This question comes up a lot and it can be just as confusing as the famous "Which camera should I buy?" question. Purchasing a computer, like a camera, is an investment in your time as much as it is your workflow and personal preference. Here are some of my thoughts on purchasing a video editing machine.
First, Final Cut Pro X is an Apple product and can only run on Apple computers. Therefore, I will not be discussing the PC market. I'm not saying you should ignore PC's, I'm sure there are many benefits, I just don't enjoy the Windows environment and I moved away from using them long ago- so I can't speak to them.
Choosing which software to use is exactly like a chef who chooses their knives. Ask any chef and they will tell you that they prefer "X" brand of knives over another and each chef will tell you different answers. I have narrowed down two software choices to choose from if you are just starting out, Adobe’s Premiere Pro or Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. Premiere, which is very similar to Final Cut with many professional features, will have you paying monthly. Not only is the learning curve much steeper, you can only run it on two machines at a time. This means you will need to keep signing in and out if you are going from the office, laptop, and home office. With Final Cut Pro X, you can install it on as many machines as you own. Also, don't be fooled by your neighbor who says Final Cut Pro is for amateurs. Just because Apple's own website only shows the basic windows without all of the panes open, doesn't mean it's any less powerful of an NLE. It actually quite elegant and scaleable to what you need it to be. Also, hundreds of companies are developing apps and plugins for it making it much more versatile than the previous version of Final Cut ever was. If you think professionals in Hollywood don't use it, think again. Here's Light Iron's CEO Micheal Cioni discussing some of the workflow benefits of Final Cut Pro X that was used on the movie Focus and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:
Other than the main two Non-Linear editors, every Apple computer comes with iMovie for free, which actually uses the same code as Final Cut Pro X. When it's time to move up it's extremely easy. In fact, I’ve had assistant editors cut footage in iMove and I finish it off in Final Cut Pro X. Avid’s Media Composer is still around and it is used mainly for reality tv and Hollywood productions. So, if you plan on living near L.A. Avid might be best for you to find work. I don’t recommend it since AVID just announced a $68 Million reduction in their company. They had a great run, but it’s time they either step up their game or move on to something else besides custom hardware.
I always ask my students to consider what will they be doing within about 3 years. For instance, let's say you’re a small business owner selling services or products and you decided that creating videos yourself is the best way to reach customers to hold their attention, while maintaining the highest return on investment and informing your customers. Saving on costs might be useful to you since, you know, you have a business to run. I would recommend getting some help with editing, at least at the beginning to get everything setup and running. Then, if video editing becomes too laborious, it's easy to find someone to help.
My next question for you to consider is about portability- unless you have a budget to purchase two machines, of course. Will you be traveling often and be able to edit during your down time in a hotel room or on the plane? Will you be editing at the office and at home? If not, does having a larger screen with faster processing matter to you? Let’s say you chose an iMac to edit at your office since you won’t be traveling and you will only be doing some light editing while doing other things like running your business. Well, FCP X uses all of your computer's RAM- I suggest to max that out when you order it online. If you're shopping in an Apple Store, you'll be sad to learn they only carry the higher-end machines online as a configure-to-order product. If you want to save a little money, go ahead and purchase the slower processor or smaller iMac screen. The RAM and the Graphics card can play a much bigger role. Again, if you have a large budget with some real computing needs, the Mac Pro is a monster. Just keep in mind you'll need a monitor or two as well. Here I don't recommend an Apple Cinema Display as it is not 4K capable like the 5K iMac. If you are a film maker or plan on shooting in 4K, then the Mac Pro is for you. I edit in HD and I use the 5K 27” iMac for all my corporate films, training videos, and short films that I create. I do plan on moving up to 4K, but the corporate world is just not there, yet. Perhaps in another two years or so.
Let me talk a bit more about that RAM. You may have a friend, who knows a guy, who knows another guy that tells you that Apple RAM is far too expensive. Well, when compared to other companies’ RAM, like Crucial, this is true. Apple RAM is a whole lot more expensive, by hundreds of dollars in some cases. The thing is that bad RAM can cause havoc on your machine. It could fry your logic board and have a hefty price tag to fix. AppleCare does not cover this repair if 3rd party RAM is used. So, if you save money upfront, know you are taking a gamble of having about an $800 repair bill, even with a machine covered under AppleCare. Also, replacing RAM on a laptop is not user installable, you are stuck with whatever you chose when you purchase the machine.
If you do need portability, the Retina Macbook Pro is the way to go. I would never suggest the 13” over the 15” when it comes to video editing to save costs. Get the 15” and max out that RAM and Graphics capabilities. Although I’ve seen people edit just fine on a Macbook Air (it’s so light and thin!) I still would not recommend it. If you are undecided on a desktop vs a laptop, I always say to go with the laptop since it is portable. I made the mistake of thinking I needed the power of a desktop and ended up lugging it around, a lot. To re-iterate, if you save costs upfront and go with a slower machine, you are not doing yourself any service as the time it takes you to crunch all those pixels is money flying out the window.
This portability question also pertains to people who choose to edit video full time. These folks need the fastest computer with the maxed out RAM and Graphics that they can afford. If you're just starting out as a video editor, go with the Retina laptop first. I am writing this on my 2012 Retina MacBook Pro and I still love using it. After almost 4 years, it still only takes 14 seconds to boot up because of the solid state drive built in, which has no moving parts. It has two Thunderbolt ports for my 7200rpm drives, an SD card reader built in for my memory cards, and it is nice and thin because it does not have a DVD drive. That’s right, no DVD drive. Why would you want to spend money on a nice HD camera only to produce DVD’s at a fraction of the resolution with 1000 x’s the headaches. Even iPhone video has better quality than a DVD. It would be much easier to sell your clients on not creating DVD’s than it would be to create them. The Retina screen is also nothing short of amazing. If you can't afford the high-end option, I recommend financing it with the 1st year interest free. After all, you are using this machine to make money and the faster it will work, the faster you can get paid. Keep in mind however, with a laptop you are giving up processing power for portability.
Also, when it comes to editing video, you will want to purchase at least 3 external drives so be sure to budget for that also. Editing on the same drive as the operating system is a big mistake and you could run into many issues, not just lack of mass storage needed for producing video. The first drive would be your media drive, where you actually edit from. The next drive will be a backup for your media drive and the last drive will be a back up for your computers internal hard drive. I use Apple’s Time Machine software to backup my machine which comes free as well.
As far as your choices of an internal drive, one thing to consider is Apple's Fusion drive. Introduced in late 2012, It has the capacity of an HDD with the speed of an SSD as its one drive with both built in. My experience with it in my iMac has been really great. Although I don't edit video from my internal drive, I do process my photos there. It has been a wonderful mix of storage and speed I need. Apple utilizes it's operating system to automatically move files and applications you use the most to the SSD part of the drive, for faster speed. I use the 3 terabyte fusion. My Time Machine drive is about 4 terabytes because Time Machine keeps incremental backups. The larger the drive, the further back in time I can go for any document that I had been working on. Don’t worry, once the drive fills up, it automatically deletes the older backups to make room for the latest backup.
Always keep an eye on your storage too. You'll want to make sure you have at least 20% of any hard drive free at all times. Only backup the files you want to keep because it's not a matter of if your drive will fail, it's a matter of when. Also, video requires bandwidth based on the quality and resolution the camera records video. When you start looking at hard drives to purchase, you will notice that you could save a lot of money, hundreds of dollars even, on a USB hard drive. Unless it’s a USB 3 drive, it just is not enough to keep up with the demands of reading and writing video. USB 3 is cheaper than Thunderbolt so check your bandwidth needs of the footage you will be using, and consider if you will be using multiple cameras for multi-cam editing. If you’re saving costs and pass on the faster and more expensive Solid State Drive, be sure to look for a drive with at least 7200 RPM. I always buy drives from HGST, previously Hitachi. Drives from G-technology use these, so I always recommend G-Drives.
Next up are services. The biggest being AppleCare that I mentioned earlier. “If Apple computers are so great, why would I need AppleCare?” I’ve heard this so many times. It is a very valid opinion too. I’ve had my G5 tower since 2007 and it still runs in 2016. It has never had a repair. On my iMac however, my logic board went out AND it happened just a month outside of my AppleCare coverage. Apple still covered it, mostly because I was having issues while still inside the protection plan, but it saved me about $850 for the repair and it cost only $169. It truly is a no brainer. Also, AppleCare gives you phone support as well. Otherwise, you could still call Apple, but they would charge you per phone call.
If you're one of the lucky few who lives near an Apple Store, another service for you to consider is Joint Venture. Apple will train you and your employees on computers, iPads, and iPhones to get them up to speed quickly. Also, if your machine were to go in for a repair, Apple will give you a loaner machine so you can keep your business running. This is yet another reason I love FCP X and its App Store. You could just sign in using the Apple ID you purchased it with and download it to be up and working the same day your computer goes in for the repair. In fact, unlike Adobe’s Premiere, you can install it on any machine you own, just like all the apps in the App Store. So, with a loaner laptop, you could be up and running in hours instead of waiting days for your repair. This is an amazing thing, especially if you are running a business based on deadlines.
To sum up, your machine could be the computer you will be using for the next 3 or more years. Cameras will require faster processing, especially since even prosumer cameras are all going 4K. If you upgrade your operating system you will also learn the harsh reality of what is known as software bloat. You may have even experience this when you update your iPhone and everything just starts to feel slower.
I always buy and recommend getting the highest-end model so that your investment will last you the longest. Plus, If you were to sell it to make back some cash, it would be much easier, especially if it is covered under AppleCare. Remember, you can always finance it, usually a year with no interest, if you don’t have the funds now.