[ Updated July 9, 2023, to reflect recent testing of an M2 Max Mac Studio and the release of the M2 Ultra SoC. ]
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.
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.
The new M2 family of chips are exciting. They edit smoother, render faster and output more quickly than any other system. Faster than an M1 system and DRAMATICALLY faster than Intel gear.
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. Then I bought a new M2 Mac Studio and discovered it was even faster!
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
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. The speed benefits are dramatic and instantaneous.
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 – M2 Ultra
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. The M2 Ultra is amazing, but, as video editors we don’t need it.
Based on what I read, the specs of the M2 Max are only slightly less powerful than the M1 Ultra. And based on my tests, the M2 Max edits every form of video up to 12K at 60 fps and supports dozens of 4K multicam streams! You don’t need the M2 Ultra to get your work done.
The big differences between the M2, M2 Pro, M2 Max and M2 Ultra are memory bandwidth (100, 200, 400 or 800 GB/s), total RAM, media engines (1 vs. 2) and Thunderbolt ports (4, 6, or 8). 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 benefit from the second media engine in the M2 Max/Ultra. 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 (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 multicam editing of more than a few streams, an SSD RAID is essential.
CPU & GPU Cores
Based on watching Activity Monitor during an edit, I have not seen where any software – Final Cut, Premiere, or DaVinci – maxes out CPU or GPU core usage of an M-series system.
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.
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.
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.
I recently upgrading my main editing system to an M2 Mac Studio, which currently has:
Adding the SSD RAID made a big improvement in the responsiveness of my system.
My recommendation is an editing system with 1 – 2 TB of internal storage.
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 TS-4 dock to be extremely 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.
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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