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

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  1. Adrian Juric says:

    Hi Larry,

    I have a 2015 iMac with a 1TB HDD and 32GB of RAM. It has a 3.2 Ghz Intel Quad-Core i5.

    I just tried creating a multi-cam sequence with Ultra HD video. Creating proxies for 12 clips took the whole night. I have a big 4K project coming up soon too, and know my machine is underpowered.

    I’d welcome your thoughts about what to upgrade to if I have $2000 CAD to play with.

    One option is to double the iMac RAM to 64GB and install and internal 2TB SSD.

    But I feel like that’s a stop-gap measure and not a long-term solution.

    Should I bite the bullet and jump to a M1 Pro/Max or M2 Pro/Max?

    Or is a Mac Studio more affordable?

    I won’t regularly be editing multi-cam stuff but would like the option to. Mostly I’ll be working with 4K footage.

    I appreciate any comment or advice you may have.

    Thank you,

    Adrian

    • Larry says:

      Adrian:

      I suspect the problem is that you selected H.264 as the proxy format. Creating ProRes Proxy files will be much faster. Also, set the proxy frame size to 50%. Your i5 is not a speed demon, but H.264 will seriously slow it down.

      As for new gear, the new Mac mini with an M2 Pro is a speed demon and can easily handle the projects you describe. It also costs far less than a Mac Studio. If you buy new gear, get at least 32 GB of RAM (I recommend 64 GB) and at least 1 TB of storage (I recommend 2 TB if you can afford it). Also, for multicam editing – ESPECIALLY 4K – you need FAST!! storage. Spend money on an NVMe SSD. Hard disks, even hard disk RAIDs, will not be fast enough for 12 clips of 4K media.

      Larry

      • Adrian Juric says:

        Thank you for your detailed reply, Larry. I’d used H.264 when working with footage shot in 1080p and never realized that could be a problem until you said so.

        The upgrades to my existing iMac that I described – do they seem worthwhile? The RAM upgrade alone (to 64GB) will cost about $1000, while the 2TB SSD will be about $200-300 or so.

        In your opinion, would that $ be better invested in a refurbished machine from Apple?

        They currently have a refurbished 2018 Mac mini 3.0GHz 6-core Intel Core i5 with 32GB of RAM and a 1TB
        PCIe-based SSD1.

        They also have a 2022 Mac Studio with the M1 Max Chip. It has 32GB of RAM but only 512GB SSD¹.

        Any thoughts?

        Thank you again.

        A

        • Larry Jordan says:

          Adrian:

          Don’t waste your money upgrading an i5.

          The MacStudio will blow the doors off any other computer. Period. The storage is limited but as long as you have sufficient external storage that is FAST, you’ll be fine.

          Given your choices either buy the Mac Studio or a new M2 Mac mini. Stay away from Intel.

          Larry

  2. Adrian Juric says:

    Thank you again, Larry, for such sound advice.

    I will get the 2022 Mac Studio with the M1 Max Chip. It has 32GB of RAM but only 512GB SSD.

    I will boost the storage with an external Thunderblade Drive.

    Any recommendations for a display? I don’t think I can use my iMac as a display, can I?

    A

  3. Jack says:

    Hi Larry,

    I am looking at a new Mac Studio to create 25 minute multi-cam videos using at least 6 cameras for the majority of the video. The cameras are mainly GoPros all filming at either 2K or 4K. I don’t know which Studio CPU would be best? Max or Ultra. I will be using 64gb RAM and 1TB internal storage.

    Many thanks
    Jack

    • Larry says:

      Jack:

      For multicam edits as “small” as 6 streams of 4K media, the M1 Max CPU would be fine. Just as an example, my MacBook Pro with an M1 Pro chip (slower than the M1 Max) easily handles 25 streams of 4K video in either Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. I agree with your 64 GB of RAM and 1 or 2 TB of storage.

      The key is the speed of your storage. Multicam editing significantly benefits when editing using SSD storage. (SSDs don’t hold as much, but they have zero latency and seek times, which is ideal for multicam.)

      Also I strongly recommend converting H.264 and HEVC media into ProRes 422 prior to editing. For example, while both Premiere and Final Cut can easily handle up to 25 streams of 4K ProRes, Premiere chokes when editing 10 H.264 streams, while Final Cut can only edit 15 streams. ProRes 422 is a much better option for editing.

      Larry

      • Jack says:

        Hi Larry,

        Thanks for your quick response! Very useful information!

        What sort of external SSD speeds are the minimum requirement you would recommend?

        I have read from your other articles that Final Cut Pro works much more efficiently than Premiere would on an apple device. Would you suggest making the jump from PP to Final Cut? I have not used Final Cut Pro before, but would imagine it wouldn’t take long to pick up?

        Many thanks
        Jack

        • Larry says:

          Jack:

          Six streams of ProRes 422, though a lot for a hard disk, is easy for an SSD. Either a PCIe (lower cost) or NVMe (faster performance) can handle it.

          Here’s an article that provides more details on multicam streaming in Premiere:

          https://larryjordan.com/articles/how-many-multicam-streams-of-4k-media-can-adobe-premiere-pro-edit/

          Larry

          • Jack says:

            Hi Larry,

            Just to confirm, as I am finally narrowing down my options, the 6 Multicam videos I spoke about above are all a maximum of 4K, however each individual video is roughly 12 minutes long and therefore the file is quite large. In some cases, it is 6 x 12 minute videos followed by another and another…

            Would this change your response, or is the M1 Max still a very capable machine for this job? Would you perhaps say the new Mac mini with M2 chip is more appropriate?

            Many thanks
            Jack

          • Larry Jordan says:

            Jack:

            Surprisingly, the duration of a clip does not affect storage bandwidth. Capacity, yes, bandwidth no.

            You are welcome to buy whatever computer you want, but the M1 Max will have all the power you need for these types of edits. Be sure to get 32- 64 GB of RAM and at last 1 TB of storage capacity.

            Larry

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