Configure a 2017 iMac for Video Editing [u]

Posted on by Larry

[Updated March 11, 2018, to improve the references to my iMac Pro configuration report.]

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.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

If money is no object, buy the top of the line iMac. It will work great and you’ll have bragging rights over all the other systems.

But, 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.

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

YES, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE IMAC PRO?

Holy smokes! What a system.

This review covers the iMac. Click here to read about the iMac Pro.

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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161 Responses to Configure a 2017 iMac for Video Editing [u]

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  1. Rohan Jain says:

    I’m starting to get into light 4k editing with premiere and fcpx. I also do quite a bit of photoshop and web design If I get the base model 27 but 24gb of ram should I be ok

  2. Larry, thank you for this article! Your generosity with your time is invaluable for a lot of editors like me. I do have a question about older iMacs vs newer. There is a 2014 27″ iMac available for sale with specs:

    – 4.0GHz Intel Core i7
    – 32GB
    – 1TB SSD
    – AMD Radeon R9 M285X 4GB

    Would you buy this machine for $2000 or buy the new machine you recommended on this article? And why?

    Thank you.

    • Larry says:

      Oguz:

      This question is impossible to answer in the abstract, it all depends upon what type of video you are editing

      * SD? Not a problem.
      * HD? Probably not a problem
      * Multicam? Probably not a problem
      * 4K? Not sufficient
      * HDR? Not sufficient
      * Heavy effects work? Not sufficient

      You get the idea – lots of choices here. Also, be SURE that you budget for a second hard drive and, preferably a RAID. You’ll need lots of storage – more than the 1 TB SSD – for your system.

      Larry

      • Thank you for the quick reply Larry! You are right, I should have given you more details. I am editing 4K footage shot with C200 lately, some light RAW and slow motion as well. Not a ton of effects work.

        I ended up finding a great deal on B&H, ( https://www.bhphotovideo.com/bnh/controller/home?O=email&A=details&Q=&sku=1342560&is=REG ) with specs:

        3.8 GHz Intel Core i5 Quad-Core
        8GB of DDR4 RAM | 2TB Fusion Drive
        27″ 5120 x 2880 IPS Retina 5K Display
        AMD Radeon Pro 580 Graphics Card (8GB)

        And added 2 16gb aftermarket RAM so I will end up with 40gb RAM. All for $2,325

        This is a better machine than you recommended on this post at a better price! I am pretty stoked! Thank you again for your help!

        • Alexander says:

          Hello, I have exact the same machine (exept the RAM part. I went with 24 Gb for now).
          How is your experience with 4k editing? Do you edit from external SSD via thunderbolt or do you copy the footage on the fusion drive

          • Larry says:

            Alexander:

            24 GB of RAM should be fine.

            And, I always edit with media stored on an external RAID connected via Thunderbolt 2. I use the internal drive for the macOS, applications and whatever temp files the OS needs to create.

            Larry

  3. Ryan says:

    Hi Larry,

    I was just looking for a more recent opinion on the 27 inch Imac base model (with added RAM) for small premiere 4k projects (under 10min). I’ve seen a lot of posts about slow response times, maybe related to the Imac 5K display.

    Thanks,
    Ryan

    April 2018

    • Larry says:

      Ryan:

      I’m editing daily on a 27″ iMac with no problems. And, past work with a 5K 27″ iMac has also worked very well.

      I would not necessarily use it for RAW files, or HDR, but for 4K and HD I’ve found it to be quite acceptable.

      A lot depends upon the codecs and frame sizes you are editing.

      Larry

      • ryan says:

        Thanks for your reply Larry. Just to sure I was thinking of the current base model imac 27 inch 5K, 3.4GHz quad-core 7th-generation Intel Core i5 processor. You believe this would be fine (minus RAW and HDR) for 4k/HD smaller projects?

        Thanks again,
        Ryan

  4. Dustin Getzlaf says:

    Hi Larry,

    Great article. I’m not seeing my exact answer here based on the new machines. There is an i7 upgrade available for $240 CAD. Seems pretty cheap. But you have mentioned that GPU and RAM are most important. Would you do this upgrade? Or is it unlikely to effect video editing whatsoever… Keep in mind I do want future protection. If I’m shelling out 4 grand on a computer, I don’t want it to suck in 3 years.

    The new machines do come with the Radeon 580 Pro by default. Based on the above this is an awesome GPU that should be great for Final Cut. I will also likely take your advice in adding 32GB of memory myself and probably go with a 512 SSD for speed, moving my projects to an external drive for storage when completed.

    • Larry says:

      Dustin:

      It really depends upon what and how you are editing and how much money you have.

      If the CPU upgrade “seems really cheap,” then spend the money. GPU speed is most important these days, followed by RAM, followed by the CPU. However, that changes if you are editing 4K or larger images or multicam, which tax the CPU more. RAW and color grading stresses the GPU. Larger projects and analysis stress RAM. So, it varies.

      Be default, you need to assume that any computer you buy today will last four years. Technology changes will make today’s systems too sluggish. So, don’t think too long-term when buying a computer. If you can use it longer, great! But don’t plan on it.

      Larry

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