Thoughts on Configuring M2 Macs for Video Production and Editing

Using computers for video production and editing no longer requires state-of-the-art hardware. That is a hard sentence to write, but it is most certainly true.

For more than two decades recording, editing, and playing digital video on a computer took the fastest hardware available – and then some. But no longer. Today, virtually any computer or mobile device can play and record video. While not all of them edit video equally well, even editing has become commonplace on most devices.

We only need to scroll through endless Facebook pages to realize that videos are ubiquitous.

This is not to say that, when it comes to professional work, faster computers or larger storage are not necessary. But, unlike the early years of this century where meeting the demands of video editors required Apple to keep improving its technology, those days are gone.

The state-of-the-art has moved on to other areas of computing.

All images courtesy: Apple, Inc.

When Apple silicon chips are described as simultaneously playing almost 20 streams of 8K ProRes video, you know that this hardware is more than adequate for virtually every filmmaker. That, I suspect, is why Apple no longer uses Final Cut Pro when showcasing new chips. Once a chip is fast enough, there’s not a whole lot new to show. (I mean, really, how often are you streaming more than a dozen 8K ProRes video clips in an edit?)

Instead, Apple highlights software for 3D modeling, Photoshop rendering, or compiling code. Today’s computers are more than fast enough for video editing.

Still, the new M2 family of chips are exciting.  I’m looking forward to adding an M2 system to my office in the near future. They edit smoother, render faster and output more quickly than any other system. But, not dramatically. Not so much that you MUST upgrade.

For example, I was editing a recent webinar, which used ProRes 4444 for source files. I recently souped-up my MacBook Pro system, running an M1 Pro SoC, with an SSD RAID. I was seeing render speeds up to 900 MB/second. Exports were running around 350 MB/second. Editing was smooth and I didn’t need to render to see most effects.

The system was a delight.

However, my software never used more than 50% of all CPU cores, GPUs were busy but not buried, storage could transfer files 2.5 faster than the software could create those files. In other words, I wasn’t anywhere close to maxing out my system.

Given that, here are my thoughts on hardware as you look to upgrade your system. You can spend as much as you want – but you don’t need the top-of-the-line to get your work done.

THOUGHTS ON WHAT TO BUY

Intel Systems

If you are still on an Intel system, at some point you’ll need to upgrade to Apple silicon. There are already features that only run on newer systems. This is not to say that your existing Intel gear is no good, simply that you’ll benefit from the newer hardware. Not necessarily today, but soon-ish.

When you do, keep your existing Intel gear and don’t upgrade it. That way, you have an older system to refer to when you need to open an older project.

M2 – M2 Pro – M2 Max

When the Mac Studio was announced, I realized that, for video editing, the M1 Max was more than sufficient. Yes, the M1 Ultra was faster, but the M1 Max did everything we needed for virtually all editing – even that atypical 8K job.

The same reasoning applies to the M2 family. Yes, I’m sure an M2 Ultra is in the pipeline, but, as video editors we don’t need it. Other software might, but not video recording, editing, rendering or output.

Based on what I read, the M2 Max is only slightly less powerful than the M1 Ultra. And the M1 Ultra was already more than we needed. You can get your work done with any M2 chip.

The big differences between the M2, M2 Pro and M2 Max are memory bandwidth (100 GB/s vs. 200 GB/s vs. 400 GB/s), total RAM, and media engines (1 vs. 2). On these systems, the media engines support HEVC, H.264 and ProRes encoding and decoding.

NOTE: Cinema style editing benefits from the single media engine. Multicam editing will probably benefit from the second media engine in the M2 Max. However, in either case, if your media is not HEVC, H.264 or ProRes, having a media engine won’t make any difference. Switching to optimizing media or creating ProRes proxies will benefit from the speed of this built-in media engine.

CPU core counts are the same for both M2 Pro and M2 Max chips. The CPU is used for managing the interface, importing clips, editing tools and timeline, positioning and scaling clips. The GPUs are used to change the look of pixels. For example, dissolves, color grading and effects renders.

Both the M2 Pro and M2 Max are more than sufficient for 4K (and smaller frame size) editing. Both are more than sufficient for multicam editing of up to 12 cameras (provided your storage is fast enough). Larger multicam projects with larger frame sizes will benefit from using the M2 Max.

For multicam editing, the gating factor isn’t the CPU, it’s the size and speed of your storage. For any large frame size multicam editing an SSD RAID is essential.

CPU & GPU Cores

Based on watching Activity Monitor closely during an edit, I have not seen where any software – Final Cut, Premiere, or DaVinci – maxes out CPU or GPU core usage.

Remember, regardless of the number of GPU cores, the image quality is the same. More cores gets you more speed – assuming that all cores are fully involved. What I’ve seen, however, is that many cores are not busy during render or output.

RAM

My current 16″ MacBook Pro has 32 GB of RAM and I’ve had zero problems editing. What extra RAM gets you is more file cacheing. That is, portions of clips are loaded into RAM, which makes access during editing faster. However, if you store files on the internal drive of your Mac, or an external SSD, that storage is SO fast that cacheing has only limited benefits. If you are using spinning media, you’ll benefit from more RAM. But, if you are using internal or external SSD storage, the benefits of cacheing are reduced.

My recommendation is to get a system with 32 or 64 GB of RAM. You can get more, but you won’t see a boost in performance.

Storage

Apple charges a ridiculous amount for internal SSD storage. More storage is good, however, you need to balance the cost of internal vs. external storage.

Most video projects today require multiple terabytes of storage. This means that, in most cases, you’ll need to add storage to your system.

My main editing system currently has:

My big change in the last few months was adding the SSD RAID for current editing. It made a big improvement in the responsiveness of my system.

My recommendation is an editing system with 1 – 2 TB of internal storage.

Other Options

I am very grateful that Apple added more ports to their hardware. That simplifies my life a lot – especially on the road. However, I’ve also found the CalDigit dock to be useful with its 13 ports of connectivity.

A 10G Ethernet connector provides faster access to servers, provided your network is configured to support the faster speed.

And while smaller screens travel more easily, I find larger screens more helpful in video editing simply because the interface is easier to see and work with.

SUMMARY

Digital video no longer requires state-of-the-art hardware. We no longer need the biggest, fastest, most powerful system to get our work done. Rather, these latest systems continue to get faster which means that we continue to save time in getting our work done.

But we don’t need to spend extra money to get the top-of-the-line. The very best no longer makes a significant difference in how long it takes to get our work done. A mid-range choice is fine.

Just my thoughts.


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22 Responses to Thoughts on Configuring M2 Macs for Video Production and Editing

  1. Dear Larry,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments on current hardware, performance, and the actual needs for video editing. That is (as always) very helpful and clear.

    Since you also mention “cold storage” I would like to point out that this is for a lot of productions an area to look at and improve. Files are getting so big that it makes less sense to keep completed projects on larger RAIDs. It simply is too costly (power, capacity, upgrades etc.). For this LTO tape is a much more attractive solution with a lower price point per TB, a very long shelf life and virtually no electric power cost.

    Additionally, once a tape is written and on the shelf it is also totally secure from any online attack and ransomware. Add a powerful archive software like Archiware P5 and you get a MAM-like catalog of all completed media and projects to restore at any time a returning customer asks for it. This perspective easily gets overlooked when looking at new editing speeds and options. Completed work needs to be around and is expected by existing customers to be safely stored. (Conflict of interest declared: I work for Archiware)

    • Larry Jordan says:

      Marc:

      It is always good to hear from you. And, you are correct. Archiving projects you need to keep, but don’t need to access, is the perfect reason for using LTO tape.

      Larry

      • Christopher Fryman says:

        Checking the prices of LTO drives and tapes, it seems rather illogical to consider that route unless you are a big hollywood producer.

        • Larry Jordan says:

          Christopher:

          You are partially correct. While an LTO tape is far less than the cost of a hard drive, the cost of the LTO drive itself is high. Worse, they only connect via SAS, which means that we need to spend almost as much again to get a Thunderbolt or USB-C connection. The big benefit to LTO, though, is that tapes last 30-35 years, a tape library is infinitely expandable and the software to archive and access stored files continues getting better.

          I wouldn’t class LTO as at the Hollywood Producer level, but any production company that creates five to six figure projects could easily add one to their budget.

          Larry

  2. Tom Cherry says:

    Larry, what are your thoughts regarding an M2 or the potential price savings on an outgoing M1?

    • Larry Jordan says:

      Tom:

      Any M system should be fine for editing. Currently, the Mac Studio only has M1 chips inside – but they are still blindly fast. I think you should buy the M2 Mac Mini over the M1. I think either the M1 or M2 MacBook Pros are fine for editing.

      I would avoid a simple M1 or M2, and opt for an M1 Pro/Max or M2 Pro/Max instead. Not because the M1/M2 is bad, simply that they Pro/Max versions have much more power.

      Larry

  3. Happy New Year! You must have read my mind with this article. I reached out to you back in Sept.’22 about buying a new MacBook Pro and you suggested I wait. That was great advice! So now I am ready to buy and your article answered many questions regarding Ram, Cores and avoiding the standard M1/M2. As I am doing mostly simple single camera editing (with an occasional 3 camera shoot) and deliver in HD/4K, I need to make a decision between the older M1 and newer M2. Like a previous comment, any last words?

    • Larry Jordan says:

      Seth:

      An older M1 Pro/Max vs and new M2 Pro/Max? Either one will easily do what you need to do. I’m totally happy with my M1 Pro MacBook Pro. But, if I were buying now, and I could afford it – which is not always the case – I’d get the M2 Pro or Max for a laptop.

      Larry

  4. Thanks Larry. Exactly the advice I was looking for. Have a great day.

  5. Paul says:

    Larry,

    Really appreciate your thoughts on this. I was just about to pull the trigger on a business lease for a Mac Studio. These only have the M1 chip, but I suspect that is fine. I’m wondering about the difference between the M1 Max and the M1 Ultra. I was going for the Ultra, but after reading this post, I’m thinking that might be overkill and I could save a little money with the Max and still get work done. I AM a professional user, feature films and television work, not a whole lot of multicam, but do have have a feature coming up that will be two-cameras at times, and also in the middle of a feature I’ve been cutting in DaVinci Resolve.

    Do you think I can probably make this work with the Studio M1 Max – 64 gig RAM – instead of the ULTRA? Could save me some money. Appreciate your response.

    In thinking about this further, I’ve read your previous comments now, and I’m wondering if the Studio is overkill in itself? Based on what you’ve written – do you think a M2 MINI with the Pro chip, 32gb GPU, and a 1tb hard-drive would be enough for a Pro User? Of course I don’t know if my favored APPs – Avid, primarily, DaVinci, and Adobe – have been qualified for the M2 chip yet – so that is also a concern.

    You will not be blamed. I take full responsibility for my decisions. 🙂

    • Larry Jordan says:

      Paul:

      If you aren’t doing multicam, the M1 Max will be more than fine. I agree, 64 GB of RAM is worth the extra money. You could also use an M2 Mac mini (32 GB RAM, M2 Pro, 1 TB). Feature film editing is creatively challenging, but doesn’t require high-end hardware. As always, lots of fast storage is key. A high-end Mac Mini is $1899. A mid-range Mac Studio is $2599 ($2999 with 2 TB storage). I lean toward the mid-range Mac Studio, but you could go either way.

  6. Jay Harwig says:

    The research you have been sharing in your newsletter the past couple months has been very informative. I have the intel 27 iMac and want to upgrade. I recently bought a Sony A1, and shoot most of my video in 8K. I am trying to decide on the new Mac mini M2 Pro to the Studio M1 Max, any thoughts or recommendations?

  7. Kristen Flynn says:

    Just out of curiosity, what monitors are people using with the Mac Studios or Mac minis? Or even as a monitor for MacBook Pro editing?

    • Larry Jordan says:

      Kristen:

      Popular Mac monitors are made by Apple, LG and Samsung. Dell and ViewSonic are very popular on PCs.

      Larry

      • Kristen Flynn says:

        So many choices!!! I’d love to hear which other editors are using…if anyone wants to share. I have always used Apple displays but considering new Mac Studio or mini and looking to not pay Apple monitor price.

  8. Tom McAfee says:

    Serendipity strikes again? After 26+ crashes in a row with a 5-cam project using both HD and 4K source media, I was persuaded to replace my 2013 27″ iMac running Mojave and FCPX 14.6 with a 2021 24″ iMac with an M1 8-core CPU and 16GB RAM, pairing it with a Samsung T-7 SSD for editing. I upgraded to FCP 10.6.5 and Ventura with no crashes since, but have experienced significant, annoying pauses and balking due to effects rendering, clip placement, etc.

    Then Apple made the M2 announcement (still within the 14-day return window!) so tomorrow I’m picking up a Mac Mini with Apple M2 Pro with 10‑core CPU, 16-core GPU, 16‑core Neural Engine, 16GB unified memory.

    My question for you — will this configuration likely solve my problem and/or should I replace the T-7 with a faster and/or RAID editing drive? Many, many thanks in advance, not to mention the nick of time!

  9. James Gleason says:

    Great thoughts! I’m looking to upgrade my 27″ intel iMac and am looking at the Mac Mini (for the first time). My question is this: what do you suggest for an external RAID system? You mention your system is an “5 TB external SSD RAID.” Any recommendations?

    • Larry says:

      James.

      That depends. Hard disk RAIDs are fine me for HD and 4K. But an SSD RAID is necessary for larger frame sizes or serious multicam work.

      I like RAIDs from OWC and Promise Technology.

      Larry

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