Configure a MacBook Pro for Video Editing [u]

speed201[UPDATE: In June 2017, Apple updated their MacBook Pro laptops with new processors, more SSD storage and renamed, but not changed, GPUs. My recommendations remain the same for these new units, though I added updates below.]

A frequent email request from readers is help in configuring a computer for video editing. There are many options and, sometimes, it is hard to decide the best place to spend your money.

Yes, the launch of the new MacBook Pro has had its share of controversy. But, what if you still need to buy a laptop for video editing? What do you really need? How much do you really need to spend?

You don’t need to spend a fortune to get the right system. Let me help you decide what you need to buy.

NOTE: If you are looking at a desktop system, here’s an article that discusses how to configure a 2017 iMac for video editing.

There are many reasons to buy a laptop, with portability leading the list. However, the MacBook Pro has enough power that you can reasonably consider it for your principle editing system, especially when you combine it with an external 5K or 4K monitor.

WHAT SIZE LAPTOP?

I recommend 15″.

Whether you are running Premiere or Final Cut, larger screen sizes help. Both these interfaces work better on larger screens.

Second, while Apple has expanded – and vastly improved – the speed and storage capacity of the MacBook Pro, I still recommend storing projects and media on an external drive. While there is a benefit to storing everything on the internal hard disk – portability and speed being two of them – using a second drive allows you to move projects between computers, as well as access to your data in the event your computer goes into the shop.

However, for best results, you would be well-advised to consider an external SSD if you want speed, or a RAID if you need more storage space. Single hard disks will work, but don’t equal the performance of the laptop itself, or these other two options.

DOES THE TOUCH BAR MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

touch103a

I think it does. I found it increasingly helpful as I worked with the unit.

NOTE: Here’s an article that explains how the Touch Bar works in Final Cut Pro X.

SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT BATTERY LIFE?

I think the current battery controversy will be resolved quickly through software. However, even more than that, video editing burns through batteries, regardless of how long they are supposed to last.

For me, all my editing – even on the road – is done when I’m attached to wall power; excepting only the very tiniest projects. Since I’m never on battery power for editing, how long the batteries last is not an important consideration for me.

UPDATE: The battery issue was traced to a bug in the OS. This is no longer an issue.

WHAT SPEED CPU?

This depends.

If you are principally doing video editing, you can save money by purchasing the 2.6 GHz processor. Both Premiere and Final Cut heavily leverage the GPU and, while the CPU is important, if you are on a budget, you can conserve dollars here.

UPDATE. As the processors and speeds have changed, read this now as: Editing does not require as fast a processor as video compression. The base level processor will be fine for most editing, while a faster processor will benefit compression.

However, if you are principally doing transcoding and compression, then the faster CPU makes sense as both of these tasks use the CPU much more than the GPU.

NOTE: Keep in mind that all the new MacBook Pros use hardware acceleration for H.264 compression, which makes creating videos for the web extremely fast even on slower processors.

UPDATE: And, the 2017 versions now support hardware acceleration for H.265 video.

If budget is driving this decision, selecting the slower processor will be fine, the differences between the two are not significant enough to warrant the extra cost.

speed202

HOW MUCH STORAGE?

The internal SSD storage of the new MacBook Pro is the fastest I’ve ever measured. It is SERIOUSLY fast!

If you plan to store your media and projects on an external drive of some sort, then get the 256 GB SSD. The operating system and all your applications will take less than 30 GB, leaving plenty of room for temp files and general work space.

However, if you need to have everything stored on the laptop itself, buy the most storage you can afford. SSDs have continued to increase in storage capacity. If you plan to store media externally, you don’t need a very large SSD. Again, the OS only takes about 30 GB of storage.

UPDATE: Here’s an updated article on storage speeds and media requirements that will help you put your storage needs into perspective.

WHICH GPU?

This is the opposite side of the CPU question. A GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is specifically designed for rendering bitmapped images very, very quickly. For the first time, all MacBook Pro laptops include both the “built-in” GPU from Intel and a discrete (meaning “separate”) graphics system from AMD called “Radeon.”

There are three different Radeon GPUs: the 450, 455 and 460. The distinctions between them are the number of compute units – 10, 12, and 16, respectively – and the amount of VRAM – or RAM attached to the GPU itself. The 450 and 455 have 2 GB of VRAM, while the 460 has 4 GB. More compute units means more processing power, while more VRAM means faster performance.

NOTE: You can read more about these Radeon GPUs here.

UPDATE: With the 2017 upgrade, all GPUs were renamed, but not change. So, the Radeon 450 is now 550, 455 is now 555, and 460 is now 560. Performance and recommendations have not changed.

If you are principally doing video editing or motion graphics work, purchase the 455 or, if you can afford it, the 460.

If you are principally transcoding and compressing, the base-level 450 GPU will be fine.

SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT RAM?

All 15″ laptops have 16 GB of RAM. My tests have shown this is more than sufficient for virtually all video editing.

NOTE: Here’s an article that goes into editing performance on the MacBook Pro in much more detail.

cables001DO I NEED CONVERTER CABLES?

Yes. The MacBook Pro only has USB-C ports. If you have existing devices, you’ll need a converter cable for Thunderbolt 2 devices and a second cable for traditional USB devices.

NOTE: Apple also realizes that we are in a transition phase between ports, so they’ve extended their promotional prices on Apple USB-C adapters (specifically, USB-C to USB-A, Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2, and USB-C to Lightning). Plus, the reduced pricing on the new LG 4K and 5K monitors have been extended to March 31, 2017.

Also, if you have a lot of devices, consider a dock, which takes a single USB-C cable from the computer and splits it into a wide variety of separate ports.

HOW MUCH SHOULD I SPEND?

speed203The base level 15″ MacBook Pro is $2,399 (US). This will be fine for all SD and general HD editing that is not effects-heavy.

Adding a higher performance GPU to this system will improve effects and color grading performance and be adequate for virtually all HD editing, even multicam work. This raises the price to $2,599.

If you are working in 4K or higher resolutions, do lots of effects work in After Effects or Motion, and are principally focused on video editing, the higher end laptop with 512 GB of storage and a top of the line GPU will be a better choice. This raises the price to $2,899.

And, for those of you who believe that money is no object, the top of the line system complete with all the storage Apple can cram into it, will set you back $4,299.

If it were my money, I’d go with the $2,899 system:

As always, I’m interested in your opinions.


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39 Responses to Configure a MacBook Pro for Video Editing [u]

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  1. Tristan says:

    Hi Larry,

    Thanks for this article! Very helpful.

    I’m considering a maxed out MBP – 2.9GHz, Radeon Pro 460, 2TB SSD – and I’m wondering if it would be beneficial to break the SSD into two partitions: one 1TB partition for OS, all my docs, etc., and one 1TB partition for my media (for whatever current project I’m editing). I remember reading somewhere that having your media on the same drive as your OS may not be ideal, so I thought having separate partitions might solve the problem – and be faster (and more convenient) than any external drive. Do you think this would be a good idea?

    Or… would I be better off getting a MBP with 1TB and then using an external LaCie 1TB SSD (Thunderbolt 2/USB 3) for my media?

    Thanks!!

    • Larry says:

      Tristan:

      Partitioning can make sense for a spinning hard disk. It makes no sense for an SSD UNLESS you want to load two separate operating systems on it.

      If all you want is performance, don’t partition an SSD drive.

      Larry

  2. Rzeznik says:

    Great article! Thanks! A question – will the Radeon 455 version be fine for editing up to 15min long videos in 4K (with LUTs, some effects and color grading added) without using proxy media?

    Thanks!

  3. Elliot says:

    Thanks for this thorough article Larry. Question for you: a refurbished 2015 15inch 16gb RAM costs about the same as the 2017 13inch touchbar 16gb RAM. Do you know how they’d compare for video editing? Specifically h264 4k on the latest Premiere Pro CC 2017? Cheers!

    • Larry says:

      Elliott:

      They should both work fine. Based on what I’m reading, the 2017 version will be somewhat faster, but both should do a good job.

      If you haven’t purchased either of these, I would go with the bigger screen.

      Larry

      • Clare says:

        I am also having to decide between a 2015 MBP 15″ and a 2016 MBP 13″ upgraded with 16 GB of RAM. My main concern was that the 15″ has quad core v the 13″ dual core. I need it for the occasional video edit, including one feature length documentary (90 mins) – mainly straightforward edit – no fancy graphics. Can you please advise whether the 13″ will be okay for this power-wise? Thank you.

        • Larry says:

          Clare:

          The duration of your project is irrelevant. What is critical is the software you are using, plus the frame size, frame rate and codec of your media. Still, that being said, both systems should have sufficient power for an HD edit and most versions of 4K. Your storage bandwidth will be more important.

          However, if you are editing using that system, I’d go with the 15″, rather than 13″. Screen real estate is really important and the bigger screen will be much more useful.

          Larry

          • Clare says:

            Thanks for such a prompt reply, Larry! Very helpful. May I clarify? The source material is in 4K. (from the Red and Black Magic), but I will be editing in HD. 25 FPS. Not sure about the software – will be either FCP 7 or X or Premiere. My principal concern had been the that it was such a lengthy project. Are you saying that power-wise the 13″ would be pretty much as good – at least for these purposes – as the 15″? That – at least for these purposes – the quad core v dual core doesn’t make much odds? I take the point about the screen size, but my thought was that I could always get another monitor while retaining the portability of the 13″ for my general work. My leanings had been towards the 15″, however, as I was scared that I would find out too late that the 13″ wasn’t quite up to the task – or would be frustratingly slow. Thank you again.

          • Clare says:

            P.S. Codec is Apple Pro Res 422

          • Clare says:

            PPS (sorry, this will be my last). Which software would you in fact recommend between FCP 7 and X and Premiere?

  4. Abdurrahman says:

    I’m in the process of getting the 2017 15″ MacBook Pro. I’m buying at Best Buy so there’s no upgrade options, I have to buy what they have. I’m thinking about Final Cut Pro X and probably Xcode. I’ll have enough for the base model $2400, but getting to the $2800 model is going to be pushing it. I can get an external SSD later with no problem. My problem is with the RAM on the discrete graphics card. Will 2GB be enough or am I going to have to go with the $2800 model because of the 4GB? Any suggestions will be helpful. Thanks

    • Larry says:

      Abdurrahman:

      RAM for the GPU is built-into the GPU itself, which means that the hardware wizards have figured out what the card needs to do its job, then bundled it all together.

      While a fast GPU is important, being able to AFFORD the computer is even MORE important. Buy what you can afford, and don’t worry about the GPU or its memory. Both will be fine.

      Larry

  5. Brandon says:

    Larry – your content has been helpful to me for years. Thank you.

    2 Quick Questions:

    I have gone for the 15″ 2017 3.1 GHz; but am considering just the 2.9 GHz (before i open the box). I’m struggling to find any detail on whether or not this is practiaclly going to help, and if so – how much. I do most of my editing with the Panasonic GH5 4K and use LUTs and hoping to see some real-time responses.

    Will the processing help?

    2. Have you heard of the previous Thunderbolt 2 hubs still working with USB-C (I specifically have the Elgato Thunderbolt 2 dock … not sure if it will play well with the new 2017 MBP.

    Many thanks in advance

    • Larry says:

      Brandon:

      In general, for editing, you won’t see any significant difference between the two processors. For video compression, the 3.1 GHz will be marginally faster.

      My GUESS is that a Thunderbolt 2 dock will work. But, contact Elgato to be sure.

      Larry

  6. Maurits says:

    Hi, loved this article! I was wondering if you think the base model MacBook Pro 13″ 2017 is able to smoothly edit a 1080 video every once in a while. Would love to get the 15″ model, but since I’m a student money is scarce 😉 hope you have some tips! I am also considering a refurbished 15″ 2015 model got any tips on what specs I definitely need? Thanks in advance!

    Greetings from The Netherlands

    • Larry says:

      Maurits:

      Absolutely, either the new 13″ or a used 15″ can edit HD video easily – especially for the infrequent editor. In all cases, you’ll want to get a second, external hard drive or SSD to store your media.

      Larry

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