere are increasingly using the GPU for most editing tasks, because the GPU is much faster than the CPU at rendering bitmapped images. Therefore, the best choice is the high-end GPU. The high-end GPU also includes 8 GB of video memory (VRAM).

However, the mid-range system with the Radeon Pro 575 is a perfectly adequate choice.

NOTE: The difference between the 575 and 580 is performance. The 575 has a peak performance of 4.5 Teraflops, while the 580 supports up to 5.5 Tflops. Both will handle video just fine. All of the Radeon chips support OpenCL and Apple’s Metal and up-coming Metal 2 GPU computing API.

Here’s a link to learn more about Radeon’s GPU chips.

NOTE: Again, if you are principally doing video compression, the GPU speed is less important than the CPU speed. So, compressionists don’t need as high-performance a GPU as an editor.

HOW MUCH RAM?

Both Final Cut and Premiere will use as much RAM as you can afford.

Based on my tests with the 2016 MacBook Pro, I recommend a minimum of 16 GB of RAM, though, all my systems here have 32 GB. Again, if you have the money, max out the RAM. However, you probably won’t notice a performance difference in most projects running 32 GB of RAM.

HOW MUCH SHOULD I SPEND?

You are going to be using this computer for four years. Spend what you can afford, but don’t be stingy in areas that matter: GPU and RAM.

All the base systems are fine, But, depending upon your needs, you can tweak the configurations to better match what you want the systems to do. All systems feature wireless mice and keyboards; though, in my office, I prefer my mice and keyboards wired.

NOTE: Apple has not yet delivered the Touch Bar on any stand-alone keyboards.

If it were my money and I was doing video editing on a budget, here’s what I would get:

Total: $2,599

However, I wish that Apple made the Radeon 580 available on the mid-range unit.

If it were my money and I was doing video compression, here’s what I would get. Keep in mind that the GPU is slower than those in the 27″ iMac.

Total: $2,099

As always, I’m interested in your opinions.


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119 Responses to Configure a 2017 iMac for Video Editing

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  1. Luciano Manoel says:

    Oi, Larry, atualmente ja trabalho com 4K em um Imac 21.5 2,9Ghz Intel Core i5 8GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650 512mb com hd SSD de 256, apenas para sistema pois meu armazenamento e edição é tudo via Thunderbolt externo.
    Comprei o novo MacPro mas tive uma decepção muito grande pois em nada me adiantou em velocidade de renderização e acabei ja vendendo ele. Como meus arquivos são todos de eventos sociais de casamentos e uma grande quantidade de arquivos, trabalhando no Final Cut X, o novo Imac que preciso teria que ter uma melhor e mais rápida renderização em segundo plano, pois gostamos de ver tudo em real, sem proxy.
    A partir dai qual a melhor maquina seria então? Preocupar com o CPU ou GPU?

    • Larry says:

      Luciano:

      “As my files are all from wedding social events and a lot of files working on Final Cut X, the new Imac I need would have to have better and faster rendering in the background as we like to see everything in real, without proxy. From what then would the best machine be? Worry about the CPU or GPU?”

      In FCP X, rendering is GPU based, while video compression is CPU based. Given that you are using an i5 iMac now, the new 10-core iMac Pro would be a big step up. BUT – wait a bit after Apple releases the machine before buying it. Let’s read the reviews and evaluate its strengths before spending money.

      Larry

  2. Ty says:

    Larry, Would the higher end specs you listed apply to GH5 10 bit 4k footage? I am about to make the jump to get the camera but I also need a system that can handle it. If not, what specs would you suggest upgrading? Computer specs aren’t my strongsuit, thanks!

    • Larry says:

      Ty:

      in terms of a computer, these specs are fine. What you’ll discover, though is that your file storage will dramatically increase – probably 10x more than typical HD projects.

      So, budget to buy larger and faster storage in the near future.

      Larry

  3. Hi Larry, thanks for the info about fc10.4. I am planning to buy the new Imac Pro soon, which I will mostly use for Finalcut, which I now use in HD format and 4k video’s with quite some effects and colorgrading. I am unsure to about the specs I should get; I understand (from an earkier article you wrote)I should get the faster video card but is 8 cores going to be enough or should I go for the 10 core and how much ram do I really need because the difference between 32 and 64 is nearly a thousand euro’s.
    regards,
    Steve

    • Larry says:

      Steve:

      I have not personally tested the new iMac Pro but here are my thoughts, based upon my experience with both FCP X and iMacs in general.

      * While more RAM is always helpful, 32 GB should be more than ample for most editing operations. An easy way to see how your current computer is using RAM is to run Activity Monitor as you are editing and watch the Memory tab. If the Swap value goes over 0, that means you are exceeding your current RAM levels by using your hard disk as an auxiliary memory.

      * The complexity of your video codec will determine how valuable cores are. Again, I have not tested the iMac Pro, but I would expect 8 or 10 cores to be more than adequate for video editing. Video editing, unlike massive architectural modeling or 3D design is not CPU intensive.

      Larry

  4. Tyse says:

    Hey Larry,

    I’m about to order the iMac Pro, maxed GPU & 64GB RAM. I’m just finding it hard to justify jumping to 10 core over the 8. I run FCP & for 4K footage, using proxies. Mainly want fluent scrubbing & fastest transcoding & exporting. Do you think the $800 upgrade will become worthwhile within 4 years?

  5. ABDUL RAHEEM MELETHIL says:

    Hi Larry,

    I’m about to ordewr 27″IMac with retina 5k display, 4.2GHz, InteGb)l core i7, 32GB RAM, 2TB fusion Drive and AMD Readeo Pro 580(8GB).Your opinion please.

    • Larry says:

      Abdul:

      (Smile…) Your question is impossible to answer unless you ALSO tell me what you want to do with it.

      For example, a Porsche is a great car, but not for driving 20 kids to school.

      Larry

  6. Mendi says:

    Hi Larry,

    Just discovered your place (looks great) finding out about what iMac to buy. I’ve been for a year making videos, mainly 4k half-hobby, half-pro and decided to give a step forward for the pro-only. Would use it with FCP X (also would use Lightroon and Photoshop). My videos are 3 to 20 minutes long. I am looking for an iMac 27″ i7 32Gb RAM 1 Tb SSD Radeon Pro 580… Would those specs fit as the machine that I would need or maybe are they too high? For those specs, would be worth the basic iMac Pro? I am thinking not only in today but in a 4-5 years of use period. Thanks for you time. Mendi.

    • Larry says:

      Mendi:

      The key question is what codecs and image size you are using. In general for all HD editing, your system is fine. For 4K editing, your system will be fine until you get to editing RAW or LOG-C footage, in which case you will need bigger and faster storage.

      Larry

      • Mendi says:

        Thanks so much for your answer Larry. When you say bigger an faster storage for RAW and LOG-C, which specs are you thinking in based on the actual iMac and iMac pro options? Have a nice day. M.

      • Mendi says:

        Thanks so much for your answer Larry. When you say bigger an faster storage for RAW and LOG-C, which specs are you thinking in based on the actual iMac and iMac pro options available?

        • Larry says:

          Mendi:

          Smile… How long is a piece of string?

          Bigger and faster because shooting RAW or Log-C files will be anywhere from 4 to 16 times bigger than an HD image. So, you’ll need something bigger to hold these larger files and faster because the bandwidth needs will skyrocket.

          The specific answer depends upon:
          * The codec you are shooting
          * Frame size
          * Frame rate
          * Bit depth
          * Total hours shot per project
          * Number of projects you need to store at one time

          In almost all cases, an internal SSD drive will not be big enough to hold these files.

          Larry

          • Mendi says:

            Hi Larry.

            So clear. Thanks. Will check what I need and will definetely consider a membership to the page.

            Mendi

  7. Rodolfo Martins says:

    Hi Larry,

    I just ordered an iMac 27, i5 3.4Ghz, 512SSD, 16Gb Ram, radeon pro 570. I will be using manly for audio (it seems i7 makes much noise because of the heat and computer fan and I also do voice overs…) and video editing with Final cut and Premiere. i am not working with 4k, just FHD.

    After reading differences between this computer and iMac mid level (i5 3.5, radion pro 575) I am now wondering if it is not better to cancel this order and upgrade for the mid leve iMac. Money is a concern. The difference is 140€ more. Is it worth to order the mid level specially for the better graphic card? Or do you think I’ll be just fine with the one I already order?

    Thank you so much.

    Cheers!

    • Larry says:

      Rodolfo:

      Seeing that:
      * Money is a concern
      * You are principally using the computer for audio
      * You are working with HD
      * You don’t mention you are doing lots of effects

      Then you should be fine with the system you have. Graphics cards have almost no impact on audio.

      Larry

  8. Rodolfo Martins says:

    Thanks for the fast reply, Larry!

    Well, audio and video editing as well. The video effects I’ll be using will be colour correction and simple transitions. I also use Photoshop.

    For video editing and Photoshop will the radeon Pro 575 be a huge improvement or just a small improvement?

    I am still waiting for the computer to come, so I can cancel and upgrade the order,

    Thank you so much.

    Rodolfo

    • Larry says:

      Rodolfo:

      The answer is, “it depends.”

      It depends upon your deadlines and how much time you have. The tradeoff between the two GPUs is speed. Any application will function smoothly with either system. But things like rendering and exporting may go a bit faster.

      How much is “a bit?” Well, it depends. It depends upon the effects you use, the codec you use, frame size, frame rate… too many variables to have an easy answer.

      Again, audio will be fine. If your deadlines are not extremely tight, if you have time to export, stay with the less expensive system. If saving time is more important than saving money, then trade up.

      Larry

  9. Great article I’m looking into a new iMac 2017. I like to get the i7 iMac but I read about the fan noise. I use Adobe suite but mainly photoshop mainly & illustrator, but I like to get into premiere pro & after effects more. Which processor would you say i5 or i7?

    • Larry says:

      Paul:

      First, for Photoshop or Illustrator, the i5 or the i7 won’t make much difference. You’ll spend far more time pondering what to draw next than the processor will in executing it.

      Premiere and After Effects will benefit from the i7, but even more with a faster GPU.

      And, as for fan noise, I own one of the new i7s and it hasn’t troubled me. Then, again, I may not be pushing it hard enough.

      Larry

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