Configure a 2019 iMac for Video Editing [u]

Posted on by Larry

[ Update: On March 19, 2019, Apple released updates to both 21.5″ and 27″ iMacs. These new systems feature improved CPU and GPU options, though the display and storage remain the same as earlier versions. I’ve reflected these new options in my recommendations below. ]

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 in 2019.

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?

UPDATE Intel’s latest 8th-gen and 9th-gen Core processors, including up to a 3.2GHz six-core 8th-gen Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.6GHz for the 21.5-inch 4K iMac and up to a 3.6GHz eight-core 9th-gen Core i9 with Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz for the 27-inch 5K iMac.

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.

UPDATE: The choice in the 21.5″ iMac is between i5 and i7. The i7 is worth the money because of its support for multi-threading. The choice in the 27″ iMac is harder: between i5 and i9, because it’s a $500 differential. Unlike the i5, the i9 supports multithreading. If you are doing multicam, 4K or HDR editing, or lots of video compression, the i9 is worth the money.

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 while we don’t need the high-end CPU system for most video editing, 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 575X is a perfectly adequate choice.

NOTE: The difference between the 575X and 580X is performance. The 575X has a peak performance of about 4.5 Teraflops, while the 580X 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.

UPDATE: When looking at GPU performance, use the specs for Metal or Metal II. OpenCL will not be supported going forward. Also, while eGPUs are attractive, I don’t see them, yet, as a big enough benefit for iMacs. eGPUs are principally designed for laptops.

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, 32 GB of RAM will be sufficient for virtually all projects.

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: $2,499 (you’ll still need to spend additional money for 3rd-party RAM)

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

If it were my money and I was doing mostly video compression, I’d get the high-end Mac mini. (This, in fact, is what I did personally.) Here’s an article that explains this in more detail.

As always, I’m interested in your opinions.


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278 Responses to Configure a 2019 iMac for Video Editing [u]

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  1. horea says:

    hi Larry

    we met at you first ever presentation of the new FCP X at Apple store in SF. irrelevant for this:

    i intend to purchase in the next 24-48 hours a new iMac. The largest “regular” one.

    Imac Retina 5K, 27-inch
    3.8 GHz Intel Core i5
    8 GB 2400 MHz DDR4 – that i will upgrade to 16
    Radeon Pro 580 8192 MB
    2TB Fusion Drive
    and
    Final Cut X

    my question is – is it necessary to upgrade the
    CPU to the icore9 Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz
    graphic card to Vega?

    i edit video, experimental, essay, doc just for myself – have all the time
    import old footage from miniDv directly or stretched to HD.
    lots of Photoshop files at HD size and text also in Photoshop at HD size
    some effects, not obsessive about tricks

    the budget/ price will be on a 18 month interest free card, but still like 3,600 dollars – for me a lot

    Thank you!

    and if you suggest ONE of the cards which onewould be the priority? CPU or GPU

    • Larry says:

      Horea:

      For your needs this is more than fine. It is an excellent choice.

      The nice thing is that you can upgrade RAM should your photoshop files require more. Again, given your needs, I don’t see a reason to update either the CPU or GPU.

      Larry

  2. Lisa says:

    Hello from Germany Larry!

    First of all, thank you for this informative article.

    I’d like to ask you a question:
    I’ve had an iMac since 2012. It is agonizing slow. Time to get a new one.
    But I can’t really make my mind up about which one I’ll get.

    I don’t own a TV, so my iMac is also functioning for that.
    I have the 21 inch at the moment. Been happy with the size so far.

    I’m an actress so I need to use my imac to edit large files from shortmovies, movies .. for my show reel
    and I’m also editing a lot of videos in Final Cut. (Fun Videos with friends)

    But the video files for the hobby videos are most of the times coming from my iphone, so they’re not super large.

    I don’t really have that much money, but would like to purchase an iMac which will be functioning for a few years and which will also be fast when I’m editing stuff in Final Cut.

    Is your final conclusion accurate and fitting my situation ?
    (Sorry for asking you this, but I want to be a 100 percent sure)

    27″ Retina 5K Display
    3.6GHz 8-core 9th-generation Intel Core i9 processor, Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz
    (Includes the Radeon 575X GPU)
    8 GB of RAM (buy a 32 GB RAM upgrade from a 3rd party)
    1 TB Fusion drive

    Thank you ! 🙂

    • Larry says:

      Lisa:

      Thanks for writing.

      Given your description, you don’t need the highest-performance CPU. You could step down one step, get the mid-range i5, and still have a totally acceptable system, for less money. You are not deadline driven, so you can easily work with a slightly slower CPU.

      I have found iMacs to be especially durable. In my small office, I have a 2013, 2014, and 2017 iMac – all happily working on Sierra, High Sierra and Mojave with no problems.

      I am a fan of Fusion drives – a nice balance between speed and capacity. The only thing you might budget for is more external storage – and, remember, a new iMac uses Thunderbolt 3 for ports.

      Larry

  3. Thanks for this. I am looking into getting one of the new 2019 imacs I edit videos and photos using the adobe sweet (lightroom/photoshop/premiere/aftereffects and shoot alot of 4k content. Would love a reccomendation for the set up that would work and I would like this to be my main editing computer that can last into the future so i don’t mind spending a bit more. (trying to stay between $3000 and $4000

  4. chris ferro says:

    Hi Larry, thanks for this coverage. Debating hard on which system to buy as I am going to be using it for potentially editing full length HD feature films, as well as shorter content and regular usage. These two are comparable in price, just don’t know where I will see most value..any thoughts? Looking at either:

    1) 2017 iMac i7 QuadCore 4.2ghz boost to 4.5ghz, 32 GB ram, AMD R Pro 580 8gb, 2TB SSD

    Or

    2) 2019 imac i9 8 core 3.6ghz boost to 5.0ghz, 8Gb ram, AMD R Pro 580x 8gb, 2TB Fusion

    Figure I can always add RAM to the new system, but am I focusing on wrong stats? Should I go up somewhere or down in another? Both machines come out around $3300, but when going through apple store with tax and all that the new unit is closer to $4k. Thank you.

    • Larry says:

      Chris:

      For editing an HD feature film, either system will be fine.

      The i9 has faster performance with a faster GPU, so if speed is important, lean toward the 2019 system. However, you will need to upgrade the RAM to 32 GB from a 3rd-party vendor.

      If cost is more important, you’ll be very pleased with the 2017 system. Both will achieve the same quality, the 2019 system will just get it done quicker; probably between 5 – 15% faster.

      Larry

      • chris says:

        Thanks Larry. Appreciate your prompt reply. You answered a ton of questions for me, and I’m scared to go for the 2017 model but feel that it will be plenty fast thanks to your coverage. That probably saves me around $800…

  5. Brian Gill says:

    Larry,
    Thanks so much for this very useful article. I’m about to replace an ancient iMac with one of the new 2019 iMacs. I’m just an amateur video editor, but once a year I use FCP to create a 75-minute movie of a synchronized swimming show, using 3-4 camera angles, all shooting HD video. I don’t anticipate moving up to 4k video in the foreseeable future. With that purpose in mind, I have two questions:
    (1) Should I prioritize the 580 GPU with i5 chip, or choose the i9 chip with slower GPU?
    (2) 3TB Fusion Drive or 512GB SSD with additional external storage?
    Thanks much,
    Brian

    • Larry says:

      Brian:

      Multicam relies on the CPU, and the slower GPU isn’t that slow.

      Which ever internal drive you buy, you’ll still need external storage. I’m happy with a 1 TB Fusion on my main editing system and 3 TB Fusion on my secondary system. Maybe split the difference – 2 TB Fusion?

      Larry

  6. Loïc says:

    Hello from France Larry,

    Thank you for these valuable recommendations.

    I want to upgrade my workstation (iMac 2011) and edit on FCPX (which is why I stay on Apple system). I work on long formats with lots of rushes (documentary editing), and I sometimes do multi-cameras editing, which I still can do on my machine with proxies. Over the next few years it is not impossible that I sometimes work on heavier files, 4K or RAW: I just followed a training and I would also like to develop an activity in the color grading area. Generally I can take the time to convert my rushes to optimized media or proxies.

    I have a dual Thunderbolt dock: I put my 4TB HDD for media, and a 500 GB SSD for rendering.

    Here I am : I have the budget for a basic 2019 5K iMac: i5 hexacores, with 256GB SSD instead of the Fusion Drive, Radeon Pro 470 and 16GB RAM that I will upgrade myself.

    Or for a MacMini, i7 hexacores, SSD of 128 GB, 16 GB of RAM and a eGPU box with a Radeon 64.graphic card. 

    The 5K screen of the iMac represents a comfort of work but I can do without and acquire a more modest screen for the workspace. Later I will buy a reference monitor for color corrections.

    I am wondering about:

    – the heat management in both machines, and durability.
    -the power of eGPU and its optimization at the present time
    -to the Radeon Pro 570: Is it sufficient for my use? Does the 5K screen not draw too much resources on it, leaving little power for the rest?
    -iMac i5 (will it be enough?)

    I have the feeling the second option is a bit hazardous but potentially more powerful than the 1st one… 

    What do you think of all this? What would you advise me?

    Thank you in advance for your patience and listening.

    Loïc

  7. Hakan Ahmet says:

    Hi Larry, thanks for the great article..

    I am replacing a stolen machine with an insurance payout, so I have a good budget to spend. But given the configuration options, the money can stretch in different ways.

    In your article you didn’t compare the 580X and Pro Vega 48 GPU that comes in the top iMac package. I am a full time filmmaker working on short form corporate/commercial films and longer (30min) wedding film edits that can get quit bulky on the timeline. Although I don’t yet do many 3D or graphics, I am very much into my colour grading, titling, transitions etc. This being said, I would like to delve a little more into After Effects in the future.

    My main questions being:

    – Should I go ahead and opt for the upgraded PRO Vega 48 GPU (over the PRO 580X) for longevity and performance reasons

    – Given that I edit from an external RAID 0 drive, how would an internal all SSD drive benefit me over a larger fusion drive? I remember reading some time back that you shouldn’t edit from the system HD, hence why I use the RAID 0 setup. ** is there a risk of my RAID 0 setup causing a bottle neck and being a weak link on a high spec configuration listed below??

    I will be opting for the:

    – 27″ 5K iMac
    – 3.6GHz 8-core 9th-generation Intel Core i9 processor (given the CPU being the “brains”, wanted to opt for the i9 over the standard i5)
    – 8GB RAM (will be adding 2x16GB sticks to the 4GB sticks to bring the total to 40GB (still matching pairs so should be ok))
    – GPU – Looking at the PRO Vega 48
    -Storage – See above

    Larry, I’d like to thank you in advance for your time in helping me, and I hope the response will help others in the same boat.

    Hakan

    • Larry says:

      Hakan:

      Some good questions here.

      If you have the money, buy the faster GPU, however you WON’T be gaining any “longevity,” merely faster performance, All GPUs will be obsolete compared to current technology in three years or so. They will easily work, they just won’t be “the fastest thing.”

      Given what you are doing, you probably won’t notice much difference between either GPU. GPUs are principally used to render effects, color grading and export.

      An all-SSD system will be perceptively faster, but for media and projects stored on a RAID 0, again, on a budget the larger Fusion drive is fine. If you have the money, buy a 512 GB SSD or larger. As you move into 4K or HDR, you’ll need a faster RAID or an SSD RAID. But, it is easier to replace storage than the components of your computer. In all cases, regardless of what internal drive you get, you’ll still be working with external storage.

      Larry

  8. Rees Newnes says:

    Hi Larry,

    I am looking at purchasing a new Imac for work through my company.

    I am a professional Videographer, shooting on a GH5S and a GH5. I regularly edit 4k and my current machine is struggling. What spec would you recommend? Would you go with 16bn of RAM or 32, the pro 580x GPU or the Pro Vega 48? As far as I am aware PP can only software render so surely that would mean more RAM is the better choice?

    Thanks!
    Rees

    • Larry says:

      Rees:

      Based on your description, I would recommend the system I outlined in this article. A faster GPU will render faster, but you don’t mention lots of effects in your question.

      Adobe, last week, released new versions of Premiere that actively support GPUs, so render speeds are MUCH faster.

      Larry

  9. Luke CUPITT says:

    Hi Larry,

    I know you have done this lots of times but please help.

    I am looking at buying a new iMac for video editing, in particular using a GoPro Fusion so stitching and editing 360 video in 5.7k. I use FCPX and have just started using Motion. (I don’t do a lot of effects at the moment but plan to increase my effects in my projects).

    I will be buying a 512 SSD and using external drives for most of my media. my biggest dillema is which would be the most important upgrade the CPU (I9) or GPU (Vega 48).

    My initial thoughts were to upgrade both so I have the best performance I can get and future proof for a few years. (I was also considering the base iMac pro) but this really is stretching my budget a bit too far.

    So my thoughts are:-

    I9 processor.
    512ssd
    8GB Ram (upgraded to 40GB after)
    Radeon Pro 580X.

    There are lots of reports about lengthy Stitching times and little advice about 360 video requirements for iMacs.
    Should I upgrade to the Vega 48? Is the I9 worth the upgrade for my needs.

    Please Help.

    Regards,

    Luke

    • Larry says:

      Luke:

      First, decrease your stress. ANYTHING you buy today will work fine, the trade-off is that the more money you spend, the faster it works. The quality is all the same. If you are not deadline driven, taking out a second mortgage to buy a faster system doesn’t make any sense.

      That being said, I’d recommend the i9 and the Radeon 580X for your work. Yes, add more RAM (which requires the 27″ iMac) when you can, though 8 GB will easily get you started.

      Larry

  10. Karen Perry says:

    Thank you for your recommendations Larry. Much appreciated.

    Do you have any third party sources you can pass along for upgrading RAM on the new iMac?

    Thank you.

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