Help me build a PC to edit HD video in real time
October 12, 2013 6:33 PM   Subscribe

What hardware specs are needed to edit HD video in real time?

I'm looking to build a desktop PC for $1,000-1,500 (or more if needed) to edit HD video from DSLRs in real time. What hardware specs will I need to make this happen?

What parts (graphics card, processor, RAM, solid state drive) should I put the most money into?

For $1,485 on I can get:
Intel i7 4930K Processor (6x 3.40GHz/12MB L3 Cache) - Intel Core i7 4930K
AMD Radeon HD 7750 2GB
Dual 1TB Drives 32M Cache, 7200 RPM, 6.0Gb/s (2TB Capacity) - RAID 0

Please feel free to share your specs, as seeing working examples would be very helpful.

Thank you!
posted by mtphoto to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I found this article that covers some of this information. Skip down to Section "Number 9".

It appears that the answer is, generally, "yes." It's a bit of a balance between everything without any one subsystem being the key.

Video editing will use all the CPU cores you can throw at it so I'd go for a 6-core processor. Intel has some special stuff built into the CPU to decode (and I think encode) video and their high end CPUs are usually a better value than AMD.

Check on the software you'll be using to edit the video. Some of them can only use AMD graphics cards, some can only use Nvidia, and some can use either. Otherwise the GPU won't help.

SSDs are great if you can afford one that's big enough for your OS, software, and the video itself. The only thing I worry about it is the longevity of the drive under heavy use like that (but this is not a technology that I've kept tabs on). Otherwise you could totally use an SSD to run the OS and the software but keep the video itself on a traditional drive. Depending on the amount of space you need, it might make sense to put two 10,000 RPM drives in raid. If you need more storage you can always add a 4TB drive later since they're getting cheaper constantly.

I strongly suspect that $1,500 would be plenty to accomplish what you want but I don't have a ton of video editing experience so I'll leave that call up to someone else. I'd bet that you'd be able to put together a better system by putting it together yourself since you can source parts from multiple vendors and have more control over your choices. Newegg is my go-to for this kind of stuff. Once I have the components I want picked out I'll see if I can find them cheaper somewhere else but I usually can't.

Some other good sites to look at components: Good for CPU, motherboard, GPU and other component reviews
Silent PC Review Focuses on which components perform better acoustically and is great for cases, case fans, power supplies. etc.
posted by VTX at 8:10 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

First, I know very little about video editing or the specs required to do what you want.

However, you may want to pose the question slightly differently and look into this more; from what I understand, when editing 1080p, or even 4k, you can set it up so that you are working on a low res version of the file and all your changes get applied to the full res file. So you don't necessarily need the horsepower to edit the full res video.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 9:14 PM on October 12, 2013

Best answer: I think it might help to clarify what you mean by "in real time."

What Sonic_Molson is referring to is called "editing a proxy file" or maybe "offlining."

At this point any decent modern computer should have a field day editing 1080p, and even editing full-size 2k or 4k files isn't a huge deal. What actually takes time and resources is rendering, especially if you're adding a bunch of effects and/or color correction. And that stuff needs to be done to the full-size footage, so offlining becomes irrelevant. Good news is you can just start the render and go eat/go to bed in most cases.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:12 PM on October 12, 2013

To expand on the concept of offlining and "changes get applied to the full res file," this is possible with editing because what clip to use and when to cut and all that good stuff is just metadata, which you can export to an xml file and then apply to the full-sized footage later.

This doesn't work with color correction or effects because in that case you're literally changing the footage and creating new video, not just making a decision about where to cut or whatever.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:14 PM on October 12, 2013

(It's actually possible there are color correction/effects programs that can export your choices as metadata and apply them to other footage later. But I haven't seen them yet and anyway, you'll have to do that big scary render eventually.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:16 PM on October 12, 2013

Best answer: I would go with 32GB of RAM, a 512GB Intel SATA3 flash drive for boot and scratch space. If you dedicate 300-350GB of that to workfiles you will find that your performance is dramatically improved compared to two 7200 rpm HDDs in RAID0. Then add one or two 3TB-4TB size drives for storage.
posted by thewalrus at 12:22 AM on October 13, 2013

However, you may want to pose the question slightly differently and look into this more; from what I understand, when editing 1080p, or even 4k, you can set it up so that you are working on a low res version of the file and all your changes get applied to the full res file. So you don't necessarily need the horsepower to edit the full res video.

Yeah, I also want to support that this workflow is more than just speculation (since Sonic_Molson professed to not knowing a lot about video editing); it is pretty much the standard in a lot of professional production situations that involve teams, including feature-length film editing. Long gone are the days of physically cutting reels during editing. 35mm is digitized and delivered to the editor. The reel is then stored and only revisited once the offline edits are complete. Having said that, if you are a one-man operation, I can see why you wouldn't really want to bother with this.

I seriously cannot imagine 16GB of RAM being enough to run a film editing application smoothly, but I have been out-nerded on this particular topic before so I'm not going to be too pushy. Having said that I use an MBP that maxes out at 16GB for Photoshop and I'm pushing it with multi-gig 16-bit TIFF or PSD files.

I don't really know what video editing app you plan on using or how exactly all modern video editing apps employ computer resources (I especially don't know how FCPX handles scratch disks these days), but if the Photoshop analogy applies - I can tell you that large amounts of fast RAM make the biggest difference. An internal SSD is great and will make your OS and applications open fast and run smoothly but rendering/saving is handled almost exclusively in RAM and pouring loads of money into a extravagantly large SSD will have no impact.
posted by phaedon at 1:03 AM on October 13, 2013

Another idea, although it may be sacrilege to the self build types, is to have a machine built for you by a company that specializes in machines for video. As a music producer I finally did that after years of self build which always ended up being more troubleshooting to find which component was disagreeing with which bit of software/hardware than actual music production.

Buying a machine that's built to work with the software you use pre-installed and full support by people who make their living ensuring that these things work together has been fantastic for me and worth the extra bucks. This company, ADK made my fantastic music machine and have a division that specializes in video machines.
posted by merocet at 6:22 AM on October 13, 2013

Response by poster: My current machine is a late 2007 MacBook Pro and I use proxy files to edit my DSLR footage. I want to avoid the significant amount of extra time (and hard drive space) that is required to make proxy files.

Buying the new computer as a dedicated editing machine and using it to edit HD footage is a big reason for the investment.

I have talked to full-time video editor who edits HD footage in real time, but I didn't find out what PC hardware he's using.

On my laptop is takes about 4x the real length of the footage to create proxy files. It is also processor intensive enough that I can't really use my computer for anything else while the proxy files are being created.
posted by mtphoto at 10:41 AM on October 13, 2013

Response by poster: The difference between getting an Intel Quad Core i7 and and a Six Core i7 is about $300. Would I notice a difference with rendering/export times enough to make it worth the extra cost?
posted by mtphoto at 10:49 AM on October 13, 2013

Response by poster: @thewalrus
Thank you for the suggestion to get a large SATA3 solid state drive for the main disk. This is great because I did not know that it would perform faster than two drives in a RAID 0 setup.
posted by mtphoto at 10:57 AM on October 13, 2013

I do work professionally in the field.

This is important: Which video editing tool?

For example. Using Adobe Premiere Pro, you should have 2-3 gigs of ram per Core. And SSDs will be significant. I just wrote ten pages about this for a book.

Regardless, don't waste your time on any USB 2 or FireWire connection; strive to get USB 3 and/or Thunderbolt.
posted by filmgeek at 1:21 PM on October 13, 2013

If you're putting this machine together yourself, go to to get the best deal for each component individually. It will be more time-consuming than getting everything at newegg, but you'll save money AND it will warn you if you accidentally select components that have incompatibilities.
posted by Jpfed at 8:17 PM on October 13, 2013

Adobe Premiere can use nVidia "Cuda" GPU cores for faster video processing. It makes a difference, and for that reason when I build my video editing rig I will be getting nVidia video cards. If you'll be using Premiere I suggest you do some research on that (because I'm sure you didn't have enough to consider already, right?).

Premirere CS6 and earlier have to be hacked to access the Cuda cores if you don't have one of the officially supported cards (it's pretty easy to do), but with the CC version it can use Cuda cores on any video card with that technology.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 10:16 PM on October 13, 2013

I agree that the big question here is what software you want to use? Premiere? Final Cut Pro X? Avid? I'm assuming not Smoke. One of the consumer-level programs?

It sounds like you don't like working with proxy files. Your DSLR probably generates H.264 files, which are problematic to use for editing. Of the main 3 NLE platforms, Avid, FCPX and Premiere, only Premiere will want to work natively with those files. The other two want to transcode them into something friendlier to edit with.

FCPX will transcode the H.264 files in the background, so it will take up hard drive space, but not time. You can AMA the H.264 files into Avid, but Avid REALLY wants to work with DNxHD, so you'll have to do the transcode at some point.

The thing about Premiere is that it will play the H.264, but not as perfectly as what you'd see if you transcoded. Part of how the engine works is that it's simplifying a bit how it's interpreting the Long GOP (group of pictures) which is the issue with H.264 as an editing codec. Essentially with a Long GOP codec, you don't have every frame, you have a full frame, and then the differences between frames (as a simplified explanation of why interframe compression is challenging for an NLE.)

If, because you don't want to transcode or re-wrap, you choose to go with Premiere, I'd specifically look into what specs they are looking for. Design your machine around that.

Me, I edit on Macs, and have been able to edit HD video with off-the-shelf Mac Pros for at least 7 years or so. I know lots of folks running DSLR footage just fine off of Macbook Pros. Just get a reasonable amount of RAM, and fast enough drives to get your files through (although if you're using the initial H.264 files, they will be small and so it's more about raw CPU processing power than drive speed.)

The issue for you isn't that the files are HD, it's that they are H.264, which is a very processor-intensive codec to deal with for editing. That's why your current system needs to transcode.
posted by MythMaker at 9:43 PM on October 14, 2013

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