Buying a new PC for Video Editing

on Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Countless PC vendors offer computers running Windows for just about any budget these days. For about the same amount of money as you would have spent just to buy a printer 10 years ago, you can now buy a new PC —including monitor — and if you shop around, you might even find someone to throw in the printer for free.

You may find, however, that a bargain-basement computer is not quite good enough for digital video. The hard drive may be too small, the processor may not be fast enough, the computer might not have enough memory, or some other features may not be ideal. Look for these features when you’re shopping for a new PC:
  • Windows XP: Some new PCs might come with Windows Me (Millennium Edition). Windows Me has some fundamental problems with stability and memory management that (in my opinion) make it unsuitable for digital video work. Windows XP, on the other hand, is very efficient and stable. Upgrading a Windows Me machine to XP is often challenging, so I recommend that you buy a PC that already has XP installed.
  • 1 Gb RAM: Video editing requires a lot of random-access memory (RAM) — the more the better. As if you didn’t already have enough acronyms to remember, some PCs have a type of memory called DDR2 (Double Data Rate) RAM. DDR works twice as efficiently as regular RAM, so a computer with 256 MB of DDR RAM will work about as well as a computer with 512MB of other types like SD RAM.
  • 128 Mb video RAM: The video image on your monitor is generated by a component in your computer called the video card or display adapter. The video card has its own memory — I recommend at least 128 Mb. Some video cards share system RAM (the computer’s spec sheet might say something like “integrated” or “shared” in reference to video RAM). This tends to slow down the performance of your computer, so I recommend that you avoid shared video RAM.
  • 1.5 GHz (gigahertz) processor: I recommend a processor speed of at least 1.5 GHz (equal to 1500MHz) or faster. This shouldn’t be a problem because there aren’t too many PCs still being sold with processors slower than 1 GHz. It really doesn’t matter if the processor is an Intel Pentium, an AMD Athlon, or even an AMD Sempron. The faster the better, naturally.
  • FireWire: Unlike Macs, not all PCs come with FireWire (also called IEEE-1394) ports. You can upgrade most PCs with a FireWire card, but buying a computer that already has FireWire is a lot easier.
  • 80GB hard drive: When it comes to hard drives, bigger is better. If you plan to do a lot of video-editing work, 80GB is an absolute minimum. Sure, it sounds like a lot, but you’ll use it up in a hurry as you work with digital video.
Another option, of course, is to build your own computer. For some, the act of building a PC from scratch remains a vaunted geek tradition (you know who you are). If you choose to build your own, make sure that your system meets — preferably exceeds — the guidelines given here.

I built a computer last year tailored specifically for video editing — and it only cost me about $400 plus some spare parts scrounged from my own stocks. But know what you’re doing before you start down this path; it’s definitely not the path of least resistance. Heed the wisdom of this ancient computer-geek proverb:

Building your own PC is cheap only if your time is worthless!

If you’re a Linux devotee, good for you! However, if you plan to do much with digital video, you’re going to have to bite the proverbial bullet and use either a Mac or the dreaded Windoze. Currently the mainstream offers no video editing programs designed for Linux. Although some tools will allow you to run some Windows or Mac programs, system performance often deteriorates, meaning you probably won’t be able to capture and edit video efficiently.