Configuring a Mac Pro for Editing

Nearly any modern laptop or desktop computer has enough horsepower to run the leading graphics, editing or encoding applications. The right choice depends on your need for expandability, interconnectivity and/or performance with specific formats.

I do a lot of Apple Final Cut Pro editing, so I stick with Macs. This also equips me for the other possibilities, including Adobe CS5, Avid Media Composer 5, Media 100 or Autodesk Smoke for the Mac. If I opted to set up a Windows partition under Boot Camp, Parallels or VMware Fusion, I could also run other PC-based NLEs like Sony Vegas Pro.

Although this article is going to be Apple-centric, the hardware considerations of how best to configure a Mac Pro are the same for a comparable HP if you are a Windows user. You can run most of the popular desktop editing applications on a MacBook Pro, iMac or Mac Pro, but if you need the most versatility, then the Mac Pro tower is the best option.

CPU/processing cores

Manufacturers hit the wall at around 3GHz of CPU speed. Companies like Intel re-engineered the CPU architecture to build more processing pipelines (cores) into a single chip. Current designs offer two (dual), four (quad) or six (hex) cores. Mac Pros come with either one or two Intel Xeon processors, each with either a quad-core (“Nehalem”) or hex-core (“Westmere”) design. You can configure a Mac Pro with four, six, eight or twelve cores of processing power. In addition, these chips allow for hyper-threading, which effectively doubles the core count, by making each physical core function as two virtual cores. Depending on the software, your eight-core Mac Pro may perform with the processing power of sixteen virtual cores.

The various chips come with different processor speed ratings, currently ranging from 2.4GHz to 3.33 GHz. Since it’s common to see a slower speed in a chip with more cores, the dilemma is whether to buy a machine based on the actual processor speed or the total number of CPU cores. Most NLEs don’t take advantage of all cores. In fact, Adobe CS5 is the first software package that’s starting to tap into the available power of all components.

In my experience, a faster four-core workstation will often equal and sometimes exceed the performance of a slower eight-core machine in real-world, day-to-day editing. Speed still matters. Other apps, like encoders, will often use all available cores, so that gives the edge to having more cores. Last October, I opted for the entry model, eight-core configuration, mainly because the two-CPU design offered the ability to use more RAM than the single-CPU machine. That’s still the case.

Note: The latest Mac Pros are set to launch in the 64-bit mode by default. Since many of your applications will most likely be 32-bit apps, you will want to reset the default to launch in the 32-bit mode, so you can run both types of software. The beauty of “Snow Leopard” is that 32-bit apps will run in a 32-bit mode, while 64-bit apps run as 64-bit, when you boot as 32-bit.

RAM

RAM queues the data feeding the CPU cores. The rule-of-thumb is to install 2GB of RAM per core. If you think of a twelve-core machine as having 24 virtual cores under hyper-threading, that would mean a maximum of 48GB of RAM, which would exceed the 32GB recommended limit of the current machine. A lot of RAM is nice, but again, most applications don’t utilize this effectively. I consider between 8GB and 16GB a practical amount, depending on how you use your machine. I installed 12GB of RAM and that’s been fine for most of my work. You can always add more RAM later from popular suppliers, like  Crucial and Other World Computing (OWC).

GPU/graphics card

When I bought my Mac Pro, Apple offered a choice of several models of NVIDIA and ATI graphics cards. Typically, Apple software, like Color, performs somewhat better with ATI, while Adobe, Avid and Autodesk prefer NVIDIA. In the interim, Adobe released CS5, whose Mercury Playback Engine takes advantage of the CUDA technology used in certain NVIDIA cards. For example, the Quadro FX 4800 offers a significant performance boost not only to Adobe Premiere Pro CS5, but also Autodesk Smoke for Mac OS X.

Apple dropped the NVIDIA options from their store, offering a couple of upgraded ATI Radeon cards instead. Adobe applications will still work fine with these cards, but I don’t know how that impacts Mercury performance. You can purchase and install an NVIDIA card yourself; however, you would have to initially purchase an ATI in the standard Apple configuration. In either case, be mindful of the video RAM installed on the card. 512MB of video RAM is the least you’d want to have, so fortunately all of the current ATI configurations start at 1GB.

Displays

While we are on the subject of graphics, factor in the displays. I like editing with two 20” displays and have been using matte-screen Apple Cinemas. Unfortunately Apple now only offers one model (not including the iMacs) – a 27” glossy screen display. As nice-looking as these displays are, they are very pricey compared to more-than-acceptable choices from Dell, HP, Viewsonic and others.

Connections are a consideration, too. If you get a new Mac Pro with an ATI Radeon HD 5770 or HD 5870card, it will come with two Mini DisplayPort sockets and one dual-link DVI port. That’s fine if you want Apple display; however, if you choose two other brands with DVI connectors, you’ll need to add at least one MDP-to-DVI adapter at about $30. On the other hand, if you opt to swap the graphics card for a different NVIDIA model, it will come with two DVI ports and no Mini DisplayPort. That’s fine for non-Apple displays, however using this card with two Apple 24” or 27” displays means adding two DVI-to-MDP adapters at about $150 each. If the budget is tight, then the most cost-effective option is to keep the ATI card, add the necessary MDP-to-DVI adapters and pick up some nice non-Apple displays.

Storage

Apple’s Mac Pro towers are an engineering tour de force, making do-it-yourself expansion a dream. These towers have room for up to four internal 3.5” eSATA hard drives for as much as 8TB inside.  You don’t have to fill these up when you purchase the machine. I bought my tower with two 640GB drives and later added two 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black drives. The main drive is for applications, project files and documents. The second drive is for software suite and production elements, like sound effects, music libraries and graphic templates. The third and fourth drives are “striped” (RAID-0) as an internal media drive. I have also connected an external FireWire 400 1TB Western Digital drive to be used as the target drive for Time Machine (Apple’s continuous back-up utility).

I stick with 7200RPM drives from manufacturers like Western Digital or Hitachi. The raw Caviar Black drives are available online and at computer retailers and come with a five year warranty. Another new Apple option is SSD (solid state drive) storage. I’m not sold on SSD yet for this application. SSD performance is fast, but the drives are still very expensive. Anecdotal evidence from editors using SSD storage indicates faster application launch times, but not necessarily faster editing performance. Plus, there is no established track record of reliability and data integrity over a longer period of time as compared with spinning drives.

PCI Express

The big complaint most professionals have with Mac Pros is the smaller number of PCI Express slots compared with HP workstations. A Mac Pro comes with three full-length expansion slots (not counting the graphics card slot). You can increase this by adding a third-party expansion chassis, but you don’t gain increased performance. PCI Express is rated in terms of data lanes, which are distributed across the slots. Adding an expansion chassis doesn’t add more data lanes, so the same bandwidth is simply spread out across more cards.

Three card slots provide adequate expandability for most professional users. This would allow you to install a video i/o card, like an AJA KONA 3G, an eSATA controller card for external storage and a third card, such as a RED Rocket or Matrox Compress HD accelerator card. Care does need to be taken in selecting the right graphics card if you plan to swap the included ATI. Some beefier cards are physically taller and can block access to the bottom PCI Express slot. A current Mac Pro also offers ports for four FireWire 800 and five USB 2.0 devices, plus two 1GB Ethernet ports and various analog and optical audio connections.

Software

Whether you buy an editor from Apple, Avid, Adobe or someone else, don’t forget about all the other “routine” software you’ll need to get through the day. Mac Pros come with a nice collection of software in the iLife package. Out of this, there are plenty of professional circumstances to take advantage of iWeb, iDVD, iPhoto and Garageband. But you’re likely to need more.

I generally recommend purchasing additional software for these needs: graphic creation/design/photo manipulation, general office productivity and format conversion/encoding. Adobe CS5 covers you for the first part, but it’s a large budget item if Premiere Pro isn’t also the primary editing tool – especially when you are equipping multiple workstations. Viable alternatives include Adobe Photoshop Elements, Pixelmator and Lemkesoft GraphicConverter.

By office productivity, I mean the need to be able to open scripts, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. The basic home version of Microsoft Office, as well as Apple’s iWork, are great solutions; however, there’s also free – as in NeoOffice.

Finally, encoding. If you purchase an Apple, Adobe or Avid bundle, each includes encoding/compression software. Augment this with the best general purpose conversion utility – Squared 5’s free MPEG Streamclip. Remember to install QuickTime Player 7 and purchase the Pro license (automatically included with Final Cut Studio). If you work with MPEG-2 files (like VOB files ripped from a DVD), you’ll also need to purchase the MPEG-2 QuickTime component from Apple.

Note: If you have any Windows applications you need to run, then you’ll also need to purchase a program like Parallels, as well as an installable copy of Windows.

Buying advice

Get the machine that meets your needs today, but don’t overbuy. Pick a basic configuration that can be easily and quickly expanded when the business warrants. That’s what made me pick the somewhat slower eight-core last year. It was fast enough, could be easily expanded and wouldn’t break the bank. Plan on an upgrade every three to four years, if your business supports it. Lastly, invest in the 3-year extended warranty. The same is true for a Dell, HP, Alienware or any other computer. If you lose a motherboard, which can happen, the repair would have easily justified the extended coverage. Lastly, make sure to budget money for plug-ins, professional monitoring, external storage, furniture and a good UPS (uninterruptable power supply).

Written for DV Magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2010 Oliver Peters

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