One of the most common questions asked about using drone video is: “what computer should I get?”
If you’ve read some of my other posts, you will know that there isn’t a simple answer, but there are answers that can help and aren’t too complex!
As ever, the best answer is to get the best you can afford. A lot of hobbyists are on tight budgets, so it’s important to be realistic as to what you can achieve with what hardware. My previous post talked a bit about ‘proxies’ as a way around hardware limitations. I’ll talk more about them in another post, but do look it up online and see if that helps you.
Back to computers.
PC vs Mac
There is no real difference between the capabilities of Mac vs PC – both provide excellent tools and both will crash just at the worst possible moment. Which platform you choose is entirely subjective and both will serve you as well as you let them. One thing in clear favour of PCs is that they are cheaper for the most part and there are more customisation options available. Macs have a general software advantage, in that they are currently less vulnerable to viruses and they have far fewer interruptions for ‘improving your user experience’. Macs have more exclusive editing software (Non-Linear Editors – NLEs) options, but the main NLEs work across platforms (apart from FCPX, which is Mac only). However, what you are used to and how you like to work are probably more important in that choice.
Laptop vs Desktop
The answer to this question is very much based on circumstances. The basic fact is that the latest laptops are almost as powerful in processor and memory as most reasonable desktop computers. However, the great advantage of desktop computers in video editing, is that they are much more easily upgraded component-by-component and a really serious editing system will need a host of peripheral items to run at optimum efficiency. The best answer is to have access to both; use the laptop for editing proxy files on the go and then use the sheer power of the desktop, with its peripherals, to output your final masterpieces. In most non-professional setups, that is simply not practical or realistic, in which case a high-spec laptop may be best.
Key computer elements
Whether you choose a laptop or desktop, there are key elements in either machine to which you need to pay attention. These are the bits which make all the difference when dealing with video and simply don’t matter much for the majority of apps, like MS Office, Internet or email:
Video requires a lot of effort from your computer and these elements make the difference between a struggling computer and an editing delight. They are all equally important for the best experience, but the most vital is the processor (CPU). This is like the brain of the computer and nothing works without a tiptop brain. You should always go for the fastest, latest processor and preferably multiple cores and even multiple multi-core processors. A lot of the latest software requires a minimum of dual cores and Adobe even requires a 6thgeneration or newer multi-core processor to run the 2019 version of Premiere Pro.
Next comes RAM – the muscle to the processor’s brain. Get as much of this as possible. 32GB is fairly standard now for video machines, but more is better. It will allow you to run multiple apps at the same time and provide faster rendering too, when you come to final output.
Most video applications will provide a much, much smoother and faster experience if they can harness the power of a dedicated Graphics processor (GPU). Usually referred to as a ‘Graphics Card’, these use technologies called Open GL or Open CL and CUDA (Nvidia proprietary) to speed up calculations and certain types of video processing. They make an enormous difference in time spent on certain actions, most notably rendering video outputs. Laptops are more limited in what’s available to them, but those at the higher end carry decent GPUs. If a laptop has an ‘Intel integrated Graphics’ card, it will probably struggle with most video editing and some editing software won’t even open with it. For desktop towers there are virtually unlimited options when it comes to GPUs and there are even enclosures available which allow you to attach a desktop GPU to a laptop or an all-in-one computer. GPUs are definitely worth investing in!
External Disc drive
This is easily overlooked by non-professional video editors, but it’s really, really important to keep your editing system healthy and will make the whole process much faster too. All professional editors keep their footage on a separate drive to their computer system. This is because the footage needs to be accessed by the system as fast as possible and constantly. At the same time, the computer needs to maintain its normal processes, as well as running the video editing software. If it has to do that at the same time as reading and writing the actual video files it slows down and is much, much more likely to crash. The advent of SSDs (solid state drives) has improved on this a bit, but they can still get overloaded and are much harder to recover if they do. Get a fast (7,200rpm minimum for a hard disc drive, 3G minimum for SSD), large capacity SSD and attach it to your computer via the fastest connection possible. Old USB 1 and 2 do NOT work well with video as they are too slow. USB 3, Thunderbolt, Firewire 800, eSATA are all good for HD video, but Firewire tends to struggle with 4K videos. On a professional editing computer, there would normally be a connection to a multi-disc RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Discs) system, which not only mirrors all the media, but because of how it’s structured also serves the video files to the computer much faster by doing it in small chunks. If you are expecting to do a lot of editing, it would be worthwhile exploring RAID systems for home use.
System Disc speed
I have put this at the end of this list as I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to use an external drive for your video files! That said, a fast system drive (ideally SSD) will make a world of difference to the general operation of your computer. With a decent 6G SSD, your video editing apps will open almost instantly and your system start up time will be massively reduced too.
Other than these essential computer hardware choices, there are all sorts of other elements which can make a big difference to your editing and post-production experience; screen size, trackpad vs mouse, graphics tablet, audio interface/speaker system, hardware video encoding accelerators, card reading devices, video input/output devices/cards – there is an almost endless list of peripherals which can enhance the whole process, but the key factors listed above are what you should base your initial choices on.