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

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  1. Hector says:

    I’m looking into getting a new iMac. This article was extremely helpful. In my current situation, I’m using a mid 2011 iMac with a 3.1 GHz Intel i5, 12 GB of RAM, and a AMD Radeon HD 6970M GPU with 1 GB of RAM. And you know what? The machine works pretty darn well for a computer that old. Sure, it’s a wee bit slow, but absolutely nothing atrocious that is unusable.
    I import 4k footage fine, convert it to proxy, do all my editing and coloring, and exports flawlessly. No issues at all. The only times I have issues is when I’m using original or optimized footage, or doing heavy graphics and effects, then it runs a little slow.
    But…I think it’s time to upgrade. I want faster.
    I’m stuck right now just waiting and hoping that SOMETHING will be announced soon about a new iMac. I’m a little hesitant purchasing a “new” computer that is already a year and half old. I’m asking all of your opinions if it would be wise to get a top tier 2017 iMac with upgraded CPU (just because I can afford it right now), or just wait for some sort of announcement.

    • Larry says:

      Hector:

      If you don’t need to buy now, I would wait. The WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) is coming in early June. This is where Apple traditionally announces its new, high-end gear. If you need something RIGHT NOW, the 27″ iMac or iMac Pro are excellent machines. I recommend them. However, if you can wait a couple of months, you’ll have more choices.

      And, relax. Apple is ALWAYS working on new stuff. Always. While we don’t know when it will be announced, nor what, specifically, it will be, Apple has enhanced the Mac every year since it first began. That trend will continue.

      Larry

  2. John says:

    Could you advise on external hard drive sets up? For iMac 21.5- maxed out 2017.
    Should I use an SSD for proxy editing? And other questions. 😃

    • Larry says:

      John:

      There’s no one simple answer to your question. (Here’s a collection of articles providing a basic foundation for understanding storage.)

      In general:

      * I advise storing media on external storage because it is easier to move from computer to computer, or add more storage as needed.
      * SSDs are best when you need the greatest speed. (Proxies are designed for spinning media.)
      * Spinning media hard disks are best when you need the greatest storage capacity
      * RAIDS are a good compromise between the speed of SSD and the capacity of spinning media
      * Spinning media hard drives cost less per terabyte than SSDs
      * SD media can easily be editing using a single attached hard drive
      * HD media can easily be editing using a small RAID or attached SSD
      * 4K and greater media needs a large RAID of spinning media – or – small RAID of SSDs – or – the new NVME data standard

      Like I said, there’s no single answer that works for everyone. You are always balancing budget – speed – and capacity. Generally, you can optimize two of the three.

      Larry

  3. Hey, thanks for your article. I use my iMac21.5inch mainly for 50MP raw photography files processing (capture one / Lightroom).

    Do you know if they use more RAM than disk writing speed? I have all my RAW collection stored in external portable HDD (WD or Transcend 2TB) and they transfer data at really low rates (50-80MB/s).

    Would you suggest top up my current 8GB RAM to 32GB? Or invest the same amount of money in a 2disk RAID0 with Thunderbolt3 to store the data?

    Or both?

    Thanks again

    • Larry says:

      Sergio:

      Photoshop will use as much RAM as you have available. Given the size of your still images, adding more RAM will improve performance because Photoshop won’t need to swap parts of your image to disk so often.

      In terms of priorities, I’d add more RAM first, then, increase storage capacity. You’ll see a bigger benefit from adding an external SSD than a 2-drive RAID 0. The SSD will be twice as fast. And the new NVMe drives, though more expensive, will be 4x faster than the SSD.

      Larry

  4. william says:

    Hi Larry,
    I currently have a

    iMac (Retina 4K, 21.5-inch, 2017)
    3.6 GHz Intel Core i7
    16 GB 2400 MHz DDR4

    I shoot weddings and promotional videos with a gh5 in 10bit 422. I have noticed footage in my timeline gets skippy when any color grading or additional effects are applied to the footage. Im thinking about upgrading Ram to 32gb and getting a g raid to free up some storage space. I looks as if I’m a bit over 3/4s full on storage right now. Could this dramatically be effecting the performance with raw gh5 footage? And do you think that upgrading the memory is important for me? Also, just so you know, I’m using FCP X with color finale for editing

    I’ll take any suggestions. Thanks for all you do.

    • Larry says:

      William:

      Several thoughts:

      * Be sure to allow time for your effects to render, playing unrendered clips causes skipping
      * You can’t upgrade the RAM on your system, on the other hand, 16 GB is a fine amount.
      * If you are getting dropped frame errors, faster storage, like a RAID, will fix that.
      * The big thing, though, is don’t edit GH-5 footage in its native format. Optimize it to ProRes 422 or better. This is my first priority.
      * Also, the GPU on your system, which you also can’t upgrade, may be an issue. This is fixed simply by waiting for it to render clips before playback
      * Finally, in the top-right corner of the Viewer, change the menu from “Better Quality” to “Better Performance.” This does NOT affect output quality, but should also reduce skipping during editing.

      Larry

      • william says:

        Ok. Thank you very much!
        I’m no expert on the backbones of fcpx and my Mac which is why I was reaching out to you. As far as where the video files are stored in the current timeline.. would render speed be reduced if those files are stored on a G-Raid? Correct me if im wrong but I THINK there are some perks to working with the video being stored directly on the Mac such as (Turbo Boost up to 4.2GHz)

        • Larry says:

          William:

          Well, no, your understanding is not correct.

          The G-RAiD will help with multicam editing, editing large frame size files, and increasing storage capacity – but not rendering. It won’t slow things down, but it won’t help much either.

          Render speed is primarily based on the speed of your GPU.

          Larry

          • william says:

            Makes sense thanks again for well informing me. Cheers

          • Will says:

            In your opinion what is a good quality external drive for me with my Mac specs I gave earlier? I want something fast enough for gh5 footage and also large enough to store old footage. Probably 8tb give or take.

          • Larry says:

            Will:

            This is hard to answer because it depends upon what you are editing and your budget. A single hard drive, today, easily stores 8 TB of data. That will also be inexpensive, but it won’t be very fast.

            A 2-drive RAID is a better option, provided you aren’t editing 4K or HDR. Faster than a single drive and holding more, but not as cheap.

            My general recommendation for most editing – except a feature film or extensive documentary – is a 4-drive RAID. This will hold a lot, be fast enough, but not cheap.

            Good vendors include: OWC, G-Technology, LaCie, and mLogic – though there are many other lesser-name brands that are also worth considering.

            Larry

  5. Regan Alquerro says:

    Hi! Good thing I’ve come across your page!

    I’m planning to purchase an iMac 4k 2017 with fusion drive. I will be doing the upgrades myself (RAM, SSD, CPU, Procie). Couple of questions and I hope you can enlighten me:

    1) I want to change the primary SSD to a larger capacity, is it an NVME M.2 type? Which specific model+brand should I buy?
    2) Is it possible to have dual SSDs (without RAID) to prevent future mechanical problems (with the spinning drive) or a solo 1TB SSD will do?
    3) Opening a Safari with more than 50 tabs consumes more RAM than CPU, right? or both?

    Re: RAM, I’ll be upgrading it to 64GB to future proof it (I read in OWC that you can upgrade your iMac 21.5 4k to 64gb) and the procie to an i7-7700 (the 7700k has thermal issues according to some commenters in YT). I do a great bunch of graphic and web design (plus development) and little bit of video editing that’s why I’ll be amping it up and hopefully, it can be used for more than 10yrs.

    Thanks!

    • Larry says:

      Regan:

      Hmmm…. when you say “I plan to do these upgrades myself,” be careful. The 21″ iMac does not allow user upgrades. You will need to configure the iMac with the features you want at the time you purchase it. Many of the elements you mention are soldered to the main logic board.

      1. Apple does not currently support NVMe devices internally. I expect that to change this year.
      2. Dual internal SSDs are not possible. Connecting SSDs externally via Thunderbolt is easy.
      3. Tabs are stored in RAM, the CPU executes the HTML code contained on each page.

      Larry

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