Musing: On Buying the Best Hardware

Posted on by Larry

[This article was first published in the October, 2010, issue of
Larry’s Monthly Final Cut Studio Newsletter. Click here to subscribe.]

There are two questions I get asked constantly:

* What is the best camera?
* What is the best hardware?

This article has a discussion on how to pick the best camera, but for a moment, I want to talk about finding the best hardware.

Rob Taylor sent me the second question I get asked a lot.

I greatly appreciate all the help and guidance you provide in your articles and responses to readers.


After 6 years, I am upgrading to a new MacPro workstation for HD editing. I edit two basic formats: P2 from Panasonic HPX-170 and H.264 transcoded to ProRes from Canon EOS Mark II.


Would you mind sharing your recommended Mac Pro configuration for this level of HD editing?

Larry replies: Rob, all of us want to make smart buying decisions. You are looking for a new MacPro. This last week, I got email from five other people looking to buy a laptop. For all of us, the issues are the same — and it all starts with this:

Never buy on rumors. Always buy on shipping product.

When it comes to finding the best hardware, there is no perfect answer — just like finding the perfect car is always an exercise in compromises.

I don’t recommend buying for the future. Buy what you need to meet your needs now — because technology changes so fast that by the time the future gets here it won’t be what we expect. And the gear we buy today, probably won’t be as good or as fast or as cheap as the gear we can buy then.

P2 is a very easy format to edit. The key is hard disk transfer speed – especially if you are doing multicam work. Money spent in storage – especially FAST storage is never wasted. Since you have a MacPro avoid FireWire – eSATA at a minimum, iSCSI or mini-SAS recommended. (Laptop users don’t have the luxury.)

Don’t buy more than 8 GB of RAM for right now. FCP can’t use it. When FCP can, RAM will be cheaper. Buy it when you need it.

If your principal reason for buying this gear is video compression, buy more and faster processors. If your principal reason for buying this gear is editing, buy more and faster storage.

H.264 requires transcoding into ProRes – any MacPro can easily handle ProRes, but it is storage intensive. Again, another reason to buy more storage.

Video cards are replaceable – don’t buy for the future, you’ll always guess wrong. FCP doesn’t use the graphics card – yet. Motion does. If you are devoted to Motion, buy a high-end card. If you are devoted to FCP, hold off until FCP updates, then by a state of the art card then.

I strongly recommend external RAIDs vs. internal RAIDs. Why? Because if the RAID breaks you don’t lose access to your computer while getting it fixed. External RAIDs are easier to update than internal RAIDs, and potentially MUCH faster.

Just as “best” is a hard word, “faster” is also tricky. How fast is faster? Here’s an article that can help you figure out what hard disk speeds you need: Understanding Video Data Rates

If you are doing finish quality work, you need a reference HD video monitor. Panasonic and JVC make good ones for about $5k. Editing with one or two computer monitors is personal preference. I do so much teaching that I only work with one monitor which makes it easy to move between classroom and office. If all I did was edit, I’d have two computer monitors and one video monitor.

Hope this helps.

UPDATE – Oct. 25, 2010

Robin Harris, who is an IT analyst, adds:

Was just reading the latest newsletter and saw this comment:


“Since you have a MacPro avoid FireWire – eSATA at a minimum, iSCSI or mini-SAS recommended.”


It’s worth noting that while iSCSI is a convenient way to share storage over Ethernet, it is not nearly as fast as eSATA. A single gigabit Ethernet port – the standard speed on the Mac Pro – is capable of handling about 100 MBytes/sec after protocol overhead – not much faster than FireWire. Trunking will get you to 200 MB/s, but it is best not to mix storage and network traffic.


The latest Mac Pro PCIe eSATA cards can handle 500+ MBytes/sec, which maxes out a single PCIe v2 lane. Of course, if you’re only talking to a single drive 100 MB/s is fine. You’ll need a RAID stripe across multiple fast drives to get near 500 MB/s.


Furthermore, SAS bandwidth is the same as SATA for most applications, so you usually won’t see a performance benefit due to bandwidth. However, 10k and 15k RPM drives are available for SAS, and do give higher performance than the common 7200 RPM SATA drives – for a much higher price.


SAS and mini-SAS do have 2 major advantages over SATA though:

  • Longer cables: eSATA is limited to 2 meters while SAS supports 10 meters.
  • SAS supports full bandwidth in both directions concurrently, while SATA can only receive or transmit at one time. In practice this means that you’ll need an external RAID with a large cache since disk drives aren’t very good at reading and writing data at the same time.

Both of these advantages are most useful if you are running multiple FCP workstations with an FCP Server. For most of us, eSATA with port multiplier support is the most cost-effective way to build fast storage capacity.

Larry replies: Robin, your comments regarding eSATA are true for towers, but only one Apple laptop supports plug-in cards — which is the MacBook Pro 17″. For this reason, iSCSI needs to be considered because it delivers high-speed data through the Ethernet port. Not as fast as eSATA, true, but faster than FireWire 800.


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2 Responses to Musing: On Buying the Best Hardware

  1. Hi Larry – just a note to tell you that I bought a new 15″MacBook with retinal screen (2,9 ghz with 16 ghz ram and 756 ssd. I have a 2008 3 ghz 8-core Mac Pro 2,1 with a 512 ssd which contains my bootup drive and I did several tasks regarding the comparison of the speed of the two machines. I did several test comparing speed of the two (rendered a five minute clip in FCP with several filters, compressed a 1hour and 15 minutes QuickTime movie using compressor and Sorenson squeeze and copied 100 ghundred files from one hard drive to the next. My new laptop was between 2-3.5 times faster on all tasks.
    I have anew Retinal screen and my older 30″ non-glare screen hooked up to the laptop, and a thunderbolt had attached as well. If you are interested I can give you more specifics. Speed was only slightly slower when I used an Esata hard drive attached to the thunderbolt hard drive through the Lacie Thunderbolt hub. Pretty interesting.

  2. Sorry about typos. I’m in Italy and it’s late. Do you want me I resend it? Thanks

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